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December 2 and the Manhattan Project

December 5, 2006

While I try to stay away from posting on the weekends, this past Saturday I did look at LOC’s Today in History. The topic of the day was a remembrance of the first controlled nuclear fission chain reaction, conducted in 1942 at either 3:25 or 3:36 p.m. – depending on which source you trust (here or here).

This topic resonates with me a great deal. While researching the Mortimer J. Adler Papers at the University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library, twice a day I would pass a memorial to the reaction sculpted by Henry Moore while walking to the Library. Called “Nuclear Energy,” U of C’s Physics Department maintains a webpage on the sculpture.

The Manhattan Project (from Dec. 1941 through 1945) occurred at U of C during President Robert Maynard Hutchins tenure (1929-1951). Adler was there as well. In fact, Adler and Hutchins disagreed vehemently in 1940-41 about whether the U.S. should get involved in World War II: Adler favored intervention while Hutchins favored isolation. Pearl Harbor ended their dispute.

Eventually both Adler and Hutchins came to favor, together, the creation of a world federal government. A little read – but worthwhile – book by Adler, titled How to Think About War and Peace (1944), neatly summarized his philosophical arguments for world federalism. Hutchins wrote on the subject too, and his position is laid out in his St. Thomas and the World State (a Marquette lecture published as a book in 1949). Both Adler and Hutchins were both also actively involved in the Committee to Frame a World Constitution in the late 1940s.

I have often wondered how the Manhattan Project affected Hutchins and Adler’s thinking and actions relative to their support of world federal government. Did Hutchins’ guilt over his university’s supporting role in the development of the atomic bomb drive his support of the Committee? How much did Adler know about the Manhattan Project while writing How to Think About War and Peace? Surely his best male friend at the time, Hutchins, perhaps mentioned it to Adler in confidence? Unfortunately I couldn’t discuss these interesting matters in my dissertation. – TL

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2 Comments
  1. My understanding is that every major university turnned down Fermi and it was Hutchins who invited him to Chicago.

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  2. Max: I don't recall that. Perhaps your anecdote is in Ashmore's book, which I have studied but not read word-for-word, cover-to-cover. But based on Hutchins' past isolationism, an active isolationism mind you, I can't imagine him inviting the effort. Of course all sorts of humans experience sudden reversals. But I also can't imagine every major university turning that down (MIT, Berkeley, Stanford). Do you recall where you picked up that information? Perhaps U of C was asked/chosen for its relative inaccessibility to enemies (at least as of 1941)? – TL

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