Science History

How the Manhattan Project Changed the Course of History

A picture taken of the Trinity Test, the first ever detonation of a nuclear weapon.

Human history is filled with bloodshed, violence, and warring. The pages of our history books are covered in red, and if we ever study any period of human history, wartime seems to be the constant factor that has persisted throughout each period in our past. And, unfortunately, even after countless battles and wars that have been fought over the pettiest of reasons, we still continue to fight each other even today.

Perhaps, no, indeed the most violent act to ever have been committed by human hands has to be when the United States lay waste to two whole Japanese cities in the year of 1945 during World War 2, when it first dropped atomic bombs as a direct retaliation of the ongoing war. The Japanese of course, were not even close to being innocent during the war. However, the complete and utter annihilation of civilians via the atomic bombs was an act so dastardly, that it finally convinced the Japanese to admit defeat and stand down. Those fateful bombings, and the research that fueled their advent, has expectedly changed the course of human history forever.

What Was the Manhattan Project?

What Was the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was a research effort undertaken by the United States during World War 2 that aimed to develop weapons of mass destruction that utilized the power of the atom. The property of nuclear fission – the act of splitting the nucleus of an atom down to two or more than two smaller nuclei – was first discovered in the year 1938 by two German chemists.

Upon its discovery, it was quickly realized that nuclear fission could be used to create a new kind of bomb; one more potent and deadlier than any weapon ever produced before it. Upon this realization, and the subsequent fears of Nazi Germany producing such a bomb and using it to great and highly destructive effect, the United States was urged to not only start stockpiling uranium ore, but to also launch research of its own into the matter. And so, the Manhattan Project was born.

The Manhattan Project itself was a collection of multiple different research organizations that had been studying varying factors of uranium ore as well as the process of nuclear fission. It was formed on the 28th of December in 1942, by order of President Roosevelt. Multiple facilities were set up in Washington, New Mexico, Tennessee, and Canada in remote locations. The first ever atomic bomb was successfully detonated on the 16th of July in 1945 in a remote desert location. The potency and sheer destructive power of the bomb was more than the scientists could have ever dreamed of prior to the test, and gave the United States an unbeatable advantage in any conflict going forward.

The Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Japan was given an ultimatum by the United States. They would have to surrender, and form a new democratic government that would be focused on peaceful relations going forward. Failure to comply would result in “prompt and utter destruction”. The Japanese Emperor of the time, refusing to give up the throne and his rule over Japan, refused to accept the ultimatum, spelling doom for his own people as he remained clueless to the true power the United States now held.

To force the Japanese to surrender, the United States decided to drop an atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima. The resulting explosion of the never before tested uranium-based “Little Boy” atomic bomb leveled the city and left behind in its wake a form of utter annihilation never witnessed before. Japan still refused to surrender, causing the United States to drop another bomb three days later, this time the plutonium-based “Fat Man” atomic bomb, over the city of Nagasaki.

With two whole cities having been wiped off the face of the planet and over 100,000 civilian casualties, the Japanese finally agreed to surrender, and formally did so on the 14th of August in 1945. The bombings of the two Japanese cities is still widely talked about today as an example of humans being given too much power. The bombings are said to have not only devastated the whole area, but to also have had nightmarishly horrible results on people not on ground zero; with shadows of people caught in the blast having been burned into the surfaces behind them due to the intensity of the light produced by the blast, as well as people screaming and running around as their flesh melted off their bones on to the ground below.

Effects of the Manhattan Project Going Forward

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the end of research into and the subsequent development of even more potent atomic weapons. Today, modern nuclear bombs have 80 times the strength of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. The mushroom cloud produced over Hiroshima, when compared to the estimated mushroom cloud of modern atomic bombs, is smaller than 1% of its modern counterpart. That is a terrifying thought; as literally just the detonation of one of these modern atomic bombs would spell the end of nearly all life on Earth.

Even after having witnessed first-hand the sheer destruction these bombs brought with them, countries after the end of World War 2 only sought to create atomic bombs of their own. A nuclear arms race commenced between the big players, and there was a time of such uncertainty between the Soviet Union and the United States that many citizens of both nations went to bed every night wondering if they would get to wake up and see the sunrise one more time.

The Silver Lining of the Manhattan Project 

The Silver Lining of the Manhattan Project

Undoubtedly, the research that went into the development of nuclear weapons and the resultant bombings of two major civilian hotspots was a crime against humanity which shall be remembered until the end of time. We must hope and pray that such an act never again takes place and stains our species’ history. However, as with almost everything found throughout human history, there is a silver lining, however bleak, to the Manhattan Project.

The development and acquisition of nuclear weaponry by many countries today has had one major advantage; the reduction of wars. Though quite a few countries exist in uneasy peace with other nations, the threat of mutually assured destruction if one side makes a move is a great enough threat to force these countries to hold their hand. We are, according to statistics, in the most peaceful era mankind has ever witnessed. And this is due in no short amount to the advent of nuclear weaponry and the power they hold.

Another good thing that came out of the Manhattan Project was the use of nuclear energy for less nefarious and destructive purposes. Though research into bettering their nuclear armament continues in every country that has nuclear bombs in their arsenal, the usage of nuclear processes for clean energy and other industrial and commercial uses has been a boon to the development of human society. The research into these nuclear phenomena have also led to advances in medical science and modern medical treatments, like chemotherapy for cancer and MRI scans.

Conclusion

As with any negative act committed throughout our history, we can only hope that we learn from our past mistakes. We as a species have stumbled many times, but have always gotten up and made the best of it. The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not about to be forgotten any time soon, and neither should they be. However, the positive uses nuclear energy has seen since then gives us hope that perhaps we will learn from our dark past and work towards a brighter future. For a similar read, check out our post on the ways scientific discoveries can affect our lives. And if instead you feel like reading up about cultures and mankind in general after this somber post, our post on an introduction to humanities might interest you.

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