This is part 4 in our series The Building of the Atomic Bomb
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Until his death in 1970, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves never had a single regret about the lives that were lost as a result of the Manhattan Project

Nobody understood the science behind the atomic bomb, the danger, the horror it would reap

Right up until practically the last minute, only an elite few knew about the building, testing and ultimate plans to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When the “gadget” was about to be tested, Maj. Gen. Leslie R. Groves – who ran the project from its inception – tried to explain it as the explosion of an ammunition dump.

As a precaution, Groves alerted the governor of New Mexico that it might be necessary to evacuate the state if something went wrong. “The physicists working on the project jokingly bet that testing the gadget could set fire to the atmosphere,” says Cameron Reed, a professor and chairman of the physics department at Alma College in Alma, Mich., and an expert on the Manhattan Project. “They didn’t know what to expect.”

When it was time to load the bomb onto the cruiser Indianapolis, the uranium components were put in a sealed lead bucket, which was welded to the deck of the warship and kept under around-the-clock guard, according to Reed. “The crew was told that it was just another supply run,” he says. “The average person had no idea what uranium was about.”

Nobody understood the science behind it, the danger, the horror it would reap. “When the bombs were loaded onto the B-29s, the bomber crews weren’t briefed until the mission got under way,” says Reed. “They knew they were training for an unusual mission because they ran practice runs where they’d drop conventional bombs in the shape of an A-bomb. But the commanding pilot knew what was going on.”

Right until the very end, Groves masterfully kept the project top secret. His wife and daughter didn’t know what was going on until they read about it in the newspapers.

The day of the bombing mission, Groves was in his Washington, D.C., office waiting for a telex report to find out how the mission went. “Groves rarely used the telephone,” says Reed, “and when he did, he spoke in code.”

Both of the bombs were dropped by Boeing B-29s – the most complex airplane at the time – that had been built in Seattle. About 2,000 B-29s were eventually built by a variety of manufacturers at a cost of $3 billion – about $1 billion more than the cost of the Manhattan Project. Before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were hit, conventional firebombing by these planes had destroyed large parts of 66 Japanese cities, burning 178 square miles of buildings and killing more than one million Japanese civilians.

The U.S. ultimately spent $350 billion to build nuclear weapons, practically twice as much as it had spent on space exploration in the same period. The additional money spent on machines to deliver the warheads and on other arms during the Cold War consumed the entire U.S. military budget. “Estimated at $13.5 trillion, it was enough to pay the cost of reconstructing every building and road in the country,” Reed adds.

The destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Second World War, but did not end production of atomic weapons. Proposals to place their control in the hands of an international authority such as the United Nations quickly died, and the Soviet Union soon stole plans for the atomic bomb, with the help of a spy named Klaus Fuchs.

“Three years after the A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in 1949, the Soviet Union built and exploded a copy of the original Fat Man, right down to its wiring mistakes,” says Reed. “The nuclear-arms race was on, full force.”

And Hanford, Wash., didn’t shut down after the bombs were exploded over Japan. It expanded, boasting nine of the nation’s 14 nuclear-weapons reactors and producing more than half of all the plutonium in the U.S. “In the process, 467 million curies (a unit) of radiation were released into the environment,” says Reed. “Hanford and the surrounding areas became a dumping ground for nuclear waste from around the nation.”

“The Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which surrounds the reactor, holds the country’s greatest concentration of radioactive wastes in underground tanks that have been leaking for decades,” says Reed. “Because of the contamination – the byproduct of 50 years of nuclear-weapons production – the government allows only occasional visitors, and nobody younger than 18.”

Ironically, these scary, crumbling buildings are likely to become a crucible of the Manhattan Project, Reed observes. The U.S. Department of Energy is studying the possibility of decontaminating and preserving B Reactor, and perhaps one day opening it to the public.

Boeing went on to manufacture new and more sophisticated weapons systems, such as the durable B-52 bomber and the nuclear cruise missile. Nuclear weaponry posts were soon strategically positioned throughout the U.S. The Navy selected Bangor, Wash., on Hood Canal, as one of two bases for its fleet of Trident submarines – considered the most powerful arm of the American strategic “triad” of nuclear delivery systems.

The Trident represents the culmination of 50 years of research, which led to building smaller, yet deadlier, nuclear packages. Each warhead on a modern D-5 missile packs 14 to 24 times the power of Nagasaki’s Fat Man, and each missile is capable of carrying eight warheads.

Following the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many people didn’t know that the B-29 flying over cloudy Nagasaki missed its intended target by several miles. A state-of-the-art Trident missile can fly 6,500 miles, navigate by the stars and come within 1,500 feet of its aiming point. Its potential for destruction is mind-boggling.

When the Manhattan Project ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs over Japan, Groves couldn’t adapt to postwar America. An incredible egotist, he seldom shared the spotlight with anyone. Groves had many virtues, but humility wasn’t one of them. However, if it weren’t for his persistence and unstoppable ability to delegate responsibility and rally support from decision-makers in government and private industry, the Manhattan Project would not have succeeded.

Throughout the Manhattan Project, Groves’ top managers found him brusque, arrogant, manipulative, and overbearing. One writer noted that he “displayed unwarranted racial biases against African-Americans.” It’s no surprise that Groves had many enemies, which led to his premature retirement in 1948.

The legendary Groves went on to take a lucrative job at the Remington-Rand Company, and rapidly slipped into the obscurity of everyday conventional life. Until his death in 1970, he remained proud of his accomplishments and never had a single regret about the lives that were lost and the devastation wrought as a result of the Manhattan Project.

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