German Atomic Bomb Project.
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“I don’t believe a word of the whole thing,” declared Werner Heisenberg, the scientific head of the German nuclear program, after hearing the news that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.
Germany began its secret program, called Uranverein, or “uranium club,” in April 1939, just months after German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann had inadvertently discovered fission. Germany had a significant head start over the Manhattan Project as well as some of the best scientists, a strong industrial base, sufficient materials, and the interest of its military officers. Nevertheless, the reaction of Heisenberg illustrates just how far the German program came from actually developing a nuclear weapon.
A “Race” for the Bomb
The United States government became aware of the German nuclear program in August 1939, when Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt, warning “that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated.” The United States was in a race to develop an atomic bomb believing whoever had the bomb first would win the war.
Robert Furman, assistant to General Leslie Groves and the Chief of Foreign Intelligence for the Manhattan Project, described how “the Manhattan Project was built on fear: fear that the enemy had the bomb, or would have it before we could develop it. The scientists knew this to be the case because they were refugees from Germany, a large number of them, and they had studied under the Germans before the war broke out.” Manhattan Project physicist Leona Marshall Libby also recalled, “I think everyone was terrified that we were wrong, and the Germans were ahead of us.… Germany led the civilized world of physics in every aspect, at the time war set in, when Hitler lowered the boom. It was a very frightening time.”
The United States government remained equally afraid. General Groves remembered, “Unless and until we had positive knowledge to the contrary, we had to assume that the most competent German scientists and engineers were working on an atomic program with the full support of their government and with the full capacity of German industry at their disposal. Any other assumption would have been unsound and dangerous” (Norris 295). There was even consideration of kidnapping Werner Heisenberg in Switzerland in 1942, although this plan never came to fruition. In 1943, the United States launched the Alsos Mission, a foreign intelligence project focused on learning the extent of Germany’s nuclear program.
By 1944, however, the evidence was clear: the Germans had not come close to developing a bomb and had only advanced to preliminary research. Following the German defeat, the Allies detained ten German scientists, at Farm Hall, a bugged house in Godmanchester, England, from July 3, 1945 to January 3, 1946. Some of them, such as Heisenberg, Kurt Diebner, and Carl von Weiszacker were directly involved in the project, while others, such as Otto Hahn and Max von Laue, were only suspected and later proven to have not been involved. Heisenberg’s disbelief after hearing that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima confirmed in the minds of the Allies that the German effort was never close. As one German scientist exclaimed, it must have taken “factories large as the United States to make that much uranium-235!”