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The Advent Of Nuclear Weapons

General Leslie Groves Headed the Manhattan Project from 1942 Until 1947

The advent of nuclear weapons, made possible by the Manhattan Project, not only helped bring an end to the Second World War - it ushered in the atomic age and determined how the next war, the Cold War, would be fought. The Manhattan Project was the U.S. effort in World War II that developed the atomic bomb. It had four main facilities. In the basement of the unused football stadium of the University of Chicago, scientists Enrico Fermi and Arthur Compton built an atomic pile and in December 1942 produced the first chain reaction in uranium. At Hanford, Washington, a plant produced plutonium-239 from uranium-238. The Clinton Engineer Works at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, separated uranium-235 from uranium-238 through gaseous diffusion. A secret new laboratory, headed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, was built in 1943 on a secluded mesa at Los Alamos, New Mexico, to design and build atomic bombs.

Just before the First World War, two German scientists, James Franck and Gustav Hertz, carried out experiments where they bombarded mercury atoms with electrons and traced the energy changes that resulted from the collisions. Their experiments helped to substantiate they theory put forward by Nils Bohr that an atom can absorb internal energy only in precise and definite amounts.

In 1921 two Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner, discovered nuclear isomers. Over the next few years they devoted their time to researching the application of radioactive methods to chemical problems. In the 1930s they became interested in the research being carried out by Enrico Fermi and Emilio Segre at the University of Rome. This included experiments where elements such as uranium were bombarded with neutrons. By 1935 the two men had discovered slow neutrons, which have properties important to the operation of nuclear reactors.

Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner were now joined by Fritz Strassmann and discovered that uranium nuclei split when bombarded with neutrons. In 1938 Meitner, like other Jews in Nazi Germany, was dismissed from her university post. She moved to Sweden and later that year she wrote a paper on nuclear fission with her nephew, Otto Frisch, where they argued that by splitting the atom it was possible to use a few pounds of uranium to create the explosive and destructive power of many thousands of pounds of dynamite.

In 1942 the Manhattan Engineer Project was set up in the United States under the command of Brigadier General Leslie Groves. Scientists recruited to produce an atom bomb included Robert Oppenheimer (USA), David Bohm (USA), Leo Szilard (Hungary), Eugene Wigner (Hungary), Rudolf Peierls (Germany), Otto Frisch (Germany), Niels Bohr (Denmark), Felix Bloch (Switzerland), James Franck (Germany), James Chadwick (Britain), Emilio Segre (Italy), Enrico Fermi (Italy), Klaus Fuchs (Germany) and Edward Teller (Hungary).

The Manhattan Project and the devastation that its successful outcome wrought are inexplicable outside the context of the Second World War. The project began as a race to acquire the bomb before Nazi Germany did, and the prospects of an atomic bomb in the hands of one of the world's most oppressive and murderous regimes were chilling indeed. In a war initiated by German aggression and dreams of conquest, tens of millions died. Few European nations escaped grievous injury, but nowhere was the suffering worse than in Poland, where six million or more lost their lives, and in the Soviet Union, where more than 25 million may have died. Other Allies suffered terribly as well, including about 600,000 deaths in France and 400,000 dead Britons (including many in the Pacific Theater). Approximately six million Jews of all nations died during the Holocaust. Even small and too often forgotten nations suffered horribly. In Yugoslavia, for example, as many as two million people may have died during the war. Germany itself lost over four million. The stakes in the race for the bomb were thus very high. Tens of million more might have died -- and Western civilization itself might have been eclipsed -- if Germany had proven the victor.

The loss of life in the Pacific war was equally horrific. Victims of Japanese aggression suffered terribly, from Korea to the Philippines to Southeast Asia to the islands of the Pacific. The nation hardest hit, however, was probably China. Beginning with the invasion by Japan in 1931, perhaps 15 million Chinese died at the hands of the Japanese Army or from the war's attendant starvation and disease. The toll on Asia and the Pacific was psychological as well as physical; controversy still rages over the numerous war crimes committed by the Japanese Army, including biological warfare experiments conducted on civilians, the execution of prisoners of war, and wholesale rape and murder committed against entire cities, such as happened in 1937 in the Chinese city of Nanking where 200,000 or more Chinese civilians may have died. Well over two million Japanese soldiers and civilians lost their lives during the war, of which perhaps as many as 300,000, or even more, were as a result of the two atomic bombings. About 300,000 Americans died during the wars against Germany and Japan. Though no one will ever know for certain, the worldwide death toll for the war from 1931 to 1945 probably reached 60 million.

