Lessons From the Manhattan Project

Last Updated Sep 4, 2007 4:39 PM EDT

One of the most controversial collaborative efforts in history, The Manhattan Project has been the subject of well over a dozen books, including Richard Rhodes' Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb as well as Now It Can Be Told, written by General Leslie Groves, who oversaw the project. This past Saturday, The Atomic Heritage Foundation released what is arguably the most authoritative version of the story, The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses and Historians, an account taken from documents, photographs and diaries of the scientists involved, including Einstein, Oppenheimer, General Groves, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi.

Depending on who you ask, the Manhattan Project either started humanity on a path to its destruction or put an end to world wars. No matter what you believe, it is beyond dispute that the project was an incredible achievement, carried out in a shockingly brief period of time. A group of the world's finest scientists, working for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, took the idea of a bomb that would harness the power of nuclear fission from concept to delivery in just six years.

This book, edited by Atomic Heritage Foundation president Cynthia Kelly, and featuring an introduction by Richard Rhodes, delivers first-hand accounts of how the project came to be, how leadership pulled the group together, how they developed their ideas, and what they were thinking as they witnessed the power of what they had created. The book also includes the viewpoints of the scientists' families as well as historians who have focused on the Nuclear Age, providing insights into the accomplishments of this very different, yet very effective group of men and women. As a collaboration, their success can be attributed to execution of some of the fundamental practices of a great team.

Identify a clear task and a clear timetable: The Manhattan Project had its roots in a single letter sent from a group of Hungarian scientists to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt with the help of world-renowned physicist Albert Einstein. This letter outlines what they saw as a very real and very pressing problem confronting the U.S. and the world -- that Hitler and Germany might develop a weapon based on nuclear fission. This letter led to the development of a small research team to begin a United States effort to build the bomb first, an initially fractured and ineffective process headed by the National Bureau of Standards and Col. James Marshall that finally began to gather steam when General Leslie Groves took over. Groves worked diligently to make sure that the manpower and leadership was in place to get the project completed before the Germans or Russians could.

Bringing in differing viewpoints: One of General Groves' first, and most important, acts was to appoint liberal scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer to take over the scientific research. Oppenheimer, whose views ran almost completely counter to those of General Groves, would, of course, become the man whose name is most often associated with the project.

Gathering great minds under a strong leader: With the vision and leadership of Oppenheimer, who was a consistent champion of the project in both academic, military and political circles, the Corps of Engineers were able to bring on some of the most gifted scientists in the world, including Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller and even a young Richard Feynman.

Everyone was invested: It didn't take much to educate the scientists, their families, the military men and the politicians involved in the Manhattan Project on why it was important. As Hitler marched across Europe and rumor spread that he wanted to develop a nuclear bomb, the need for the research was clear and its swift completion a priority to everyone involved. Nonetheless, both Groves and Oppenheimer inspired the scientists with their dogged determination and almost fanatical devotion to the project.

  • Jeff Palfini

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