Nuclear Weapons

We Don’t Need Another Manhattan Project

11.14.13 | 9 min read | Text by Alex Wellerstein

Starting from literally table-top science in 1939, the development of a full-fledged nuclear weapons production system in the United States by late summer 1945 is properly regarded as a near-miraculous achievement. It’s no surprise that the Manhattan Project has long been hailed as one of the great success stories of modern science and technology.

But it has become increasingly common to invoke the Manhattan Project as a general exemplar of applied science. Using Google’s Alert service, one can see that almost every week someone, somewhere, calls for a “new Manhattan Project.” Apparently, we need a Manhattan Project for cancer, for AIDS, for health, for solar power, for alternative energy, for fusion power, for thorium reactors, for global warming, for cybersecurity, for nutritional supplements (!), and, most literally, for protecting the island of Manhattan from the rising seas.

The historical trends of this invocation can be roughly charted with the Google Ngram Viewer, which charts word frequencies across the massive Google Books corpus. Searching for the terms “a Manhattan Project for” and “a new Manhattan Project” reveals the following interesting trend regarding relative usage in American English:

Figure 1

Relative instances of the phrases “a Manhattan Project for” and “a new Manhattan Project” in the Google Books corpus. A similar trend can be found for “a Manhattan Project,” though there is more noise due to phrases like “a Manhattan Project veteran.” Google Ngrams Viewer is case-sensitive.

As the data shows, while such phrasing in general was not completely unheard of during the Cold War, it was pretty rare. Only with the fall of the Soviet Union did this specific phrasing start to rise in frequency.

The Manhattan Project ought to mean much more than just “a big government investment,” should it not? But if we did want to draw out lessons from the Manhattan Project, in order to better use it as an exemplar for contemporary discussions, what would we say? What would a call for a new Manhattan Project really mean if we took it seriously?

The overriding factor of the Manhattan Project- the policy that touched everything and affected everything it touched- was secrecy. As such, one obvious contradiction in calling for a “new Manhattan Project” is there were no public calls for a project to develop an atomic bomb because it was secret. Instead, there was private lobbying for such work. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard famously wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in 1939 arguing for government investigation into the possibility of the military applications of uranium fission, and this resulted in the creation of a small, exploratory “Uranium Committee.” Several not-terribly-productive years later, after seeing enthusiastic calculations from the United Kingdom, the work was scaled up, turned over to the Army Corps of Engineers, and formally became the Manhattan Project. This too was done in secret by well-connected insiders. Had anyone actually made a call for an American atomic bomb effort, they would have been rudely silenced by the Manhattan Project security team for drawing too much attention to the issue. 1

This secrecy also quite deliberately meant that only the slimmest accountability was enforced. Congress was purposefully excluded from the “secret,” because, as the scientist-administrator Vannevar Bush put it to Roosevelt, “it would be ruinous to the essential secrecy to have to defend before an appropriations committee any request for funds for this project.”2 For this reason, all of the early funding for the research was taken out of special discretionary funds that Roosevelt had at his disposal, the beginnings of the famed nuclear “black budget.” When Congressmen attempted to investigate or audit the mysterious project that was soaking up so many precious wartime resources, they were scolded and shooed off.3  Eventually a small group of politicians were brought into the fold for the express purpose of green-stamping any further appropriations requests and enforcing silence amongst the other Senators and Representatives.

