“Manhattan” Season 2, Episode 9: “We See No Acceptable Alternative”

“Manhattan” Season 2, Episode 9: “We See No Acceptable Alternative”

"Manhattan" Season 2, Episode 9

The Trinity test is only hours away, and Season 2 of Manhattan is primed for an explosive finish. As he prepares to leave for the Trinity site, Charlie finds a drawing his son, Joey, has left on his car windshield: “Good Luck Daddy.”

Before the Target Committee meets, Frank urges Charlie to make his appeal to demonstrate the bomb “personal.” Charlie doubts that a test will force the Japanese to surrender. “It’s not a warning shot. This is not even another bomb,” Frank argues. “It’s a second sun. The Emperor is not surrendering to an army. He’s surrendering to the power of the universe.”

Charlie shows him Joey’s drawing. “If we don’t show mercy…in this war, how can we expect anyone to show our kids mercy in the next one?” he asks.

Meanwhile, Colonel Darrow has finally caught a spy: Jim and Nora’s handler, Victor Green. Darrow brings in Paul to assist the interrogator – Joseph Bucher, the man who played “Tosa” with Frank in prison. On scraps of burned paper from Green’s ranch, Bucher finds the word “Brooklyn”: the codename for the spy on the Hill. During a break, Green begs Paul to help him, appealing to him as a father. Paul realizes the spy must be one of the few people on the Hill who know he has a son. Green is a father as well: the FBI has learned that his daughter, Eleanor (Nora), was a student at the University of Pittsburgh before she disappeared.

Frank, now in charge of the group building the gun-type uranium bomb, Little Boy, is once again helping Liza behind the scenes. Helen discovers the group’s metallurgy budget is in fact going to the University of Rochester, which is sponsoring Liza’s radiation research. She confronts Frank and speculates that he sabotaged the failed pre-test, but he brushes her off.

We were interested that Manhattan mentioned the Manhattan Project’s site at Rochester. The Strong Memorial Hospital at the University of Rochester controversially studied the effects of radioactive isotopes, including plutonium, uranium, and polonium, on humans, mostly between 1945 and 1947.

Abby continues to deal with the fallout from Jean Tatlock’s death. After Jean’s father informs her that her suicide note was not in her handwriting, she rushes to tell Oppenheimer. “Do you know the difference between a conjecture and a theorem?” he asks. “I may conjecture that Colonel Darrow had Jean murdered to keep me on the project. But I have nothing to test, to prove. Therefore, no theorem. We’ll never know. That’s our world. Uncertainty. Nuance.” Oppie fires her from the switchboard.

Abby then confronts Darrow. He plays her a recording of the conversation where Charlie encouraged him to get rid of Jean, which we only heard part of previously. “If you can't handle it, my father has associates in St. Louis,” Charlie says. Incensed that Charlie never told her she was not responsible for Jean’s death, Abby sends Joey away to live with her parents. She calls Charlie “a monster.” Charlie shakes her before he storms off to Trinity.

As we discussed in an earlier recap, Jean Tatlock suffered from depression. While some have speculated that she was murdered, most historians, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Oppenheimer biographers Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, conclude her death was probably a suicide.

Back in the interrogation room, Colonel Darrow insists on questioning Green personally. Some time later, he rushes out of the room and barks at Bucher and Paul, “Clean it up.” Green is dead, apparently by waterboarding.

Bucher and Paul stage the death to look like a suicide. Bucher tries to recruit Paul for a new organization designed for the looming Cold War: “We’re forming a new breed of intelligence organization. One with a more centralized approach.” Does Paul have a future in the CIA?

After Green’s death, the Soviet spies change plans. Nora orders Jim to drive to Trinity with Perseus, the other spy, and to use his knowledge of the bomb’s circuitry to detonate it early – in the midst of the soldiers, scientists, and dignitaries. “We do one terrible thing tomorrow, but then no one ever has to again,” she promises.

As the Target Committee meets, Charlie, reeling from his conversation with Abby, changes his mind. He argues that U.S. should use the bomb without warning against a city, with as deadly an impact as possible. “The truth is, we can be loved, or we can have peace…the weapon we’re testing — Fat Man. It’s nothing. We’ll measure it in kilotons for TNT. But 20 years from now they’ll be counting in megatons…we have to be monsters today to stop the monsters of tomorrow.”

The real-life deliberations unfolded quite differently. In May of 1945, the Target Committee, which included five scientists, recommended various targets they believed would cause enough military destruction and psychological effects to compel Japan to surrender. Their focus was on military and industrial targets in urban areas. These included the cities of Kyoto (ultimately removed from the list at the insistence of Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson), Hiroshima, and Kokura, site of a large military arsenal and the original target of the Nagasaki mission.

On June 1, the Interim Committee, another group formed by Secretary Stimson, concluded “that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes; and that it be used without prior warning.”

The Franck Report, issued 10 days later by scientists at the University of Chicago, called for the bomb to be demonstrated to the Japanese first – as Frank argues on the show. On June 16, the Interim Committee’s Scientific Panel, composed of Enrico Fermi, Oppenheimer, Ernest O. Lawrence, and Arthur H. Compton, disagreed: “We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use." Despite efforts of people like the authors of the Franck Report and the signers of the Szilard Petition, the decision was made to drop the bomb without a prior demonstration.

Twenty years after the war, Manhattan Project director General Leslie Groves defended this choice to interviewer Stephane Groueff. He argued that using the bomb, as Charlie implies, hastened the Japanese surrender: “The effects [of a demonstration] would not have been the same…[I]t’s a psychological effect in war that gets the big surprise and gets the big victor, you might say.” This decision remains controversial today – and likely will continue to be debated for generations to come.

As the episode concludes, our characters converge on Trinity. The identity of Perseus is revealed: it’s Helen’s boyfriend, Stan, who had surprisingly gotten access to watch the test. He and Jim drive off the Hill. Helen goes to Colonel Darrow to report her suspicions about Frank’s sabotage. At Trinity, soldiers forcibly remove copies of Liza’s report on radiation from the scientists’ hands. And Paul, who finds poor Fritz re-watching the home movies from his wedding, sees a man in a Brooklyn Dodgers hat – Jim Meeks. His suspicions about the identity of “Brooklyn” aroused, he goes straight to Frank. “We need to talk about Jim.”

Manhattan has certainly ratcheted up the tension for next week’s season finale. We know Jim will get to babysit the bomb. Will Frank and Paul foil his plan? How will Manhattan wrap up its other storylines? We will post our final Season 2 recap next week!

For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”