"What is a Nuclear Bomb?"

As a graduate student at Purdue University, Bob Carter was invited to work on a top-secret physics project in the desert of New Mexico—the famed Manhattan Project that created and tested the atomic bomb. Carter describes both the wonder of possibility and the weight of responsibility that simultaneously struck those Americans who helped create the bomb, a weapon he never expected the United States government to use on civilians. For average Americans, the bomb remained elusive, as words like “atomic bomb” and “uranium” had yet to enter the general vocabulary; as a result, many Americans, much like Thomas Stanley, were quite confused when they first heard learned of the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Feelings on Seeing the Bomb—Robert “Bob” Carter

It was—I guess overwhelming is a word that might fit, but I‘m not really sure what overwhelming means. It lighted up the whole sky. There was a very, very bright flash and then the cloud of material that was the cause of the explosion or the result of the explosion started rising, and it was visible. Also, it was self-visible, self-lighting, or something I don’t know, self-luminous so we could see the cloud rising. In about a minute, the shock wave arrived because light travels much faster through the atmosphere than sound does so it took about a minute for the sound to arrive after the flash of light. That was almost overwhelming second phase of the whole thing. But it was—I had never really observed a big explosion of any kind before, and so I didn’t quite know what to expect. The whole thing was a surprise to me.

It’s probably the biggest change in human existence that man has been able to create, I think it is about the way we felt. But I remember sort of feeling too what I would guess parents (see I was not married and didn’t have a family and stuff) but I guessed what parents must think when they first see their newborn baby, and they think, “Wow! Look we made a miracle, we did a miracle here. Look at what we made.” And then they think, “Gosh, but we have to protect and take care of this for the rest of our lives.” I think that’s kind of the way I felt at the time because I felt it was a new phenomenon in the existence of mankind. It could be used for good or evil, or good or bad depending on people.

Reactions to the Bomb on Hiroshima—Robert “Bob” Carter

Well, at the beginning of the project there was a lot of uncertainty among the scientists whether a nuclear bomb was even feasible, whether it could be built, or whether the parameters involved were sufficient to make it function as a bomb. And so, that was a large part of the investigations at the beginning. Then when it became more and more certain that a bomb would, in fact, detonate, then we started trying to understand the magnitude of the explosion and the results of it, the mechanical effects of an explosion. So, we realized if it worked as we had predicted, it would be a huge explosion, a bigger explosion than mankind had ever seen before. I guess it was partially scientific inquisition to go ahead and do it if it were possible and then also a little bit of concern how it would be used by the U.S. government if and when it was possible to build one. I don’t remember thinking in terms of it being used to kill a lot of people. I don’t remember thinking that through very much at the time. I guess I was surprised that the United States government had done it, had actually used it on a city. I guess I thought, “Golly, a bomb is supposed to be used on the military installations and military people. It’s not supposed to be used on cities with civilians.” I guess that was my immediate reaction.

Hearing one of the Atomic Scientists Speak at Yale—Thomas O. Stanley

At Yale, one of the atomic scientists had come to [campus] and talked. And in the bowl session afterwards, somebody said, “Are there any explosives greater than what we’re now using that may come into being?” And he said, “Of course, there’s the uranium bomb.” And we didn’t know what he was talking about. And that’s as much as he said.

And so, I remember a friend of mine on the beach [when] the atom bomb was dropped came and he said, “There’s been a very powerful bomb dropped in Japan.” I said, “Oh yes, it’s uranium!” [laughs] And [I] was looked upon very suspiciously! You know, I figured out that’s what they must’ve been talking about.

Hearing about Hiroshima—Lew Halin

I also remember the day that I was coming home from school, and I guess I was a freshman in high school. The school was quite a bit of distance from my house so I had to take a trolley car to get there. It went down to the station where all the trolley cars originated at the end of the run where I got off to go to high school. And I remember coming back in to that station to take the trolley car home after school, and I heard the announcer announcing that we had dropped an atomic bomb. But it was the A-bomb on Hiroshima —that was harnessing the power of the sun. And, of course, a couple days later, they dropped the second one, and then it was all over. Of course, nobody really had any idea of what they were talking about, at that time. Of course, the newspapers had crude pictures of things; I mean, they really didn’t know what (laughs). Nobody knew what a nuclear bomb was at that time.