The Manhattan Project

by Robert Fleegler

After a slow start, WGN America's Manhattan emerged during the summer and fall of 2014 as a strong period drama worthy of our current "Golden Age of Television." Merging 1940s history with fictional characters, the program depicts the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, during World War II, Manhattan portrays the history of the race for the atomic bomb while simultaneously commenting on contemporary concerns regarding the balance between national security and individual rights.

Frank Winter, a fictional scientist, is the central character of the first season and he is determined to build the bomb regardless of the costs to him personally and professionally. The writers reveal the source of Winter's fanaticism in episode 4, when flashbacks portray his service in the trenches in World War I, where he witnessed a poison gas attack. Repeatedly focused on the number of troops dying each week in World War II, Winter desperately wants to spare others the horrors that he and so many others experienced on the Western Front.

Charlie Isaacs, a younger fictional scientist, is the second lead and he initially has serious doubts about the morality of building the bomb. Like many of the real-life scientists at Los Alamos, Isaacs is Jewish and he emerges with the zeal of a convert regarding the necessity of the bomb after seeing early evidence of the Holocaust from American intelligence. Manhattan's writers often remind the audience that the bomb was built out of fear that the German atomic bomb program led by Werner Heisenberg (the inspiration for Walter White's alter ego on Breaking Bad) would get there first. As the show notes, American intelligence believed that the Nazis were ahead of the Allies at one point, though in reality the Germans never pursued a serious bomb program for a variety of reasons (Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb, 1986, pp. 403–6).

Manhattan echoes other aspects of the history of the Manhattan Project. Winter runs a division working on an implosion bomb, which many, including program chief J. Robert Oppenheimer, thought was a long shot as a workable design. He appears to be a loose stand-in for Seth Neddermyer, who initially led the implosion bomb effort. Meanwhile, Isaacs works for another group that is building a gun-assembly bomb, known then as Thin Man, which was seen as the design most likely to succeed during the early days of the Manhattan Project.

A key crisis emerges in Manhattan—just as it did in the actual Manhattan Project—when it appears the gun-assembly bomb might not work because it will pre-detonate (Peter Wyden, Day One: Before Hiroshima and After, 1984, p. 111). As a result, the implosion method moved to the forefront. Eventually, the Manhattan Project scientists perfect versions of both designs, and the two bombs become known as Fat Man and Little Boy—the bombs the U.S. dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

Another main thrust of Manhattan is the government's obsession with security. Fearful of espionage, Gen. Leslie Groves, the real-life military leader of the Manhattan Project, forbade various departments from speaking to each other about the project (Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man, 2002, p. 255). Though Groves has yet to appear on Manhattan, the program depicts this process of "compartmentalization," though the writers exaggerate the level of rivalry between the different scientific fiefdoms.

The West Wing's Richard Schiff repeatedly appears in Manhattan as Occam, a mysterious security officer obsessed with preventing leaks. In interrogations that echo post-9/11 concerns about individual rights versus security, he queries various members of the community about their allegiances and political associations. When he threatens Isaacs in the season finale, Isaacs responds that the Geneva Convention forbids torture. "Where you're going," Occam ominously responds, "people don't concern themselves . . . with convention."

Despite the government's best efforts, espionage did occur at the project, though the Axis Powers couldn't penetrate Los Alamos. Many scientists had leftist sympathies, and British physicist Klaus Fuchs shared atomic secrets with the Soviet Union. David Greenglass, Julius Rosenberg's brother-in-law, provided information about the implosion design to the Soviet Union. His testimony proved essential to the conviction and execution of his sister Ethel and Julius (though in later years he recanted the testimony that implicated Ethel). At the end of season 1, a member of Winter's team is revealed (to the audience only) as an agent for an unknown foreign government, though it is not clear which real-life spy he represents.

Like Mad Men, Manhattan depicts the social restrictions of its era, though it is less successful than Mad Men in this regard. We see women, gays, and African Americans discriminated against in all-too-obvious fashion in easy-to-predict plots. Mad Men handled the shortcomings of its time with much more subtlety. Nevertheless, Manhattan is a fine show, and its first season concluded with a strong finale. Though we know much about the ultimate outcome, I look forward to seeing how Manhattan's showrunners guide us to the end of the war.

Robert Fleegler is an instructional assistant professor at the University of Mississippi. He is the author of Ellis Island Nation: Immigration Policy and American Identity in the 20th Century (2013).