This secrecy also masked cost overruns. When Bush got Roosevelt’s approval for an expanded black-budget funded effort for the bomb, he guessed it would cost $400 million, what he admitted was “a serious figure.”4 But the bomb proved to be much more costly to construct. As the work proved to be more difficult and expensive, the total amount of funds (and manpower and material) seamlessly increased. The final Manhattan Project would consume some $2 billion, five times the original estimate, and employed nearly one out of every thousand Americans in one capacity or another at its peak, the vast majority working in ignorance of the ultimate purpose.5

The secrecy also hid mission creep. The initial work had been done out of fear that the Germans were devoted to building a bomb (an assumption that proved to be not correct — while the Germans did investigate the question in an exploratory fashion, they never dedicated the resources or manpower necessary to actual constitute a true bomb production program). The American atomic bomb, then, was originally meant to be a deterrent, not a “first strike” weapon. But as the work progressed and resources were invested in the development, a mostly-unquestioned assumption took over that the first atomic bombs were meant to be used, whether the enemy in question had atomic bombs themselves. Similarly, the focus shifted from Germany to Japan. Towards the very end of the project, a group of scientists at the University of Chicago (among them many of those who would later found the Federation of American Scientists) attempted to open up a discussion about this shift, but their proposals were never taken seriously by those in positions of power.6 From the very beginning, however, the question of wartime policy was explicitly limited to less than a dozen individuals, in the name of secrecy as well as simplification.

What of the long-term consequences of the atomic bomb? Because of the haste and secrecy of the wartime work, these were only rudimentarily explored, and only a handful of opinions were considered. A small “Interim Committee” was appointed by the Secretary of War in May 1945 with the goal of considering end-of-war problems. Postwar, they primarily directed their attentions towards approving of the post-Hiroshima “publicity” strategy (their term), domestic legislation whose insulated, military nature led to its almost immediate rejection by the postwar Congress, and only the vaguest of considerations about what the implications of atomic weapons were for the postwar international order. As a result, the United States left World War II with no coherent domestic or international position with regards to atomic energy, leading to missed opportunities and policies founded on deeply incorrect assumptions, such as the existence of a unitary atomic “secret” and the long-term viability of an American nuclear monopoly. At a minimum, it also led to the postwar decline of the expensive Manhattan Project infrastructure, causing a languishing of the American nuclear program until the late 1940s.

Separately, most invocations of the Manhattan Project frame it as a primarily “scientific” endeavor. But while the importance of the pure and applied scientific contributions was mighty, the bulk of the effort and resources for the work went towards engineering and construction. The fissile material sites at Hanford and Oak Ridge consumed around 80% of the total expenditures. Los Alamos, the “hub” of scientific research, accounted for only 4% of the expense.7 This is not to discount the contribution of science or the scientists. Rather, it is to emphasize that the atomic bomb production effort was less of a scientific endeavor than it was a massive collaboration between the military, the civilian federal government, industrial contractors, and academic scientists. Every one of those components was necessary for the final outcome — it was a true military-industrial complex before we had a term for it.

As an aside, we now also know that the much-vaunted, much-championed secrecy of the atomic bomb — which had so many problematic side-effects — did not keep the Soviet Union from infiltrating the project deeply. Even the ignorance of the Axis powers seems, under close scrutiny, largely due to the fact that their intelligence-gathering capabilities in the domestic United States were largely stillborn (as was the Axis nuclear program), and that they missed many high-profile leaks and other indications. In other words, while the secrecy apparatus had so many problematic implications for policy both wartime and after, it was not even especially effective at keeping the secrets in question.

Instead of “the Manhattan Project” being a stand-in for a large, government-supported scientific effort, we ought to regard its legacy in a much more nuanced way. It was indeed a large government effort, one where academic science played an important role. But it was also a full-fledged, over-budget government-military-industrial collaboration, one where the requirements of secrecy trumped all other concerns, including democratic deliberation, consideration of long-term consequences, and consideration of mission creep. And this secrecy itself proved fallible, keeping Congress and the American public out of the discussion, but not Joseph Stalin.

Scholars still debate the role of the atomic bomb in the surrender of Japan and the morality of using the weapons against largely civilian targets. But even if we accept that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end the war, American attitudes towards the bomb were marked by heavy ambivalence even at the time.8 As such, even if the atomic bomb is taken as a “means to an end” of the application of science and technology to specific problems, it is a troubling one. Do those who call for new Manhattan Projects want their results to be so similarly fraught, so similarly morally and historically divisive?

