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The Manhattan Project: Visions of a Nuclear Future

Evening Program

Wednesday, May 17, 2017 - 6:45 p.m.
Code: 1H0238

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The Trinity nuclear test in Los Alamos on July 16, 1945 (Photo: Jack Aeby)

In 1939, the world's scientific community began a desperate race against an imagined German project to unlock the process of splitting a uranium atom. Under a cloak of secrecy, the Manhattan Project—code name for the 1941 wartime initiative to develop nuclear weapons—began. The next year, a group of physicists produced the first nuclear chain reaction under the grandstands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago. This success generated a renewed sense of urgency, and nuclear facilities were built at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, Hanford, Washington, and Los Alamos, New Mexico.

The Manhattan Project was a futuristic enterprise embedded in a wartime environment and both the war and the future influenced its evolution. President Truman and his advisors viewed atomic power as a weapon that could be used to cower Stalin, while many of the project’s scientists believed it was a tool that could create a new peaceful international order. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, was convinced that it could bring an end to war. How this clash of visions was resolved played out over the debate on how the bomb should be used at the end of the war. Martin J. Sherwin, professor of history at George Mason University explores the history and legacy of this world-changing mission. He is the author of Destroyed: Hiroshima and its Legacies, and co-author with Kai Bird of Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Smithsonian Connection

Dorothy McKibbin, one of the key administrators of the Los Alamos site, knew many secrets of the Manhattan Project. But the woman who was called the “Atomic Secretary” was in the dark about a significant one: the project’s goal. reports on this little-known civilian gatekeeper of the facility.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)