Making the Atomic Bomb in World War II

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My most recent non-fiction read was “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes. Wow! What
a project. The project started when Albert Einstein wrote President Rosevelt telling him it could and
should be done. Rosevelt authorized and funded the project. General Groves was selected as project
chief and he in turn chose Robert Oppenheimer as chief scientist and engineer.

Both were great choices for the jobs. Groves was given unlimited authority and funding. He was a bold
and courageous decision maker. He bought huge tracts of land and built huge building sites even before
the scientists knew for sure what they needed. Oppenheimer was a competent atomic scientist, but not
outstanding. However, he knew the outstanding scientists and engineer experts in each specialty and
was able to recruit them to work on the project.

Many scientists had moral objections for working on a bomb that potentially could destroy the human
race if used without control in war. The goal was to make the bomb as soon as possible to end WWII and
save lives. The US feared Germany was trying to build the bomb and that made the project urgent.
Oppenheimer used those arguments to convince scientists to join the project.

Project success depended on designing and building a trigger device capable of producing the extremely
high temperature and pressure to ignite the atomic reaction. After ignition, the reaction had to be self-
sustaining until all the atomic fuel was consumed. The science theory for the bomb had already evolved
during the 1920’s and 1930’s. Ironically, some of the best atomic scientists were Jewish scientists living
and working in Germany. Hitler’s oppression and persecution of the Jews forced them to flee to Great
Britan and the US during the 1930’s. They later joined the project and contributed to its success.
A sustained atomic reaction required a chain reaction. That break through concept was developed by a
Jewish atomic scientist living in London. He was mentally struggling with the problem when he stepped
off the curb to cross a London Street. By the time he reached the opposite curb, he had the concept of a
chain reaction that solved the problem.

The first sustained atomic reaction was achieved by a scientist team working with a reactor in an old
basement room at the University of Chicago. Groves wanted a remote location to design and build the
bomb. Oppenheimer grew up in New Mexico and convinced Groves to build it at Los Alamos.

For security reasons, Groves insisted that each scientist team work alone without any collaboration with
other teams. That created conflict throughout the project because the scientists were used to working
with unlimited collaboration. Oppenheimer managed to negotiate a compromise between Groves and
the scientists that allowed the project to progress.

The bomb was tested in July 1945 after Germany surrendered. However, two bombs were used in Japan
and convinced the Emperor to surrender to end the Pacific War.
The book is a good, factual account of the project. Unfortunately, the movie “Oppenheimer” focuses on
the political and human conflict during the project and, for me, is disappointing. Oppenheimer was an
atomic scientist, not a Hollywood sex symbol as portrayed in the movie.

With all the politics and chaos in Washington now, I wonder if the project could be done. Democratic
government is by nature a very messy and chaotic system. Churchill said, “democratic government is the
worst kind except all the others.” However, nothing focuses and unites a democratic government like a
war. I believe we still have the best military officers and scientists in the world. Under wartime
conditions, I believe we could do it.