A miniature city and the best scientists in the world: the race against the Nazis to make the atomic bomb

A bomb produced as part of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. U.S. War Department

Two German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann changed the course of history in 1938 with a discovery: nuclear fission. A few months later, other Teutonic physicists supported the theory. This discovery would allow the construction of the atomic bomb.

At that point there were still few who could understand the implications. But a year later with Hitler advancing on the rest of Europe, the threat became much more real.

A group of exiled Hungarian scientists went to see Albert Einstein. They asked him to intervene. He agreed to send a letter to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president of the United States. Einstein’s authority would make the warning heard and taken seriously.

That letter convinced Roosevelt, who ordered them to investigate the matter. The main issue was uranium. Einstein spoke in his letter of a bomb of unknown destructive power, which carried by a ship and dropped near a port could not only destroy it but also devastate the surrounding area. The Nobel Prize claimed that it would be so heavy that a plane could not carry it.

He immediately formed the Uranium Advisory Committee. The report of that working group among others they included Szilard and Wigner (there was also Edward Teller, famous years later for the H-bomb) established that uranium could be the source for building bombs of unknown potency.

Trinity, the first atomic bomb that was detonated as a test
The Los Alamos Laboratory in the city of the same name destined to manufacture the atomic bomb (Photo by Jeffrey Markowitz/Sygma via Getty Images) (Jeffrey Markowitz/)

The initial capital was scarce, only six thousand dollars. The key was in nuclear fission. American scientists took two years to convince themselves of the possibility of creating an atomic weapon. Communicated the opinion to President Roosevelt, he assigned a considerable budget to the project. The next step would have another magnitude. Not only because of the progress in the investigation but also because of the worsening of political conditions. Hitler was winning the war.

In late 1941, just before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt launched the Manhattan Project. Its sole purpose was the construction of the atomic bomb. The work to be done was enormous and a long road had to be forged, several scientific discoveries made and practical questions that seemed impossible to solve.

Scientists and technicians were recruited from all over the world. Several Nobel Prize winners made the list. In the scientific direction of the Manhattan Project he was appointed Robert Oppenheimer.

On December 2, 1942, the Italian Henry Fermi split a uranium atom and released neutrons, which, in turn, can split into more uranium atoms: the chain reaction. That was the first big achievement. From then on, scientists were solving the various problems that the creation of the bomb presented.

The budget increased. All the resources to create the “super-bomb”. In Los Álamos they founded a miniature city for the 6,000 scientists and technicians (and their families) who worked on the project. The main reason for choosing the place was clear: safety. The distance of Los Alamos from other towns prevented leaks of information and if there was a nuclear accident, no one else would be affected. It was necessary to build access roads and ensure the water supply, in addition to erecting the houses and facilities in record time.

Los Alamos was the scientific heart of the project. The headquarters where the great minds were housed and were plotting solutions. As it was a secret place, it was named as place and either The hill. The babies that were born there were registered as born in Santa Fe. Nothing would have to cause suspicion, no data could be filtered.

An image of the nuclear mushroom taken from the same bomber that dropped it on Hiroshima.  EFE/INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTOS/File
An image of the nuclear mushroom taken from the same bomber that dropped it on Hiroshima. EFE/INTERNATIONAL NEWS PHOTOS/File

But Los Alamos was not the only venue, nor was its employees the entire campus. Scattered in remote parts of the United States, there were at least twenty establishments dedicated to the Manhattan Project in which specific tasks were carried out that would make the final result possible. In total there were more than 130 thousand people assigned to the construction of the atomic bomb.

The money fell steadily into the coffers of the Manhattan Project.

By early 1945, Roosevelt had already spent $2 billion on his secret weapon.

The Manhattan Project was confidential. Very few people knew about him. Roosevelt and a few others. Among those who did not know was Harry S Truman, Vice President of Roosevelt, and President of the United States at his death. Two weeks after assuming the first magistracy, he was unaware of the existence of Los Álamos and its production. Truman was the one who ordered the bombs to be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is believed that only a dozen people knew the entire project and its meaning. The rest of the story was missing some part. And that of the 130,000 affected, only a thousand knew about atoms and fission. The rest worked in the dark, with nearby objectives but without knowing the final meaning of their tasks.

The secrecy was no small matter. To maintain it, a strong censorship was exercised. It was strictly forbidden to write about him in the press. The secrecy was also necessary because of espionage attempts by various forces. Not only the Germans were interested in the Manhattan Project; also the Soviets tried to find out what they could and keep atomic secrets. One of the Red Army’s first targets upon entering Berlin was to target German laboratories for what they could.

The Manhattan Project was not alone. Germany was developing the Uranium Project, its own attempt to get the atomic bomb. This was the main incentive for many of the prestigious scientists involved in the subject. Prevent Hitler from having the atomic bomb that, it was known, he would drop first on London.

