July 28, 2017

The Truth Behind the TV Show "Manhattan": Part I

While WGN's Emmy Award-winning series Manhattan was canceled in 2016, its legacy lives on with many preservationists. Why? Because this depiction of the Manhattan Project captured all the drama, intrigue, and suspense of the atomic era’s dawn—and showed that fact can be just as fascinating as fiction.

Since we at the National Trust are working on the Manhattan Project Historic Sites as part of our National Treasures program, we took a keen interest in the truth behind the show’s storylines and details. To satisfy our curiosity, we reached out to Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, who led a discussion series for the show and answered viewers’ burning questions while it was still airing.

In this post (the first of two), McClenahan tackles questions submitted by our friends on Facebook. First up: scientists and sites.

What universities did the scientists come from?

Scientists came from all over the country and from Europe. The most prevalent universities represented were the University of California Berkeley, the University of Chicago, MIT, and Columbia University.

Were any scientists kicked off the project or kept from working on the project due to their politics or for other reasons? Did people really disappear from the site?

Security was a constant concern for General Groves and his army staff. In the 1930s, the Communists were the only real enemy of the Nazis, and many left-leaning academics, including Oppenheimer, supported communist causes. Additionally, several of the scientists were foreign nationals of German and Polish descent.

While that complicated security, it was rarely a deal breaker. No scientists were accused of spying or kicked off the project during the war. (It wasn’t until after the war that the spying of Klaus Fuchs, David Greenglass, and Ted Hall came to light.)

A few military men were transferred off the project—not for politics, though. They were usually sent to the front lines.

Joseph Rotblat is the only scientist known to have left the project over moral objections, this after Germany surrendered. He did not feel the bomb should be used on Japan.

The front face of B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

photo by: Shane Lin/Flickr/CC BY NC-2.0

The front face of B Reactor at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

B reactor process tube nozzles at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

photo by: Shane-Lin/Flickr/CC BY NC-2.0

The B Reactor's process tube nozzles at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State.

Did many of the scientists know each other before the war?

Many of the scientists did know each other and worked together before the war. Atomic physics was not a broad field before World War II, so most of those working on it were aware of each other and their work. Oppenheimer was particularly good at recruiting his former colleagues and students from the University of California.

Did pre-war likes or dislikes of each other help or cause problems during the war effort?

One of Oppenheimer’s great strengths during the project was his leadership ability. He made people feel valuable to the project and to the entire war effort. The competition between the “Thin Man” and implosion groups depicted in Manhattan is fiction. There was a great deal of camaraderie and esprit de corps on The Hill.

Project leaders U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, Jr. (left) and Civilian Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (right) at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

photo by: Ron Cogswell/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Project leaders U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Leslie Groves, Jr. (left) and Civilian Physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer (right) at the Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

However, groups did pursue several possible solutions to problems (like that of the design of the plutonium bomb) in parallel. There was a massive restructuring of research groups after it was discovered that the gun-type plutonium bomb would not be effective, but scientists were not "reassigned" to other Manhattan Project sites like Winter's group was in the show.

Beyond the three top-secret sites (Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford), what other facilities played a role in the project?

The Manhattan Project was a nationwide effort that employed more than 125,000 people at its height. Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada.

Along with the three top-secret sites, work was done in Dayton, Ohio, on the bomb triggers; the Met (metallurgical) Lab at the University of Chicago; Argonne in Chicago; calutron research at UC Berkeley; electrolytic hydrogen production in Trail, British Columbia; and heavy water production in multiple sites, including Morgantown, West Virginia, Newport, Indiana, and Sylacauga, Alabama.

National Treasures: Manhattan Project Historic Sites

The Manhattan Project marked one of the most transformative events in world history: the development of the atomic bombs that ended World War II and set the stage for the Cold War.

At Trinity Site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the “gadget” was first tested on July 16, 1945. Uranium was mined in Colorado and northern Canada, while refining was done at Iowa State in Ames. Raw ore was dissolved in St. Louis.

Administrative offices were in Washington, D.C. -- and, of course, even Manhattan, where General Groves first had his office, and where research was conducted at Columbia University among others.

Did people at Los Alamos know about the existence of Oak Ridge and Hanford? Were those environments on similar lockdown? What was communication like between all the locations?

Yes, those in Los Alamos knew of the other sites and often visited. Charlie’s visit to Oak Ridge was much like [Richard] Feynman’s real-life visit. Enrico Fermi had an office in Hanford, he was there so much.

There weren’t telephone calls or letters between the sites, though. Travel between the sites (by train, as General Groves didn’t want anyone dying in a plane crash) was frequent, including the general himself.

At Trinity Site, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, the “gadget” was first tested on July 16, 1945. Uranium was mined in Colorado and northern Canada, while refining was done at Iowa State in Ames. Raw ore was dissolved in St. Louis.

Was the violence as prevalent as it was depicted in the series?

No. The entire Sid Liao story was fiction. Nothing like that ever happened. There were no concrete interrogation rooms with CIA-like interviews. (The CIA didn’t exist until after WWII.)

Did some scientists really not know what they were going to be working on?

For the most part, the scientists knew what they were working on when they were recruited. Some of the technical folks, especially those working on more industrial processes in Oak Ridge and Hanford, did not know.

Alpha Track Calutrons at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

photo by: Nuclear Regulatory Commission/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Alpha Calutron track at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Compartmentalization was a priority for General Groves, but science doesn’t work that way. Science works best when the scientists can get together to discuss and share ideas. In fact, one of the reasons Los Alamos was established was to allow the scientists to discuss their work, albeit in secret.

The original version of this story has been edited for clarity.

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Julia Rocchi is the director of content marketing at the National Trust. By day she wrangles content; by night (and weekends), she shops local, travels to story-rich places, and gawks at buildings.

@rocchijulia

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