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Mysteries & Secrets - Atomic Bomb

Father of the Atomic Bomb
After an early morning flurry of air-raid sirens, the all clear sounded. Bright golden sunshine beamed over the rush hour bustle of teeming Hiroshima, highlighting the slender green leaves of the city's famous legions of willow trees. On this August day in 1945, the businessmen racing to work, children skipping off to school, housewives beginning the day's traditional chores well knew, after many bombing runs, that the two or three U.S. B-29 bombers off in the distance posed no threat. A serious attack would fill the sky with planes.
J. Robert Oppenheimer after Hiroshima Suddenly, as a survivor would recall, "A blinding flash cut sharply across the sky ...the skin over my body felt a burning heat ...dead silence ...then a huge 'boom,' like the rumbling of distant thunder." At 8:14 A.M. local time, the bomber Enola Gay had released its single payload, "Little Boy," and banked sharply away. Minutes later, the atomic bomb detonated, creating a white hot glare that lit the heavens and giving rise to fierce winds. From a fireball that raged a quarter of a mile in diameter rose a mushroom cloud soaring to 30,000 feet. The incredibly intense heat, perhaps 3,000 degrees Celsius, instantly turned thousands of human beings into smoldering bits of black carbon. Thousands more lived a few seconds longer, until knocked dead by flying debris or buried beneath toppling buildings. Panicked, many dived into river waters that had become scalding hot. In the fiery maelstrom perhaps as many as 200,000 died, up to half the city's daytime population. Something like 60,000 structures vanished. Scattered fires grew to conflagrations sweeping across the ruined city, and radiation poisoning began its silent work of bringing horrible, lingering death.

On that day, August 6, 1945, a stunned world learned that man had harnessed the power locked within the atom in order to create an unimaginably destructive weapon. Until that epochal explosion, only a few top military and political leaders had known the true story: For years, desperately straining to meet a deadline, a team of research scientists and technicians had been secretly trying to build this "doomsday weapon." They had just barely succeeded, in large part because of the intelligence and inspiration of the distinguished theoretical physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, then only 41 years old.

The Prodigy

Born in New York City, to well doing type parents of German Jewish origin, Oppenheimer thrived in a family that respected art, music, and intellectu al curiosity. He entered Harvard College in 1922 and earned his undergraduate degree summa cum laude in only three years, majoring in chemistry. For the next few years, the precocious young man traveled in Europe, where he worked with several physicists who were in the exciting forefront of investigating atomic phenomena in the light of new theories. Only a year out of college, Oppenheimer published a scientific paper that showed his complete understanding of the new methods. He soon developed, along with the famed Max Born, an essential part of the quantum theory known as the Born-Oppenheimer method. His remarkable Ph.D. dissertation won him international fame in 1927.

Physics, Romance, and the Left

In 1929 the rising scientific star accepted positons at two of the several universities that vied for him. He would teach the spring term at the lively young California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, fall and winter at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, where he would be the first professor to lecture on quantum mechanics. In fact, the erudite scientist would have to undergo a period of adjustment, gradually leaning to pitch the level of his discussion to the capabilities of his bewildered students.

In 1936 he fell in love with Jean Tatlock, a troubled and moody young woman whose passionate idealism had found an outlet in the Communist Party. Their stormy romance coincided with an unsettling time in the affairs of the world, from the grinding Depression in the United States to the unnerving actions of dictators like Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco in Western Europe.

Like many thoughtful people of the time, Oppenheimer investigated left wing ideas as a possible solution, although he did not join the Communist Party, as did his younger brother, his sister-in-law, and many of his friends.

His interest in politics, like his ability to read Sanskrit, was the natural result of his continual probing for concepts and information in many areas. By his own account, he was also deeply worried about the anti-Semitism in fascist Germany and Spain and contributed as much as $1,000 a year of his annual $15,000 income to causes associated with communist groups. When he broke off his relationship with Tatlock after meeting Kitty Harrison, the woman who would become his wife in 1940, he also moved away from her circle of leftward-leaning friends.

The Nazi Threat

The United States learned in 1939 that Hitler's Germany, gearing up for cataclysmic war, had discovered nuclear fission. Oppenheimer and other experts immediately guessed that German experimenters would try to produce a controlled chain reaction that would make possible a bomb infinitely more destructive than any conventional explosive. Concerned scientists alerted President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the danger in a famous letter, after enlisting the support of the renowned scientific genius Albert Einstein, himself a refugee from the Nazi regime.

Under strictest secrecy, the president acted, authorizing the funding of projects aimed at the construction of the unproved weapon. Ironically, many leading scientists forced to flee from their home countries of Germany, Italy, and Hungary joined with American researchers to work in labs across the country. Some university teams explored the feasibility of building a nuclear reactor, while others tackled the problem of separating the uranium isotopes necessary for the release of energy in a chain reaction. It was not until early 1942 that Oppenheimer, who had become fascinated by the theoretical problems, was asked to organize the widely dispersed efforts.

"Expensive Loonies"

Code named the Manhattan Project, the United States Army's top priority program to invent an atomic weapon was headed by 46-year-old Colonel Leslie R. Groves, a heavy-set, tough-talking military professional. Groves - who would characterize the scientists at work in atomic energy as an "expensive collection of loonies" - recognized that Oppenheimer had the potential, heretofore untapped, for leading his disputatious colleagues in a high pressure situation. The physicist suggested that all researchers be brought together at one lab at the obscure little town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, an area he knew well because he owned a ranch nearby. By March 1943 a boys' boarding school had been converted into a tightly guarded secret installation with Oppenheimer as scientific director.