Prior to the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, elements existed within the Japanese government that were trying to find a way to end the war. In June and July 1945, Japan attempted to enlist the help of the Soviet Union to serve as an intermediary in negotiations. No direct communication occurred with the United States about peace talks, but American leaders knew of these maneuvers because the United States for a long time had been intercepting and decoding many internal Japanese diplomatic communications. From these intercepts, the United States learned that some within the Japanese government advocated outright surrender. A few diplomats overseas cabled home to urge just that.

From the replies these diplomats received from Tokyo, the United States learned that anything Japan might agree to would not be a surrender so much as a "negotiated peace" involving numerous conditions. These conditions probably would require, at a minimum, that the Japanese home islands remain unoccupied by foreign forces and even allow Japan to retain some of its wartime conquests in East Asia. Many within the Japanese government were extremely reluctant to discuss any concessions, which would mean that a "negotiated peace" to them would only amount to little more than a truce where the Allies agreed to stop attacking Japan. After twelve years of Japanese military aggression against China and over three and one-half years of war with the United States (begun with the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor), American leaders were reluctant to accept anything less than a complete Japanese surrender.

The one possible exception to this was the personal status of the emperor himself. Although the Allies had long been publicly demanding "unconditional surrender," in private there had been some discussion of exempting the emperor from war trials and allowing him to remain as ceremonial head of state. In the end, at Potsdam, the Allies (right) went with both a "carrot and a stick," trying to encourage those in Tokyo who advocated peace with assurances that Japan eventually would be allowed to form its own government, while combining these assurances with vague warnings of "prompt and utter destruction" if Japan did not surrender immediately. No explicit mention was made of the emperor possibly remaining as ceremonial head of state. Japan publicly rejected the Potsdam Declaration, and on July 25, 1945, President Harry S. Truman gave the order to commence atomic attacks on Japan as soon as possible.

Following the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 (right), the Japanese government met to consider what to do next. The emperor had been urging since June that Japan find some way to end the war, but the Japanese Minister of War and the heads of both the Army and the Navy held to their position that Japan should wait and see if arbitration via the Soviet Union might still produce something less than a surrender. Military leaders also hoped that if they could hold out until the ground invasion of Japan began, they would be able to inflict so many casualties on the Allies that Japan still might win some sort of negotiated settlement. Next came the virtually simultaneous arrival of news of the Soviet declaration of war on Japan of August 8, 1945, and the atomic bombing of Nagasaki of the following day. Another Imperial Council was held the night of August 9-10, and this time the vote on surrender was a tie, 3-to-3. For the first time in a generation, the emperor (right) stepped forward from his normally ceremonial-only role and personally broke the tie, ordering Japan to surrender. On August 10, 1945, Japan offered to surrender to the Allies, the only condition being that the emperor be allowed to remain the nominal head of state.

Planning for the use of additional nuclear weapons continued even as these deliberations were ongoing. On August 10, Leslie Groves reported to the War Department that the next bomb, another plutonium weapon, would be "ready for delivery on the first suitable weather after 17 or 18 August." Following the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, only two targets remained from the original list: Kokura Arsenal and the city of Niigata. Groves therefore requested that additional targets be added to the target list. His deputy, General Kenneth Nichols, suggested Tokyo. Truman, however, ordered an immediate halt to atomic attacks while surrender negotiations were ongoing. As the Secretary of Commerce Henry Wallace recorded in his diary, Truman remarked that he did not like the idea of killing "all those kids."

