The World At War

It's September 1939 and Germany has invaded again - this time Poland. Months before, German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann successfully split the uranium atom (coined fission). In World War I, Germany was the first to use chemical gas in combat and Hahn had served in the German gas warfare service. Renowned physicist Albert Einstein has warned President Franklin Delano Roosevelt that sustained fission, also known as a nuclear chain reaction, could lead to the construction of "extremely powerful bombs." Advisors to President Roosevelt consider it only a matter of time before the United States is pulled into the conflict that is now officially World War II.

Atomic Research At Home

The American scientific community had been engaged in atomic research since the 1930s when Professor Ernest Lawrence invented the cyclotron or "proton merry-go-round" in his Berkley, California, laboratory. In 1931, Robert Van de Graaff developed the electrostatic generator at Princeton University, furthering American atomic study.

German discoveries and the threat of war, however, heightened the need to understand the state of research in the United States. President Roosevelt officially begins the process with the creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium in October 1939. By early 1940, the Uranium Committee provides limited funding for isotope separation and chain reaction studies at Columbia University.

After Hitler's Nazi troops occupy Paris in June 1940, President Roosevelt establishes a formal scientific body to organize research efforts pertaining to a war effort. The National Defense Research Committee will "coordinate, supervise, and conduct scientific research on the problems underlying the development, production, and use of mechanisms and devices of warfare."

The Office of Scientific Research and Development is established by Executive Order days after Germany invades the Soviet Union. With direct access to the president and authority to enter into contracts and agreements, the Office takes action on July 1, 1941, awarding Columbia University a contract to study the gaseous diffusion process under the direction of Professor John R. Dunning.

Then, Pearl Harbor.

The Race Begins

Following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States is not only at war in the Pacific but also in Europe with Japanese allies, Germany and Italy. President Roosevelt immediately approves atomic weapon production pursuing two paths to bomb development – uranium separation and plutonium production. Initially, Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, orchestrates the effort for the Administration. Research and development continues at universities across the country – Columbia, Chicago, and Berkley.

"With the United States now at war and with the fear that the American bomb effort was behind Nazi Germany's, a sense of urgency permeated the federal government's science enterprise. Even as Bush tried to fine-tune the organizational apparatus, new scientific information poured in from laboratories to be analyzed and incorporated into planning for the upcoming design and construction stage. By spring 1942, as American naval forces slowed the Japanese advance in the Pacific with an April victory in the battle of the Coral Sea, the situation had changed from one of too little money and no deadlines to one of a clear goal, plenty of money, but too little time. The race for the bomb was on."

F. G. Gosling, Office of History and Heritage Resources, U.S. Department of Energy
The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb

In Summer 1942, as the project moved from research to production planning, leadership transferred to the Army, executed through the Corps of Engineers. The Corps established the project at 270 Broadway in New York City as the Manhattan Engineer District, later known as the Manhattan Project.

General Leslie R. Groves takes command of the project and immediately begins to select production facility sites. Overnight, secret cities would emerge to support weapon production. A site in East Tennessee would soon become one of the boomtowns.