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The Manhattan Project: A Great Work of Human Collaboration

No other story resonates quite like the story of the Manhattan Project. When I wrote my history The Making of the Atomic Bomb, I thought of it as the tragic epic of the twentieth century: Humankind invents the means of its own destruction. But the discovery of how to release the enormous energies latent in the nuclei of atoms has led to a world where world-scale war is no longer possible. Is that tragedy, or cause for celebration?

Nuclear power came out of the Manhattan Project as well, the first major source of energy not derived directly or indirectly from sunlight. I suppose there are those who would consider that development a tragedy, but as energy transitions go, it's been orders of magnitude cleaner and safer than its predecessors, coal and oil, and now nuclear power appears poised to contribute to slowing global warming.

Yet neither of these outcomes was intentional. A few scientists suspected they might follow. Most of the military and civilian leaders who knew of the secret program to develop atomic bombs, from President Franklin Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill on down, had more immediate concerns. Their desperate purpose, for which they were prepared to spend billions of dollars and divert precious materials and manpower from the immediate war effort, was to master the military technology of nuclear fission before Nazi Germany--as evil an empire as ever laid claim to the earth--succeeded in doing so. As it turned out, of course, Germany had hardly begun a bomb research program, and once the Soviet Union mastered the technology, after 1949, the new weapons proved unusable. Maybe the proper genre for the Manhattan Project story is irony, not tragedy.

Either way; it was epic in scope, in numbers of people and scale of investment and construction; epic as well in its daring transfer of physical and chemical processes directly from the laboratory to the huge enrichment and separation facilities at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington. I can think of no other major new technical process that has been industrialized in so short a time--testimony to how dangerous the new weapons were understood to be, capable even of turning defeat into victory if it came to that.

Fortunately, it didn't come to that. It came instead to a decision, more controversial now than it was in the summer of 1945, to use the first two bombs against Japanese cities in the hope of shocking the Japanese into surrender before the invasion of their home islands, scheduled for November, took an even greater toll of American and Japanese lives. That decision is discussed in The Manhattan Project by experts; I would only remind you that destroying Japanese cities with firebombing--destruction fully as total as the atomic bombings brought--had been underway for months, and that Hiroshima and Nagasaki would already have been burned out by August 1945 had they not been removed from the U.S. Air Force's target list. The moral decision to use terror bombing against civilian populations had been made two years earlier, in Europe, and it was fully implemented in Japan in the last months of the war, until only cities with less than 50,000 population (excluding those on the atomic bombing target list) remained untouched.

These hard choices and decisions, following as they did from a great, and in the long run humane, work of human collaboration, are much of what gives the Manhattan Project story its almost mythic resonance. Harnessing the military technology of nuclear fission required genius, sacrifice and unremitting hard work, from digging ditches and hanging iron, to inventing new ways to detonate explosives, to figuring out how to remove a large strategic bomber from the immediate vicinity of a falling atomic bomb before the damned thing goes off.

Fewer and fewer of those who participated in the work remain alive to recall it to us face to face. To honor them and to preserve their memories, the Atomic Heritage Foundation, Cindy Kelly and her colleagues, have brought together a rich sampling of their eyewitness accounts as well as of reconstructions by historians and even a fictional recreation or two. I hope this memorial anthology revitalizes for you a time that was tragic, ironic and epic, all three, but most of all intensely human, and compelled from the beginning not by malice or hatred but by hope for a better world.

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