The Manhattan Project that resulted in the development of the Atomic Bomb was one of the most creative moments in world history. American scientists accomplished what only a few years before was considered unthinkable–exploiting the power of the atom in a release of tremendous, deadly energy. Other countries–Germany, Japan, Soviet Union–had programs to develop such a weapon during World War II, but the United States alone succeeded. Using an international team of scientists and engineers and the wartime resources of the U.S. government, in less that three years, from 1942 to 1945, the U.S. developed two atomic weapons that were used to end World War II against Japan in August 1945.
The story of the atomic bomb begins with the work of early 20th century physicists and chemists exploring the structure of matter. The discoveries and theories of scientists Marie Curie, Ernst Rutherford, Neils Bohr, and Albert Einstein provided the foundation for the explosive relationship between energy and matter. In 1932, Englishman James Chadwick discovered a neutral force surrounding the atom, the neutron (+-), which led, in 1934, Hungarian scientist Leo Szilard to theorize on the possibility of a chain reaction of the fission of uranium that could produce a massive amount of energy. In 1938, German scientists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner demonstrated the fission of uranium in a laboratory in Germany. At this time, Germany was beginning its move toward the domination of Europe. The Nazis appointed world-famous physicist Werner Heisenberg to head of the Nazi nuclear program. Meanwhile Szilard, in America visiting Albert Einstein (who had fled Germany in 1933) at Princeton University, convinced Einstein to draft a letter to President Roosevelt warning of the possibility of a nuclear weapon. The scientists discussed scientific developments over the recent years leading to fission of a uranium atom, but emphasized that it seemed improbable that a workable bomb could be developed.
When Japan bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, there were already government teams investigating the science of fission, but nothing had officially begun. This changed when in 1942 President Roosevelt asked Secretary of War Henry Stimson to organize an official U.S. effort to build an atomic weapon. Code named Manhattan Project, Stimson appointed General Leslie Groves head of the military aspects of the Manhattan Project. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer of the University of California was appointed the head of the scientific aspects of the project. Three laboratory facilities were quickly constructed, the most important at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the engineering of the Bomb took place. At Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a laboratory manufactured the fissionable isotope Uranium 235. At Hannford, Washington, a laboratory manufactured plutonium. The University of Chicago was also involved in experimenting with the chain reaction of uranium. Oppenheimer recruited a host of world famous scientists to work on the Manhattan Project. Many of these scientists, such as Edward Teller, Hans Bethe, and Enrico Fermi, were immigrants from Nazi or Fascist occupied countries in Europe.
President Roosevelt and Secretary of War Stimson meanwhile worked out a plan for using the bomb should it be successfully developed. Roosevelt believed that the U.S. alone was sufficiently responsible to hold the keys to atomic power, hence he wanted the U.S. to hold a monopoly on the Atomic Bomb. The U.S. could use the power of the threat of the Bomb to diffuse situations around the world, promoting world peace. Although he shared information about the Manhattan Project with Winston Churchill, he refused to inform Joseph Stalin, who nevertheless knew something was up and had spies in the United States who informed the Soviet Premier of the U.S. atomic project.
By the beginning of 1945, the Manhattan Project was nearing a successful conclusion at the same time that American and Soviet armies were surrounding Germany and Japan was surrounded by the U.S. Navy. The American army captured the German atomic program and discovered the Nazis were nowhere near accomplishing their objective. The German threat of having the Bomb ended, and Germany nearing defeat, American scientists and policy-makers asked, what should be the plan for using the Bomb? Some scientists, such as Leo Szilard, had grown to oppose military implementation of the Bomb. Others believed it was a means to bring the war quickly to a close and to save lives.
Such was the opinion of Secretary of War Stimson, who although he realized the dangers of proliferation of atomic power, anticipating rogue states using the weapon for terrorist purposes, he nevertheless believed that the needs of the moment—to end the war and save lives—was paramount over future concerns. When he informed President Truman (upon the death of Roosevelt) of the Manhattan Project and his (and Roosevelt’s) plans for implementation and monopolization, Truman concurred.
