The Manhattan Project was started after Albert Einstein wrote President Roosevelt stating that it was possible to make a tremendously powerful bomb from atomic energy. See Einstein’s Letters to FDR. General Leslie Groves, who had just finished building the Pentagon, was placed in charge of the project. He enlisted some of the greatest scientists of the era: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Harold Urey were among them. See a chronology on the development of the atomic bomb.
The Manhattan Engineering District, as it was formally called, was perhaps the largest secret industrial enterprise ever undertaken by the U.S. At its height it had 130,000 employees, including some of the country’s most prominent scientists and engineers. It operated installations in Hanford, Washington, Oakridge, Tennessee, Los Alamos, New Mexico and Chicago, Illinois.
General Groves was obsessed with security. This brought him into conflict with the scientists because the scientific method requires the free exchange of ideas. Despite all the security precautions, secret information was smuggled to the Soviet Union by Los Alamos employees Klaus Fuchs and David Greenglass on behalf of a Soviet spy ring run by Julius Rosenberg. See PBS Nova article on The Rosenbergs and the Greenglasses. Using this information, the Soviets built their first atomic bomb in 1949.
SHOULD THE U.S. HAVE DROPPED THE BOMB ON JAPAN?
TeachWithMovies’ Lesson Plan on Mass Casualties and Making Decisions About War facilitates an in-depth study of the decision to end WWII by attacking Japan with atomic bombs.
THE MEN WHO MADE THE NUCLEAR REVOLUTION
IN ORDER TO DEVELOP AN ATOMIC BOMB BEFORE NAZI GERMANY
Leo Szilard: Leo Szilard (pronounced Sihl-ahrd) was born in Budapest and studied physics in Berlin under Albert Einstein. (Szilard and Einstein later collaborated on a design for a home refrigerator.) After fleeing Nazi Germany, Szilard lived for a while in England, where he was to make an important intellectual discovery. In the book Day One: Before Hiroshima and After, Peter Wyden writes: “The father of the bomb was not Oppenheimer or Groves but Dr. Leo Szilard, and the idea of building such a device occurred to him as he waited for a red traffic light to change at an intersection of Southampton Row in London.” (p. 20.) Szilard had recently read a science fiction book written in 1913 by H. G. Wells called The World Set Free in which the author prophesied a weapon using “atomic disintegration” that will unleash “limitless power” and lead to worldwide nuclear war. Szilard, in a characteristically playful way, had begun to think about the atom, and on that fateful day in London, he would later remember “it suddenly occurred to me that if we could find an element which is split by neutrons and would emit two neutrons when it absorbed one neutron, such an element if assembled in sufficiently large mass, could sustain a nuclear chain reaction.” Richard Rhodes, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, begins his account of that fateful day with the following: “The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.” (p. 13.)
Atomic physics moved forward in 1938, when German physicist Otto Hahn split uranium on his kitchen table. In those days before WWII, the scientific community was still international and open. News of nuclear fission circulated quickly. In 1939, German physicists met in Berlin and began working to create an atom bomb, a task called “Project U” since uranium was the one element known to be capable of fission. The intentions of the Germans became clear when Germany forbade the export of uranium from the recently conquered Czechoslovakia.
It was Szilard who involved Edward Teller (also from Hungary), Enrico Fermi (the Italian physicist who had just emigrated from Fascist Italy), and Dr. Isidor I. Rabi (formerly of Austria), in the question of whether the fission of uranium could result in an atomic explosion. Szilard and Fermi both managed to split uranium, thus proving that the bomb was feasible. Determined to prod the United States into getting into the race for the bomb, Szilard convinced Albert Einstein to sign a letter to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that Szilard had drafted warning that the Germans were working to build a bomb. The letter urged the United States to fund research and “speed up the experimental work” that physicists were doing individually. It was this letter of August 2, 1939 that started what would later be called the Manhattan Project and the nuclear arms race. Einstein later called the letter “the greatest mistake” of his life. See the complete text of this letter and three others that Einstein wrote to FDR. See also The Nuclear Age from The Center for the History of Physics.
Szilard appears several times in “Fat Man and Little Boy.” In the first appearance, General Groves visits him to confirm that an atomic weapon is feasible. In this scene, Szilard is soaking in a bathtub, the place he characteristically did his best thinking. (Groves actually met Szilard at the Metallurgy Laboratory at the University of Chicago, not in his hotel.) The film does capture Groves’ dislike for the Hungarian who Groves regarded as dangerously insubordinate. In 1942, Groves recommended to Secretary of War Henry Stimson that Szilard be dismissed from his position at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory and be interned as an “enemy alien”. Stimson refused, believing that as a naturalized citizen, Szilard should be protected and that his dismissal would hurt morale. “Since Szilard was a difficult man and General Groves an impatient one, I was not surprised when General Groves wished to fire Szilard,” fellow Hungarian Eugene Wigner wrote in his memoirs. “They were two men who rarely agreed, even on fundamental truths.” (Eugene Wigner and Andrew Szainton, The Recollections of Eugene P. Wigner p. 225.) Fortunately for the progress of the Manhattan Project, Groves was unsuccessful, but the Szilard-Groves antagonism continued for the duration of the war. Some of Szilard’s contempt for Groves as a “rigid militarist” seems apparent in Roland Joffe’s characterization of Szilard.
