75 Years After The Manhattan Project, A Scientist Revealed The Truth About U.S. Atomic Tests

It’s a July night during 1945 in the Jornada Del Muerto Desert near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and a group of scientists anxiously awaits the detonation of an experimental bomb nicknamed the “Gadget.” But it’s not just any old bomb; it’s the world’s first atomic device. One of those working on the project at nearby Los Alamos is 19-year-old Peter Lax. Today, of the people involved in the creation of the earliest atom bomb, he’s among the few participants still alive.

Lax was actually a Jewish refugee born in Hungary, from where his parents had escaped the deadly attentions of Hitler’s Nazis just in time. Lax had been just 15 years old when his family fled their home nation late in 1941. And it was just days after the Laxes set off for the safe haven of America that the surprise Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor dragged the U.S. into WWII.

Considering his participation in the Manhattan Project, which centered on the quest to create a working nuclear weapon, Lax seems to have been remarkably incurious about the first atomic detonation. In fact, he spent that fateful summer 1945 night asleep in his bed. In a July 2020 article about the man in Smithsonian magazine, Lax simply explained, “I was lazy.”

ADVERTISEMENT

We can probably take Lax’s assertion that he was “lazy” with a large pinch of salt, however. The Manhattan Project had recruited him because of his exceptional math skills. He was put to work on the fiendishly complicated task of working out what impact the shockwaves of a nuclear explosion would have. To do this, he had to work with what are called “partial differential equations,” a methodology that’s probably beyond most of us. So, he was evidently far from being a shirker.

In any case, Lax was just a corporal within the Los Alamos set-up, and that meant he couldn’t get official clearance to witness the explosion in person. “I deliberately didn’t go,” he explained. “You couldn’t go officially, and you had to find a place where you could see it. It was complicated and uncomfortable.”

ADVERTISEMENT

But the key point was, as Lax recalled, that “we had worked so long and hard on it, and it worked.” In other words, the test was a success. And it turns out that it was Albert Einstein who set the ball rolling for this project to harness nuclear fission and create a usable weapon.

ADVERTISEMENT

Einstein put pen to paper in August 1939 and composed a message to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He started in a low key by pointing out that contemporary research had already shown that uranium had potential as an energy source. Einstein continued, “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.”

ADVERTISEMENT

And Einstein explained that this outcome might be achieved very soon. He added, “It is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed.” Ominously, Einstein also pointed out that Nazi Germany was secretly working in this very field, which was a far from welcome development.

ADVERTISEMENT

Writing in The New York Times in 1964, author and physicist Ralph E. Lapp pointed out that as an avowed pacifist, Einstein must have found this a difficult letter to write. Einstein was Jewish and like Lax had escaped Europe to avoid the horrors of Nazism. Lapp’s article quoted Einstein’s words: “I am convinced that degeneracy follows every autocratic system of violence, for violence inevitably attracts moral inferiors.”

ADVERTISEMENT

As a result, it seems Einstein felt able to overcome his pacifist beliefs on this occasion. He recognized how crucial it was that the U.S. should not allow Hitler’s Germany to steal a march in the field of nuclear research. But now, somehow, Einstein’s letter had to be put before the president. And Eisenhower had plenty on his plate already; Hitler’s September 1939 attack on Poland had just started WWII in Europe.

ADVERTISEMENT

What’s more, despite his many talents, Roosevelt was no expert on the theories of nuclear physics. Lapp quoted the words of journalist John Gunther, “Roosevelt had as much knowledge of the possibility of splitting the uranium atom to produce a chain reaction as the corner cop.” Thankfully, though, a friend of the president, the businessman and economist Andrew Sachs, agreed to buttonhole Roosevelt.

ADVERTISEMENT

So, what was Roosevelt’s reaction to Einstein’s apocalyptic warning? Well, fortunately Sachs turned out to be a persuasive intermediary. He explained what was worrying Einstein. Roosevelt grasped the situation quickly, saying, “Alex, what you are after is to see that the Nazis don’t blow us up.” Sachs used one word to agree with the president’s assessment: “Precisely.” Roosevelt concluded, “This requires action.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Despite the presidential call to action, though, the ensuing months were frustrating for the scientists, researchers and engineers as delay followed delay. One of the team later claimed that more than a year was frittered away without any substantive action. But eventually, progress was made and in mid-1942, with America now well and truly embroiled in WWII, the Manhattan Project was established.