Truman wrote in his diary in July 25, 1945:
“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world. . . . Anyway we “think” we have found the way to cause a disintegration of the atom. An experiment in the New Mexico desert was startling–to put it mildly. Thirteen pounds of the explosive caused the complete disintegration of a steel tower 60 feet high, created a crater 6 feet deep and 1,200 feet in diameter, knocked over a steel tower 1/2 mile away and knocked men down 10,000 yards away. The explosion was visible for more than 200 miles and audible for 40 miles and more. This weapon is to be used against Japan. . . . I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.”
(Quoted in Robert H. Ferrell, Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman (New York: Harper and Row, 1980) pp. 55-56. Truman’s writings are in the public domain.)
Scientists, policy-advisers, and military experts had advised Truman during the late spring and summer months of 1945. In the end, Truman chose to use it. Three bombs were made by the summer of 1945. One, a plutonium bomb, was tested July 1945 in the New Mexico desert. A second, uranium bomb, was used on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. A third, plutonium bomb, was used against the city of Nagasaki on August 9. Japan surrendered on August 10, 1945.
Questions remain: for example, did the atomic bomb force the surrender of Japan, and if so, how? Although Japan was ostensibly a monarchy, the emperor had little authority, rather possessed a massive historical, symbolic presence. A war council had come to power after World War I, and this war council ran the country during the decades of Japan’s rise to power. In 1945, the war council, made up of six leaders, were evenly split as whether to surrender or to keep fighting to the death. They rejected the Potsdam Declaration of July 25, 1945, demanding surrender, as “unworthy of public notice.” Even after Hiroshima was bombed, and the Japanese realized it was an atomic weapon, that one bomb destroyed an entire city, the council was still split three to three. The destruction of Hiroshima, however, impelled Emperor Hirohito to act. In an unprecedented move, Hirohito informed the council that it was his will that Japan surrender. This broke the deadlock. About the same time that the U.S. dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki, the Japanese had determined to surrender. The A-Bomb had, apparently, swayed but one man.
A larger question, in light of the ensuing seventy years of Cold War, nuclear proliferation, and the potential of terrorists to use a nuclear weapon, is: was it moral, just, and right for the United States to use, and introduce to the world stage, such a Weapon of Mass Destruction? Critics and commentators have been divided on this question. Some have argued that the Bomb prevented, at least up to now, World War III. Others argued that the Bomb was a blatant show of force by the United States to gain the upper hand against the Soviet Union. Others have said that it heralded the rise of unrestrained human technology that is ultimately, uncontrollable.
It is obvious that Stimson and Truman embraced the moral theory of the end justifies the means. Indeed, has this not been the moral stance of the United States (as well as most other countries) during the 20th and 21st centuries? Although the West, including the United States, has generally embraced Just War Theory to justify military action, usually the moral standards for war are very simple: if the end seems just, then it is justified to use whatever evil means are necessary to accomplish it.
The end justifies the means, or to put it more simply, moral expediency, is the natural moral response to the human experience of time. When we are subject to the tyranny of the never-ending present, always balancing our memory of what has happened in the past with what we anticipate might happen in the future, we make decisions on what makes us feel best at this moment. Never mind how it once made us feel. Never mind how it might make us feel. Rather, how do we feel about it, now? When the pursuit of existence is feeling good, now, then there is no way behavior and the underlying motives can be otherwise than what is expedient, now.
Philosophy and religion tell us that by belief and religious/spiritual practice we can rise above moral expediency, to do what is right and good: not just now, in the moment, but in all moments, past/present/future, transcending time. Contemplating such virtue can make people feel good, though at the moment of action they resort to what their instincts, formed in time, tell them to do: what is expedient for survival, to live, to feel good.
Ultimately, then, what Truman and Stimson did was what anyone would have done: use the Bomb according to moral expediency, to save lives, to end the war, to feel good, in the moment, disregarding what religion and philosophy has taught, disregarding what the future results of their actions might bring, disregarding what Jesus or Buddha might have done. Such are the consequences of human time and its consequences, such as war, violence, murder, death, destruction. As long as we can avoid for now, put the inevitable (our own demise) further into the distant future—it is as much as we can do. To profess the ability to do something more is, after all, quite impossible.
Or is it?