Many people are familiar with the basic details of the Manhattan Project, the U.S. program tasked with developing a nuclear weapon during World War II. Yet more than 70 years later, some of the more unusual facts about this top-secret program have been forgotten. On the other hand, historians are still vigorously debating some of the individuals and events in that program. Secrecy, betrayal and sacrifice all played roles in this project that was conducted at many sites across the U.S. and Canada. Here are a few facts about the Manhattan Project that seem a bit strange in hindsight.
5. Edward Teller’s Colleagues Eventually Despised Him
A brilliant theoretical physicist working at Los Alamos, Edward Teller’s intelligence could not be denied, but his personality caused conflict with his colleagues. While the work at Los Alamos focused on pursuing a fission (atomic) weapon, Teller became single-minded in his pursuit of a hydrogen (fusion) bomb. Teller’s colleagues viewed his obsession with the hydrogen bomb as a distraction, which created difficult working conditions at Los Alamos. He had an especially complicated relationship with Manhattan Project scientific director Robert Oppenheimer, especially after Oppenheimer passed him over for a promotion. Years later, Teller testified in Oppenheimer’s 1954 security hearing, and his testimony contributed to Oppenheimer losing his security clearance. Due to his betrayal of the beloved Oppenheimer, Teller’s colleagues in the scientific community grew to despise him. Teller did not take the situation well; according to Scientific American, after one colleague openly refused to shake his hand in public, Teller returned to his room and wept.
4. Historians Still Studying Saga of Spy David Greenglass
David Greenglass, who worked at both the Oak Ridge and Los Alamos Manhattan Project sites from 1944-1946, used his access to pass nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union. Arrested for espionage in 1950, he was convicted and spent almost 10 years in prison. His sister, Ethel Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, faced a far worse fate; in one of the most famous trials in U.S. history, the Rosenbergs were convicted of espionage and subsequently executed in 1953. More than 40 years later, Greenglass made a startling admission to a New York Times reporter: In an effort to spare his wife from prosecution — she was also involved in the spy operation — he lied in his court testimony against his sister, claiming that she had typed his handwritten notes before he delivered them to the Soviets. That testimony proved instrumental in the Rosenbergs’ convictions and death sentences.
After he got out of prison, Greenglass reunited with his wife, and lived the rest of his life under an assumed name. He died in 2014 at age 92. Yet the story doesn’t end there. In May 2015, the National Security Archive and several national historical associations won a lawsuit releasing Greenglass’ grand jury testimony to the public. Before his death, Greenglass had fought the release, and government officials had concurred. Historians believe the testimony shows that prosecutors “aided and abetted” Greenglass’ perjury.
3. ‘Demon Core’ Kills Two Scientists, Spooks Everyone Else
Scientists at Los Alamos used a 14-pound mass of plutonium in their research, but some researchers were amazingly casual about working with such a dangerous material that could mean almost certain death. That led to a couple of fatal accidents. In the first incident, physicist Harry Daghlian was working with tungsten carbide bricks when he accidently dropped one on the core. This set off a critical reaction. Daghlian received so much radiation that he died 25 days later.
A year later in 1946, scientist Louis Slotin became the second fatal victim of the plutonium core. He carried out roughly a dozen experiments nicknamed, “tickling the dragon’s tail,” in which a beryllium hemisphere was moved close to the plutonium core in an effort to get it close to critical. Slotin used a screwdriver to keep the spheres from touching, instead of the shims he was supposed to use. In the fateful accident, the screwdriver slipped, the hemispheres touched and the core went supercritical, releasing an enormous amount (1,000 rad) of radiation. Slotin managed to separate the hemispheres quickly, ending the reaction, but it was too late. He died nine days later. Several other researchers and a security guard in the vicinity of these two accidents later died of causes that may have been related to radiation exposure.
After the second incident, researchers were obviously wary of the so-called “Demon Core.” Immediately after that incident, research involving manual manipulation of the core was banned. Later research involved remote-control devices, with researchers a quarter-mile away. The Demon Core was later used to create a bomb and exploded at Bikini Atoll in 1946.
2. The City of Oak Ridge Constructed From Scratch
At the start of the Manhattan Project, the government secretly acquired 60,000 acres of land in eastern Tennessee, intending to build a scientific facility and a town to support it. Local residents of the rural area were evicted and workers quickly erected a self-sustaining city, which eventually became known as Oak Ridge. At the beginning, there were about 3,000 workers, but by 1945, the community had grown to about 75,000 residents. It was a fully functional city, with housing, schools, stores, a hospital, recreation center, and movie theater. Imagine trying to build such a massive “secret city” like that today.
Workers were instructed not to talk about their work, even within the Oak Ridge community. Therefore, most people there only knew their small part of the work and were not aware of the larger picture. It was only after the bombs were dropped on Japan that Oak Ridge workers realized that their work was related to the creation of atomic weapons. Oak Ridge is now a tourist attraction, toured by many curious visitors each year.
1. FBI Investigated Director Robert Oppenheimer For Years
As scientific director of the Manhattan Project, Robert Oppenheimer’s colleagues respected him for his tireless dedication to the effort to develop an atomic bomb. However, some officials voiced their concerns about the physicist’s support of communist groups and friends with leftist views. Before joining the project in 1942, Oppenheimer even admitted, jokingly or not, that he had been “a member of just about every Communist Front organization on the West Coast.” Oppenheimer’s background prompted both the FBI and military security to investigate and even run surveillance on him throughout the project and for years afterward. It’s a surreal scenario: The director of the most top-secret project in U.S. history generated such suspicion that the FBI followed him around to make sure he didn’t dish out secrets to the Soviet Union.
After the war, Oppenheimer became a high-ranking official in the new Atomic Energy Commission. His career took an unexpected turn, however, during the era of McCarthyism when the government held investigative hearings about him in 1954. The primary motivation for the hearings: Oppenheimer’s opposition to the development of a more powerful weapon, the hydrogen bomb. The government eventually revoked Oppenheimer’s security clearance, to the dismay of the scientific community. Today, historians still vigorously debate Oppenheimer’s ties to communism and whether or not he served as a spy for the Soviet Union.