European Scientists and Yankee Managers build ‘The Bomb’

August, 2015

A week short of a year after America’s entry into World War II, on December 5, 1942, an enemy alien set off a nuclear reaction about five miles south of the Loop in Chicago.

An Italian scientist, and Nobel Prize winner, Enrico Fermi, directed a team of scientists, casual and construction workers and military personnel in the building and operation of the world’s first attempt to generate a nuclear ‘critical mass’. The makeshift reactor was built in a squash court underneath the Stagg Field stands at the University of Chicago. Fermi had fled fascist Italy when Mussolini began to imitate Hitler’s anti-Jewish laws, as his wife was Jewish. They had not been in the United States long enough to qualify for American citizenship and Italy had been at war with America since mid-December, 1941. Hence, the enemy alien.

Enrico Fermi. Photo courtesy Argonne National Laboratory.

Enrico Fermi. Photo courtesy Argonne National Laboratory.

We have to consider the process that was going on here. Today, the terms ‘research’ and ‘development’ tend to be mixed together in the acronym R&D. Research is a process of figuring out what is possible based on theories that might support the possibilities. Development is a process of figuring out how the ‘possible’ might be put to practical use. In the case at hand, the research had to do with the radioactivity in uranium and what might happen if a lot of radioactive material was brought into close proximity.

Once the research established what seemed to be true on paper, then someone had to build a device that would test it out. Fermi showed you could make a natural uranium reactor that would generate heat. He did the critical research on that. Now, somebody would have to make a real reactor, which is in the development realm. To make an atomic bomb and see if it would work—what would happen—would take more than a pile of graphite sheets and some uranium pressed into bricks. Developing the working product would be expensive. Developing it fast enough to use the product in wartime would be seriously expensive.

 Fermi and his team had scored a touchdown in Chicago. With the chain reaction success, it was clear that a device was feasible and could potentially be built that, if the nuclear reaction were done fast enough, could result in an enormous explosion. At the same time, were the chain reaction kept slow enough and stabilized, a reactor could generate enough heat to provide steam to electrical generation turbines. But power generation could wait. The question of the day became one of whether this whole ‘game’ could be won, and Nazi Germany be beaten to the atomic bomb.

The men who basically ran the project to create the atomic bomb were all of Yankee descent. We will meet them in turn.

The required mass for a bomb was small, perhaps a dozen pounds at minimum, but getting this much U235 was a problem, because the two uranium isotopes were mixed together in proportions of about 140 to 1, U238 to U235. As isotopes, they had the same chemical properties, so some form of diffusion by centrifuge was needed to separate them. Without enriching the U238 isotope with U235, no bomb was possible.

Enter Vannevar Bush. Bush was a scientist who had been a Dean and Vice-President at MIT. He left to run the Carnegie Foundation, which supported scientific research. He became convinced that America would both enter the war and needed to be the first to develop an atomic bomb. After meeting with President Roosevelt in June, 1940, Bush found himself in charge of a new government committee, the National Defense Research Committee (NRDC), which considered a range of scientific issues including atomic fission.

Bush attracted James Conant, the President of Harvard University, to work with him. The committee had a number of research scientists as well as some corporate members, but no military ordnance people. The committee also was provided with funding to support various research and development projects. Bush and Conant insisted that their funding was not to be used for stand-alone operations, but for contracting out to existing laboratories and other institutions. Money began to flow for research into a number of atomic energy projects, such as Fermi’s reactor piles, cyclotron development at Berkeley in California and to look at various methods to separate U235 from U238.

There was another wrinkle; sometimes when uranium was bombarded with neutrons, the result was not fission but the production of a larger, artificial element, which was called plutonium, was discovered. It was a bit more stable than neptunium and would potentially make as good a bomb as U235. Plutonium could only be produced in quantity inside the core of an operating reactor. So, by 1941, there were two ways available to make an atomic bomb: with U235 and with plutonium.

Once he was convinced that a bomb was feasible, general policy was set by the President himself, along with a small group of advisors, including the Vice President, Henry Wallace, the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, the Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall, Vannevar Bush and James Conant. Arthur Compton, a Nobel Prize winner in physics from the University of Chicago, chaired the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which acted as the clearinghouse and ‘highest court’ for wartime scientific research, reported to Bush and Conant. Compton had the reactor research and testing centralized at Chicago. Stimson could enforce Army co-operation and access budget money through its channels, Gen. Marshall could integrate the bomb program into overall military strategy. Project execution could begin. This ‘Top Policy Group’ knew that the plant required to separate U235 from U238 might cost many times as much as a major oil refinery. As it proved out, that was a major understatement.

Producing the bomb would be a massive project and the man chosen to direct it came from the Army Corps of Engineers. Leslie Groves had just finished overseeing the construction of the Pentagon. At first, Groves, the deputy chief of construction for the Army, had watched over others as they began to tackle the development of what would become the Manhattan Project. He was not unaware of what was going on, but he had just applied for and was accepted to lead some forces into combat overseas.

