Peconic, Long Island, New York  August 2, 1939

On this date in 1939, one month before the outbreak of World War II in Europe, distin­guished German-born profes­sor, mathe­ma­tician, and physi­cist Albert Ein­stein wrote Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt about the possi­bility of using a nuclear chain reaction to pro­duce enor­mous amounts of energy that could be used in making a bomb. The archi­tect of Ein­stein’s letter was the bril­liant but eccen­tric Hun­garian-born physi­cist and inven­tor Leó Szi­lárd. German scien­tists, the two men noted in closing the letter to Roosevelt, were busy researching just that possi­bility, having formed a Uran­verein (Ura­nium Club) earlier in April as part of their coun­try’s clan­des­tine efforts to develop and produce nuclear wea­pons of war. Not five months earlier, in Decem­ber 1938, German phys­i­cists stunned Ein­stein and other scien­tists who had escaped Nazi-occupied Europe by announcing they had split the ura­nium atom, a process later des­ig­nated nuclear fission. Roose­velt did not receive Ein­stein’s confi­dential hand-de­liv­ered letter until Octo­ber 11, but when he did he acted on it quickly, appointing a com­mit­tee, the S‑1 Ura­nium Com­mittee, to direct U.S. nuclear research starting with a paltry $6,000 outlay.

In December 1942 Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi and the afore­mentioned Szi­lárd—col­leagues Ein­stein had men­tioned in his letter to Roose­velt—went on to create the first atomic chain reaction at the Uni­ver­sity of Chi­cago and became mem­bers of the Man­hat­tan Engi­neering Dis­trict, the cover name for America’s atomic bomb pro­gram that evolved out of the S‑1 Com­mit­tee. (The project’s cover name derived from the then concen­tra­tion of nuclear energy exper­tise in Man­hattan, a New York City borough.) Leading the civil­ian scien­tific side of the project was a young 38‑year-old Amer­i­can theo­ret­ical physi­cist, J. Robert Oppen­heimer. Over­seeing the nearly $2 billion project (over $33 bil­lion in 2023 dollars adjusted for infla­tion) was the Man­hattan Pro­ject’s mili­tary direc­tor and West Point grad­u­ate Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, who had overseen the construction of the Pentagon.

Apart from the initial July 16, 1945, deto­na­tion of a nuclear (pluto­nium) bomb nick­named “Gadget” at the top of a 100‑ft tower in the New Mexico desert, Man­hat­tan Pro­ject’s deploy­able nuclear wea­pons were “Little Boy” (ura­nium bomb) and “Fat Man” (plu­to­nium bomb). (Szi­lárd and 154 nuclear scien­tists lost the moral argu­ment at the highest levels of the new Truman admin­is­tra­tion to invite Japa­nese and inter­national obser­vers to view a second non­combat nuclear deto­na­tion, which they believed would have induced Japan’s leaders to sur­render uncon­di­tion­ally and thus spare lives. The weight of opin­ion was on the side of those who saw power­ful stra­tegic and prac­ti­cal bene­fits from using the bomb and ruled out a pre­view and warnings that the bomb was coming.)

Initially six Japanese cities were identi­fied as can­di­dates for nuclear incin­er­ation. The list was later reduced to four: Hiro­shima on south­ern Hon­shū Island, the largest of the Japa­nese Home Islands; Kokura (Hiro­shima’s back­up) and Naga­saki (Kokura’s backup) on Kyūshū, the southern­most Home Island; and Nii­gata on north­ern Hon­shū. Weather that per­mitted visual bombing settled Hiro­shima’s terri­ble fate; clouds and smoke over Kokura from an earlier U.S. fire­bombing of Yawata (Yahata), less than 5 miles away, settled that of Naga­saki. On August 15, six days after Naga­saki and tens of thou­sands of deaths later, Emperor Hiro­hito (post­humously referred to as Emperor Shōwa) announced his country’s uncon­di­tional sur­render to the Allies. The Japanese Instrument of Surrender, signed on Septem­ber 2, 1945, aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri at anchor in Tokyo Bay, officially ended World War II.