ADVERTISEMENT

The project received its name from the location of its initial premises, as they were on Broadway in Manhattan, New York. In December 1942, President Roosevelt authorized the first major tranche of funding for the project, which amounted to $500 million. Not long after that, the base of the Manhattan Project relocated to Washington D.C. while retaining its original name.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Manhattan Project was to become a huge and sprawling affair. It involved hundreds of thousands of scientists, technicians and researchers at bases all over the U.S., with personnel joining from Britain and Canada as well. Secrecy was a byword of the project, of course. Indeed, many of the people employed on various aspects of the enterprise had no knowledge of what they were actually working on.

ADVERTISEMENT

The principal research center, with J. Robert Oppenheimer at the helm, was established at Los Alamos in New Mexico. This was behind that first nuclear bomb test we mentioned earlier, which occurred in the Jornada Del Muerto Desert, a couple of hundred miles from Los Alamos. The code name for the test location was Trinity, while the bomb itself was dubbed Gadget.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Manhattan Project recruited people from a wide variety of disciplines including explosives specialists, chemists, physicists and metallurgists. Mathematicians such as Lax were also much in demand. Some of the most important scientists on the program were from a group called the “Martians.” These men were all Hungarian Jews who, like Lax, had fled their home nation to escape the horrors of Nazism.

ADVERTISEMENT

A physicist called Fritz Houtermans gave the five Hungarian scientists their nickname. According to Nature, in a light-hearted moment he said that this extraordinary group of brilliant men “were really visitors from Mars.” And like Lax, all five were from Budapest. One of their number in particular, John von Neumann, was to play an important part in Lax’s life.

ADVERTISEMENT

When Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation spoke to Lax for the Voices of the Manhattan Project website in 2016, she asked him about Von Neumann. “He was the most brilliant,” Lax recalled. “When I came to America, I carried letters from Hungarian mathematicians to von Neumann, saying he should look after me. And he very soon came to visit me at my parents’ apartment and interviewed me.”

ADVERTISEMENT

According to the Smithsonian interview, the young Lax regarded Von Neumann as a key mentor. Von Neumann is widely revered as the “founding father” of game theory and for his contribution to modern computing. Laxwas full of praise for his mentor, saying that Von Neumann was “the most scintillating intellect of the 20th century.”

ADVERTISEMENT

As we’ve heard, Lax was born Hungarian capital, Budapest. He came into the world on May Day, 1926. And both his father Henry Lax and his mother Klara Kornfield worked as doctors.

ADVERTISEMENT

At high school in Budapest, the young Lax studied math with enthusiasm. He was lucky enough to have two distinguished role models, Professor Denes König of the city’s Technical University and the eminent mathematician Rózsa Péter. Lax’s future as an outstanding mathematician was laid on these foundations.

ADVERTISEMENT

As Lax moved from childhood into his teenage years during the 1930s, Hungary became an increasingly dangerous place for Jews. The Hungarian government grew close to Hitler’s German regime and enacted discriminatory legislation against Jews. In 1941, shortly after Hitler had invaded the Soviet Union, the Hungarian leadership chose to ally formally with Germany.

ADVERTISEMENT

This was a clear and obvious signal to Jews in Hungary that extreme danger was now on the horizon. Lax’s doctor father, Henry, was lucky enough to count the American consul in Budapest as both a patient and a pal. This facilitated the Lax family in their application to flee to the U.S. They packed what they could and departed Budapest in the winter of 1941.

ADVERTISEMENT

In a 2005 The New York Times interview, Lax described his family’s escape. “And so we went by train across Europe, through Germany in train compartments filled with Wehrmacht troops,” he remembered. “We sailed for America from Lisbon on December 5, 1941.” Those German soldiers must have made the Lax family more than a little nervous as they made their way to the Portuguese capital.

ADVERTISEMENT

“While we were on the high seas, the war broke out,” Lax continued. “So we left as immigrants and arrived in New York as enemy aliens. Within a month, my brother and I were in high school. I went to Stuyvesant.” It was Hungary’s alliance with Germany, plus the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, that thrust the Lax family into the unwelcome role of citizens of an enemy nation.

ADVERTISEMENT

The Lax family had escaped the horrors of wartime Europe by the skin of their teeth. The ship they sailed on was the last passenger liner to leave Europe for America. Other relatives weren’t so lucky, however. The Smithsonian quoted Lax’s words, “We were the only members of my family who escaped the war in Europe.” Hungarian fascists murdered his uncle and cousin in Budapest. Another uncle died during his stint as a forced laborer.

