In the early morning hours of July 16, 1945, the first ever nuclear explosion took place in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The explosion was the first test of the most destructive weapon ever known to man, and was the result of almost six years of research and development by some of the world’s top scientists. This endeavor was known as the Manhattan Project. Less than a month after the test, which was known as Trinity, the United States dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan, three days apart, which forced the Japanese to surrender. The story of the Manhattan Project is an abysmal subject, as is the effect of the Manhattan Project on international politics, and both will be covered in this paper. Indeed, the Manhattan Project and the creation of the atomic bomb were good things, because it actually decreased the likelihood of nuclear war in the post- World War II era.
The Manhattan Project was preceded by a variety of scientific discoveries in the 1920′s and the 1930′s. During this time of scientific discovery, Hitler had been steadily rising to power in Germany, and before long, physicist Leo Szilard and fellow Hungarian Jews Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller became worried. They decided that the President of the United States must be informed about the new fission technology that had been discovered, which they believed was capable of making bombs. The three physicists enlisted the help of Albert Einstein, the foremost scientist in that period, and together they drafted a letter addressed to President Roosevelt describing their beliefs that nuclear fission “Would…lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable…that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.”
At first, not much money or interest was spent on the atomic bomb program. However, the combination of France’s fall to Germany in 1940, the belief that Germany was ahead in the race for the atomic bomb, and the bombing of Pearl Harbor soon convinced Roosevelt that something more had to be done on this atomic research. Roosevelt quickly assigned his top security advisors to form committees on this project, and to determine what should be done and how. By the end of 1942, bomb research had become bomb production, and the Manhattan Project was now run by the military, with Colonel (soon to be General) Leslie R. Groves as the officer in charge. Bomb production was carried out in three locations; Oak Ridge, Tennessee handled the production of the bomb fuel U-235, Hanford , Washington handled the production of plutonium fuel, and Los Alamos, New Mexico handled bomb production and assembly. These three locations became huge cities due to the size of and manpower required for this project. “About half of [the American Physical Society's 4000 members] joined the Manhattan Project, which at its height employed roughly 10,000 scientists with advanced degrees.”
Eventually, fuel production began meeting the needs of Los Alamos, and by 1945, the bombs themselves were in production. On April 12, 1945, President Roosevelt died, and Harry Truman took over. Secretary of War Henry Stimson took the primary role of filling in President Truman on the details of the Manhattan Project, which Truman had known nothing about. In July of 1945, President Truman met with Winston Churchill of Britain and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union at the Potsdam conference, at which time the “Big Three” drafted the Potsdam Declaration, which offered the Japanese the opportunity to unconditionally surrender, or “Risk the alternative of ‘prompt and utter destruction.’” Japan declined the Potsdam Declaration, and President Truman was left to consider his options.
President Truman made the decision to use this nuclear capability, and on August 6, 1945, Lt. Col. Paul W. Tibbets flew the B-29 bomber Enola Gay over Hiroshima, Japan and dropped the first atomic bomb, named “Little Boy.” Due to the lack of Japanese surrender, three days later Maj. Charles W. Sweeney flew Bock’s Car toward Kokura, Japan, but was detoured by bad weather. Sweeney then flew over the alternate target of Nagasaki and dropped the second atomic bomb, “Fat Man.” A few days after the second bombing, Japan accepted the terms of the Potsdam Declaration and surrendered. World War II was over.
The effects of the Manhattan project were enormous on all levels- individual, domestic, and international. On the individual level, the lives of the thousands of people involved in the Manhattan Project were forever changed. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian director of the Manhattan Project and the one whom many credit with the Manhattan Project’s success, was stripped of his security clearance during the McCarthy era because of suspected communist ties. Although Oppenheimer was never charged with anything and McCarthy was soon discredited, Oppenheimer’s clearance was never returned. Albert Einstein was later reported as regretful of the letter he signed to President Roosevelt that initiated what eventually became the Manhattan Project. President Roosevelt would later be criticized for not making sure that his Vice-President was informed about what was going on in the war and about the Manhattan Project. President Truman’s legacy is rarely discussed without someone questioning his decision to drop the bomb, and many feel he is personally responsible for thousands of unnecessary Japanese civilian deaths. For all others who were involved, the Manhattan Project would forever be imbedded in their memories, a point well-demonstrated by an eyewitness testimony of the Trinity test which stated that of the people present, “Some people cried. A few laughed. Most were shocked into quiet.”
