In November 1942, the U.S. Department of Energy bought a boys school in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and turned it into the site of a top-secret project. Scientists from all over the world gathered at the lab to build a weapon that would end the war. Almost two years later, they took their new weapon out into the desert to test. The resulting mushroom cloud was 7 1/2 miles high.
It was supposedly only then that the scientists realized the magnitude of what they’d created. Robert Oppenheimer later described his feelings by quoting the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Jonah Winter hates that quote—and the pointless philosophizing it represents. “Screw that, no,” he says. “No. The time for that kind of thinking was before you created something so horrible. When an atom bomb is used—especially on people, as we did—it destroys everything, so there’s no more talk.” His new book, The Secret Project, looks to find a different way of telling the story of the Manhattan Project: one that strips away the justifications and rationalizations we’ve built around why the bomb had to be built and explain simply how it came to be.
The book started with a trip to the Bradbury Science Museum. Looking at the exhibits on the Manhattan Project, Winter realized that the building of the bomb was actually a profoundly simple story. “This is a picture-book story,” he says. “You don’t need a lot of words.” And indeed, The Secret Project, best suited for readers ages 5 to 9,is fairly terse, laying out the fundamentals of the story (the government takes over the school, the scientists work feverishly to split the atom, they test the bomb) in plain language without trying to explain or contextualize the action. There is no mention of war, of the Germans or the Japanese, just mysterious “other scientists” that the team at Los Alamos are trying to outrace.
Instead of discussing the wider world, Winter focuses on the lab’s surrounding landscape—the New Mexico desert—and how, despite the changes at Los Alamos, the desert remained as beautiful as ever. “It just seems kind of ironic that in this place that has such a spiritual aura about it that something so anti-spiritual would’ve been created,” he says. Though the Manhattan Project was hidden from denizens of the area at the time, they’ve been the ones to suffer the fallout (literally): the radiation levels remain dangerously high within a 100-mile radius of Trinity test site.
Of course, the consequences of the bomb aren’t something you’ll see explored in other children’s books (or even many adult ones). “We’ve been in the business of protecting children from ‘difficult truths’ for far too long,” he says. “ And the main people we’re protecting are ourselves as adults because—unlike Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men—children can handle the truth.” Hiding the ugly realities of American history behind euphemisms or rah-rah nationalism does children a disservice and stunts their moral and intellectual growth.
More than anything, Winter wants young readers to question the popular narrative that the Manhattan Project was simply a key step in winning World War II. The atom bomb wasn’t a necessary evil; it was an abomination. “I think what we need to be teaching children, even very young children,” he says, “is not American exceptionalism but empathy and the truth.”
Alex Heimbach is a writer and editor in California.