“It Takes a Village…” Group and Individual Morality in the Manhattan Project

The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower, Farewell Address


I know that with your love of men, it no light thing to have had a part, -a great part-, in a diabolical contrivance for destroying them.”

-Dr. Edward Teller, Letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer (7August, 1945)

The Manhattan Project, started in 1942 under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves and overseen by Dr. J Robert Oppenheimer, existed for the sole purpose of creating an atomic bomb to give the United States an unprecedented advantage in World War II. Though there were major components elsewhere, the bulk of the project was done at the isolated Los Alamos Laboratory, built specifically to house what is often referred to as one of the greatest collection of scientific minds in history. The workers at the laboratory eventually developed a working prototype of the weapon, first tested at a site known as “Trinity.” Interestingly, however, some of the top minds involved in the project, especially Oppenheimer himself, came to be some of the nation’s most vocal detractors of the weapon and nuclear war in any form. While it is a fairly simple task to recognize these scientists’ remorse over the use of the bomb –it caused unprecedented amounts of damage and ushered in a new, terrifying, standard into wartime tensions- the true paradox lies in the fact that everyone involved in the Trinity test knew exactly what they were creating, and the potential consequences thereof (Roland 461). Discussion about the motivations behind many scientists who helped develop the nuclear bomb must, then, be presented in an organizational context, because the Los Alamos Laboratory was perfectly designed by Groves and Oppenheimer to facilitate intense, fast-paced collaboration with the singular purpose of constructing what the scientists liked to refer as the “Gadget.”


The Scientific Mecca

In many ways, the research facility at Los Alamos (and the scientists inhabiting it) is better described as a collective unit. In stark contrast to General Groves’ traditional vision for compartmentalized research groups, an open collaborative atmosphere internally marked the site, and the free exchange of ideas was encouraged. However, the formation of this work environment relied heavily on a potent combination of individual motivators (Bennis and Biederman). On an discrete level, many of the involved scientists were motivated for their own reasons, but the potentially impossible goal would have remained such had Oppenheimer not carefully designed a working environment with the specific goal of channeling each individual’s talent and motivation into a common “stream.”

At an organizational level, there were several uniting factors that, together, defined the Los Alamos Laboratory: a common enemy, a common cause, and several inherent shared traits found in those involved. Unlike the vast majority of the institutions from which scientists at Los Alamos came, every aspect of daily life was in place for the purpose of developing the bomb. Instead of individual research and the intrusion of everything else upon it, everyone was working on the same project, and everyone knew it. Even as people worked in the area of their specialty, the ultimate goal was singular; I believe, however, that this merely laid the groundwork for other factors to unite the scientists, acting as a metaphorical bridge for information to cross (Biederman and Bennis). Left as the only thing bringing people together, a common goal is far more likely to spark furious competition than to welcome collaboration.

Therefore, in the scope of the entire project, other common motivators played an equally important role in the formation of the uniquely driven group effort. In a more facetious sense, General Groves served as a common “enemy” to the distinctly non-military personnel, and the military itself served as the butt of a collective joke. Groves’ strikingly military manner of leadership[1] was at complete odds with the open atmosphere cherished by the scientists, and rules were openly mocked[2] (The Day After Trinity).

Legitimate wartime fears cannot be discredited, as nearly every member of the research team believed that the work they were doing was only preemptive in that if they failed at their job, others could succeed and American lives put at risk. Adolf Hitler served as essentially the perfect supervillian in the scientists’ eyes, especially considering the fact that many of those involved were Jews driven out of Europe (Kelly 26-27). Werner Heisenberg’s similar work on developing a bomb (which focused largely on heavy water and was eventually aborted), even in the eyes of former friends, existed conceptually as a looming threat; the possible existence of another nuclear weapon was very likely scariest to those who were trying to develop just that (Stimson, York, Kelly).

This unconscious disparity in thinking, however, ultimately served as the final uniting piece at Los Alamos, because, above all else, each of the scientists believed in their work. Oppenheimer, when recruiting potential team members, purposefully touched upon a uniting characteristic of most of the people involved: their egos. For months, he travelled across the country, personally inviting researchers in whom he had taken an interest on account of their distinguishing place in their respective fields. With regards to the perspective of these scientists, Oppenheimer made it extremely clear that they were needed. When this intrinsic motivator was universal and placed in the context of a common goal, it tied everything else together; each scientist didn’t simply envision a solved puzzle, they focused on their piece of the puzzle  (Kelly).

Pictured: Scientific Frenzy

Ultimately, all of these factors fail to shed light on the complete inner workings of the laboratory. As a unit, the group was marked by more commonalities than anything else, but similar to Himanen’s Informational Economy, the collective could only sustain growth and innovation by remaining internally indefinite. Against the facility’s breakneck speeds and creative scientific milieu, it was critical for anyone actively involved to feel useful (York). Oppenheimer’s challenge was then to satiate the same egos that he’d specifically invited[3]. As he knew, the state of progress enjoyed by the scientists was fragile, and the well-functioning organization could not be sustained without constant maintenance. It was for this reason that individuals who weren’t making any real progress in their area or were unhappy with their current work would be relocated until they were happily working again (Biedermannn and Bennis). With the overwhelming sense of community created in the lab, it was typical for scientists to get completely swept up in the constant flow (York). That flow, however, was not self-sustaining, but rather heavily curated by Oppenheimer who became the central figure in a community of 3,000 (The Day After Trinity).

