The Manhattan Project was a covert facility that created the means to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Here are the thoughts of those who went through it.
Jeremy Cassar

6 Jul 2016 - 2:29 PM  UPDATED 7 Jul 2016 - 3:47 PM

Manhattan is an exciting period drama streaming now at SBS On Demand which is inspired by the story of the real-life Manhattan Project.

The threat of nuclear war still haunts our global community, but it’s far easier to remain in denial. Yeah, a bunch of volatile groups have access to the nasty creations, but nobody’s ever going to actually press the button, right?

The lesson was learnt with Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Humans evolve and learn from their mistakes, so now possessing nuclear weapons is merely a precaution - in the same way an elderly woman in Adelaide carries a grenade.

Sarcasm aside, by all accounts the bomb-drops on Japan during World War II by our current allies were two of the scariest moments to ever grace our globe - proof of the often unwieldy power of the human mind.

Those responsible - the governments and their covert scientists involved in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos - have struggled to cope with the aftermath of their actions, just as much as the Japanese required strength to rebuild their nation. 

(Julius) Robert Oppenheimer

The scientific director of, and the name most synonymous with, the Manhattan Project. He delivered this bit of hindsight: 

“Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realisation of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatised so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.”

- The Open Mind (1955)


William Burchett

The courageous Australian journalist was the first foreign correspondent to enter Hiroshima after the bomb. He summed up what he discovered upon his arrival: 

“Hundreds and hundreds of the dead were so badly burned in the terrific heat generated by the bomb that it was not even possible to tell whether they were men or women, old or young.”

 - London Daily Express, 1945

Lise Meitner

An Austrian physicist who led a group of scientists to discover nuclear fission of uranium responded to her invitation to join the Manhattan Project with the following statement: 

“I will have nothing to do with a bomb!”

 -  Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics, 1996, by Ruth Lewin Sime 

Frederick Soddy

An English radiochemist who researched nuclear reactions well before the Manhattan Project warned of the possibilities that came with nuclear materials: 

“If it could be tapped and controlled, what an agent it would be in shaping the world's destiny! The man who puts his hand on the lever by which a parsimonious nature regulates so jealously the output of this store of energy would possess a weapon by which he could destroy the Earth if he chose.”

 -  Science and life; Aberdeen addresses, 1920

Kenneth Bainbridge

The American physicist who directed Trinity, the first of the project’s nuclear tests, whispered the following to Oppenheimer upon the explosion:

“Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.”

And years later, remembered the moment as conflicting for a scientist:

“No one who saw it could forget it - a foul and awesome display.”

 - "'All in Our Time' — A Foul and Awesome Display". "Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists" 

Stuart Udall

The US secretary of the interior under Kennedy and Johnson spoke of the sinister machinations that remained long after the bombings:

“The Atomic Age was born in secrecy, and for two decades after Hiroshima, the high priests of the cult of the atom concealed vital information about the risks to human health posed by radiation. Dr Alice Stewart, an audacious and insightful medical researcher, was one of the first experts to alert the world to the dangers of low-level radiation.”

 - Quoted in The Woman Who Knew Too Much (1999), back cover.

Leslie Groves

US Army Corps engineers officer who helped construct the Pentagon and served as a director on the project. This was spoken not three months after the destruction of Hiroshima:

“We will be misguided in our intentions if we point at one single thing and say that it will prevent war, unless, of course, that thing happens to be the will, the determination and the resolve of people everywhere that nations will never again clash on the battlefield.”

 - New York Times, 1945 

Fittingly, let’s finish with the late Hans Albrecht Bethe

Nobel Prize-winning German physicist and Director of the Theoretical Division of the Project, who wrote a thoughtful letter on the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima in 1995:

“Now, at age 88, I am one of the few remaining such senior persons alive. Looking back at the half century since that time, I feel the most intense relief that these weapons have not been used since World War II, mixed with the horror that tens of thousands of such weapons have been built since that time - one hundred times more than any of us at Los Alamos could ever have imagined.

Today we are rightly in an era of disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear weapons. But in some countries nuclear weapons development still continues. Whether and when the various Nations of the World can agree to stop this is uncertain. But individual scientists can still influence this process by withholding their skills.

Accordingly, I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons - and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.”

  - Letter, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Nov 1995)


Words that still resonate today.


For a fresh take on this scientifically groundbreaking yet equally disturbing period of history, head over to SBS On Demand for two series of the addictive drama series Manhattan
Check out Episode 1 right here:

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