The Atomic Bomb: The Development And Devastation

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On October 11, 1939, Alexander Sachs, an economic advisor for Franklin D. Roosevelt, personally delivered the president a letter. Before this, in 1938, a lab in Berlin, Germany had discovered nuclear fission. Nuclear fission is when an atom of radioactive material splits, and there is a powerful release of energy (“Atomic”). Upon this discovery, a group of physicists had met to discuss their fears of Germany developing a “uranium-based weapon.” In an attempt to warn President Roosevelt, a letter was drafted for Einstein’s signature (“Dangers”). This letter informed the president about the dangers of a nuclear chain reaction bomb. After learning the contents of this letter, Roosevelt decided to take action. Action for President Roosevelt would evolve into the Manhattan Project (“Chain”). The Manhattan Project would break major barriers in history because it would make the United States the first and only nation to use atomic weaponry, it would be opposed by the scientist who helped to develop it, and it would raise the question of whether the bomb was necessary or just evil.

Before the formal creation of the Manhattan Project, Roosevelt consulted with the Uranium Committee, a group of top military and scientific experts, to determine if a nuclear chain reaction was possible. In the spring of 1941, it was the MAUD Committee, which is the British equivalent to the Uranium Committee, that confirmed the atomic bomb as a possibility (“The Manhattan”). On December 28, 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project, which was an “American-led effort” to develop a functional atomic bomb. It also brought together various scientists and military officials to work on nuclear research (“Atomic”).

A bulk of the research and construction of the bomb would be done at the Manhattan Project’s weapons research lab, located in Los Alamos, New Mexico. The lab was under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer (“The Manhattan”). Oppenheimer eagerly became involved in the efforts to develop the atomic bomb. In June of 1942, General Leslie Groves appointed Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. During his time at Los Alamos, he brought together “the best minds in physics” to develop the bomb, and managed over 3,000 people. Oppenheimer is often referred to as the “father” of the atomic bomb (“J. Robert”). It was paramount that the Manhattan Project remained a secret. In a letter to Oppenheimer, Roosevelt wrote “The fact that the outcome of your labors is of great significance to the nation requires that this program be even more drastically guarded than other highly secret war developments” (Roosevelt). This meant the army was in charge of supplying and guarding the work being done at Los Alamos (“The Manhattan”).

In April of 1945, a top-secret military site was under construction at Tinian Island in the Pacific. Here, a group of scientists would work to develop the first atomic bomb amid an active war zone. Joining them, was an elite flying squad who had been training to drop the bomb for three years, and were then prepared to do so, once it was developed (Hiroshima). To get the bomb, scientists and military men were dispatched to Europe where Hitler had an atomic program. There, they received 1,000 tons of pilfered Uranium that they brought west to Hanford, Washington. The Uranium was then processed into weapons-grade Uranium and Plutonium. This fuel then traveled to the city of Los Alamos (Rhodes).

The scientists working on the bomb were having little luck. Physicist Roy Glauber said, “Nobody had any confidence that any scheme available would really make the thing work” (Hiroshima). By this point, the bomb was four years in the making with 200,000 people working on it in secret, and it had cost over two billion dollars. President Roosevelt was determined for the U.S. to “harness the power of atomic energy before Russia does.” However, his death left his weapon in the hands of a new President, Harry Truman (“President”).

On July 16th, 1945, in Los Alamos, New Mexico, U.S scientists and military men were gathering to test the world’s first atomic bomb. The project had numerous problems, and scientists had no idea what would happen when the bomb detonates. Lieutenant General Leslie Groves, the man who orchestrated the entire global project, watched with lead scientist, Robert Oppenheimer. The bomb was triggered at exactly 5:30 am and “No one watching has ever seen anything like it” (“The First”). Two months after Hitler’s defeat, the Americans, British, and Soviets met to discuss the future of Germany and Japan. Before the meeting, Japan had asked the Soviets to broker a peace deal for them. U.S intelligence units were aware of this because they had been intercepting cables between Japan’s government, and their ambassadors. This was how Truman, and his secretary of war, Henry Stimson, were aware that the Japanese were trying to surrender (Hiroshima).