The unique atmosphere did not go unnoticed by those governmental figures who knew of the Project; President Roosevelt personally ordered that the scientists not be notified of the destruction of the rival German lab site, and sent reports designed to maintain the pace after the victory in Europe (Stimson 4-5). The research eventually culminated in a test at Trinity on 16 July 1945, and soon after the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many researchers, most famously including Edward Teller continued research on harnessing nuclear power for applications ranging from new weapons to the early stages of radiology for several years. Others, such as Oppenheimer, however, led the campaign against them.


The Frankenstein Complex

“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles — this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.”

-Freeman Dyson


“The physicists have known sin, and it is a knowledge they must never forget.”

-Robert Oppenheimer


Play this now: [audio http://awmusic.ca/1/mp3/The%20Heartless%20Bastards%20-%20Had%20To%20Go.mp3]

Only one scientist, Joseph Rotblat, left the Manhattan Project, but most of the scientists involved at Los Alamos (and to a lesser extent, Oak Ridge in Tennessee) were haunted later in their lives about the innumerable deaths that they enabled, as some knew they would be even whilst devising the bomb (Lifton and Mitchell 141). Frank Oppenheimer, brother to Robert, recalled first being overjoyed that the bomb dropped on Nagasaki actually worked, and then overcome with grief for the same reason (The Day After Trinity). Fascinatingly, most felt regret not for creating the bomb, but instead for the fact that it was actually used (a decision that provides for extensive analysis on its own, but not here), begging the question, “who is responsible for the deaths caused by the atomic bomb?” (Kelly).  No real answer exists, of course, but the idea provokes interesting consideration of complex morality.

An intriguing ethical perspective is appropriately American in nature, framing the actions of the scientists in the contexts of both Quaker and Puritanical values; each lends some unique insight into the motivations of the individuals involved. As Himanen explains, Weber’s “Protestant ethic” relies on an innate sense of duty, time optimization, and the idea that an end-goal is not a point, but a perpetual system to maximize results. Pacifist Quaker values, ever deontological, center on moral reasoning, and a binary instance of “Good” and “Evil” (Moore 61). Per these beliefs, Rotblat was the only scientist to make the right choice, as it is an individual’s duty to not cause harm. In this context, David Orr’s concept of imposing limits on research and knowledge itself are particularly relevant.

The counter argument is rooted in the Protestant ethic, which Himanen used to explain the organizational model of information networks, surprisingly akin to that of the laboratory. Where the Quaker beliefs focus on the role of individuals, this system applies incredibly well to the collective of workers[4] that was so tightly amalgamated. For each of the scientists at Los Alamos, there was a strong perceived obligation to prevent others from harm, and their capabilities stipulated that this was their means: because they could use their skills to help, they needed to (Howes and Herzenberg, Kelly, The Day After Trinity). Furthermore, the end-goal for many involved was technological advancement for its own sake. Robert Wison, who later forged the field of atomic energy, admitted openly that he and his groups hoped that the Gadget would be so powerful that it wouldn’t ever actually be used[5] (The Day After Trinity).

The main failure of this quasi-religious framework is that it assumes that the scientists acted on moral instinct, when, as established previously, there were other factors. While the individual egos likely contributed to the sense of personal duty (“only I can help in this way!”), the driving force mentioned most frequently by those involved was that of the challenge: the Project offered a unique scientific problem, and an unprecedented opportunity to solve it. Solving nature’s puzzles was, after all, their job as scientists (Lifton and Mitchell).



[1] He only accepted the role with the title of “General” because, as he recalled later, “I felt that my position would be stronger if they thought of me first as a general instead of as a promoted colonel” (Biederman and Bennis 173). However, as one scientist mentioned, “We didn’t care” (York).

[2] My favorite anecdote involves a security protocol stating that scientists should not audibly refer to each other as physicists or chemists. The staff thusreferred to each other as “fizzlers” and “stinkers.”

[3] Groves infamously was known to refer to the scientists as “primadonnas” (Biedermann and Bennis).

[4] I find this fascinatingly ironic (though irrelevant to the discussion at hand), as in general terms, the societies that grew out of these values were almost the opposite; Quakers found themselves living in more Marx-leaning communes, whereas the Puritans were largely intensely private and founded capitalism.

[5] As a side note, Lifton and Mitchell argue, rather forwardly, that this attitude was essentially a coping mechanism designed to avoid moral consequences by distancing themselves from the impact of their work.


5 thoughts on ““It Takes a Village…” Group and Individual Morality in the Manhattan Project

  1. Tried to post this comment like three times today….


    It takes a village to…?
    Destroy the world?
    Win a war?
    Obliterate a city?

    Oh irony, my old friend… welcome back.

  2. As someone who grew up very much in the Cold War, near Oak Ridge, where in 4th and 5th grade we would discuss how lucky we would be to get nuked first and not have to live in an apocalyptic post-war world, I absorbed the common idea that “we had no choice.” If we hadn’t used the bomb, then Japan “would never surrender” and a million US soldiers would be needed.

    Looking back, it seems like an awful lot of embedded contingencies to justify the use of the bomb. Your essay hinges on exploring why they continued to work on something they knew could cause great harm (you say so in first paragraph). But did they know its use was inevitable?

    On a somewhat similar note, I am sometimes shocked at how _unworried_ we seem about nuclear weapons. As the last of the people who ever saw them used dies off, as the technology miniaturizes and standardizes, can the keep-but-not-use system really perpetuate?


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