On July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was exploded in Alamogordo, N.M. - and the history of the world was irrevocably changed.
The demonstration of this awesome capability had taken less than three years from the inception of the Manhattan Project. As the late Leslie R. Groves wrote in "Now It Can Be Told," his 1962 memoir of the project he headed, "The mission was to develop an atomic bomb of such power that it would bring [World War II] to an end at the earliest possible date." According to Groves, more than 600,000 Americans directly supported the project.
In the past year, as the 50th anniversaries of the Alamogordo explosion and of the subsequent bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have approached, historians have argued not only over the appropriate way to commemorate these events but also about the facts of the events of half a century ago. Barely a week has passed without an editorial, column, or article in the major media taking one side or the other in the debate over whether the bombings were necessary to end the war. The venerable Smithsonian Institution found itself enmeshed in a divisive controversy over how to display the Enola Gay,the B-29 bomber that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. Eventually, the proposed exhibition was scaled back, and the director of the National Air & Space Museum, where the exhibit is now on view, resigned.
It was against this backdrop that C&EN staff debated how, if at all, this magazine should mark these anniversaries. Some on the staff pointed out that the success of the Manhattan Project was primarily owed to physicists. Others noted that literally dozens of volumes have been written about the making of the bomb and suggested that C&EN could bring nothing fresh to the historical account. Others disagreed, contending that the stories of many chemists who worked on the Manhattan Project had not received adequate attention. The latter group prevailed, and so it is that C&EN readers will find in this issue (page 53) the reminiscences of seven chemists who worked on the Manhattan Project, five of whom witnessed the plutonium bomb's explosion at the Trinity test in Alamogordo.
Senior Editor Stu Borman found these distinguished chemists through research and word of mouth. Fifty years ago, the youngest was 23 years old, the oldest was 33. They tell their stories eloquently and with unequivocal pride in the roles they played in developing the atomic bomb. Their candor - and apparent reverence - in recounting the events some 50 years later may surprise or even shock readers.
Today, well over half of C&EN's readers were born after the end of World War II. Many undoubtedly have fathers or mothers, or perhaps spouses, who played a role in World War II, and many others are themselves World War II veterans. Many undoubtedly have opinions over the wisdom and ethics of dropping atomic bombs on Japan. But few will be unaffected by these firsthand reminiscences.
It is tempting to employ 20/20 hindsight in concluding what could or should have been done to end World War II. But the stories of the Manhattan Project chemists are a vivid reminder that you had to have been there.
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