The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

George Cowan's Interview (1993)

George Cowan was a physical chemist who joined the Manhattan Project in 1942. In this interview, Cowan discusses the Soviet atomic program and their effort to build a nuclear bomb. In 1949, he helped convince U.S. government officials that the radiochemistry of air samples taken from the atmosphere proved that the Soviets had detonated their own atomic bomb, rather than what many assumed was just a peaceful nuclear reactor problem. Cowan also discusses Operation Crossroads, where he helped take air samples during atomic tests at Eniwetok Atoll in 1946.

General Leslie Groves' Interview - Part 5

In this interview, Groves discusses his administrative approach to managing the Manhattan Project. Groves talks about his early career before the Project and some of the key lessons he learned during his job as an engineer that helped him succeed during the Manhattan Project. Groves also discusses his relationship with Congress and the ways in which he was able to persuade government officials to provide the enormous funding for the Project.

Robert E. Hayes's Interview

Robert “Bob” Hayes worked as an airplane mechanic on Kwajalein Island, maintaining Boeing B-29s. He talks about life in the Pacific during World War II, being trained to use a flamethrower on Iwo Jima, maintaining complicated airplane engines, and witnessing the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests.

Glenn Seaborg's Interview

Glenn Seaborg, winner of the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry and co-discoverer of plutonium, was in charge of the separation process for removing plutonium from irradiated uranium slugs at the University of Chicago during the Manhattan Project. In his interview, he discusses the pressure to obtain high yields of plutonium, and how he eventually decided on the bismuth phosphate process, which was extremely successful. Seaborg also describes the difficulty of recruiting top scientists to work on a top-secret project, as he was not allowed to explain the importance of his work unless they agreed to join.

Hans Bethe's Interview

Hans Bethe was a German-American physicist who was head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos. He played an important role in the development of the hydrogen fusion bomb, working alongside Edward Teller. In this interview, Bethe discusses espionage and Soviet spying during the Manhattan project, as well as the post-war development of hydrogen weapons.

John Manley's Interview

Dr. John Manley was one of Oppenheimer’s principal assistants at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Manley helped Oppenheimer manage Los Alamos' laboratories and worked alongside a number of well-known scientists, including I.I. Rabi, Robert Serber, and Edward Teller. Manley helped survey the landscape around the Trinity Test site before the test and witnessed the explosion from inside a wooden bunker. In this interview, he recalls the Trinity detonation, as well as working with men like Leo Szilard and General Leslie Groves.

Vera Kistiakowsky's Interview

Vera Kistiakowsky is an American physicist and the daughter of physical chemist George Kistiakowsky, who directed the Explosives Division at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and later served as President Dwight D. Eisenhower's science advisor. Vera, who entered her first year of college at Mount Holyoke in 1944, visited her father at Los Alamos during the summer months in 1944 and 1945. In her interview, she discusses the sense of freedom she felt in the secret city and talks about the fun she had on horseback riding adventures with her father. Following the project, Vera finished college and earned her Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry under Glenn Seaborg at the University of California, Berkeley. She joined the faculty at MIT in 1963 and spent the rest of her career advocating for the advancement of women in science.

Harold Agnew's Interview (1994)

Harold Agnew was veteran of the Manhattan Project, an observer to the bombing of Hiroshima, and served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970-1979. Agnew discusses the science behind the hydrogen bomb, along with production and research conducted under the Atomic Energy Commission (later the DOE) and the Air Force. Among other topics, he describes the Soviet program and the espionage involved, his clash with the government and military when trying to receive funds for laboratory research, and innovations that resulted from the American nuclear program.

General Leslie Groves's Interview - Part 4

In this interview, General Groves talks about his responsibilities as the director of the Manhattan Project as well as the responsibilities of his subordinates, including Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols and General Thomas Farrell. Groves also discusses the relationship that he had with Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant and their role in the Project.

Jimmy Vale

Jimmy Vale joined the Manhattan Project in 1943, where he helped operate calutrons as part of Ernest O. Lawrence’s particle accelerator team. Vale shares his recollections about Lawrence and discusses their time traveling together and the quirks of Lawrence’s personality.