“Fat Man and Little Boy” shows Szilard’s leadership in the effort to talk first with FDR and then with President Truman about not using the bomb on Japan. Szilard co-authored the Franck Report and circulated the Chicago petition, an effort that is highlighted in the film when Szilard is shown giving the fictional scientist Michael Merriman the petition to take back to Los Alamos. After the war, Szilard was outspoken in his insistence that it was wrong to have dropped the bomb on Japan and he naturally opposed development of the hydrogen bomb. In 1962, just two years before his death, Szilard founded the Council for Abolishing War (later renamed the Council for a Livable World).
J. Robert Oppenheimer: J. Robert Oppenheimer (1904 – 1967) was a brilliant professor of physics. He built large schools for the study of theoretical physics at the University of California at Berkeley and at the California Institute of Technology. He personally made major contributions to quantum theory, the theory of relativity, and to our understanding of cosmic rays, positrons, and neutron stars. From 1943 – 1945 he served as director of the Manhattan Project. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Merit for his efforts.
At the time that Oppenheimer was selected as the director of “Project Y” (soon re-christened “The Manhattan Project”) he had done impressive scientific work, but nothing to merit international fame. Groves would later explain his surprising selection of a man who was only 38 and relatively unrecognized to lead the most important scientific endeavor of the war: “I was reproachfully told that only a Nobel prize-winner or at least a somewhat older man would be able to exercise sufficient authority over the many ‘prima donnas’ concerned. But I stuck to Oppenheimer and his success proved that I was right. No one else could have done what that man achieved.” (Quoted in Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists p. 131.) As a member of the international scientific community before the war, Oppenheimer knew which scientists to recruit, and was undaunted by the multi-national community at Los Alamos. It was his idea to gather all the people needed to create the bomb–theoretical and experimental physicists, explosive experts, mathematicians, chemists, metallurgists, technicians of all types–into a single community run by a single director: himself. It was also Oppenheimer who suggested Los Alamos, remembering a boy’s school high on a mesa in New Mexico, surrounded by spectacular scenery, far enough from both coasts to be impervious to attack, and remote enough to maintain secrecy. He had always said that his twin passions were physics and desert scenery. At Los Alamos he had both.
Oppenheimer’s battle with General Groves to allow “free discussion” between scientists that the film portrays so well was critical to the success of the project. In his memoirs years after his time at Los Alamos, Luis Alvarez wrote: “One program Robert inaugurated that boosted morale was a weekly evening colloquium that any properly cleared technical person could attend and where anything and everything about the secret work of Los Alamos could be discussed. What General Groves called compartmentalization–the restricting of information to those who needed to know–was the order of the day everywhere else in the Manhattan Project (meaning at Hanford, Oak Ridge, and at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory.) The benefit of getting the weapons built quickly, we felt at Los Alamos, far outweighed any possible damage from the escape of secret data. I’m sure the weekly colloquia provided Klaus Fuchs (the Russian spy) with much of the information he passed on to Moscow. I’m no less sure that they also saved countless American and Japanese lives.” (Luis W. Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist pp. 128-129.)
Oppenheimer’s personal charisma is shown in the film when he receives a standing ovation from his students as he is leaving Berkeley and when the fictional Michael Merriman writes in his journal: “We all depend on Oppie. He’s our inspiration. If he were to crack, we’d all fall apart.” These scenes express the convictions of the actual scientists who worked with Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Robert Wilson called him “our leader in every respect” and spoke with admiration of Oppenheimer’s ability to solve scientific and technical problems and to “his combination of skill, wisdom, and moral stature.” (Quoted in “Who Was J. Robert Oppenheimer? Charisma and Complex Organization” by Charles Thorpe and Steven Shapin, Social Studies of Science, Volume 30, Number 4 (August 2000), p. 549.) I. Rabi, the “wise old man of physics”, spoke of Oppenheimer’s spiritual magnetism and saw him as succeeding Einstein “as the great charismatic figure of the scientific world.” (Ibid.) His colleague at Los Alamos, Hans Bethe, entitled an article on Oppenheimer written in 1967 “Oppenheimer: Where he was There Was Always Life and Excitement.” (Hans Bethe, Science, Vol. 155, March 3, 1967, pp. 1080-1084.) Oppenheimer, Bethe said, “knew and understood everything that went on in the laboratory, whether it was chemistry of theoretical physics or machine shop. He could keep it all in his head and co-ordinate it…. There was just nobody else in that laboratory who even came close to him.” (Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986, p. 570.)
