A new era, the nuclear age, began on the tragic day of August 6, 1945. Enola Gay, an American B-29 bomber, flew over Hiroshima, Japan, with a single Little Boy uranium bomb that weighed an incredible four thousand kilos. There was a terrible loss of life of 90–140,000 and the destruction of eight square kilometers of the city in the space of a second. The explosive potential of Little Boy was fifteen thousand tons of TNT, and he forever scarred the collective memory of the world. The city of Nagasaki met a like fate three days later when the B-29 Bock’s Car dropped the 5,000 lb Fat Man plutonium bomb, killing a further 39–80,000 people. The beginning of the nuclear age, ushered in by these catastrophic events, was a turning point in human history with far-reaching consequences.
As emblems of the devastating power of nuclear weapons, the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombings have become instantly recognizable. Many people don’t know this, but Germany, not Japan, was the original target of the atomic bombs. What caused the deployment of these powerful weapons against Japan, and how did they become linked to the Pacific War?
We must return to a period when the globe was overwhelmed by the anarchy of World War II if we are to understand this turn of events. Great dread planted the seeds for the Manhattan Project, the enormous industrial and scientific enterprise that produced the atomic bomb. A nagging fear gripped the Allies: What if Nazi Germany had the atomic weapon first? What if the Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler had access to this ultimate weapon of terror and nuclear holocaust?
It was reasonable for the Allies to be worried. During WWII, German scientists had previously shown their competence by developing weapons that were unparalleled in their sophistication. Germany pioneered a wide range of technological innovations, including jet aircraft and ballistic missiles. Nuclear fission, the fundamental principle of atomic weapons, was really discovered in Germany.
Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassman, two German chemists, established the groundwork for nuclear fission. Their experiments reached a watershed point in scientific history in December 1938. They succeeded in creating barium atoms, which are far lighter than uranium, by blasting it with neutrons. A critical question arose from this discovery: had neutrons caused the uranium nuclei to fragment?
Otto Hahn sought out his former coworker Lise Meitner, who had escaped Germany as a result of her Jewish origin, as he realized the seriousness of their finding. They set out on a mission to discover the secrets of nuclear fission with her nephew Otto Frisch by their side. After extensive testing, they were able to verify Hahn and Strassman’s results in January 1939. Surprisingly, Hahn and Strassman had already submitted their findings to Naturwissenschaften for publication.
How the Uranium Club Was Established
An underground meeting of German scientists took place in Berlin in April 1939 as the consequences of nuclear fission started to sink in. In this moment that might change the course of history, they hoped to discuss possible applications of nuclear power. Inspired by this conversation, chemist Paul Harteck wrote a report for the Reichswehr, the German war office, describing the revolutionary power of nuclear weapons.
As scientist Hans Geiger offered fresh evidence of the practicability of nuclear weapons, the pressing need for nuclear research became clear. A new level of complication was introduced, however, when World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, as a result of the German invasion of Poland. Realizing the seriousness of the issue, physicist Kurt Debner convened a second meeting of scientists, which included such notable figures as Abraham Esau, Walter Gerlach, Erich Schumann, Walter Bothe, Klaus Clusius, and the famous Nobel winner Werner Heisenberg. Three main goals for the creation of an atomic bomb were determined at this meeting: creating a functional nuclear reactor, researching fast neutron fission, and isotope separation.
With the help of its informal name, the Uranverein, or “Uranium Club,” the German nuclear program—officially called the Uranprojekt—extended its influence throughout Europe. France was home to a cyclotron particle accelerator, Norway to heavy-water production facilities, and Belgium to enormous uranium reserves. The fast march of the German army made these endeavors easier.
Scientists who had escaped Nazi persecution were more worried as the war continued. Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard—a colleague of Albert Einstein’s—and other scientists wrote a letter to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in August 1939, one month prior to the German invasion of Poland. There was an impending threat from Germany’s nuclear program, they said in their letter:
Initiating a nuclear chain reaction in a large quantity of uranium has become possible during the previous four months. Massive amounts of energy and novel radium-like elements could be created by this reaction. At this point in time, it appears that this might be completed really quickly.In the next paragraphs, the letter elaborated on the horrifying scenarios:
“This new phenomena could lead to the development of bombs, which could lead to the creation of ever more powerful bombs. However, this is by no means guaranteed. Detonating even a single one of these bombs once it has been brought by water to a port can destroy the port and possibly even parts of the surrounding area.
President Roosevelt authorized the Manhattan Project in June 1942 despite these serious warnings. Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer spearheaded this historic effort, with General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers serving as administrative supervisor. Some specialists were dissatisfied with the progress of the Manhattan Project as plans were being finalized. They estimated a one- or two-year gap between the Allied and German nuclear development efforts. Many people were terrified by the idea that Germany would have an advantage in the nuclear weapons race. According to physicist Leona Marshall Libby, Germany was the undisputed leader in the field of physics up until Hitler’s aspirations were restrained:
The thought that the Germans were actually ahead of us and that our assumptions were incorrect was, in my opinion, horrifying. In the civilized world of physics, Germany was unrivaled until Hitler lowered the boom. Those were the darkest days of my life.
The Nuclear Race of the Axis Powers
One must be aware of the worldwide setting of World War II in order to fully grasp the consequences of Nazi Germany’s nuclear ambitions. During this period, the destiny of nations was at stake as a result of both scientific breakthroughs and unprecedented levels of conflict. At the height of technological achievement, the Axis Powers—led by Nazi Germany—were seriously considering the possibility of using the atomic bomb.
A long shadow was cast over the Allies by the threat of a Nazi nuclear arsenal. Allied officials were deeply troubled by the thought of Adolf Hitler possesing the ultimate weapon of mass devastation. As I indicated in our earlier conversation, the tremendous U.S. scientific undertaking known as the Manhattan Project came into being due to the overwhelming sense of urgency.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist, and the United States government were forced to launch the Manhattan Project due to an urgent need. With a shared objective of developing the atomic weapon before it got into the wrong hands, creative minds from all around the globe worked together in a joint effort. Not only did this incredible undertaking hasten nuclear research, but it also established the groundwork for the current nuclear environment.
Problems did arise throughout the Manhattan Project. The Allied forces were in a constant state of mad dash to surpass the Germans in terms of advancement. Nations’ and history’s destinies were clearly at stake, making the situation very urgent. The goal of the Manhattan Project was ultimately accomplished with the July 1945 successful detonation of the first atomic weapon. The Manhattan Project had far-reaching consequences. It was a watershed moment in history, when people finally managed to control their ability to cause unimaginable devastation. The atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima served as a sobering reminder of the destructive power of these weapons. Finding relevant lessons for today’s reality is of the utmost importance. An ominous cautionary tale about the perils of unbridled technological progress in the hands of totalitarian governments is the Nazi quest for the atomic weapon.
World War II and the nuclear arms race forever altered the nuclear environment as we know it today. Tensions ran high throughout the Cold War era as the world’s leading superpowers avoided going to war by keeping the threat of nuclear holocaust in the background.
The fight against nuclear proliferation is still very much a top priority today. We must not rest until we have eradicated nuclear weapons and have done all in our power to encourage disarmament, as we have done throughout history. All nations must be vigilant, use diplomacy, and work together to accomplish this shared obligation.