The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians

Edited by Cynthia C. Kelly, with an Introduction by Richard C. Rhodes

New York: Black Dog and Leventhal, 2007, photographs, illustrations, xiv+495 pp. , $24.95

Reviewed by David C. Cassidy

bookThe Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb during World War II has become the paradigm of Big Science. Everything about it was big: the record funding; the 125,000 people from all walks of life devoted to the effort; the unparalleled mobilization of industry, government, and science in the midst of a world war; the stupendous power and destruction unleashed by the weapons produced; and the legacy of profound human, historical, security, and political questions that remain to this day.

The discovery of nuclear fission, the prospect of a bomb, the outbreak of war in Europe, and the start of a German military research effort had all occurred by 1939. But not until 1942 were the Manhattan Project, Enrico Fermi’s first nuclear reactor, and the administrative apparatus for the project in place. And not until the following year, with the arrival of General Leslie R. Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer (see photo on p. 1) in Los Alamos, did the Manhattan Project begin in earnest. By mid-1945 it had produced the uranium and plutonium bombs. Two years later the project was disbanded upon the founding of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Cynthia C. Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation, and her advisory staff have assembled in one large volume an amazingly broad and inclusive array of eyewitness accounts, documents, reports, and interviews covering nearly every aspect of the Manhattan Project, from the early inklings of nuclear energy, to the work of building the bombs, to contemporary efforts in both art and history to comprehend the legacy of this transformative undertaking. The Manhattan Project is indeed, in the words of Richard Rhodes, a fitting “memorial anthology” to the 65th anniversary of the project’s birth.

The 129 items included in this anthology are divided into nine sections, beginning with early thoughts about a fission bomb. This section is followed by others on the administrative maneuvering of 1942; the selection and collaboration of the “odd couple,” Groves and Oppenheimer; the experiences of workers at Los Alamos, Oak Ridge and Hanford; the problems of secrecy, spies, and counterintelligence; the Trinity test of July 1945; the dropping of bombs on Japan; reflections of scientists, politicians, and later historians on the use of the bomb; and efforts since the 1950s to counter the threat of nuclear war. The only topics I regret not finding here are the science and the technology of bomb construction. A broadly accessible excerpt from an available source, or an appendix on the physics and its application, would have given readers fuller insight into what the project was all about and why such a massive undertaking was required to achieve its goal.

Essentially all the documents are presented in excerpts from a paragraph to several pages long, encompassing some of the key writings on each of the above topics. This approach works well, as each section provides readers with a broadly rounded introduction to the subject that they could not obtain from a single source. (Those wishing to consult the complete works will find them listed by section in the credits.) For example, the section on life in the secret cities provides a good sense of the “excitement, devotion, patriotism” (Oppenheimer) of the people involved. The section on the various people represented extends far beyond the senior scientists to stories of the many women workers, the male workers’ wives, the children, a pipe fitter, the owner of a tea house, the southern blacks recruited to work at Oak Ridge, and a wonderful account of the “Tennessee Girls” hired as machine operators. (I wish there were more about the Native Americans of the Los Alamos region, many of whom were hired as maids and nannies.) Even more, this section provides a sense of the engagement and the nostalgia many later felt for that unique moment when people of all types and from many backgrounds joined together to achieve success in an exciting cause—a generation-defining event reflected perhaps in a similar way in later events such as Woodstock. It was, as Rhodes titles his introduction, “a great work of human collaboration.”

But the project also took place within the darker context of war and the likelihood that participants were in a race with the Germans for the most powerful weapon ever devised. Only rarely in the early years does the broader goal of the project, the creation of a new weapon of war, intrude into the thoughts and sensibilities of those who knew its ultimate aim. “It was a very good idea,” writes Richard Feynman, “although my conscience bothered me a little bit.” In effect, the joy and excitement and challenge of the work transcended its goal. For many, the Manhattan Project as a great cause was decoupled from its horrific goal, becoming not only the icon of Big Science but, in the words of George A. Cowan, the symbol for success “in achieving seemingly impossible national objectives.”

Only as the project approached its goal and the threat of a German bomb dissolved, did scruples begin to arise about the work. The second half of the book provides an excellent introduction to the dilemmas some of the scientists faced in the midst of the continuing war. Included here are Joseph Rotblat’s striking four-page explanation of his decision to resign from the project; an account of Robert Wilson’s Los Alamos seminars questioning the aims of the project; the letter transmitting the Franck Report in which, as historian William Lanouette points out, the physicists attempted to regain responsibility for their work; Leo Szilard’s petition to President Truman against use of the bomb, signed by 155 physicists; and the government report by Oppenheimer, Fermi, Ernest O. Lawrence, and Arthur H. Compton finding no viable alternative to immediate use of the bomb without warning.

The last two sections of the book contain physicists’ reflections on the dropping of the bombs, with excerpts from Oppenheimer’s farewell to Los Alamos and efforts by Niels Bohr, Albert Einstein, and Bertrand Russell to achieve international control over the accelerating arms race. Included in these sections are excerpts from recent controversial research that raises questions about the traditional understanding of such topics as Truman’s decision to drop the bombs, the necessity of using them to end the war before the planned ground invasion, and the early-1990s controversy over the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit. These controversies, like those surrounding the German effort, will likely remain with us for a long time. The threat of nuclear war between nations—or unleashed by terrorists—will likewise remain. Perhaps, as Santa Fe Institute founder Cowan proposes in his concluding contribution, a new Manhattan Project is needed “to explore other forms of power and paths to peace.”

The Manhattan Project is an excellent book about a defining event of our times, as well as of contemporary physics. It deserves wide attention.

David C. Cassidy teaches and writes at Hofstra University. He is author of Uncertainty: The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg and J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century.

Note Added: This article represents the views of the author, which are not necessarily those of the FHP or APS.