Japanese spies, officials, and ambassadors were working towards a quick, diplomatic end to the war. At the Potsdam Conference, Allied powers issued the Potsdam Declaration, which was an ultimatum for Japan’s surrender, signed by the Americans, and the British (“Potsdam”). The Agreement did not guarantee the post-war survival of Japan’s Emperor. However, the allies know that the Emperor’s survival was a vital condition for Japan’s surrender. Japan needed the preservation of the Imperial family (“Would”). Even though the Potsdam Declaration did not guarantee the survival of the Emperor, it did contain a clause that would have given the Japanese people the choice on whether or not to keep him (“Potsdam”). The Japanese government did not trust their people, and if the war were to end now, America would have lost the chance to “showcase” their new weapon to their enemies. The Potsdam agreement concludes “If Japan does not surrender, it will face prompt and utter destruction.” On the 29th of July, the Japanese stated they would simply ignore the declaration (Hiroshima).

On Tinian Island, July 31st, 1945, the bomb was nearly complete and was for sure going to be dropped. Now, America needed a target that would allow for maximum destruction (“The Evaluation”). The targets that were initially selected were Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Niigata. Kyoto was spared at the last minute because war minister Stimson had argued against using the bomb on the ancient, spiritual capital of Japan. Hiroshima, the largest city in western Japan, had now moved to the top of the list (“Bombings”). Japan’s military had speculated that America would not use the bomb against them. Little did they know, that at Potsdam, there was a written order, drafted by General Grooves, for the use of the atomic bomb against Japanese cities. The order was approved by President Truman, and Secretary of War Stimson (Dannen). The document addressed to Commanding General Carl Spaatz, stated: “The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki” (U.S. National).

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Tinian Island had become one of the largest airfields in the world. It had thousands of GIs that flew planes endlessly to Japan and back. However, the planes that were preparing to carry the bomb were trained separately (Hiroshima). Though the preparation for the dropping of the bomb was going seemingly well, some people were hesitant to use this weapon of mass destruction, people like Leo Szilard. Szilard played a major role in the development of the bomb. He was the one who wrote the letter to President Roosevelt, warning him of how dangerous it would be if Germany was the first to make the atomic bomb. To make the letter more influential, Szilard had gotten his old colleague, Albert Einstein, to sign it (“LEO”).

Leo Szilard made many contributions to the work of the atomic bomb. One of his greatest contributions was done at the University of Chicago in December of 1942 when he created the first controlled nuclear chain reaction. If he hadn’t made this discovery, he might have been fired from the Manhattan project altogether. Szilard was known for his outspoken criticism of how the project was run (“Leo Szilard’s”). By the spring of 1945, the defeat of Germany was approaching, and Szilard had begun to question the need to use the atomic bomb. Most of the work for the Chicago scientists was done, and now there was time to think about the consequences of what they had just built. Szilard had attempted to meet with President Truman so that he could caution him about the danger of a “nuclear arms race” if the atomic bomb was used before an international control agreement could be discussed. This instead led to a meeting on May 28th, 1945, with James Byrnes, soon to be Secretary of State, who strongly disagreed with the Szilard (“LEO”).

Leo Szilard was also one of the main authors of the Franck Report. This report had outraged the Manhattan Project authorities so much that some sentences in all copies, even the original copy in the National Archives, had been permanently censored with ink. It was drafted by Eugine Rabinowitch who later wrote that “the emphasis on the use (or rather, non-use) of the bomb in Japan, which has given the report its main historical significance, was due to James Franck and Leo Szilard” (Dannen). The report was warning against the use of the bomb in the current war because even if it would’ve helped save lives, its use could lead to a nuclear arms race, and possibly even a nuclear war (“LEO”). The first sentence in the preamble of the report stated that “The only reason to treat nuclear power differently from all the other developments in the field of physics is its staggering possibilities as a means of political pressure in peace and sudden destruction in war” (U.S. National). Szilard felt very strongly against the use of the bomb against Japan, and after World War II, he continued his efforts to bring nuclear weapons under control.

