Manhattan Project a Bomb Heard Around the World Term Paper

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Manhattan Project, and examines whether or not we should have dropped the bomb associated with the project.

The Manhattan Project: An Examination

In 1939, the United States got word through various channels of intelligence that the Nazis in Germany were planning to develop an atomic bomb. This was startling and upsetting news for the United States, as the prospect of the Nazis with the most powerful weapon in the world was not a comforting one. As a result, the United States began its own project to develop and build an atomic bomb before the Nazis or the Japanese did. The United States began this project in 1942 under the Army Corps of Engineers. It was the atomic bomb that was developed during this effort, an effort known as the Manhattan Project, that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This paper examines the history behind the Manhattan Project and analyzes whether or not the United States should have dropped the bomb it developed.

General Leslie R. Groves, who was the Chief of Construction of the Army Corps of Engineers, was selected to head up the Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project faced some strong hurdles right from the very beginning, and General Groves had to figure out ways to overcome these. After all, it was early on in the study of atomics, and scientists were only just beginning to understand atoms and how they worked. At the time of the Manhattan Project, there were only two known types of atomic reactions -- fusion and fission. A fusion reaction got its power from combining the nuclei of several hydrogen isotopes to produce helium nuclei. The fusion reaction is used to produce the fusion bomb, otherwise known as the hydrogen bomb. Fission occurs when the nucleus of an atom breaks up into two equal fragments. A neutron breaks the nucleus, and once this is done, fragments release other neutrons to break up more atomic nuclei in a process known as a fission chain reaction. A fission reaction actually starts a fusion reaction. These concepts were just barely beginning to be known at the time of the Manhattan Project. It was up to the project to learn how to control these processes and direct them in a controlled explosion. This was no easy task.

The second major challenge to face the Manhattan Project was to find an acceptable and plentiful source of fuel for the bombs. Neils Bohr, who pioneered the study of atomics, concluded that the isotope of uranium would be a good candidate for this, as it was unstable and could sustain a chain reaction. Glen Seaborg, another atomic scientist, concluded that the plutonium isotope could work in the same way. Obtaining these elements, though, was a major challenge. The isotopes had to be separated from their actual elements, and this was a process that was not completely understood at the time. Magnetic separation was first tried as a means of separation of the isotopes. However, this process was severely flawed, and did not produce the quality and purity of isotopes that were needed to use in a bomb. After about a million dollars in construction, only about a gram of isotopes were produced in this way. Gaseous fusion was soon discovered, however, and this proved to be an efficient means of obtaining the required isotopes.

The first controllable nuclear chain reaction was produced at a laboratory in Chicago in 1942. This was not long after the Manhattan Project had officially begun. However, since this was a race with the two main enemies of the United States to see who could come up with this super weapon the quickest, there was no time to do much experimenting. Things had to happen quickly. Once chain reactions began happening with regularity at the Chicago facilities, it became obvious that the facilities would have to be moved because of the large amounts of radiation being produced. The location of the new facilities was a matter of some debate, because the chain reactions were going to get larger as the experiments continued, and there was a concern as to what would happen if there was an accident. The concern was that there would be injury and loss of life, and that all of the security of the project would be wiped out; it would no longer be a secret, and secrecy was of critical importance at this stage. A secure location in Hanford, Washington was eventually decided upon, as it was a sparsely populated area.

Two usable bombs were ultimately developed out of the Manhattan Project. One was a uranium bomb and the other was a plutonium bomb. Scientists were relatively certain that the uranium bomb would work when tested, but the plutonium bomb had many unknowns associated with it, especially since plutonium is far less fissionable than uranium. Fully eight months of planning went into the first tests of the bombs. A test site in New Mexico was finally chosen, in an area that was relatively empty of people. The army had people at the ready to evacuate farms in case something went wrong. Some of the people involved in the project were concerned that the explosion would ignite the atmosphere, while others were afraid that if the explosion failed, valuable plutonium (which was plentiful but hard to come by) would have been wasted. The test, however, went off perfectly, but the power of the explosion was beyond what anyone imagined it would be. The explosion was the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT. It tore the ground directly below it into large sections and caused severe burn damage and radiation for miles around. The force of the bomb was unquestionably inhumane. The question now was whether or not it should ever be used.

Of course, the bombs were used on Japan, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Germany escaped the wrath of the bombs simply because it had already surrendered by the time the bombs were developed and ready for use. The destruction those bombs wrought in those cities was horrendous. Some people were instantly vaporized where they stood, while others suffered severe burns and radiation sickness that made their shortened lives miserable beyond measure. The buildings and other structures of the cities were utterly destroyed or made unusable. Japan was left with no doubt of the military might and power of the United States, and its surrender after these explosions was swift. However, knowing the power of the bombs, the decision to drop them was not an easy one for President Truman (the one who ultimately had to make the decision).

Truman had originally thought of stepping up the war in the Pacific by sending over more troops to invade Japan. These extra troops would be mainly those who had just returned from war in Europe. The Japanese were fierce and unyielding fighters. These were, after all, the same people who used kamikaze fighters to attack the warships of the United States in the Pacific. Truman knew that the Japanese would not easily surrender. Plus, the Japanese also had the added advantage of knowing their land much better than the Americans and other allied forces did. Japan was surrounded by many small islands that would also have been used as bases and hideouts for Japanese soldiers. The inhumanity of the Japanese in battle and toward their prisoners was legendary. Truman knew that if he sent forces to invade Japan, there would be a huge loss of life on both sides, and that it might take years to fully bring Japan to its knees, costing more money and lives all the while.

However, using the atomic bomb had the potential to intimidate Japan enough to immediately surrender. There would, of course, be a huge loss of life in the two cities where the bombs…[continue]

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