ADVERTISEMENT

But despite their official “enemy” status, the family settled quickly into their new life in New York City. Lax attended Stuyvesant High School, although the budding young mathematician didn’t study his favored subject there. “I didn’t take any math courses at Stuyvesant. I knew more than most of the teachers,” Lax explained. “But I had to take English and American history, and I quickly fell in love with America.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Lax expanded upon his early experiences of his adopted country. “The first summer, we drove to California and back, and we saw how vast and beautiful America is,” he remembered. However, some things remained a mystery to the young Hungarian. He pointed out, “I never understood why football is called football. They don’t play it with the foot.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Then, in 1944 Lax was drafted into the U.S. Army, an experience he recalled with some fondness in The New York Times. “I was 18 and I spent six very pleasant months at Texas A&M, at an Army training program in engineering there,” Lax explained. “Later, I was sent to Los Alamos, and that was like science fiction. There were all these legends everywhere.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Lax arrived at Los Alamos less than two months before the first atomic bomb detonation. He remembered what his colleagues had told him about the work at the secret base. They explained to him, “We’re building an atomic bomb, partly radium, but maybe plutonium, which doesn’t exist in the universe, but we are manufacturing it at Hanford.” The Hanford Engineer Works in Washington was the site where plutonium-239 was being created for the bomb.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lax also identified what he believed had been his most important contribution to the Manhattan Project: “My work on shock waves, where I clarified shock wave theory and combined it with practical numerical methods for calculating flows with shock waves.”

ADVERTISEMENT

The MacTutor History of Mathematics Archive website quotes Lax’s assessment of his time at Los Alamos. He said, “The first time I spent in Los Alamos, and especially the later exposure, shaped my mathematical thinking. First of all, it was the experience of being part of a scientific team – not just of mathematicians, but people with different outlooks – with the aim being not a theorem, but a product.”

ADVERTISEMENT

Lax also remembers the tension that was at the heart of the Manhattan Project. “There was a feeling of great urgency,” he told Smithsonian. “At the outset, we didn’t know how far along the Germans were with the bomb. As it turned out, not very far at all. But we felt as if the fate of the world was in our hands.” This must surely have seemed a heavy burden for the youthful mathematician.

ADVERTISEMENT

The stakes could hardly have been higher. Although Germany had capitulated after the Allies had crushed Hitler’s regime with a comprehensive military victory in May 1945, the Japanese fought on. A grim reminder of the likely costs of defeating Japan came with the Battle of Iwo Jima. Fanatical Japanese defenders held out for more than a month, resulting in some 21,000 Japanese and 7,000 American deaths. The next flashpoint, at Okinawa, a conflict lasting 82 days until June 1945, was even bloodier.

ADVERTISEMENT

The test of the first atom bomb on July 15, 1945 in the New Mexico desert was a success. And the American authorities decided that this fearsome new weapon should be deployed against Japan with the aim of bringing WWII to a final conclusion. The initial bomb was dropped on Hiroshima from a B-29 bomber on August 6, just three weeks after that initial test. It killed some 80,000. Three days later, around 40,000 died when the second fell on Nagasaki.

ADVERTISEMENT

The devastating weapons achieved their goals. The Japanese emperor, Hirohito, confirmed his nation’s surrender a few days later. The war was over. With the passage of time, the use of nuclear weapons by America has generated much controversy. But one man who has no doubts about the justification for using nuclear weapons against Japan is Peter Lax.

ADVERTISEMENT

Speaking about the use of nuclear bombs in 1945, Lax told Smithsonian, “It ended the war. I was elated. The war was over. I would not be sent to the Pacific.” Lax holds that concluding the conflict by forcing the Japanese into surrender avoided the deaths of millions in an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands.

ADVERTISEMENT

Lax also believes that the sacrifice of those two Japanese cities served to show the world that an all-out nuclear war was inconceivable. “I think we have seen the end of world wars,” he said. “The world is lucky that it didn’t blow itself up. But we have to be very careful to see that the weapons are in safe hands.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In his Smithsonian interview, Lax also told the story of Albert Einstein’s views about the impact of nuclear weapons on the world. Lax related the tale, “When he [Einstein] was asked what weapons will be used in World War Three, he said, ‘Well, I don’t know, but I can tell you what weapons will be used in World War IV: stones.’”

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT