Lessons from the Manhattan Project

Last week, I began my graduate-level class on WMD and Film as I usually do, with an in-depth examination of the Manhattan Project. While I am fascinated with the history of the atomic bomb, I believe that in order to truly understand the dynamics of nuclear proliferation, it is important to stand in the shoes of those who made the first discoveries related to the bomb and who built the U.S. nuclear complex from scratch under extraordinary circumstances. Without this perspective, it is difficult to understand why some countries have succeeded in developing nuclear weapons, while others have failed.For the first class, I have my students watch Fat Man and Little Boy and Trinity and BeyondThe movie Fat Man and Little Boy starring Paul Newman, released in 1998, depicts the Manhattan Project led by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer and Brigadier General Leslie Groves from 1942 until 1945. In spite of a few flaws, the film provides a solid foundation for classroom discussion of the key technical challenges and political issues faced during the Manhattan Project. Trinity and Beyond, released in 1995, is a documentary film that presents the history of the design, development, production and testing of U.S. nuclear weapons from 1945 until 1963.

As optional assignments, I also recommend that students watch two additional films.  Hitler’s Atomic Bomb (1992) is a documentary film that investigates the reasons why Germany failed to develop nuclear weapons during WWII. The Moment in Time: The Manhattan Project (2008) is a documentary film describes the origin and development of the Manhattan Project as witnessed by the scientists who participated in it.

groves-oppenheimer
Photo Credit: The Atomic Heritage Foundation

If you’re interested in reading more about the Manhattan Project and using the movie Fat Man and Little Boy in the classroom, please subscribe to my WMD and Film Series or join my Nuclear Spin Cycle Facebook Group.

Key Lessons for WMD Proliferation

fatmanlittleboyAs we think about the WMD proliferation concerns of the 21st century, there are several key takeaways from the Manhattan Project.

First, scientific discovery occurs incrementally. As scientists pursue new knowledge, they focus on discovering small pieces of knowledge that build upon existing foundations. The broader implications of the whole body of knowledge or even the direct utility of individual discoveries are not immediately obvious. In the same way, the potential consequences for WMD proliferation of advances in biotechnology, 3D printing and nanotechnology are not immediately obvious or predictable.

Second, scientific discovery occurs most effectively in an open community where ideas are freely discussed. Each scientific discovery, as published in journals, helps scientists to learn from each other and make further advances. This open process does not occur without producing some risk that scientific advances might be used for harm rather than good.

Third, proliferation is driven by a fusion of science, engineering and geopolitics. It is geopolitics, i.e., the international security environment, that affects the challenge of mobilizing resources toward the successful development of nuclear weapons. Without the context of World War II, it would not have been possible for the United States to mobilize the resources needed to build the bomb in such a short time.

The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.

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