Though Edward Teller and Oppenheimer would later fall out over Teller’s determination to build the “Super” or hydrogen bomb after the war, Teller never lost his admiration for Oppenheimer’s management of a community that grew in size and complexity from the time he founded it in 1943 until the end of the war:
Of the more than ten thousand people who eventually came to work at Los Alamos, Oppie knew several hundred intimately, by which I mean that he knew what their relationships with one another were and what made them tick. He knew how to organize, cajole, humor, soothe feelings–how to lead powerfully without seeming to do. He was an exemplar of dedication, a hero who never lost his humanness. Disappointing him somehow carried with it a sense of wrongdoing. Los Alamos’ amazing success grew out of the brilliance, enthusiasm and charisma with which Oppenheimer led it. (Ibid, p. 539.)
In 1947, Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey and served there until he retired. He also served as chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1947 to 1952.
When Oppenheimer opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb, agitated for international control of atomic weapons, and opposed the arms race, many people, Teller included, questioned Oppenheimer’s patriotism. In the Red Scares of the 1950s, Oppenheimer’s past association with Communists and so-called “fellow travelers” was used by those opposed to his views to obtain a revocation of his security clearance. A central question in what would be called “The Matter of Robert Oppenheimer” was the degree to which he maintained Communist sympathies and ties during his work on the bomb. The film makes it clear that Groves and others knew about his politics. Groves was pressured by Colonel Boris Pash to dismiss Oppenheimer after Oppenheimer went to San Francisco to visit his mistress, Jean Tatlock, a known Communist. Groves refused to get rid of Oppenheimer, fearing failure more than infiltration. Not in the film is the fact that Oppenheimer was pressured by Groves and the FBI to reveal his “fellow travellers” and that the scientist offered up a friend, Haakon Chevalier, a literature professor at Berkeley, as someone who had contacted him about sharing secrets with the Russians. Oppenheimer later said that this was a “cock and bull” story that he had invented because he was “stupid” but Chevalier’s career had been ruined. The FBI believed that Oppenheimer had named Chevalier in order to protect his brother Frank, a known Communist Party member.
Oppenheimer’s name was “cleared” in 1963 when he received the Enrico Fermi Award, the highest award given by the Atomic Energy Commission. However, new questions have arisen about Oppenheimer’s connection to the Russians with the publication of a book by a former KGB agent claiming that Oppenheimer was an atomic spy for the Soviets. Circumstantial evidence of this possibility is that Oppenheimer’s picture hangs next to that of known spy Klaus Fuchs in the KGB Museum in Moscow. The book that has prompted the furor is Special Tasks (New York: Little, Brown, 1994) by KGB Lieutenant General Pavel A. Sudoplatov. The book is controversial. The American Physical Society has denounced it and the FBI has cast doubt upon it. However, a well-regarded Stalinist scholar, Robert Conquest, wrote the introduction to the paperback edition and called it “the most sensational, the most devastating, and in many ways the most informative autobiography ever to emerge from the Stalinist milieu,” although he doesn’t mention the charges against Oppenheimer specifically. There is no doubt that Sudoplatov was important in the KGB; he worked for the agency for 50 years and at one time oversaw 20,000 operatives.
Leslie Groves: A student at MIT before graduating fourth in his class at West Point, Groves had served primarily with the Corps of Engineers. When Oppenheimer speaks disparagingly of Groves as someone who “dug ditches in Latin America” (this was early in the relationship and before both men came to regard each other highly) he is referring to Groves’ assignment in Nicaragua. Before Pearl Harbor, Groves had been assigned to oversee construction of the Pentagon and rose to the rank of colonel. In 1942, he was put in charge of the Manhattan Project and promoted to the rank of general, the better to overawe the scientists. (The code name for the project came to be the Manhattan Engineer Project, but this was an effort at disinformation. Although some work was carried out at Columbia University located in Manhattan, the principal sites were at the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos.) At the peak of his power, Groves oversaw nearly 38,000 employees and spent two billion dollars of taxpayers’ money, all of it without direct oversight by Congress. Though “Fat Man and Little Boy” is centered at Los Alamos, the most demanding part of Groves’ job was to provide the uranium and plutonium that went into the bombs.
Except for Leo Szilard, Groves got along fairly well with most scientists. Groves has traditionally been portrayed in books on the Manhattan Project as a bulky bully, a martinet who begrudged compromises to scientists and who pushed the project to completion regardless of cost to treasure and to humans. Vannevar Bush, the head of all wartime scientific projects, was initially appalled by Groves when the two men met, saying “he looks too aggressive.” After the war, his chief aide, Kenneth Nichols, admitted that while Groves’ “personal ethics were beyond reproach,” Groves was “the biggest sonofabitch I’ve ever met.” (Major General K. D. Nichols, The Road to Trinity (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1987, p. 102, p. 108.) “He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates…. (However) he ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference…. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.” (Ibid.)
