America’s Secret War Effort

Story by Andrea Gross; photos by Irv Green (unless otherwise noted)


I'm in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the gentleman across the table from me is telling me stories about a time when most Americans, including prominent senators, did the government’s bidding because… Well, just because they trusted the government to do the right thing. No bickering. No complaints. Not even any questions. These stories blow my mind.

On the airplane en route to Tennessee, I’d read articles about more partisan squabbling in Congress, more defiant businessmen, more people trying to advance their own interests at the expense of others. Now it occurs to me that, except for a few weeks after 9/11, I can't remember a time when the people of the United States were really united.

But this gentleman is telling me that such a time existed not so very long ago. “During World War II,” he says, “extraordinary things happened,” and he continues to tell me about the “Secret City” that existed in his neck of the woods.

It happened like this: On August 2, 1939, President Roosevelt received a letter from Albert Einstein stating that there was reason to believe Nazi Germany was developing nuclear capabilities. Roosevelt realized that the United States had no choice but to do likewise — and to it faster.

Thus was born the Manhattan Project, a massive, top-secret, all-out effort by the United States government to develop nuclear capabilities.

Senators and Congressmen authorized the money without debate, knowing only that it was needed for a secret war effort. (Hmmm…. Can you imagine this happening today?)

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