Bush and Conant had other plans, ones that ended up unintentionally including him. They were unhappy at the speed of the officers leading the project and, through bureaucratic maneuvering, forced the Corps to find a replacement. In September, 1942, Groves was ordered to remain in Washington and to head it up. ‘On the day I learned that I was to direct the project which ultimately produced the atomic bomb, I was probably the angriest officer in the US Army’. He knew it was a risky assignment: ‘If our gadget [the atomic bomb] proves to be a dud, I and all of the principal Army officers of the project….will spend our lives so far back in a Fort Leavenworth dungeon that they’ll have to pipe sunlight in to us.’

Groves was authorized to take charge of the entire project and promoted to the brigadier general rank to give him some extra clout. One of his aides later said Groves was ‘the biggest sonuvabitch (sic) I’ve ever met in my life, but also one of the most capable…He had absolute confidence in his decisions and was absolutely ruthless in how he approached a problem to get it done’. Tact was not his strong point. 

Almost immediately, Gen. Groves asked about the supply of uranium necessary for the project. There were 1250 tons of uranium oxide sitting abandoned on a wharf on Staten Island. Groves ordered his aide to go and buy it immediately. The next day, he got an AAA priority designation for what Groves described as the Manhattan Engineer District project. When the bureaucrat in charge refused Groves’ request, Groves told him that he ‘would recommend to the Secretary of War that the project should be abandoned on the grounds that Mr. Nelson refuses to carry out the wishes of the President.’ Nelson promptly reversed himself. The day after that, Groves approved the acquisition of 52,000 acres of land in eastern Tennessee for what became Oak Ridge. Four days later, he departed from a Top Policy Group meeting early to go south and inspect the Oak Ridge property, where he planned to build a diffraction plant and a reactor. Not bad for a week’s work.

In short order, Groves chose those contractors he had found competent in his previous construction projects to develop the Oak Ridge site. He wanted the Berkeley scientist, Ernest Lawrence to lead the scientific/engineering team that was to design the features of the bomb, but found that he needed Lawrence more at Oak Ridge, where he oversaw the centrifuges that diffused U235 from U238. So then he decided upon Robert Oppenheimer, Lawrence’s colleague, to lead the large team of scientists and engineers who soon would move into the rough facilities at Los Alamos, New Mexico. From Chicago, Arthur Compton oversaw the Metallurgical Laboratory, a cryptic project title primarily covering a huge site in Hanford Washington, where three nuclear reactors were being constructed in order to produce plutonium, as well as to test another approach to the separation of U235 from U238.

The Project consumed millions of dollars every week. Meanwhile, the Germans found their economy was overstretched by Hitler’s ambitions toward the USSR, such that his people judged that the risks of not being first with an atomic bomb were secondary to winning the war in the East. So, resources were not diverted in any significant amount to nuclear research and bomb development. Even in midsummer 1944, American intelligence speculated the Germans were even with or ahead of them in developing a bomb.

In spite of the AAA priority and the massive investment in production facilities, the atomic age almost missed World War II. In May, 1945, the Germans surrendered and the European front grew quiet. The Japanese were effectively neutralized as a fighting force in the Pacific, but, if anything, they were more determined than were the Germans to hold out against the Allies until the bitter end.

Based on estimates of the human cost of invading the Japanese Islands, the medical personnel prepared for a half-million American casualties for a campaign set for November 1, 1945. Groves and others were convinced that two atomic bombs dropped on the country would be enough to end resistance. By the summer, on July 16, 1945, a plutonium bomb was successfully tested in the southern New Mexico desert. Almost immediately, components of a second and a third bomb were loaded onto ships and planes and transported to Tinian Island. The B-29, the Enola Gay, took off August 6 (local time) from Tinian for Hiroshima with ‘Little Boy’ on board and a second left for Nagasaki on August 9 when the Japanese did not surrender. Thankfully, a third was not needed. Seventy years later, these two bombs remain the only ones used in warfare.

 Copyright Jim McNiven 2015

This column was adapted from volume II, due in 2016, of Jim McNiven’s book The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that Created Modern

Further reading on F&O:

Shadows of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a photo essay  by Issei Kato

Japanese Remorse: Once More With Feeling, by International Affairs columnist Jonathan Manthorpe

Iran, nuclear waste, and Fukushima, by Penney Kome, F&O

Why do we pay so much attention to Hiroshima and Nagasaki? by Matthew Seligmann


Jim McNiven

James McNiven has a PhD from the University of Michigan. He has written widely on public policy and economic development issues and is the co-author of three books. His most recent research has been about the relationship of demographic changes to Canadian regional economic development. He also has an interest in American business history and continues to teach at Dalhousie on a part-time basis. 

Jim McNiven’s new book is The Yankee Road: Tracing the Journey of the New England Tribe that created Modern America.







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