J. Robert Oppenheimer

Fat Man and Little Boy

In June of 1944, the Allies invaded France. A special team sent in by General Groves was charged with discovering how far German nuclear development had progressed. As the Allies pushed further and further into the continent, Groves's special team was able to report back: the German nuclear program had barely existed.

In 1940, the Germans had started investigations into the possibilities of nuclear power, but in 1942, they stopped. This was probably due in part to Hitler's lack of vision; he was unable to see the potential of nuclear weapons. Also, pro-German, anti-Nazi physicists who were unwilling to hand over such a dangerous weapon to Hitler may have sabotaged the bomb project from the inside. Whatever the reason, the nuclear program had been cast aside, and by December of 1944, the United States was aware of this.

The Manhattan Project had been intended to get the bomb before Germany; the United States now knew that Germany would never have the bomb. And yet the project continued unabated. The swift progress continued even after the German surrender. In fact, Oppenheimer later remembered this as the period in which the Los Alamos physicists worked the hardest.

The United States government had its own reasons for continuing with the Manhattan Project. For one thing, there was still Japan with which to contend–the country showed no sign of backing down, and the war in the Pacific was still going strong. For another, the Soviet Union was waiting in the wings as a potential American enemy, and some historians have speculated that farsighted American leaders anticipated the post-war Cold War and had always wanted the bomb for use against the Soviet Union, rather than the Axis forces.

But whatever the government's reasons, the question remains: why did the scientists at Los Alamos continue their work without pause, even after the German surrender? Were they blinded by their excitement over the technical and scientific breakthroughs? Whether or not this was the case among some of the residents at Los Alamos, it cannot be said that Oppenheimer and the majority of his colleagues were blind to the political and moral implications. Oppenheimer and Bohr had even started holding discussions among the scientists at Los Alamos, providing a forum for scientists to discuss the dangers and possibilities of nuclear power. As they later explained in numerous speeches and memoirs, these scientists were well aware of the dangers that accompanied their discoveries, but they felt strongly the duty to protect their country and believed that succeeding in the creation of the atomic bomb was the best and only way they could effectively do so.

If any of the scientists at Los Alamos did blind themselves to the larger ramifications of the atomic bomb, choosing instead to focus on solving the technical problems of the "gadget," as the bomb was commonly called, they were about to get a wake up call that no one could have ignored. In 1945, the scientists at Los Alamos would finally see their work come to fruition and would fully realize the devastating power of their creation.