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During WWII, the United States developed a program that was going to be designed to harness the power of fission. This project that they created would eventually become known as the Manhattan project, and the product of that project was the creation of the first atomic bomb. Let’s go back to 1939 when the Second World War was just beginning in Europe. Adolf Hitler was preparing Germany’s youth for an invasion of Poland. Meanwhile, European scientists, personally acquainted with Hitler’s despotic were fearful of the rising Nazi tide. Famous scientists like Fermi, Einstein, Frisch and Teller fled to America to escape Hitler’s racial persecution. These foreign born scientists would play vital roles in the drama that would unfold in a little town in New Mexico. By this time, the principle of nuclear fission was known throughout the scientific world. Would Hitler use this knowledge to build a fission bomb, the atomic bomb might already be within reach of the German war-machine. Three Hungarian physicists: Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner and Edward Teller called upon Albert Einstein to assist in drafting a letter FDR urging governmental support of fission research.
While the war was being waged, foreign born and American scientists in many American Universities continued their atomic research. In Chicago under the football field, Fermi and his colleagues made history with graphite, bricks and some uranium. Fermi’s successful chain reaction and Frisch and Pile’s idea on neutron bombardment changed everything. A compelling report from a British Research Committee caused an immediate response among military leaders. Their report made it clear: a fission bomb was possible. If the British and achieved so much, maybe the Germans did too? The US Government realized fission research mush be intensified. President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill decided to consolidate their research efforts in America under the US Army Corps of Engineers. General Leslie Groves was chosen to head the Manhattan project. Before this, he had been in charge of all of the Army construction in America during World War II. This involved building army camps and hospitals, airports and bases as well as plants for airplane manufacturing and munitions. He even over saw they building of the Pentagon. This resume of overseeing complicated projects was what made him a logical choice to lead the secret city of Los Alamos.
The civilian leader chosen to head the scientific team was completely different from Groves. Robert Oppenheimer was known by many titles at Los Alamos, such as “Oppie” or “the spirit of Los Alamos”, but he’s probably best known as “the father of the Atomic bomb.” He oversaw the scientific research and the design of the nuclear weapons.
Robert Oppenheimer, renowned for his research into the structure of the atom, was a gentile, quiet scientist. By the time that Groves had been appointed, Oppenheimer was a noteworthy physicist who taught at the California Institute of Technology, as well as at UC Berkeley. He was seen as a captivating and a charismatic person who led the project, and could capture people’s attention and sway their interest with his passion. As a born leader, he was thought to be the spirit of Los Alamos, so much so that the denizens praised him for their ability to exist and go about their lives the way they do.
Oppenheimer did of course have his drawbacks as a leader; he didn’t have any experience as an administrator before this, and he had previous ties to Communist causes, which were a slight cause for alarm. However, Groves still appointed him to be the city’s leader. I do believe that their differences in leadership styles, Groves and Oppenheimer were an effective pair. I notice an interesting comparison between the leadership set up here and the leadership set up in theatre, with Oppenheimer acting as the director and Groves acting as the Stage Manager. Many people think that a director is the god-like creator on a show, telling actors where to go and how to say their lines, but more often than not that isn’t the case. The director’s job is to create an environment for the actors that is conductive to creating, and giving them the freedom and the tools to build their piece of the show, whatever that may be. In this way, they are the “first among equals”, allowing everyone to create their own character, but guiding them in how to shape it into the big picture of the play. Directors often need to establish trust between the actors so they feel they can create freely, and it is the stage manager who has to keep order. The stage manager schedules everyone’s day, tells people when they got their lines wrong, calls people when they are late and keeps track of how often that happens, and keeps a sense of order in the room so that the director and other actors can do their jobs. Groves is quoted saying “…who cares whether they liked you or not? The objective was to have things running well.” This is the same mindset a stage manager follows. They don’t have to create the creative environment, they create the rules that people operate within inside of it. Both are necessary to creating good theatre, in a pseudo good-cop/bad-cop scenario, one to give the freedom to create and the other to give guidelines of professionalism to work within.
The Manhattan engineering district included nine universities and laboratories throughout the United States. The researchers’ self-imposed secrecy often made inter-laboratory communication difficult and awkward. So Oppenheimer, together with his colleagues, approached Groves who was now a brigadier general. They advised him that a new laboratory was needed where people and equipment could be brought together for a more productive exchange of information and ideas. The search for a suitable location began. The area needed to have a climate for year-round, outdoor work. It had to be far from all seacoasts to reduce the possibility of attack. It had to be nearly unpopulated for safety and security, but had to be near a road and railway.
Construction began in Los Alamos, New Mexico to create buildings, houses labs and meeting places for the illusion of normalcy. Scientists began arriving from all over the United States and England, and disappeared from the world. Los Alamos was such a well-kept military secret that people outside the Manhattan project didn’t even know it existed. Residents were forbidden from using the word “Los Alamos”. Scientists used pseudonyms when they travelled outside of the city, like Enrico Fermi who became “Eugene Farmer” and Niels Bohr who went by Nicholas Baker. People worked 6 days a week for very late hours on projects that they were unable to discuss with each other outside the laboratories. The only entrance in and out of town was through a security gate where people and their things were checked, and anyone coming or going had to show a pass, which was not a very common thing to get. Los Alamos was a unique town. There were no unemployed people, no sick, no jails, not even a true delineation between rich and poor. Los Alamos very clearly worked to unify its denizens by cutting them off from the rest of the world and keeping them in the dark about their projects. The town was nearly completely self-sustaining, as a measure of secrecy and separation from the outside world. Communication with anyone outside the town was restricted, as a way to isolate the people in Los Alamos from any of their outside social-ties.
Because the entire town existed to serve the scientific inventions, everything about the town would be constantly changing in order to serve the new attempt to build the bomb, keeping the citizens lives from feeling stable or permanent. An interesting power dynamic soon occurred within the laboratories, where the lines that were drawn between the scientists with academic backgrounds and the soldiers with military backgrounds who were all working together on one big science and weaponry experiment were constantly being blurred. Groves and Oppenheimer struggled on this issue because of their different perspectives on the idea of information flow and hierarchy. Groves wanted Los Alamos to be a place of scientific endeavor and breakthrough governed by the military to serve them. He was used to having information flow to everyone on a “need to know” basis, where Oppenheimer needed all of the scientist in the different parts of his lab to be able to discuss the different parts of the experiment freely. Oppenheimer made everyone feel valued and respected, as was necessary for the experiment to work. He knew that he could not treat everyone as a soldier that was less than him when they were dealing with a project of such high stakes.
To summarize, the duality of the Military oversight within a Government based scientific research facility made an interesting dynamic for the scientists, soldiers and residents alike. The secrecy around the town, not only from the outside world but also between the residents helped the scientists to distance themselves emotionally from the weight of the nuclear weapons they were creating.
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