Of course, nobody who invokes the Manhattan Project as something to be emulated means it in quite a complex and problematic a register as described above. There are very few modern projects that even resemble the Manhattan Project (though some of the newly-revealed surveillance programs of the National Security Agency may fit the bill in terms of their scope and secrecy).  But that’s exactly why it shouldn’t be invoked frivolously and trivially. Even heavily abstracted, it is a troublesome exemplar.

Are there better examples of national triumph that could be invoked instead? In truth, most large-scale projects have had their critics and detractors. Project Apollo is today sometimes nostalgically invoked as an example of an unambiguous good, a sign of lost American scientific greatness. Historians would be quick to point out that it was not perceived as such in its time — that there were many who saw it as an extravagant piece of Cold War propaganda at a time when the country was undergoing deep and lasting changes due to domestic social unrest. Still, as far as applications of science, technology, and government funding go, even its most problematic aspects are far tamer than the many tens of thousands of deaths that resulted from the Manhattan Project.

There is also the “War on Cancer,” which suffers from the unfortunate fact that cancer is still a major killer, making it seem like a failure. This is perhaps an unjustified conclusion, given the number of cancers which are now considered treatable, and the amount of raw knowledge gained about cancer in general through this program. But it is understandable, so why is it not invoked quite as frequently?

We might also consider the Human Genome Project as such a model, especially for projects which involved collaboration between government laboratories, academic scientists, and corporate interests. The Human Genome Project was a massive, long-term collaboration on a goal which by itself provided arguably little tangible outcome, but created new tools, new analytical methods, and new opportunities for future medical and commercial benefits. This model has its detractors, as does any large-scale application of money to specific scientific outcomes. And the commercialization of biology may, in the end, provoke as many ethical quandaries as the militarization of physics did.

The only conditions in which we should want to create another Manhattan Project, with its warts and all, are those in some way comparable to those that led to the original Manhattan Project: existential threats on the magnitude of those posed by the fear of a Nazi atomic bomb. Even then, anyone embarking on such an endeavor should be aware that the Manhattan Project itself was not a model for an orderly, democratic, unambiguously positive government science project. It was problematically un-transparent, over-budget, under-considered project to create weapons of mass destruction which were then debuted to the world by being detonated over two cities mostly inhabited by civilians. That’s a pretty heavy load to invoke trivially.

Alex Wellerstein is an Associate Historian at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. He received his PhD from the Department of History of Science at Harvard University in 2010. He is currently in the final stages of a book on the history of nuclear secrecy in the United States, from the Manhattan Project to the present. He is also the author of Restricted Data: The Nuclear Secrecy Blog.

On the wartime press censorship regime, just one of the ways in which the Manhattan Project officials could “silence” people, see Patrick S. Washburn, “The Office of Censorship’s Attempt to Control Press Coverage of the Atomic Bomb During World War II,” Journalism monographs 120 (1990), 1-43.
Vannevar Bush to Franklin D. Roosevelt (16 December 1942), Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 1, Target 5, Folder 4, “S-1 Reports to and Conferences with the President (1942-44).”
Then Senator Harry S. Truman is the most famous of these inquiring Congressmen, but he was only one of many. Representative Albert Engel of Michigan at one point even threatened to raise the matter on the open floor of the House of Representatives if he was not brought into the secret; he eventually relented. See: Alex Wellerstein, “Knowledge and the Bomb: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008,” (Ph.D. thesis, Harvard University, 2010), 79-86.
Bush to Roosevelt (16 December 1942).
The peak employment of the Manhattan Project, in June 1944, was around 125,000 people. The U.S. population of the United States during this period (1943-1945) ranged from 135-140 million people, according to the U.S. Census.
See Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and its Legacies (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003 [1973, 1987]), 210-215.
Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr. The New World, 1939-1946 (University Park, Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), Appendix 2. See also Stephen I. Schwartz, ed., Atomic Audit: The Cost and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons since 1940 (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 1998).
Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988).