Trinity Site, New Mexico, 1945: Detonating the First Nuclear Bomb

Manhattan Project: Trinity site test tower, New Mexico, July 1945Manhattan Project: Explosives being readied for hoisting, Trinity site test tower, New Mexico, July 1945

Left: The 100-ft-tall steel tower constructed at a small Army air­field for the Trinity test. Inspired by the “three-person’d God” in a sonnet written by English poet and cleric John Donne, Trinity was the code­name chosen by Oppen­heimer for the desert site where the world’s first deto­na­tion of a nuclear device occurred, this on July 16, 1945, a date usually con­sidered to be the beginning of the Atomic Age. Trinity was located on the Alamo­gordo Bombing and Gun­nery Range (now part of the White Sands Missile Range) in a par­tic­u­larly dry stretch of southern New Mexico desert called the Jornada del Muerto—Spanish for “Jour­ney of the Dead Man.” Trinity lay 200 miles south of Los Alamos, where the atomic bombs were designed and built.

Right: The explosives of the 5-ton “Gadget” were carefully hoisted to the cor­ru­gated-steel shelter at the top of the tower for final assembly in mid‑July 1945.

Manhattan Project: Bomb assembly group leader, Trinity site, New Mexico, July 15, 1945Manhattan Project: Trinity test mushroom, New Mexico, July 16, 1945

Left: Norris Bradbury, bomb assembly group leader, stands next to the partially assembled “Gadget” atop the test tower, July 15, 1945. Among other things, Brad­bury had to ensure that the series of deto­na­tors needed to set off a nuclear chain reaction inside “Gadget” fired simul­ta­neously within a frac­tion of a mil­lionth of a second, other­wise the plu­to­nium would “fizzle” and not pro­duce a nuclear explo­sion. The July test of the plu­to­nium device turned out to be an unqualified success.

Right: Trinity was a test of an implosion-design plutonium device, the same con­ceptual design used in the second nuclear device dropped on Japan, “Fat Man,” which was deto­na­ted over Naga­saki, Japan, on August 9, 1945. This photo was taken at 5:30 a.m., a 0.016 second after test deto­na­tion. The searing light of the explo­sion was more intense than any­thing ever wit­nessed before and could have been seen from space. Its core tem­per­a­ture was four times greater than that at the sun’s core. The awe­some roar of the air blast 30 seconds later “warned of dooms­day,” reported one witness. Oppen­heimer later remarked that the deto­na­tion reminded him of a pas­sage from the second-century BCE Hindu Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Manhattan Project: Aerial view of ground zero, New MexicoManhattan Project: Oppenheimer and Groves at Trinity ground zero, New Mexico

Left: An aerial photograph of the Trinity crater shortly after the test. The nuclear device exploded with an energy equi­va­lent to around 20 kilo­tons of TNT and left a crater of radio­active glass 10 ft deep and 1,100 ft wide. Nothing remained of the 100‑ft-tall steel tower. The shock wave was felt over 100 miles away, and the mush­room cloud reached 7.5 miles in height. U.S. Presi­dent Harry S. Truman was posi­tively giddy with new con­fid­ence on a swift victory in the four-year Pacific War. From the Big Three victors’ con­fer­ence in Potsdam near the former Nazi capital, Berlin, Truman wrote his wife in mid-July 1945: “We’ll end the war a year sooner now, and think of the kids who won’t be killed.”

Right: J. Robert Oppenheimer (center, in dark suit and light-colored hat), Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves (in khaki uni­form to Oppen­heimer’s left), and other scien­tists and mili­tary person­nel inspect the melted remains of the test tower at ground zero after the Trinity blast. The photo was taken in Septem­ber when some parti­ci­pants returned for news reporters. Note men wearing shoe covers to keep from picking up radi­a­tion. The test site was littered with lop­sided marbles and knobbly sheets that later became known as Trini­tite. Trini­tite was primarily quartz and feld­spar, tinted sea green with min­erals in the desert sand, with droplets of condensed plutonium sealed into it.

University of California Television: The Manhattan Project

Continue Reading