On this day in 1945, at 5:29:45 a.m., the Manhattan Project comes to an explosive end as the first atom bomb is successfully tested in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Plans for the creation of a uranium bomb by the Allies were established as early as 1939, when Italian émigré physicist Enrico Fermi met with U.S. Navy department officials at Columbia University to discuss the use of fissionable materials for military purposes. That same year, Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt supporting the theory that an uncontrolled nuclear chain reaction had great potential as a basis for a weapon of mass destruction.
In February 1940, the federal government granted a total of $6,000 for research. But in early 1942, with the United States now at war with the Axis powers, and fear mounting that Germany was working on its own uranium bomb, the War Department took a more active interest, and limits on resources for the project were removed.
Brigadier-General Leslie R. Groves, himself an engineer, was now in complete charge of a project to assemble the greatest minds in science and discover how to harness the power of the atom as a means of bringing the war to a decisive end. The Manhattan Project (so-called because of where the research began) would wind its way through many locations during the early period of theoretical exploration, most importantly, the University of Chicago, where Enrico Fermi successfully set off the first fission chain reaction.
But the Project took final form in the desert of New Mexico where, in 1943, Robert J. Oppenheimer began directing Project Y at a laboratory at Los Alamos, along with such minds as Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Fermi. Here theory and practice came together, as the problems of achieving critical mass – a nuclear explosion – and the construction of a deliverable bomb were worked out.
Finally, on the morning of July 16, in the New Mexico desert 120 miles south of Santa Fe, the first atomic bomb was detonated. The scientists and a few dignitaries had removed themselves 10,000 yards away to observe as the first mushroom cloud of searing light stretched 40,000 feet into the air and generated the destructive power of 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. The tower on which the bomb sat when detonated was vaporized.
The question now became, On whom was the bomb to be dropped? Germany was the original target, but the Germans had already surrendered. The only belligerent remaining was Japan.
Great controversy has surrounded the dropping of two atomic bombs on August 6 and 9, 1945, on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The death and destruction were unparalleled in the history of war, and furthermore the targets were strictly civilian. Defenders claim that more lives would have been lost were the Allies to have committed to a land invasion of Japan and a subsequent battle on the ground to topple the Hirohito regime. Others say the known power of the bomb was simply too horrific to use, and in any case, the Japanese were close to surrender. As an extension of that argument, the claim is made that at that point the use of the bomb was meant more to impress and scare the Soviets, against whom a struggle for global hegemony was already being planned. A number of the original scientists involved in conceiving the bomb, including Albert Einstein, became peace activists.
Despite the inevitable spread of nuclear arms technology to several other countries since 1945, the bomb has never again been used in war, although even more powerful bombs have been exploded into the atmosphere and underground as tests. Peace forces around the world continue to call for an end to all nuclear weapons.
A footnote: The original $6,000 budget for the Manhattan Project finally ballooned to a total cost of $2 billion. There is probably no reliable accounting for how much the global nuclear arms program has cost humanity in the last 70 years, nor what that money might otherwise have been spent on. But it’s a lot!!