“What is this, blackmail?” Charlie Isaacs asks Frank Winter in the latest episode of Manhattan.
“Let’s call this, uh, negotiation,” Frank responds.
Our favorite feuding physicists are forced to work together again after a test with a (non-nuclear) replica of the implosion bomb fizzles. In exchange for helping Charlie get the project back on track, Frank negotiates terms with Colonel Darrow: an honorable discharge from the Army, the ability to see Liza, and the appointment of a scientist to the Target Committee. That scientist turns out to be Charlie. As they search for an explanation for the failed test, Frank prods Charlie to think about how the bomb will be used. “What is it that I want on my conscience? What are they going to say about me at my funeral?”
A similar failure occurred less than two days before the Trinity test in July of 1945. George Kistiakowsky led the X (Explosives) Division at Los Alamos, which designed the explosive lenses that would compress a plutonium sphere to achieve critical mass, and thereby ignite a nuclear chain reaction. “Thirty-eight hours before the actual Trinity test…there was that test which indicated that they didn’t work. Which created enormous emotional outbursts about mine and everybody else’s work,” Kistiakowsky remembered.
Charlie also has to deal with the unexpected arrival of his father, Eli, who has been released from prison. Charlie refuses to see him, but Abby asks Darrow for permission to leave the Hill so Eli can meet his grandson. “The Jewish people don’t just need Palestine, Colonel. We need each other.”
Abby’s meeting with Eli starts off well, but then his true motivation becomes clear: money. He tries to persuade Abby that he and Charlie can work together to sell weapons and help Jews protect themselves. Abby gives him money to buy him off, and tells him to stay away. Eli angrily recounts how Charlie set him up and sent him to prison. Charlie has the “best poker face I’ve ever seen,” he growls. “If I was you, I wouldn’t believe anything he says!”
Meanwhile, Fritz grieves for Jeannie, whose death Nora has disguised as an accidental fall into a construction site. He even shaves off his mustache, just as she wanted. Liza tries gently to get him to help with her radiation study. “The work helps, Fritz.” He volunteers to be her test subject, pointing out that he already has plutonium in his system. “I’ve got nothing left to lose.”
Jim continues to feel guilty over his role in Jeannie’s death. Nora reassures him that his actions will ultimately save lives: “You are the linchpin.”
But then Jim finds Nora’s notes for her handlers: “Perseus is immature, distrustful of authority, politically unformed. He believes he is more intelligent than he is, which makes him susceptible to flattery.” Jim is outraged, but Nora tells him that “Perseus” refers not to him, but to another Soviet spy on the Hill. The spy ring at Los Alamos continues to grow.
Perseus remains one of the Manhattan Project’s enduring mysteries. It was the code name of an alleged Soviet spy (and physicist) at Los Alamos who has never been identified, although some historians have argued that Perseus never actually existed. “I’m not convinced either way,” concluded Robert Lamphere, an FBI agent who supervised investigations into Soviet espionage on the Manhattan Project, and whose work led to the identification and arrest of Harry Gold, David Greenglass, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
As the Soviet spies at Los Alamos escape detection, the British spies have less luck. Hitler’s suicide and the impending end of the war in Europe mean that Paul Crosley and William Hogarth can return home with their trove of atomic secrets. But before they can drive off the Hill, they are surrounded and arrested.
It turns out Paul has double-crossed Hogarth: he has been reporting his scheme to Darrow for months. Paul discovered Hogarth was lying when he took the “Little Boy” photograph out of its frame and saw a 1932 date on the back – which means the child cannot possibly be Paul’s son. As a reward, Darrow grants Paul U.S. citizenship.
Meanwhile, Helen has begun a romance with Stan, the patent lawyer. Stan suggests that her research could make her very wealthy after the war is over, and he can keep it from being patented by the government. “It only belongs to Uncle Sam if I tell him about it.” We know, of course, how Sidney Liao’s attempt to patent Manhattan Project inventions fared in season 1, so Helen had better be careful!
Patents are a little-known part of the Manhattan Project story. Historian Dr. Alex Wellerstein has found that between 1942 and 1947, the project’s patent division compiled more than 5,600 inventions and filed approximately 2,100 secret patent applications. As Wellerstein explains, the patent program was essential to the U.S. government’s plans for the postwar use of atomic energy. “The Manhattan Project patenting program was a systematic attempt to acquire total legal ownership for the United States government in the entire field of atomic energy that had been developed during the war.” You can learn more about the Manhattan Project’s innovations and patents by watching the panel Wellerstein led at AHF’s symposium on the 70th anniversary of the Manhattan Project in June 2015.
Back at the Trinity site, Frank proves to Charlie that the test failed because someone mislabeled the positive (red) and negative (yellow) parts of the detonators. But before he does this, he asks Charlie to use his place on the Target Committee to advocate for a demonstration of the bomb on an uninhabited island.
The real Target Committee included multiple scientists, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, John von Neumann, and British physicist William G. Penney. Frank’s call for a demonstration echoes the (similarly named!) Franck Report, authored by a group of leading scientists at the University of Chicago in June of 1945. They argued, "If the United States would be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race of armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons. Much more favorable conditions for the eventual achievement of such an agreement could be created if nuclear bombs were first revealed to the world by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area."
Charlie agrees to argue that the U.S. should conduct a demonstration instead of using the bomb on Japan without warning. “You did the right thing, Frank,” he declares.
“And I know you will, too,” Frank replies.
Frank extends his hand, and after a pause, Charlie takes it.
After Frank puts his trust in Charlie, he walks past Liza. Their eyes briefly meet, and then she turns away. Frank strides into Lazar’s tent and hands him a bag of tobacco. We see two cans of red and yellow paint: they deliberately mislabeled the detonators to cause the test to fail, and had a bet on whether Charlie would figure it out on his own.
“I told you not to bet on that boy,” Lazar mutters.
“Yeah,” Frank responds. “Well, we’re all betting on him now.”
With the path to the bomb clear once again, will Charlie keep his agreement with Frank? Will Perseus make an appearance? Will Charlie and Abby’s marriage get even rockier? We will find out 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.”