Domestically, the Manhattan Project was significant in many ways. The money spent on the Manhattan Project would play a large role in dictating the extent of defense spending in the budget for the next several decades. Naturally, the results of the Manhattan Project made the United States the world’s strongest military power, a title that most believe still holds today. In addition, the new nuclear technology created a deep fear in the people of communist infiltration, a fear that Senator Joseph McCarthy turned into a nation-wide “witch-hunt”, and effectively destroyed the lives of countless people who were accused of having communism sympathies. This period came to be known as McCarthyism, and remains one of the largest black marks in this country’s history.
The most important effects of the Manhattan Project are undoubtedly international. World politics has forever been changed by the results of the Manhattan Project. The first and most apparent of these is the Cold War. Shortly after the bombings of Japan, the Soviet Union began taking great strides to try and become the world’s next nuclear power. With the information provided by Manhattan Project scientist and Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, as well as information confiscated from the Germans, the Soviets were well on their way to building their own nuclear arsenal. This created a security dilemma between the United States and the Soviet Union, and for decades after World War II, both countries directed incredible amounts of money and resources towards increasing the size of their arsenals. As a result, both countries became much deeper in debt than they should have been.
Even during the period of the Cold War, a flurry of treaties were made by the United States and the Soviet Union attempting to curb the growing accumulation of nuclear weapons. As early as 1955, agreements were in the making, such as President Eisenhower’s “Open Skies” plan, which was designed to protect nations against military buildup and surprise attack. Beginning in 1969, the Unites States and the Soviet Union held Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT), which led to the creation of SALT I and SALT II over the next decade. A few years after the signing of the SALT treaties, the United States and the Soviet Union began holding Strategic Arms Reduction Talks, or START. Two treaties, START I and START II, were signed over the next decade. In 1991, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the nuclear weapons problem worsened when some of the newly independent states had nuclear weapons on their territory. Over the following years however, most of the newly independent countries complied with the wishes of the United States and Russia, and either turned over their nuclear arsenal or entered treaties regulating the usage of the weapons.
Very recently, there has been a rising conflict that can be traced to the Manhattan Project. Bitter enemies India and Pakistan have been conducting their own nuclear tests, much to the dismay of the rest of the world community. No country has used its nuclear capabilities since America’s bombing of Japan in 1945, and no one is interested in seeing it happen again. This security dilemma in India and Pakistan is reminiscent of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and equally demonstrates a concept known as MAD, short for mutually assured destruction. The theory behind MAD is that if one country launches nuclear weapons against another nuclear capable country, the second country will have the ability to launch their own nuclear weapons before being struck by the first country’s nuclear weapons. This “new version” of the Cold War is obviously very dangerous for the entire world, particularly the regions near India and Pakistan.
Although it may be hard to tell from the seemingly destructive consequences of a MAD ideology, many believe that it is this very method of thinking that has in fact lessened the danger of nuclear war. “Now that the Cold War is over, some historians and political scientists are claiming that nuclear weapons were responsible for the absence of a major war between the two key geopolitical alliances during this period.” This makes sense upon closer analysis “because there is no incentive or temptation for either side to strike first or even launch a surprise attack.” Countries know that if a MAD condition exists, they will only be doing themselves harm by launching nuclear weapons, thus they are inclined not to. Those who believe this is true must accept that there was actually some good that came out of the Cold War.
The lasting effects of the Manhattan Project are indeed positive. The first result of the Manhattan Project, the bombings of Japan, saved thousands of American and Japanese lives that would have been taken in a land invasion, which was President Truman’s first alternative to the bombs. The long-term result of the Manhattan Project was the Cold War, which, while financially and emotionally devastating for the two countries involved, led to the MAD condition. This condition of mutually assured destruction actually gives countries reason not to use their nuclear capabilities, since they will only be recipients of the same devastation that they cause. Over five years were dedicated by the top scientific, political, and military minds in the world to the creation of a horrible weapon, but in the end, they managed to create something that many believe will help alleviate the threat of war. This is arguably the greatest gift that the Manhattan Project gave the world. Upon witnessing the Trinity test, Kenneth Bainbridge said to Oppenheimer, “Now we’re all sons of bitches.” Little did he know that he was actually part of something more beneficial than harmful in the long run.
Beyer, Don E. The Manhattan Project. New York: Franklin Watts, 1991.
Clark, Ronald W. The Greatest Power on Earth. New York: Harper & Row, 1980
Larsen, Rebecca. Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb. New York: Franklin Watts, 1988.
Purkitt, Helen E., ed. World Politics 98/99. Guilford, Connecticut: Dushkin/ McGraw-Hill, 1998. Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.
Spiegel, Steven L. and Fred L. Wehling. World Politics in a New Era. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1999.