The film accurately portrays the constant pressure the General applied, amounting even to blackmail with Oppenheimer, his indifference to the comfort of the scientists, and his belief that most of them were soft “eggheads” and “pencil pushers” who had no idea of what soldiers were facing in combat and who groaned about giving up privacy while others were giving up their lives. His attitude toward the wives of Los Alamos is made clear in his orders to scientists not to reveal to their spouses the nature of their work. Such enforced ignorance and the isolation of being on “the hill” meant that women like Kitty Oppenheimer and Laura Fermi made a bigger sacrifice than their husbands. At least the men had their work to distract them. A number of wives spent their time having children, something that irritated Groves, who didn’t want families at Los Alamos in the first place. In the film, the fictional character Dr. Shoenfeld is shown mimicking Groves’ disgust that couples were wasting their time having sex, “Gee Gee” or “His Nibs”, as Groves was called by the residents of Los Alamos, did instruct Oppenheimer to make his scientists productive, not reproductive, a policy that the Oppenheimer’s themselves did not obey since their daughter Toni was born at Los Alamos.
Some of the differences between Groves and Oppenheimer are highlighted in the film. Groves was puritanical, while Oppenheimer was “bohemian”; Groves’ wife stayed obediently in the background offering her husband constant support, while Kitty Oppenheimer drank and made catty remarks about her husband. Groves cared nothing about creating a community at Los Alamos, while Oppenheimer encouraged parties, dances, poker games, and baseball games. Oppenheimer anguished about his part in the creation of the atomic bomb after Hiroshima, while Groves never faltered in his belief that the bomb ought to have been made and ought to have been used.
Groves’ weight fluctuated between 250-300 pounds, while Oppenheimer had shrunk to 116 pounds at the time of the Trinity Test, a weight the slim Dwight Shultz, cast as Oppenheimer, did not attempt to attain. In an article entitled “Groves and Oppenheimer: The Story of a Partnership,” Stanley Goldberg summarizes the differences between the soldier and the scientist: Groves was a bluff and blustery teetotal engineer who knew how to get things done and who had no time for idle speculation about the nature of the universe or the nature of truth, beauty, and justice. He was instinctively distrustful of any political opinions to the left of Herbert Hoover. Oppenheimer was a cocktail-party bon vivant who prided himself on his skill at making perfect martinis. Oppenheimer possessed a penetrating intellect and took pains to be eloquent regardless of the subject (be it quantum physics, Sanskrit religious texts, seventeenth-century French poetry, or some point in the third volume of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital). He was intolerant of those who could not keep up with his rapid-fire analysis of subtle and complex physics problems and puzzles. His politics were very far to the left and he associated with known Communists. Though very different, both men were, in their own way, quick studies. Groves, for all his bluff and bluster, understood people and could immediately size up their usefulness to projects for which he was responsible.
Oppenheimer was lightning fast in seeing where a formal argument in physics was leading, and he could easily readjust his orientation when he perceived that his approach in a social context would not yield the desired results. Groves and Oppenheimer did have at least one trait in common–both men were exceedingly ambitious. It was extremely important to both that the atomic bomb end World War II. (Stanley Goldberg, “Groves and Oppenheimer: The Story of a Partnership,” Antioch Review, Fall 1995 (Vol. 53, Issue 4, pp. 482-496.) And end it, the bomb did.
NOTES ON THE HISTORICAL ACCURACY OF THE FILM
The film exaggerates Oppenheimer’s concerns about the morality of using the bomb in order to have a major character express the opinions of those who objected to dropping the bomb on a city without a prior demonstration of its power. There is some poetic justification for using Oppenheimer as the voice of the dissenters, because, years later, Oppenheimer vocally opposed the development of the much more powerful H-bomb.
The subplot in which a scientist dies of radiation exposure is based on an actual event that happened nine months after the first bomb was dropped. Canadian physicist Louis Slotin was “tickling the dragon’s tail,” performing an experiment in which two globes of fissionable plutonium were separated only by a screwdriver. On the fatal occasion, the globes touched. A small nuclear chain reaction filled the lab with radiation. Slotin lunged forward and pushed the globes apart, stopping the reaction and saving many lives. But he subjected himself to a lethal dose of radiation. Slotin had the others who were in the lab mark their places with chalk and calculated on a blackboard that they would survive and that he would not. He died, gruesomely, within a week.
The scene which describes the sudden discovery of the implosion method of making the bomb is fictional. The theory was developed slowly and not taken seriously at first. Most scientific discoveries are the process of slow and painstaking research. Often the theory that is ultimately accepted was dismissed at first.