Story of World War Two: Developing the First Atomic Bombs
Download MP3 (Right-click or option-click the link.)
THE MAKING OF A NATION – a program in Special English by the Voice of America.
World War Two ended with one of the most important events in the history of warfare, science, and technology. A team of American scientists, working in secrecy, designed and built the first atomic bombs. President Harry Truman made the decision to use these weapons against Japan.
America's use of atomic weapons brought to an end a terrible worldwide conflict. But it also marked the beginning of the modern nuclear period. And it showed the growing importance of science and technology in a modern economy and military system.
The leaders of the United States have been interested in science since the early days of the nation.
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were famous not only as great political leaders, but as inventors and scientists. President Abraham Lincoln and the Congress established the National Academy of Sciences during the Civil War in the 1860s. And in the early 1900s, the nation created scientific offices to study and improve agriculture, public health, and air travel.
By the start of World War One in 1914, the federal government was using scientists in many ways.
President Woodrow Wilson created the National Research Council to organize the work of scientists and engineers to win the war. However, government support for science before World War Two generally was quite limited. The government was willing to pay for research only to meet certain clear goals, such as better weapons or military transport systems.
World War Two greatly changed the traditional, limited relationship between American scientists and the federal government in Washington. In the early years of the war, the German forces of Adolf Hitler showed the world the strength of their new tanks, guns, and other weapons. American President Franklin Roosevelt knew that the United States would need to develop modern weapons of its own if it entered the war.
For this reason, Roosevelt established a National Defense Research Committee in 1940 to support and organize research on weapons.
The new committee included some of the top scientists in America. Among its members were the presidents of Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Bell Laboratories. The committee did its work so well that Roosevelt later formed an even more powerful Office of Scientific Research and Development.
The leader of both groups was a great scientist and organizer named Vannevar Bush. Bush had long experience as a professor of electrical engineering and as an inventor. Many scientists knew him.
Bush put together a hard-working team. And in the years that followed, American scientists and engineers developed one invention after another to help the war effort.
Scientists developed new devices to help the navy find German submarines. They improved methods for bomber planes to find their targets. And they developed more powerful rockets to protect American troops when they landed on foreign beaches.
American scientists and doctors also made great progress in improving the methods of wartime medicine. World War Two may well have been the first war in history in which a wounded soldier was more likely to survive than to die.
The most important scientific development by far, however, was the invention of the atomic bomb.
In 1939, scientist Albert Einstein wrote President Roosevelt a letter. Einstein told the president that it might soon be possible to build a weapon that would use the power of the atom to cause terrible destruction. And he urged Roosevelt to get American scientists to build the atomic bomb before German scientists could build one.
Roosevelt agreed. He created a special team of scientists. Their work became known as the Manhattan Project. Roosevelt made sure that these scientists got all the money and supplies they needed.
Roosevelt died before the scientists could complete their work. But in April, 1945, the scientists told the new president, Harry Truman, that they were almost ready to test the atomic bomb. And just three months later, they exploded the world's first atomic weapon in a test in the southwestern state of New Mexico.
Truman had to make a difficult decision. He knew the atomic weapon would cause major death and suffering if it was used on a Japanese city. But he was willing to do anything to avoid the need for American troops to invade Japan. Such an invasion surely would be a long, bloody struggle.
A new prime minister and government in Japan were searching for a way to end the war. But Truman believed that the Japanese still were not ready to surrender. And he felt it was his duty to end the war as soon as possible.
On August sixth, 1945, the first bomb fell on the city of Hiroshima. It killed nearly eighty thousand people and destroyed a great many buildings. Three days later, a second bomb fell on the city of Nagasaki. It, too, caused great destruction in human life and property.
The bombs left Japan's rulers with no choice. In less than one week, they surrendered.
Truman always defended his decision strongly. "I understand the tragic importance of the atomic bomb," he told the world by radio shortly after the two bombings. "We knew our enemies also were searching for this secret. And we know the disaster that would have come to this nation and to all peaceful nations if they had found it.
"Having found the bomb," said Truman, "we have used it. We have used it against those who attacked us. And we have used it to shorten the suffering of war, and to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans."
American scientists and engineers proved that wars could be won with research as well as with bullets. And all Americans learned how much could be gained when government, scientists, and universities worked together for common goals.
Roosevelt had understood this long before the war ended. He asked Vannevar Bush to study how the federal government could work with scientists and universities in peacetime.
Bush studied the problem. And he offered a number of ideas to President Truman at the end of the war. Bush told the president that science was important to America's progress and safety. He called on the federal government to support scientific study and education.
Professor Bush said that the nation's universities should be greatly strengthened. He called for the creation of a new government agency to provide money for useful science projects.
Truman and the Congress agreed with Bush. And in the next few years, they helped the American scientific and research effort to grow to new size and strength. In 1946, an Office of Naval Research was created to support basic science study in the universities. In the same year, the government created the Atomic Energy Commission to develop nuclear energy for military and peaceful uses.
And in 1950, it created the powerful National Science Foundation to provide support to thousands of the nation's best scientists.
In the years that followed, American science would grow beyond the wildest dreams of Vannevar Bush or the other scientists who worked during World War Two.
Universities would add thousands of new students. They would build new laboratories, book collections, and study centers. By the middle of the 1960s, the federal government would spend more than thirteen thousand million dollars each year for research and development. And five hundred new centers of higher learning would be created.
This investment would help make the United States the world's leader in such fields as computer science, genetics, and space travel.
You have been listening to THE MAKING OF A NATION, a program in Special English by the Voice of America. Your narrators have been Harry Monroe and Warren Scheer. Our program was written by David Jarmul.