Summary: Why did NAZI Germany not build an atomic bomb, despite their long head start? This is a powerful story of individuals under intense pressure, with conflicting moral obligations and facing great personal risk, deciding to do what’s bestt for America. It is one of the great success stories of WWII, and can inspire us today. Perhaps future historians will ask why America’s scientists built the bomb, unleashing the horrors of the atomic age (with its several close encounters with WWIII).
One of the mysteries of WWII is why Germany did not build the atomic bomb. By summer 1939 they had two development programs running. In September they combined under the leadership of Werner Heisenberg, perhaps the world’s most qualified scientist to lead the program in terms of reputation, experience, and skill. Germany had the industrial resources, uranium ore (in Czechoslovakia), scientific talent, and financial resources (see the last section) to build the bomb. But they didn’t.
The US shifted the Manhattan Project into high gear two years after the German program began, on 9 October 1941 when FDR decided to build the bomb. We had an operational reactor in December 1942, which the NAZI’s never accomplished. We exploded the first bomb in July 1945, after three years and nine months of work.
Most of the senior scientists in the NAZI bomb program shared five goals, which produced this disparity of results between their results and ours. First, to not build a bomb. Second, to avoid questions from the Gestapo about treason. Third, to keep their younger scientists out of the army (their enlistment would follow the program’s end). Fourth, to continue their atomic research. Fifth, to avoid persecution by the German people after the war for failing to build the bomb. They accomplished all five goals, one of the rare moral successes of WWII. This demonstration of what individuals can do should inspire us today.