On August 12, the United States announced that it would accept the Japanese surrender, making clear in its statement that the emperor could remain in a purely ceremonial capacity only. Debate raged within the Japanese government over whether to accept the American terms or fight on. Meanwhile, American leaders were growing impatient, and on August 13 conventional air raids resumed on Japan. Thousands more Japanese civilians died while their leaders delayed. The Japanese people learned of the surrender negotiations for the first time when, on August 14, B-29s showered Tokyo with thousands of leaflets containing translated copies of the American reply of August 12. Later that day, the emperor called another meeting of his cabinet and instructed them to accept the Allied terms immediately, explaining "I cannot endure the thought of letting my people suffer any longer"; if the war did not end "the whole nation would be reduced to ashes."

The only question remaining now was if Japan's military leaders would allow the emperor to surrender. Loyalty to the emperor was an absolute in the Japanese military, but so was the refusal to surrender, and now that the two had come into conflict, open rebellion was a possible result. The emperor recorded a message in which he personally accepted the Allied surrender terms, to be broadcast over Japanese radio the following day. This way everyone in Japan would know that surrender was the emperor's personal will. Some within the Japanese military actually attempted to steal this recording before it could be broadcast, while others attempted a more general military coup in order to seize power and continue the war. Other elements of the Japanese military remained loyal to the emperor. The Minister of War, General Anami Korechika, personally supported continuing the war, but he also could not bring himself to openly rebel against his emperor. The strength of his dilemma was such that he opted for suicide as the only honorable way out. In the end, his refusal to assist the coup plotters was instrumental in their defeat by elements within the military that remained loyal to the emperor.

On August 15, 1945, the emperor's broadcast announcing Japan's surrender was heard via radio all over Japan. For most of his subjects, it was the first time that they had ever heard his voice. The emperor explained that "the war situation has developed not necessarily to Japan's advantage," and that "the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb." Over the next few weeks, Japan and the United States worked out the details of the surrender, and on September 2, 1945, the formal surrender ceremony took place on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri.

The atomic bomb was the scientific and technological exclamation point at the end of this worst-of-all wars that was won by technologically-advanced industrial might. That the bomb was completed by the United States in time to help finish the conflict is remarkable. Most of the theoretical breakthroughs in nuclear physics that made it possible dated back less than twenty-five years, and, with new findings occurring faster than they could be absorbed by practitioners in the field, many fundamental concepts in nuclear physics and chemistry had yet to be confirmed by laboratory experimentation. Nor was there any conception initially of the design and engineering difficulties that would be involved in translating what was known theoretically into working devices capable of releasing the enormous energy of the atomic nucleus in a predictable fashion. The industrial base created in a handful of years to transform these theories into reality was, by 1945, comparable in size to the American automobile industry. Approximately 130,000 people were employed by the project at its peak, from laborers to Nobel Prize winners. The Manhattan Project was as much a triumph of engineering and industry as of science.

Without the leadership of Leslie Groves and Robert Oppenheimer, as well as that of Crawford Greenewalt of DuPont and other contractors, the revolutionary breakthroughs in nuclear science achieved by Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, Ernest Lawrence, and their colleagues would not have produced the atomic bomb during World War II. Despite numerous obstacles, the United States was able to combine the forces of science, government, academia, the military, and industry into an organization that took nuclear physics from the laboratory and on to the battlefield with a weapon of awesome destructive capability, making clear the importance of basic scientific research to national defense.

In the history of warfare, nuclear weapons have been used only twice, both during the closing days of World War II. The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the surrender of Japan were the last acts of the Second World War. The most destructive weapon in the history of combat had helped bring an end to the most destructive conflict in human history. The use of these weapons, which resulted in the immediate deaths of around 100,000 to 200,000 individuals and even more over time, was and remains controversial - critics charged that they were unnecessary acts of mass killing, while others claimed that they ultimately reduced casualties on both sides by hastening the end of the war. Navy Captain William Parsons armed the bomb during the flight, since it had been left unarmed to minimize the risks during takeoff. The gravity bomb, a gun-type fission weapon, with 130 pounds of uranium-235, performed as expected. At 8.15 local time on the morning of 6 August 1945 in the Japanese industrial town of Hiroshima, another campaign would draw to a close, and a new era of conflict would begin: nuclear stalemate in the Cold War.

The Manhattan Project became the organizational model behind the remarkable achievements of American "big science" during the second half of the twentieth century. When President John F. Kennedy announced his goal of putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960s, it was the Manhattan Project that he invoked for its spirit of commitment and patriotism.



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