Manhattan Project

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The Manhattan Project was a research and development undertaking during World War II that produced the first nuclear weapons. It was led by the United States with the support of the United Kingdom and Canada. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Nuclear physicist Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory that designed the actual bombs.

See also: Nuclear weapons


  • Much, I imagined, like members of a religious order would, I shared with my colleagues a sense of brotherhood, living and working with others for a transcendent cause. In fact, those former Manhattan Project scientists who stayed on in weapons work, as well as their successors at the nuclear weapons labs, are often described by others (not admiringly) as a secular priesthood. In part that’s a matter of their knowledge of secrets of the universe, arcana not to be shared with the laity: the sense of being an insider, the seductions of secrecy, to be counseling men of power. An article on the new “military intellectuals” likened RAND consultants in Washington and the Pentagon, moving invisibly across bureaucratic boundaries opaque to others, to the Jesuits of old Europe, moving between courts, serving as confessors to kings. But above all, precisely in my early missile-gap years at RAND and as a consultant in Washington, there was our sense of mission, the burden of believing we knew more about the dangers ahead, and what might be done about them, than did the generals in the Pentagon or SAC, or Congress or the public, or even the president. It was an enlivening burden.
    • Daniel Ellsberg, The Doomsday Machine: Confessions from a Nuclear War Planner (2017)
  • Despite their revolutionary character those bombs were built under an old and familiar set of assumptions: that if they worked, they would be used. Few of the thousands of people employed in the wartime Manhattan Project saw their jobs as differing from the design and production of conventional weapons. Atomic bombs were meant to be dropped, as soon as they were ready, on whatever enemy targets yet remained. Technology might have changed, but the human habit of escalating violence had not. The bombs' builders would have been surprised to learn, therefore, that the first military uses of nuclear weapons, on August 6 and 9, 1945, would be the last for the rest of the 20th century. As the means of fighting great wars became exponentially more devastating, the likelihood of such wars diminished, and ultimately disappeared altogether. Contrary to the lesson Thucydides drew from the greatest war of his time, human nature did change—and the shock of Hiroshima and Nagasaki began the process by which it did so.
  • Culture, technology and war are so interdependent that it is hard to say which drives which. War pushes ahead the development of technology but it also adapts what is already there. The ancient world used levers for their wine and olive presses; the Romans adapted those to hurl stones against enemy soldiers, ships and fortifications. In the Middle Ages craftsmen learned how to make high-quality metal for casting church bells and that then helped in the making of better guns. In the nineteenth century the Swedish chemist and businessman Alfred Nobel invented dynamite for use in mining; it was rapidly adapted to produce a whole range of increasingly effective guns. Farmers in America used barbed wire to pen in their cattle; strung out in front of the trenches in the First World War, it contributed greatly to the power of the defence. The tank incorporated the caterpillar treads which had been developed for tractors. Albert Einstein and his fellow physicists had worked out the theory of how to split the atom, proving on paper that doing so would release a huge surge of energy, but no way of finally testing that hypothesis existed until the Second World War. In their search for victory in the monumental struggle against their enemies, the British and, in particular, the Americans found the resources to refine the necessary uranium and to build and test the first successful bomb. The Manhattan Project, it is estimated, cost over $20 billion, not far short of what the United States spent on all its small arms over the duration of the war
  • It is with appreciation and gratefulness that I accept from you this scroll for the Los Alamos Laboratory, and for the men and women whose work and whose hearts have made it. It is our hope that in years to come we may look at the scroll and all that it signifies, with pride. Today that pride must be tempered by a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of the nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish. This war that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. Other men have spoken them in other times, and of other wars, of other weapons. They have not prevailed. There are some misled by a false sense of human history, who hold that they will not prevail today. It is not for us to believe that. By our minds we are committed, committed to a world united, before the common peril, in law and in humanity.
  • Five years ago, the idea of Atomic Power was only a dream. You have made that dream a reality. You have seized upon the most nebulous of ideas and translated them into actualities. You have built cities where none were known before. You have constructed industrial plants of a magnitude and to a precision heretofore deemed impossible. You built the weapon which ended the War and thereby saved countless American lives. With regard to peacetime applications, you have raised the curtain on vistas of a new world.
  • Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
    • Robert Oppenheimer, Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947)

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