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January 15, 1943: Pentagon Dedictated

Leslie Groves was not a pleasant man to work for, but if you wanted to get something done, he was the man to accomplish the seemingly impossible.  He demonstrated this twice during World War II:  spearheading the Manhattan Project and overseeing the construction of the Pentagon.  A ruthless driver of men, and a born problem solver, he managed to build the Pentagon under budget and in sixteen months, a project that was estimated initially to take four years.

Major General Kenneth Nichols, who worked under Groves summed up the man:

First, General Groves is the biggest S.O.B. I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels. He is extremely intelligent. He has the guts to make difficult, timely decisions. He is the most egotistical man I know. He knows he is right and so sticks by his decision. He abounds with energy and expects everyone to work as hard or even harder than he does. Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates. However, to compensate for that he had a small staff, which meant that we were not subject to the usual staff-type heckling. He ruthlessly protected the overall project from other government agency interference, which made my task easier. He seldom accepted other agency cooperation and then only on his own terms. During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders. And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss I would pick General Groves.

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Manhattan Project Failure

 

Security around the Manhattan Project was quite intense.  No doubt as a result of this Truman assumed that the Soviets had no inkling about the bomb.  Perhaps he was therefore surprised when Stalin had little reaction when Truman at the Potsdam Conference told him that the US had developed an atomic bomb.  Notwithstanding the intense security, the Soviets were kept quite informed about the steps the United States was taking to develop the Atomic Bomb, thanks to various spies and traitors:

1. Klaus Fuchs-A German anti-Nazi refugee to Britain, and a physicist, Fuchs worked at Los Alamos among the elite of the physicists.  A convinced Communist, Fuchs had his information sent on the Soviets, courtesy of Harry Gold.

2.  Harry Gold-An American laboratory assistant, Gold had been passing information to the Soviets since 1934.  Here is his report on his first meeting with Fuchs:

He (Fuchs) obviously worked with our people before and he is fully aware of what he is doing… He is a mathematical physicist… most likely a very brilliant man to have such a position at his age (he looks about 30). We took a long walk after dinner… He is a member of a British mission to the U.S. working under the direct control of the U.S. Army… The work involves mainly separating the isotopes… and is being done thusly: The electronic method has been developed at Berkeley, California, and is being carried out at a place known only as Camp Y… Simultaneously, the diffusion method is being tried here in the East… Should the diffusion method prove successful, it will be used as a preliminary step in the separation, with the final work being done by the electronic method. They hope to have the electronic method ready early in 1945 and the diffusion method in July 1945, but (Fuchs) says the latter estimate is optimistic. (Fuchs) says there is much being withheld from the British. Even Niels Bohr, who is now in the country incognito as Nicholas Baker, has not been told everything.

3.  David Greenglass-A machinist at Los Alamos, he passed information on to his sister Ethel Rosenberg and her husband Julius Rosenberg who passed it on to the Soviets.

4.  Theodore Hall-An American physicist working at Los Alamos.  Perhaps the most important of the atomic spies, beginning in October 1944 he passed on detailed information to the Soviets about the construction of the atomic bomb code-named “Fat Boy”. Continue Reading

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July 17, 1945: Szilard Petition

Leo Szilard was perhaps the most important figure in initiating the Manhattan Project.  His drafting the letter for the signature in 1939 by Albert Einstein to FDR, began the process which led to the development of the atomic bomb.  Szilard, like many of the top atomic scientists, was a Jewish refugee from Europe.  They had a completely understandable hatred of the Third Reich and a fear that Nazi Germany would discover the atomic bomb first and go on to win the War.  With the fall of Germany, the use of the atomic bomb raised moral questions in their minds that had not existed when Nazi Germany was the target.  Below is the Szilard petition signed by him and 69 other scientists and technicians who worked on the bomb.  What is usually overlooked in discussions of the petition, is that the US followed precisely the policy outlined in the Petition: Continue Reading

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July 16, 1945: Trinity Test

Batter my heart, three person’d God.

John Donne

At 5:29 AM Mountain War Time, seventy years ago, the first atomic bomb, nicknamed The Gadget, exploded with the force of 20 kilotons of TNT.  The test was called Trinity.  J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, gave the test its name.  He couldn’t recall why he chose the name, but suspected that his interest in some of the religious poetry of John Donne played a role, pointing to the verse at the beginning of this post as a possible source.

A brilliant physicist, Oppenheimer was inclined to be melancholy and had an eclectic interest in religious mysticism, rather at odds with his secular Jewish upbringing and the leftist academic milieu in which he led his life.

His visible reaction to the success of the test was rather prosaic:  “It worked.”

Twenty years later he said this was going through his mind:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another. Continue Reading