As one of the physicists involved in the creation of the atomic bomb, Benjamin Diven would profoundly impact the history of the 20th century. Diven was a member of the team led by J. Robert Oppenheimer that was collectively known as the Manhattan Project. The group ultimately developed the world’s first atomic bomb and altered the outcome of World War II, as the United States would deploy two nuclear bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan – an act that would bring about an end to the conflict. Due to the importance and influence of the atomic bomb, it is important to study Diven and others who were involved in the Manhattan Project, as it provides insight into the processes involved in developing the weapon.
Born in northern California, Diven attended the University of California at Berkeley and earned a Bachelor’s degree in physics (Diven par. 2). He was introduced to professor J. Robert Oppenheimer shortly after the Japanese attack of Pearl Harbor. Believing he would join his friends by enlisting in the Navy, Diven spoke with Oppenheimer about leaving school, where he was recruited by Oppenheimer to work on a project in the Army, a project that Diven would soon realize was the Manhattan Project (Diven par. 3). The first few days were hectic for the team of scientists, as equipment was being shipped to Los Alamos, New Mexico but the team had yet to secure a warehouse (Diven par. 8).
Those involved in the planning of the research facility had a strict set of requirements for the site, which was colloquially referred to as “Site Y.” In describing the planning of Site Y, author Daniel Cohen outlines the necessary requirements: “Site Y had to have good transportation, an adequate supply of water, a local labor force, and a moderate climate for year-round construction and outdoor experiments. Other criteria for the site were that it had to be at least 200 miles from any international boundary but west of the Mississippi” (Cohen 40). It is easy for one to picture the countless hours of deliberation that were necessary to determine the perfect site for the Manhattan Project.
The atomic bomb that was eventually dropped on Hiroshima was by far the most deadly weapon ever seen in wartime. Prior to the atomic bomb, the largest bomb ever used was known as the “Grand Slam” and was deployed by the British. To provide some reference into how revolutionary the atomic bomb was, it was two thousand times more powerful than the bomb launched by the British (Kelly 339). Diven discussed the processes involved in the atomic bomb’s development during his interview, stating: “The idea is that if you have enough fissionable material, and it is all assembled in a solid mass, it will be an explosive, but it has to be assembled rapidly so it doesn’t just simmer as it approaches criticality” (Diven par. 14). Despite the fact that the team was able to quickly develop a plan of action, there would be several problems along the way.
A plutonium shortage would be the primary challenge faced by scientists on the Manhattan Project. Diven claimed that scientists were forced to substitute other metals due to a lack of plutonium, a problem that would drastically increase the amount of scientists required to complete the project. He stated: “We couldn’t use plutonium, we didn’t have any, but we used mock-ups, mock-up metals to try to get a perfect implosion – turned out to be much more difficult than expected. In the beginning it was thought that about fifty scientists and engineers would be all of the staff needed… but hundreds or thousands of people had to pour in to make up for the lack of personnel to tackle this much more difficult problem” (Diven par. 19). Diven’s account of the events provides insight into how scientists underestimated the difficulty of the project, as they did not expect that a plutonium shortage would derail their plans.
Despite their struggles, the group would eventually find the missing link and complete the world’s first atomic bomb. While many believe that the scientists involved in the project were intent on concocting a deadly weapon, many who were involved were not entirely sure of the purpose of the project. In addition, many opposed the project due to moral objections, but were prevented from publically expressing their condemnation of the project due to secrecy restrictions (Kelly 277). The prevailing notion at the time was also that Germany was nearing completion of its own atomic bomb. After it became clear that the Germans were incapable of developing a bomb, some scientists felt they had been lied to and left the project. One such scientist was Joseph Rotblat, who wrote, “Until then I had thought that our work was to prevent a Nazi victory” (Kelly 279). The project was ended on July 16, 1945 after the testing of the first atomic bomb during the Trinity test (Cohen 99). Decades later, America’s use of the atomic bomb during World War II still remains a controversial subject, as the Smithsonian Institution had planned to display the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb before changing their plans due to objections from various groups (Norris 5).
Based on Diven’s description of his time with the Manhattan Project, as well as other accounts, it is possible for one to draw a conclusion of what life was like for the scientists involved in the development of the atomic bomb. Most importantly, life was stressful. From showing up with nowhere to work or stay to having to deal with an unexpected plutonium shortage, and ultimately having to deal with the realization that the weapon would kill thousands of civilians, scientists were faced with an enormous amount of stress. In addition, the project forced scientists to examine their own moral principles, especially after they were informed that Germany did not have a nuclear bomb. As a result, many of the scientists, such as Joseph Rotblat, could no longer continue with the project due to moral objections. In short, the life of a scientist involved stressful situations, tight deadlines, and a requirement to examine one’s conscience.
In conclusion, Benjamin Diven’s first-hand account of the Manhattan Project provides incredible insight into one of the most important events in world history. Not only would the development of the atomic bomb drastically change the outcome of World War II, but it would also change the way foreign relations and foreign policy are conducted. Whereas before nations could be more aggressive with one another in regard to international diplomacy, the subject would become much more delicate following World War II due to the risk of nuclear war. Ultimately, the threat of nuclear war was the chief feature of the Cold War that would shape the world for decades, and still continues to be a major issue in today’s political dialogue, as many world leaders have advocated the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Cohen, Daniel. The Manhattan Project. Brookfield, CT: The Millbrook Press, 1999.
Diven, Benjamin. Interview by Cynthia Kelly. “Ben Diven’s Interview.” Voices of the Manhattan Project, 2003.
Kelly, Cynthia C. The Manhattan Project. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2007.
Norris, Margot. “Dividing the Indivisible: The Fissured Story of the Manhattan Project.” Cultural Critique, vol. 35, 1996-1997, pp. 5-38.