I am currently writing a book about the Soviets spying on the United States. During my research of The Manhattan Project, in which the Soviets were spying on our development of the atomic bomb, I saw the stressful environment surrounding our scientists and President Truman. World War II was not going well for the Allies, and President Roosevelt and Winston Churchill had to take some radical steps to try to defeat the Axis powers.
Just after the beginning of World War II and extending into the early stages of the Cold War, the Soviets were focused on the United States’ project of building the atomic bomb, commonly referred to as The Manhattan Project. Although the Soviets were Allies with the United States and Great Britain during World War II, their relationship was tenuous, at best—full of distrust. As the Allies, United States and Great Britain, worked shoulder to shoulder on the Manhattan Project, they kept the other Ally, the Soviet Union, out—sort of. The Soviets snuck spies into Los Alamos to learn and steal all they could regarding the development process for the atom bomb, so they could build their own bomb.
There was at least one British scientist, Dr. Klaus Fuchs, at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories, who was convicted of spying for the Soviets. Fuchs had been a German Communist who’d fled the German Fascists for England before World War II. The British were desperate for scientists with his qualifications, so they overlooked his background once the War started. At least two other scientists, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and Dr. Hans Bethe, were closely watched by the Soviets throughout the development project.
Prior to the United States entering World War II, some of Germany’s top scientists wished not to help the Germany Nazi Government, nor did they wish to get trapped into helping the Soviet Union. Many of these Eastern European scientists slipped out on their own, going to London or the United States. In late 1942, President Roosevelt was persuaded to start what would become The Manhattan Project. He was convinced by several scientists who came out of Europe at the end of the 1930s, including Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. They advised him the Germans were frantically working to develop a super bomb based on atomic technology. Although Roosevelt had initially resisted, after watching the ruthlessness of the German Nazi war machine, he believed they would use the technology if they developed the bomb first, and it could easily tilt their advantage in the war.
Once Roosevelt relented, the United States went to great lengths to build secret laboratories at various locations. The most critical location was Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) in northern New Mexico. At LASL, The Manhattan Project scientists and technicians, directed by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, investigated the theoretical problems that had to be solved before a nuclear weapon could be developed.
While the overall project was named The Manhattan Project, the experimental side at LASL referred to their test as Project TRINITY. Dr. Kenneth Bainbridge was named the director of the Project TRINITY organization, and he reported directly to Director Dr. Oppenheimer, the overall director of LASL. Major General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers Manhattan Engineer District supervised the military side of the project.
So secretive was the research that some of the workers who came to Los Alamos were not told what their jobs would be or where they were going, but just to show up and go to work. The scientists and their families did not know what to expect at Los Alamos, and to make matters worse, when they arrived, some of the wives certainly did not find the living conditions to their liking.
As these scientists worked on this theoretical project, they were uncertain of the extent and effects of such a nuclear chain reaction, let alone the hazards of the resulting blast and radiation. Protective measures could be based only on estimates and calculations.
As the development of the bomb neared completion, scientists and engineers at the laboratory begin to wonder what would happen when the bomb was detonated. Some wondered if they would destroy the stratosphere around the blast. Some of the scientists even believed that the entire atmosphere would catch on fire burn up, and then the earth would burn up. Still others feared it would be a total dud, and nothing would happen. There was even a gambling pool at the facility regarding the results of the blast.
On July 16, 1945, the scientists and military finally detonated the device that had been given the code name The Gadget.
Military personnel passed out welder’s glasses for the scientists and military personnel to observe the atomic blast. Some of the scientists and lay on the ground, while others stood. The blast was so strong that it knocked down some of the observers over two miles away.
The TRINITY nuclear device was detonated on a hundred-foot tower with a nuclear yield equivalent to nineteen kilotons of TNT. The light from the explosion created a mushroom cloud that quick rose to over forty thousand feet. The ground beneath the blast turned into radioactive glass. The blast was so brilliant that some residents thought the sun came up twice. It was documented that a blind girl saw the flash, and she was 120 miles away. Naturally, the military had to cover up this development immediately, so they created a story explaining that a huge ammunition dump had exploded.
Reactions to the explosion were mixed: Isidor Rabi thought the equilibrium in nature had been upset, for the first time mankind had become a threat to destroy its humanity. Robert Oppenheimer, though ecstatic about the success of the project, quoted a remembered fragment from the Bhagavad Gita. “I am become Death,” he said, “the destroyer of worlds.” Ken Bainbridge, the test director, told Oppenheimer, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.”
The world had entered the nuclear age.
On August 6th, the first uranium nuclear bomb, known as Little Boy, was dropped over Hiroshima, then three days later, the plutonium bomb, known as Fat Man, was exploded over Nagasaki. Fat Man was similar to The Gadget.
The United States had fire bombed Tokyo for more than a month, and this only caused the Japanese to become more determined. They developed a plan to defend the homeland, even if women and children had to die. The United States was preparing an invasion plan for mainland Japan, scheduled to begin in November of 1945.
Truman was desperate to end the war, so he decided to drop that bomb. Why was he desperate?
To complicate matters, the Soviets were moving into moving across China into Korea, all in accordance with agreements between Roosevelt and Stalin. However, Truman knew this was not a good development for either the United States or Japan. Truman knew he had to end the war as fast as possible.
On September 2, 1945, the Japanese Empire officially surrendered to the Allied Governments, bringing World War II to an end.
Still to this day, the United States is the only country in the world that has ever used controversial nuclear weapons. However, the use of the two nuclear bombs likely saved lives in the long run, both American and Japanese.
What do you think about this controversial event? Were we right to use nuclear bombs to prevent a worse war? Has America’s—and the world’s—response to this event been worthwhile in the end, or did we create more problems than we solved?