Study on the characteristics of radioactivity and how to create a nuclear fission mechanism began in Europe and North America in the 1930’s. This research, undertaken in Canada, the United States, Poland, France, Italy, Germany and England by different teams, was to be included later in the Manhattan Project. Before the launch of the Manhattan Project, however, researchers Otto Robert Frisch and Lise Meitner published the findings of their studies on nuclear reactions in an essay in Nature on 11 February 1939 called “Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: A New Type of Nuclear Reaction” (Veys 453), which is now the basis for the atomic bomb more than anything. In addition to this, in 1940, Otto R. Frisch and Rudolf Peierls wrote “Memorandum on The Properties of a Radioactive Super-Bomb” (Cynthia 177) which set forth the possibility of using small amounts of Uranium-235 rather than the tons of pure Uranium-238 to create an atomic bomb. Even though the atomic bomb’s sole purpose was to destroy life on a massive scale, the Manhattan Project was justified because global hegemony was in a state of flux and the atomic bomb was needed by the U.S. to stop Japan and deter Russian expansionism.
The Great Depression of the 1930’s brought about not only a global economic disaster but also research into experimental physics which is the basis for nuclear fission, the process by which atomic bombs create their power. At the same time, governments, some completely decimated by the global economic downturn, began to search for their place on the developing world stage. The fascists, Hitler and Mussolini were gaining political power in Germany and Italy respectively because they were promising a brighter future for the people who were desperate for any improvement in their derelict condition. Other countries were also just beginning to put their own houses in order including the United States. Once Hitler invaded Poland in 1939 it was clear that the world was once again heading down the path toward World War. After the start of World War II, scientists in Europe and North America began to worry that Germany would develop atomic technology and discover how to make an atomic bomb. So, in 1939, the Manhattan Project was started, modestly at first, with the bulk of the research and development by Canada, Great Britain, and the United States (1942-1946) after America entered the war officially after the invasion of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese.
As the war in the Pacific dragged on, it was obvious to the United States that drastic measures would have to be taken to get the Japanese to surrender. At first, the U.S. considered an invasion of the Japanese home islands but minds were quickly changed about this possibility after the U.S. encountered determined and tenacious resistance from the Japanese at the Battle of Iwo Jima. The U.S. eventually won the battle but only after devastating losses including upwards of 90% of the Japanese defenders who stubbornly fought on to the bitter end. The U.S. was convinced that Japan would tenaciously defend the home islands much the same as they had defended Iwo Jima so another plan had to be formulated for forcing Japan to surrender. Adding to the America’s problems was an increasingly antagonistic relationship with Soviet Union. The Soviets were also known to be working on their own atomic program and with Joseph Stalin’s pronouncements near the end of the war on post-war hegemony gave the U.S. pause. For the U.S., the specter of German and Japanese hegemony was fading and a newer, more dangerous enemy was rising.
Even though the atomic bomb meant victory over Japan and an end to World War II, it also ushered in the era of the Cold War with the Soviets that would last until the early 1990’s. The devastating effect on the two cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima would not be felt in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, but would take years to come in the form of crippling deformities, cancers, and other maladies. The most serious injuries in the immediate aftermath of the bombings were burns, mechanical injuries (being crushed under fallen structures or being hit by flying debris), and radiation poisoning. The injuries from radiation poisoning brought the most interest among medical personnel as they had never experienced them firsthand before. Radiation injuries included “epilation (loss of hair), petechiae (bleeding into the skin), and other hemorrhagic manifestations, oropharyngeal lesions (inflammation of the mouth and throat), vomiting, diarrhea, and fever” (Project Gutenberg 41). Pictures of victims (especially those suffering from burns and radiation sickness) circulated around the world and were cause for shock and derision for the image of the United States.
Although the development and use of atomic weapons probably shortened World War II and gave the world pause as to the continued use of these massively destructive devices, they also caused the Cold War with the Soviet Union which was to last 50-plus years after the end of World War II. In the intervening years, atomic (now referred to as nuclear) weapons were stockpiled by both sides in an appropriately-named policy called MAD (mutually assured destruction) and the U.S. and the Soviet Union rose to hegemonic domination. MAD also kept each side acutely aware that should nuclear weapons ever again be used in warfare, that the resulting action would have only one outcome, total annihilation of life on Earth. Although much good scientific advancement has been made as a result of nuclear technology, the legacy of the Manhattan Project will always be the creation of a dangerous weapon which thankfully has never been used again.
Cynthia, C Kelly. Remembering the Manhattan Project, edited by C Kelly Cynthia, World Scientific Publishing Company, 2005. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=244251. Accessed on March 12, 2017.
Project Gutenberg. The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. EBSCOhost, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=1039400&site=ehost-live&scope=site. Accessed on March 12, 2017.
Veys, Lucy. “Joseph Rotblat: Moral Dilemmas and the Manhattan Project.” Physics in Perspective, vol. 15, no. 4, Dec. 2013, pp. 451-469. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1007/s00016-013-0125-1. Accessed on March 12, 2017.