Szilard was not the only scientist who tried to maintain the control of nuclear weaponry, 67 other scientists stood behind him and signed the Oak Ridge petition that was drafted by Szilard. The petition called for the atomic bomb to be properly described and demonstrated before use, claiming that “before this weapon be used without restriction in the present conflict, its powers should be adequately described and demonstrated, and the Japanese nation should be allowed to consider the consequences of further refusal to surrender” (U.S. National). Major General L. R. Groves locked it in his desk, and President Truman would never see it. Roy Glauber, a theoretical physicist at Los Alamos was quoted saying “The military wants to know what they are dealing with, and they’ll tell you, the only way they know what they are dealing with is to use it” (Hiroshima). The scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer, was very upset about the Oak Ridge petition because he didn’t want the scientist to say or do something that could negatively affect the project when they were at such a critical stage of it (“J. Robert”).

By August 5th, 1945, the bomb was finally ready, and on August 6th, The Enola Gay would carry the bomb, The Great Artiste would carry the scientific instruments necessary to measure the blast effect, and The Necessary Evil is what they called the photographic plane. The Japanese military was aware that an airstrike was coming, but they didn’t think the bomb could have possibly been atomic (“Bombings”). Japanese military leaders were alerted, and the generals had gone to their fighter pilots so they could shoot the B-29’s down, but the military had never issued any orders to fight, or warn Hiroshima. It is still unknown why (Hiroshima). The Enola Gay’s target was a T-shaped bridge in the middle of the city. Yoshie Oka, a communications operator at an underground command center of the Imperial Japanese Army, stated that “Around 8:09 am, we got the information about three B-29 bombers approaching the east of Hiroshima, I wondered why no warning was issued.” There was finally a commander’s note to issue the alarm at 8:13 am, but at 8:15, the bomb explodes exactly 1,900 feet above the city center of Hiroshima. After the blast, there was a shock wave that tore out from the blast’s center at 1,000 miles per hour (“Bombings”).

It is estimated that within five seconds, 80,000 people were killed, and within a year, 140,000 (“The Atomic”). A “mushroom” cloud rose over 11 miles high and had spread half a mile across the city. The cloud was made up of superheated burning gas, radioactive particles, and debris from the city streets. Hiroshima’s city center had been completely obliterated (“Bombings”). The city’s buildings were also made up of mostly wood and paper, because of this, the gas had ignited the city, turning it into a “blazing furnace” (Hiroshima). That day, it eventually started raining in the city, but this rain had been forged from the bomb’s dust cloud, and it had poisoned the rivers, wells, and the land. Anyone who drank the contaminated water died.

The explosion also projected gamma rays and radioactive isotopes across the city, and if someone was exposed to them long enough, their skin would begin to melt (“Bombings”). President Truman was informed of the bomb’s success, and then issued a press release that would inform the nation about the atomic bomb. Truman then goes on to say that the bomb is a “Harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East” (“Press”). The day after the bomb had been dropped, Hiroshima is merely a radioactive wasteland. However, General Groves, and the United States military will waste no time in determining how much damage the bomb had created. That day, multiple military aircraft are flown over Hiroshima to take photos of the damage, and back on Tinian, the atomic team is writing messages for Emperor Hirohito on their second atomic bomb (Hiroshima).

After the devastating effects of the bomb, Japan would from then on campaign for the abolition and elimination of nuclear weapons (Hiroshima). In America, the dominant narrative about the bomb is that it was a necessary evil. It is still a question of whether this weapon should have been used at all. This bomb redefined warfare, but it also led to treaties, and sanctions against other countries to prevent further nuclear catastrophe (“A Brief”). This global unity against nuclear weapons still resonates today. There is no question that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were devasting, but the war itself was also devasting, and the bombings ended the war. It is tragic, but agreeable, that the atomic bomb was necessary, not only to end the war but to also show why there needed to control over the use of atomic weaponry. The use of the atomic bomb goes beyond the barriers and shows just how far people are willing to go for what they believe to be the greater good.   

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