Los Alamos workers working on a Manhattan Project pump (Wikipedia)
Los Alamos workers working on a Manhattan Project pump (Wikipedia)

The person who headed the German investigations on the subject was Werner HeisenbergNobel Prize in Physics 1932 and who enunciated the Begining of uncertainty. Heisenberg was recognized and respected by his colleagues. Such was his ability that no one doubted that he could develop the bomb. The other thing that was known was that they used heavy water and that the Nazis had attacked several cities to supply it, as well as the Belgian Congo (Zaire) for its uranium reserves.

Heisenberg met in Copenhagen with Niels Bohr, his teacher, and expressed doubts about handing over such power to Hitler. He tested the possibility that scientists on both sides would delay the projects.

Today It is not known for certain whether Heisenberg sabotaged the Nazis’ chance of obtaining the bomb. or if they faced scientific and logistical problems that they could not solve.

Robert Oppenheimer was an outstanding theoretical physicist.. From a young age he stood out in his field (an activity in which precocity is the norm), he studied with the greatest references of his time (Bohr and Heisenberg among others) and made several contributions to physics. But, without a doubt, his memory will always be linked to the creation of the atomic bomb.

As scientific manager, he had to recruit the best scientists of his time, solve the different technical problems that arose and manage the enormous team that lived in isolation and under strict conditions of confidentiality at Los Álamos. It was not a small merit to maintain leadership and harmony, managing to reconcile two universes as disparate as the military and the scientific. His collaborators admired him and followed him with devotion. They were captivated by his serene and sure word and by his blue eyes, by his icy gaze. He spoke 8 languages ​​and had a vast culture. Everything human seemed to interest him.

Oppenheimer formed a selected; he managed to gather the best scientists in the world. A conglomeration that has not been repeated in history. Almost none resisted his offer, the rejections he reaped were very few. The main argument was that they should only care about scientific development, the creation of the instrument. Its use and relevance was the exclusive resort of military commanders, something absolutely foreign to the scientific orbit.

Robert Oppenheimer
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, in 1957, the creator of the atomic bomb, teaching at the prestigious Princeton University (AP Photo/John Rooney, File)

The general glover, the military manager of the Project and who summoned Oppenheimer, was his main supporter. Rumors and interests did his job. Everyone wanted the job of Oppenheimer, who was regarded with suspicion. Glover told an attendee: “There is no chance that Oppenheimer will betray us. His desire to leave his name in history is greater than anything else”.

With Germany defeated and Japan greatly weakened, many of those involved expressed reluctance to use the bomb, given its destructive power. They worked in opposition to Hitler. The fear that he would set the bomb before them and subjugate the world had dissipated. It was certain that Japan did not have the human or scientific resources to create a similar weapon. An alternative plan was suggested. Summon Japanese scientists and impartial observers to make a demonstration in some unpopulated point. That demonstration must have, they argued, sufficient persuasive force to obtain the Japanese surrender. The idea was not accepted.

In any case, the test was done. It was July 16, 1945. It was in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Robert Oppenheimer, other scientists and military commanders were located 9 kilometers from the place where the bomb would impact. The explosion overwhelmed them. For a few seconds they were blinded. The noise was terrifying.

Trinity, the first atomic bomb that was detonated as a test
The first nuclear test, conducted by the Los Alamos Laboratory, in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1945. (Photo by Fotosearch/Getty Images). (Photosearch/)

The mushroom of earth and fire rose up to the sky. No one had ever seen anything like it. Some thought that the bomb had penetrated the Earth’s crust.

Oppenheimer began to speak loudly. The others took a few seconds to understand what he was saying. He was reciting a passage from the Hindu holy book, the Bhagavad-Gita: “The Almighty opened the gates of heaven and the light of a thousand suns sang in chorus:/ I am Death,/ the end of all time“. Those lines, which some say were actually remembered by Oppenheimer many years after the atomic bomb was dropped, enclose the ethical dilemma with which the scientist lived throughout his life.

His brother Frank, also a scientist, recalled that Robert had had a less poetic and more prosaic reaction. Seeing the shocking explosion he would have shouted enthusiastically: “It worked!”. It is understandable. Years dedicated exclusively to that work, the people in charge, the war, the race to make the bomb before the Nazis, the pressures and the scientific challenge. All the physics of the last 300 years converged at that moment. It was for them a scientific feat. The challenge had been overcome.

Albert Einstein wrote another letter to the President of the United States, 6 years after the first: “Any possible military advantage that the United States might gain from nuclear weapons will be totally obscured by the psychological and political losses, as well as the damage caused to the prestige of the United States.” from the country. It could even spark a global arms race.”. But this time he was not heard. Leading scientists involved in some phase of the Manhattan Project expressed remorse in later years and became militant peace activists, advocating atomic weapons control and insisting on disarmament.

The day after the test in Alamogordothe bomb was shipped on the USS Indianapolis war cruiser . She was to transport it to Tinian, the largest US base in the Pacific. There it would be loaded onto Tibbets’s B-29, which Tibbets had named Enola Gay, after his mother.

The damage capacity of that bomb was unimaginable. But in a few days, after it fell on Hiroshima from the sky, they would have an idea of ​​its destructive power.


The horror of Hiroshima: a million degrees in the air and people who evaporated and left their shadow imprinted on the cement

The guilt that haunted the father of the atomic bomb until the last moment of his life