Some time back, I set up a Google Alert to forward me, on a daily basis, any news stories that mention the phrase “Manhattan Project.” The not-terribly-surprising result is that I get to see exactly how often people call for new Manhattan Project-like efforts to solve various technical or political problems of our times.
It turns out to be something that is very often called for. More than I had expected. Each and every day, more or less, someone, somewhere, is invoking the Manhattan Project as the be-all and end-all for intense problem solving.
Here is what people seem to mean by calling for a new Manhattan Project:
- Round up all the experts on a given subject. All of them.
- Give them near unlimited resources and allow them to follow each and every possible lead towards solving the problem. Each and every one of them. Even redundantly.
- Expect positive results in three to five years, give or take. What else could the outcome of such an effort be be?
Well, that sounds find and dandy if you support whatever the outcome is meant to be — renewable energy, bird flu studies, understanding autism, fertilizer, nuclear fusion, fighting cancer (just to name a few such ideas floated in the last two weeks alone) — and you believe that it actually works that way.
But here’s the rub: this is a really lousy way to think about what the Manhattan Project was.
Here’s what the Manhattan Project means to me, as an historian of, well, the Manhattan Project:
- Spend a fantastical amount of resources — diverting it from other necessary projects — on something which is actually a huge gamble. We tend to gloss over the fact today that when they started pouring money into the bomb work in 1942 and 1943, there were really quite long odds that it would pay off, and it was a lot harder to pull off than they had originally estimated when they OK’d the project.
- Invest so much into it that the penalty for calling off the work, even if the initial purpose is no longer relevant or feasible, would be institutionally impossible. In fact, invest so much effort into it that the question of whether it ought to be pushed towards completion is essentially unraisable amongst the highest echelon of planners.
- Do all of the above with essentially no external oversight or independent auditing. This is actually a requirement for spending money on such a wildly improbable project at any time when resources are considered scarce — which is always.1
- Keep all long-term or big-picture planning in the hands of a deliberately small cabal, and rigidly work to keep dissenting views out of view of those who might actually care about them.
- After completing your goal, instead of dismantling the infrastructure and moving on to other problems, you actually expand it considerably, making it several times larger than anyone would have guessed during the initial project.
Now, I hear you saying, “well, Alex, obviously no one who invokes the Manhattan Project means any of that!” Oh, I know. That’s the problem — we’ve turned “the Manhattan Project” into a vague metaphor for scientific effort. But it’s highly misleading. The Manhattan Project was an unusual, somewhat dubious enterprise that had massive, world-affecting consequences. Ignoring that not only misunderstands the Manhattan Project, it misunderstands what happens when you pour essentially unlimited resources into a given field — which actually is the primary goal of those who use this metaphor.
The problem is, the Manhattan Project “worked,” if by “worked” you mean, “produced atomic bombs for use in the Pacific theatre during World War II.” It almost didn’t work — there are plenty of reasons to believe that the war would have been over fairly soon with or without the bombs (the main historical question is not whether it would soon end, but on what terms and at what costs). But because it did “work,” it seems inevitable and even like a good gamble. But the odds were actually incredible long, and it was an incredible accomplishment to actually get that much done in that amount of time — a flattering fact for those who worked on it, but something we tend to gloss over since we know how the story ends.2
The other problem is that many of the other models one might use had much more ambiguous results. Do we want a “War on Cancer” for our present problems? Probably not, since that didn’t actually end cancer. (It did many good things, to be sure! But it also showed us that “cancer” is a fantastically bigger medical problem to surmount than many people had realized.)
Do we want a “Apollo program” instead? Maybe — getting to the moon first is seen as more or less good thing today by most Americans. But it also has overtones of technical innovation for propaganda’s sake, and in its own time, the technical accomplishments were noticeably complicated by a rupturing domestic scene (riots, Civil Rights, Vietnam, etc.). Of course, the fact that the popular attitude is something along the lines of “we went to the moon, and then space got boring,” doesn’t help. Still, it is probably a more realistic model for what one might want, in terms of time horizons, expenditures, and programs that are actually compatible with democratic institutions.
Ironically, a public call for a new “Manhattan Project” is also something of a logical contradiction. There was no public call for the original Manhattan Project — it was a very private, secret effort by a small group of insiders running off of specialized knowledge that most of the world wasn’t aware even existed. General Groves would have loathed (and would have attempted to censor) an actual public call for making atomic bombs in the 1940s, because it would have completely defeated the goals of the Manhattan Project as they actually existed — secrecy, winning the “race,” avoiding audits, and so on. Calling for a Manhattan Project makes about as much sense as ordering up your own surprise party.
- See my previous post on the Origins of the Nuclear Black Budget for a discussion of these kinds of issues. [↩]
- I’d be remiss not to cite Michael Gordin’s provocative book, Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War, which interrogates the “what do we mean by work?” question in wonderful detail. I wrote a review of it awhile back, which you can read here if you are interested. [↩]