The Untold Story of the Manhattan Project, Now Revealed
“This is the story of the men who, in the summer of 1942, received the order to go ahead and build, with extreme urgency, the first nuclear weapon…”1 The Manhattan Project is one of the most remarkable events in history. Kept secret during its making, the Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bomb during World War II, which would later be dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It also proved to be a huge turning point in American history both technologically and politically. In Stephane Groueff’s book Manhattan Project: the Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb, Groueff includes personal accounts of people who were actually involved in the project, making for an interesting perspective on the journey to build the world’s first nuclear weapon. From the moment President Roosevelt received the Einstein-Szilard letter in 1939, which warned of a potential, new extremely powerful bomb, the race to build an undefeatable weapon brought together great minds from all over the world to unite in succeeding the Manhattan project. The book focuses on the many hurdles the participants of the Manhattan Project went through, from figuring out gaseous diffusion to trying to maintain tight security. It also reveals and acknowledges the many people behind the project, giving them the credit they deserve. Groueff focuses on many different aspects of the project all ending with the dropping of the bomb on Japan.
General Leslie R. Groves was one of the most prominent participants of the Manhattan Project. He was assigned chief of the nation’s most secret military mission. As a chief officer, Groves accepted the assignment despite remaining skeptical about the whole task. However, the assignment proved difficult. The splitting of the first uranium atom in Germany in 1938 led scientists to believe that an incredibly powerful bomb could be built if enough fissionable material could be produced. This material had to be either U-235, a rare isotope of uranium, or Plutonium, a newly discovered element at the time. Attaining or producing either of these elements was an extremely challenging task. After hearing from Dr. Vannevar Bush, director of OSRD (Office of Scientific Research and Development) that obtaining these elements was probably possible, President Roosevelt turned the entire project over to the army and ordered a transition from research and development into the building of large scale production facilities. Equipment and technological processes had to be built from scratch, and “whole new industries would have to be created in a colossal scientific and technological adventure of incalculable consequences for the nation.”2
The scientists first had to find a way to create a nuclear chain reaction. This was successfully completed by Enrico Fermi, a Nobel Prize winning physicist, who produced a nuclear chain reaction for the first time in 1942. This was a huge breakthrough for the scientists of the Manhattan Project, who had been hoping to succeed before Hitler’s physicists. However, the team faced many difficulties as well. Leader of barrier research Francais Slack needed porous materials to be used in the gaseous diffusion process. Slack had hired Edward Adler, a chemistry professor at City College to work on possible barrier materials, but by the spring of 1942, Adler still had not been successful. Later on in the year, he was joined by another scientist, Edward Norris. Together, they focused on using nickel for a barrier using the promising Norris-Adler technique, which proved to be the most advanced. The next steps were to build more plants, and to design atomic reactors. The green light was given to build a gaseous diffusion plant at Oak Ridge, and participants of the project worked around the clock. However, the project still needed to be contained and kept secret. A conference was held in 1943 which “emphasized the importance of the secret nature of the project, engaged in construction of a mammoth gaseous diffusion plant.”3
Up till 1943, many scientists from Columbia and Kellogg engineers had only been investigating the possibility of large scale gaseous diffusion. The approval was to be given for the design and construction of the most fantastic complex built: the gaseous diffusion plant for separating U-235 (a uranium isotope). While still in the planning stage, rough calculations showed that the process would use more electricity than an entire city the size of Boston. Groueff wrote “Never had such a colossal plant been built before – the floor area of the U-shaped K-25 building covered forty-four acres of ground, and each side of the gigantic U was a half-mile long.”4 For the J.A. Jones Construction Company, the contract was a tremendous challenge. Scientists continued to push the project through, working with different elements and methods to join these elements and create the atomic bomb. It was at this time in 1944 that intelligence reports about the disturbing Los Alamos projects came in. The technological advances had taken an environmental toll. The first sample of plutonium would reach Los Alamos in 1945. Despite all the hard work, failure was common as well. The initial letdown of the B nuclear reactor at the Hanford site (near Richland Washington) was a bitter disappointment, though the reactor would be a success later on.
After the success of the plants, Los Alamos and the project’s participants frantically began designing Uranium bombs, model after model. The Manhattan District knew very well that thermal diffusion existed and worked towards a successful drop. The first explosions heard by Los Alamos residents came from the canyon near Anchor Ranch, where men were experimenting with TNT. This sparked a new idea: implosion. Many scientists were skeptical about the idea, but soon discovered the only way to carry out the experiment was by utilizing implosion. Meanwhile, uranium production went into high gear at the K-25 plant, while the final shaping and electroplating of the bomb’s hemispheres were carried out by Los Alamos metallurgists later on. Scientists would load the plutonium hemispheres into special field carrying cases, and begin to ship out the bombs. The assembly of the “Little Boy” uranium bomb was completed and was prepared to be carried out. The first atomic bomb would be dropped. Groueff wrote “Then, at precisely 0951/2 (Tinian time), the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima… Three days later, on August 9, the plutonium bomb dropped for the first time from a plane destroyed the city of Nagasaki.”5 The Manhattan Project had been a success.
Stephane Groueff stated in his preface about the Manhattan Project. “Besides being a history of the actual building of the bomb, this story is, in my opinion, a superb illustration of the way the American system operated in the early 1940’s.”6 What he attempted to describe was the manner in which America reacted to a dangerous and concrete task. The many people involved in the project did not know what the final product of their efforts would be. It was a gigantic challenge considered nearly impossible, yet they carried it to the end. This involved many great minds in the mechanism of the system and required that participants of the project respond individually to great obstacles.
There would be many reasons Groueff would have been a strong advocate of American efforts against communism and socialism. Raised in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, Groueff’s father Pavel Gruev was King Boris III’s chief of cabinet. In 1944 Groueff’s father was executed by a “people’s court” as Bulgaria’s government converted to communism. The execution of his father left a permanent mark on Groueff. It left Groueff resentful against socialist and communist governments, as he realized how corrupt their governments can be. The many other executions occurring in Germany under Hitler’s power during the time Groueff wrote the Manhattan Project in 1968 reminded Groueff about his father’s death under an immoral government. This led to Groueff’s increased support for America’s endeavors. Groueff was also highly influenced by Leslie Groves (the chief leader of the Manhattan Project), and it seems as if Groueff even looked up to Groves as a role model. The way Groueff portrayed the men involved in the Manhattan Project seems to show Groueff’s admiration: “…determined men who could not suspect the incredible difficulties of the task, and who could not know how immensely different the problems of the laboratory would be from those related to the actual manufacturing of the bomb.”7 Groueff even mentions in his preface that project could have been “the greatest single achievement of organized human effort in history.”8 It is obvious Groueff and the participants of the project had a very positive relationship, and Groueff highly supported America’s efforts, even if it was not for a very noble cause.
Groueff wrote the book in the late 1960s, approximately right after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. To an extent, Groueff would have felt the need to portray the project in a positive light, along with the many people involved. Many people questioned the dropping of the atomic bomb in Japan, as it killed millions of people and left a permanent scar on the country. By showing how determinedly the many participants had worked on the project and how they had all united for the better good of the world, Groueff helped put many minds at ease. The period in which this book was written in was that of improvement. It was after all the damage of World War II had occurred. Therefore Groueff would have felt the need to carry on the spirit of progress and American determination in order to help the U.S. rebuild itself, particularly considering the effort put in to end World War II. Groueff wrote about the project’s participants’ work: “And rarely had there been a group as difficult to organize into a smooth, orderly administrative body as this conglomeration of brilliant, individualistic scientists.”9 His theme of the unity of great minded individuals reflects how America is an abundant and resilient nation.
Kendall Birr of New York State University stated that Groueff’s Manhattan Project belongs to the “gee whizz” (implying wide eyed wonder or excitement) school of technological and industrial history. She says the prose is readable, lively, and sometimes dramatic. The information is magnificent, considering Groueff obtained the majority of his information from personal interviews. However, Birr was somewhat critical of Groueff’s lack of attention to the scientific problems of the Manhattan Project than of the human spectacles in the final production of the nuclear weapon. Despite that fact, Birr concludes that the book makes some interesting points overall. She also states, “Most importantly, Groueff has for the first time given due recognition to some of the minor figures, particularly engineers and technicians, and has preserved in his pages much information that would otherwise perish with the participants or lie forever buried in the archives.”10
Another review by Kirkus Reviews (an American book review magazine founded in 1933 by Virginia Kirkus) stated that Groueff does “…convey well a scene of fantastic activity, where different solutions to one problem were worked on simultaneously, were industrial equipment came before scientific results were known, where the ‘impossible’ was achieved – in time.”11 They also said that the material was fascinating, and well presented in terms of the scientific information. They appreciated Groueff’s easy characterization and the enthusiasm in which he completed the book. Despite all of the positive aspects of Groueff’s work, however, they concluded that Groueff was repetitive and that his efforts marred his excellent overall view of the Manhattan Project.
