By Jeff Olson
On April 12, 1945, President Franklin Roosevelt was in Warm Springs, Georgia where he had spent the previous two weeks recovering from exhaustion after a wartime summit in Yalta with British prime minister Winston Churchill and Soviet premier Josef Stalin. Harry S. Truman was in his eighty-second day as vice president and had spent the day in the Senate chamber taking care of the nation’s business. After the Senate recessed around 5:00, Truman left for the Capitol building where upon his arrival Congressman Sam Rayburn (TX) told him that the White House was looking for him and to get there as quickly and quietly as he could. When the vice president arrived, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her family met him in her private study. She put her arm on his shoulder and said, “Harry, the president is dead.” After he regained his composure, Truman asked Mrs. Roosevelt, “Is there anything I can do for you?” Is there anything we can do for you?” she replied. “For you are the one in trouble now.”
At about 7:15, Harry S. Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the United States. Many political observers didn’t hold high expectations for Truman, the unassuming son of a Missouri livestock dealer, but time would soon prove them wrong. Not only had the former junior senator from Missouri inherited a World War which was still raging in the Pacific but he also inherited a top secret project that even he knew nothing about. That was about to change.
After the oath of office was administered and Truman’s brief meeting with his cabinet ended, Secretary of War Henry Stimson stayed behind to speak to the new president alone about “a new explosive of almost unbelievable destructive power.” Later, Harry Truman would remember this as a day when “the world fell in on me.”
The genesis of the Manhattan Project can be traced to 1939 when German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann inadvertently discovered nuclear fission. A few months later, Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt warning him that Germany might try to use this new discovery to build a new kind of bomb. In response, Roosevelt formed the Uranium Committee, a group of top military and scientific experts to determine the feasibility of a nuclear chain reaction. Atomic research had been taking place at several universities around the United States, some of which provided proof that nuclear energy not only could generate power but also produce plutonium and a possible path to a nuclear bomb.
In the spring of 1941, the British equivalent to the Uranium Committee issued a report affirming that an atomic bomb was possible and urging cooperation with the United States. In response, the U.S. government reorganized its atomic research under the S-1 Committee, which was in turn under the jurisdiction of the newly created Office of Scientific Research and Development. As the project progressed from research to development it became apparent that the S-1 Committee did not have the resources for full-scale construction.
In response, the Manhattan Project was created on August 13, 1942. Lt Gen Leslie R. Groves was appointed to be the project director. Its first major funding came in December, when President Roosevelt ordered an initial allotment of $500 million. The headquarters of the project would soon be moved to Washington, D.C. There would also be numerous project sites planned for across the country.
The Manhattan Project’s weapons research laboratory would be located at Los Alamos, New Mexico. Under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Los Alamos laboratory would conduct most of the remaining research and the construction of the bomb, or ”Gadget ”as it came to be called. Physicists, chemists, metallurgists, explosive experts, and military personnel gathered in the secret town, which eventually became the home of thousands of project workers. The Army was responsible for supplying, supporting, and guarding the top-secret work being done at Los Alamos.
The Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee was the home of the uranium enrichment plants, the liquid thermal diffusion plant, and the pilot plutonium production reactor. Hanford, Washington was the site of the full-scale plutonium production plant and several reactors.
A number of other sites and entities were also involved with the Manhattan Project, including: Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Monsanto Chemical Company, the Montreal Laboratory, and the Chalk River Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario. It is estimated that more than 600,000 people worked on the Manhattan Project, but only an extremely small percentage of them actually knew what they were working on.
Beginning in late 1944 the 509th Composite Group of the Army Air Forces, commanded by Lt Col Paul W. Tibbets, conducted long and intensive training in the newly modified B-29 aircraft at Wendover Air Field in Utah and in Cuba. In April 1945, they shipped out to Tinian Island in the Pacific, the launching point for the atomic bomb drops.
Seventy-five years ago, July 16 1945, President Harry S. Truman was in Germany preparing for a meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin for a Big Three Summit to negotiate terms for the end of World War II. Foremost among his thoughts on this day included a place and event 5,500 miles away from where he soon would have a very important answer from a very important test. For this he anxiously awaited.
At 5:29:45, in the predawn darkness of the Jornada Del Muerto Desert at the Trinity test site near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the Gadget detonated with an intense flash of light, followed by a huge blast and a deafening roar. With the explosive power of between 15 and 20 kilotons, a light “brighter than the noonday sun” was seen several hundred miles away and heard fifty miles away.
Just after 8:00, President Truman received a cable from Washington, reading in part: “Operated on this morning. Diagnosis not yet complete, but results seem satisfactory and already exceed expectations.” Now, the President would begin the Potsdam Conference not only with more confidence but in a much stronger position to help him bring this long and costly war to a more expedient and merciful end.