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Manhattan Project Began Nuclear Age 60 Years Ago; Debate Continues

During World War II, the U.S. Government built an isolated town named Los Alamos, in the hills of the southwestern state of New Mexico. This mysterious town was the site of a top-secret nuclear research laboratory, where scientists built the world’s first atomic bomb. On the eve of that 60th anniversary, VOA's Deborah Block has the story of what was called “the Manhattan Project.”

July 16, 1945, the world's first nuclear test bomb was detonated by the U.S. government at a remote bombing range in New Mexico. But the story behind the making of the bomb began three years earlier at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico.

A team of scientists, many of them refugees from Europe, worked at Los Alamos, and two other research facilities in the United States, to create an atomic bomb. It was known as the Manhattan Project. The United States was trying to develop an atomic weapon before the Nazis in Germany.

Jay Weschler tested explosives for the Manhattan project in Los Alamos. At first, even he wasn't sure what he was working on. He recollects, "Then it became a little more apparent what some of the equipment was that we were collecting and building."

The 8,000 people who lived in the Los Alamos laboratory complex in 1945 virtually disappeared from the world, forming their own social community. They needed a pass to enter or leave Los Alamos, and weren't even allowed to tell outsiders where they lived or the name of the town.

The researchers worked furiously, often around the clock, led by prominent physicist Robert Oppenheimer. The work at the laboratory led to the creation of three atomic bombs -- one used in the first nuclear test in New Mexico, and two others dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended World War II.

Mr. Weschler was not against using nuclear bombs to fight the Japanese government. "Japan would have gone on in a horrible fashion for a long time with great loss of life on both sides. So to have ended war with the bombs seemed very sensible, especially at that time," he said.

Peter Kuznick, a history professor who focuses on nuclear studies at American University in Washington, says he thinks the American people were wrong. He believes the U.S. government exaggerated the situation; especially how many Americans troops would be killed if they invaded Japan, and says the Japanese were close to being defeated.

Providing a little history, he says, "The American people thought this was the only way to end the war quickly, and to avoid an invasion that would have killed hundreds of thousands of Americans. From that standpoint they thought this was a very justifiable act. There was no military justification. The Japanese were trying to surrender."

Other people, including some military leaders, believed using atomic weapons was morally wrong. After the war, the Los Alamos National Laboratory continued its work on nuclear bombs, creating an even stronger hydrogen bomb.

Mr. Weschler stayed at the lab after World War II, during a period known as the Cold War -- the conflict between the Communist nations led by the Soviet Union, and the democratic countries headed by the United States. "I worked very hard on nuclear weapons during the Cold War. I wouldn't have, except I did believe in the principles that if we were strong then nobody was going to use them," he said.

The argument for nuclear weapons then was that neither the United States nor the Soviet Union would dare start a nuclear war. Peter Kuznick thinks that was a mistake. "I don't think you can have real security based upon that kind of deterrence. The problem with deterrence is that as soon as it fails the world is over. You don't play on such stakes with a deterrent that might work or might not work."

Mr. Weschler thinks all nuclear weapons should have been destroyed after the Cold War. He says, "Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, my whole feeling is these things shouldn't even exist in today's world. I can think of no way that they can be used to do anything that can help any political situation. Unfortunately, we don't set a good example when we keep talking about building new ones and about maintaining our stockpile."

Kathleen McGinnis works on nuclear issues for the private research group, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. She thinks the U.S. nuclear arsenal is necessary. "We need to have nuclear weapons because other states (countries) have them. Not only that, but other states and our allies rely upon our extended deterrent. We protect them from conflicts."

Today, the Los Alamos National Laboratory does not build new atomic bombs, but maintains the nation's past stockpile of nuclear weapons without detonating test devices. It also does research on a wide variety of other scientific technology. And although the laboratory shares much research with the public, some of it remains top secret, and that includes a building, which stores plutonium, the material used to create nuclear weapons.