Nuclear research center at Los Alamos, New Mexico Insisting that all information be freely exchanged among the isolated scientists, whose travel outside was severely restricted, Oppenheimer fostered an atmosphere of trust and mutual respect that yielded amazing progress. Driving himself unsparingly, he stayed on top of all developments in the complex effort, though his private life suffered terribly. His wife, hating the constrictions, began drinking heavily and became abusive to their two young children. But to the mixed assemblage of scientists - among them about a dozen current or future Nobel Prize winners, few of whom lacked strong ego - Oppenheimer was considered a leader of rare devotion and diplomacy. Most would give him the lion's share of credit for the project's eventual success.

By December 30, 1944, Groves, now a general, could predict that the $2 billion spent on his assignment would yield a fully operative bomb by August 1st of the following year. But when Germany accepted defeat in May 1945, many of the Los Alamos researchers began to have second thoughts about actual use of the weapon. Would Japan not capitulate soon, regardless? Should the United States be the first country in the world to employ such a terrible device? Harry S Truman, who had succeeded to the presidency when Roosevelt died in office, appointed a committee including Oppenheimer to examine the likely consequences of setting off a nuclear bomb. The experts decided to recommend, with Oppenheimer's concurrence, that the first atomic bomb be dropped, without warning, on a major Japanese military target.

Oppenheimer and General Groves at the test site

"The Destroyer of Worlds"

All of these concerns would be moot, of course, if the bomb did not work. The long anticipated test of the world's first atomic weapon took place on July 16, 1945, some 50 miles from the U.S. Air Force base at Alamogordo, New Mexico. The test device, called "Fat Man" for its bulbous shape, was attached to a steel tower erected on the desert plain. Precisely at 5:30 A.M., a remote control detonator set off the bomb. With a resounding roar, a huge violet green and orange fireball flamed over a mile wide area. The earth shook from the chain reaction, and the tower dissolved into thin air. As a white pillar of smoke rose swiftly toward the heavens, it grew ever wider, forming an awesome mushroom shape about seven miles above the ground.

This first man made nuclear explosion amazed, then exhilarated, scientific and military observers near the site. Some crowded around the director, shouting congratulations. But Oppenheimer was reminded of the Bhagavad Gita, an Indian epic poem: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." For the rest of his life, his satisfaction with the scientific coup was tempered by a profound sense of responsibility for the consequences.

Scorpions in the Boule

Three days after "Little Boy" hit Hiroshima, a twin of the original "Fat Man" was dropped on the town of Nagasaki. Japan surrendered unconditionally on August 15, its resolve shattered by this devastating new weapon. The invention of the atomic bomb was seen as the climax of the victory of the United States over its enemies in World War II, perhaps sparing the lives of a million soldiers who might otherwise have been killed in an invasion of the island nation. Already, however, the voices of skeptics could be heard, and Oppenheimer himself, two months after Hiroshima, predicted that "mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima." Nonetheless, he accepted appointment as president of the science council of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) the following year, thereby becoming the most influential adviser on nuclear matters to the government and the military.

As the West and Stalin's Russia dug in for the postwar political stalemate called the Cold War, each side focused on a new arms race. Earlier than predicted, on August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device. Although many scientists involved in the Manhattan Project did not support the creation of new weapons, Oppenheimer's former collaborators Edward Teller and Ernest Lawrence came to believe that the national security of the United States required the speedy development of a hydrogen bomb.

Oppenheimer was aghast. In his view, the two nuclear powers were already facing off like "two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of its own life." With a proliferation of the projected new bombs, wars would no longer have winners and losers, only victims. The so called Father of the Atomic Bomb announced publicly that he opposed the proposal to develop the superbomb.

Always uneasy with Oppenheimer and apparently envious of his achievements, Teller campaigned to lead the new project, while suggesting that Oppenheimer no longer need be in the picture. He told FBI investigators that his rival's influence had kept researchers from work on the hydrogen bomb and revealed that the young Oppenheimer had suffered fits of severe depression. When President Truman agreed in 1950 to fund development of the superbomb, Teller could rest satisfied in his personal victory. But others, as it soon became clear, had been waiting for an opportunity to strike at Oppenheimer.

Hysteria and Disgrace

Oppenheimer and Lyndon Johnson Could the Soviet Union have discovered how to build an atomic bomb without spying upon the U.S. efforts? Could there have been treason at Los Alamos? In 1954 FBI director J. Edgar Hoover produced a report for the White House backing accusations that Oppenheimer was an "espionage agent." President Eisenhower agreed to restrict the scientist's access to secret information while the AEC deliberated the charges.

Intended as a secret proceeding in order to forestall a political outcry, the AEC hearings lasted three weeks, called 40 witnesses, and produced 3,000 pages of testimony and investigative material. Oppenheimer cooperated fully, being subjected to grueling, hostile cross examination for three days, but his lawyers were denied access to relevant documents and even to portions of their client's testimony for security reasons.

On the witness stand the day's most respected nuclear physicists and other pillars of the establishment, including the retired General Groves, testified to Oppenheimer's absolute integrity and loyalty. The notable exception was Teller, who claimed that it "would be wiser not to grant [security] clearance." On June 29, the AEC's special security committee voted 4 to 1 against restoring Oppenheimer's security clearance, though not finding him guilty of actually giving away secrets to foreign nations. His friendships in the 1930's, his love affair with Tatlock, and his oposition to the superbomb all weighed against him.

Only four years before his death from lung cancer, Oppenheimer received vindication his disgrace: On November 22, 1963, the very day he was assassinated, President John F. Kennedy announced he would award the Fermi Prize to Oppenheimer; the award was made by Kennedy's successor, Lyndon Johnson.

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