The third episode of “Manhattan” increases the dramatic tension as the characters’ experience continued frustrations with their work on the bomb and acute interpersonal struggles. Under increasing strain, Frank Winter compulsively works on the implosion method. Winter’s group is reeling after Liao’s death. Since the Army confiscated Liao’s files, the team is desperate to recreate his spectrum analysis and other vital calculations. Frank confesses to his wife that Sid was his first pick for the project. Echoing words that Oppenheimer used to recruit scientists to Los Alamos, Franks explains his determination, “If it works, it will end not only this war but all war forever.”
PFC Dunlavey, who shot and killed Sidney Liao at the Los Alamos Main Gate in the second episode, struggles with his conscience, unsure if “twenty Our Fathers” was enough. In addition, he is pressured by the Colonel to frame Liao as a spy by alleging that he found incriminating evidence under the floorboards of Liao’s car.
In an outburst of anger and frustration, Charlie Isaacs blows up at his fellow scientists in the Thin Man group and erases their attempted solutions on the blackboard Akley, the group’s leader, tells Charlie that he has “a once in a generation mind” but reminds him that his competition is Werner Heisenberg, the brilliant Nobel laureate leading the German bomb effort.
One of the remarkable things about the real Manhattan Project was that so many “one in a generation minds” gathered at Los Alamos to collaborate on designing and building the bomb. The Manhattan Project boasted eight Nobel Prize laureates: Enrico Fermi, James Chadwick, Niels Bohr, Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, James Franck, Harold Urey, and Isador I. Rabi. After the war, over a dozen Manhattan Project veterans would go on to win Nobel Prizes, including Hans Bethe, Emilio Segre, Eugene Wigner, Richard Feynman, and Glenn Seaborg. Then there were brilliant scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Chien-Shiung Wu, and John von Neumann, whose valuable contributions were essential to the success of the project and changed science and mathematics forever.
“Manhattan” accurately captures the fear that the Nazis would develop an atomic bomb first. In an interview in 1985, Leona Marshall Libby, the top female scientist in the Manhattan Project, explained, “Everyone was terrified that we were wrong, and that the Germans were ahead of us. That was a persistent and ever-present fear, fed of course by the fact that our leaders knew those people in Germany and had gone to school with them. The Germans led the civilized world of physics in every aspect at the time that the war set in, that Hitler lowered the boom. They led, not we. Very frightening time.”
General Groves and other Manhattan Project leaders were so concerned about Heisenberg that they even assigned a spy, former Major League Baseball player Moe Berg, to assassinate him. Robert Furman, who was Chief of Foreign Intelligence for the Manhattan Project, recalled, “Probably it was a good that such a plan was not carried out because it would have caused the Germans to see the immediate importance of an atomic bomb, and our involvement and our manufacture of the bomb might be more apparent to them. They might have changed their targets.”
This episode showed the wives’ working at Los Alamos as telephone operators, monitoring conversations to catch any exchanges that hinted of espionage. Charlie Isaacs' wife Abby is excited about her first job as a telephone operator, but feels some guilt for being a working woman, knowing that her wealthy father would be shocked. Eleanor Roensch worked as a telephone operator at Los Alamos during the war. In a 1992 interview, she remembered, “Probably almost all of the GIs got phone calls from their Moms saying, ‘You did it, you made the atomic bomb. I’m so proud of you.’ So that when the news about Nagasaki came in, it was kind of lost amid all of the news about what Los Alamos was.”
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.”