A Brief Guide to Manhattan Project Literature

by Cameron Reed

Manhattan Project photoThe Manhattan Project and its legacies continue to provide fertile ground for analysis by scientists, historians, and cultural observers alike. Recognition of the Project’s pivotal role in twentieth-century history is clearly indicated by the fact that in a 1999 Newseum survey, the top-ranked news stories of the century for both the public and journalists were those concerning the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the end of World War II.

Given the historical significance of the Project it is not surprising that it has spawned a vast literature: a recent Google search using the key phrase “Manhattan Project” returned over 90 million hits. While many of the sources that turn up are accurate and well-prepared, many more are of dubious quality or utterly irrelevant to serious study of the Project. Whether one is a casual reader, a student preparing a class project, a physicist interested in technical details, or a historian researching organizational or sociological issues, it is difficult to know where to begin.

In this article I offer a brief survey of sources on the Project. My intent to give a highly-selective list of a few solid starting places under each of four headings: general survey-level works, biographical works, technically-oriented works, and websites. Readers seeking a more extensive listing should consult my annotated bibliographies on the Project which were published in the September 2005 and February 2011 editions of American Journal of Physics.

Survey-level sources

The outstanding synoptic survey of the Project is Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. While it contains some material that is tangential to the main story, Rhodes’ descriptions of the physics, people, and places involved are engaging and accurate.

The first official government publication on the Project, Henry Smyth’s Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, was issued in August 1945 and is still worth reading. Known as the Smyth Report, it is readily available online. For professional historians, the volumes by Jones and Hewlett & Anderson are still foundational standards, extensively footnoted to original Manhattan Engineer District documents. For a shorter survey, a Department of Energy history of the Project by Frank Gosling can be recommended; do a search on DOE/MA-0002 and it will not take you long to locate a downloadable copy.

Gosling, F. G.: The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb (U.S. Department of Energy, 2001). DOE/MA-0002.

Hewlett, R. G. and Anderson, O. E.: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. Vol. 1: The New World, 1939/1946 (Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962).

Jones, V. C.: United States Army in World War II. Special Studies. Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb (Center of Military History, United States Army, Washington, 1985).

Rhodes, R.: The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1986).

Smyth, H. D.: Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb under the Auspices of the Unit-ed States Government, 1940-1945 (Princeton University Press, 1948).

Biographical works

The outstanding personalities of the Project were the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and Manhattan Engineer District commander General Leslie R. Groves. Material on Oppenheimer’s life abounds. Bird and Sherwin’s volume covers Oppenheimer’s life in detail and is likely to become the definitive biography. Abraham Pais and Robert Crease appealingly combine physics and personal reminiscences and examine Oppenheimer ’s post-war service on numerous government committees. David Cassidy integrates Oppenheimer’s pre-war physics into the growth of American physics in the 1920’s and 1930’s, which set the stage for the Project. Robert Norris’ outstanding biography of Leslie Groves is exhaustive and very readable.

Bird, K., and Sherwin, M. J.: American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (Knopf, 2005).

Cassidy, D.: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the American Century (Johns Hopkins, 2009).

Norris, R. S.: Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth Press, 2002).

Pais, A., and Crease, R. P.: J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life (Oxford, 2006).

Technical works

The starting point for readers who wish to immerse themselves in the science of the Project is Robert Serber ’s 1943 Los Alamos Primer. This report is considered a founding technical document of the Project; it was distributed to newly-arriving scientists at Los Alamos and summarizes what was known at the time of the genesis of the laboratory. David Hawkins offers an extensive qualitative technical and administrative history of Los Alamos from its inception through December 1946. The detailed technical history of Los Alamos by Hoddeson et al. is appropriate for a readers with some background in physics and chemistry. A popularly-accessible and well-written treatment of the essential features of nuclear weapons can be found in Jeremy Bernstein’ work. For physicists who wish to dig into the technical details, this author humbly recommends his own text. The work of Los Alamos culminated in the Trinity test, and test director Kenneth Bainbridge’s 1946 report on that event is makes for fascinating reading (search under LA-6300-H).

Bainbridge, K. T.: Trinity Los Alamos report LA-6300-H.

Bernstein, J.: Nuclear Weapons: What You Need to Know (Cambridge, 2008).

Hawkins, D.: Project Y, the Los Ala-mos Story (Tomash, 1983). Originally published as Los Alamos report LAMS-2532.

Hoddeson, L., Henriksen, P. W., Meade, R. A, and Westfall, C.: Critical Assembly: A Technical History of Los Alamos during the Oppenheimer Years, 1943-1945 (Cambridge, 1993).

Reed. B. C.: The Physics of the Manhattan Project (Springer, 2010).

Serber, R.: The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How To Build An Atomic Bomb (University of California, 1992).


The Los Alamos National Laboratory maintains a website about the history of the facility:

The NSF Digital Library on the Atomic Bomb contains material on the history and science of the bomb and includes links to the Smyth Report and Bainbridge’s Trinity report:

The homepage of the Manhattan Project Heritage Preservation Association provides links to thousands of photographs, documents, personal memoirs, frequently-asked-questions and little-known facts:

The Federation of American Scientists maintains a website containing copies of hundreds of Los Alamos technical publications:

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.