The book was very thought provoking. It was very different from other history books; written as if the events were currently happening, it had a very unique twist and made the book less boring. Based mostly on personal interviews, Groueff’s writings were effective because they included so many perspectives of the people who otherwise would have been forgotten. Groueff successfully manages to reveal the efforts and hard work of many dedicated people. The information that was obtained from private interviews gives the book a personal feeling, and makes the book even more distinctive since it includes the individual thoughts of many people who were involved in making the world’s first atomic bomb. Groueff didn’t annotate the interviews of the people; Groueff wrote the book as if the people in the book were speaking to each other naturally, making the book one of the most interesting historical books ever written. The book starts off with: “The burly, impatient-looking brigadier general strode down the platform in Washington’s Union Station and, at exactly five minutes before departure time, hurried through the gate where the night train for Chicago was waiting. At his heels and half running to keep up with him, was a young blue-eyed woman carrying a briefcase.”12 The book is descriptive and illustrative, almost like a narrative. It was quite different from other nonfiction historical books, and it was refreshing to read. Although it was very simple and the diction was not as complicated as other factual historical works, it still contained fundamental information of the technological and scientific advances of the time. One can appreciate the easiness and the flow of this information in the book, which made reading the book more enjoyable. The book makes the reader feel as if he or she was experiencing the Manhattan Project for themselves.
The Manhattan Project was an unusual moment in history in which many intelligent, great minds came together for one cause, and purpose. In that sense, Groueff agrees with the argument that the 1940s was a watershed in American History. Groueff stated “Rarely had such an abundance of scientific brains been concentrated within the walls of a few buildings…”13 Not only was the Manhattan Project a watershed in terms of unity, but also technologically and scientifically. The project revealed numerous secrets of science in multiple aspects. New elements and methods were discovered that would be critical in future weapons manufacturing. The first nuclear chain reaction was accomplished under the U.S. government’s project and as well as other revolutionary breakthroughs in the field of science. In the period of time the project took place, plutonium was discovered as an element, implosion was ascertained, and gaseous fission was improved. However, the Manhattan Project revealed many important things politically as well. It showed how easily the government can hide information from us, even information that is as big as building the first nuclear weapon in the world. The Manhattan Project is also a great illustration of this. It was a turning point in which people started to question information the United States government might be hiding, and even today, many people inquire as to what kind of information the government is keeping secret from its citizens.
In conclusion, Stephane Groueff’s Manhattan Project successfully reveals the many inner workings of one of the most interesting moments in history. It illustrates the scientific breakthroughs the Manhattan Project pioneered to be, but also reveals the minds of determined people who otherwise would not have been able to share their voice. It truly was a “…fabulous tale of human ingenuity and determination.”14
1. Groueff, Stephane. Manhattan Project: The Untold story of Making of the Atomic Bomb. Boston, Massachusetts: Little, Brown and Company, 1968. XI.
2. Groueff, Stephane. 11.
3. Groueff, Stephane. 190.
4. Groueff, Stephane. 243.
5. Groueff, Stephane. 414, 415.
6. Groueff, Stephane. XII.
7. Groueff, Stephane. XI.
8. Groueff, Stephane. XI.
9. Groueff, Stephane. 24.
10. Birr, Kendall. Manhattan Project: The Untold Story of the Making of the Atomic Bomb by Stephane Groueff. Albany, New York: State University of New York. 1.
11. Kirkus Media. Manhattan Project. United States. Kirkus Reviews. 1.
12. Groueff, Stephane. 1.
13. Groueff, Stephane. 24.
14. Groueff, Stephane. XII.