Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project and a Six Nations Connection

By Don Lynch

From the U.S. Department of Energy: “The Manhattan Project and the devastation that its successful outcome wrought are inexplicable outside the context of the Second World War.  The project began as a race to acquire the bomb before Nazi Germany did, the prospects of an atomic bomb in the hands of one of the world’s most oppressive and murderous regimes were chilling indeed.  In a war initiated by German aggression and dreams of conquest, tens of millions died.  Few European nations escaped grievous injury, but nowhere was the suffering worse than in Poland, where six million or more lost their lives, and in the Soviet Union, where more than 25 million may have died.  Other Allies suffered terribly as well, including about 600,000 deaths in France and 400,000 dead Britons (including many in the Pacific Theater).  Approximately six million Jews of all nations died during the Holocaust.  Even small and too often forgotten nations suffered horribly.  In Yugoslavia, for example, as many as two million people may have died during the war.  Germany itself lost over four million.  The stakes in the race for the bomb were thus very high.  Tens of millions more might have died — and Western civilization itself might have been eclipsed — if Germany had proven the victor.

The atomic bomb was the scientific and technological exclamation point at the end of this worst-of-all wars that was won by technologically-advanced industrial might.  That the bomb was completed by the United States in time to help finish the conflict is remarkable.  Most of the theoretical breakthroughs in nuclear physics that made it possible dated back less than twenty-five years, and, with new findings occurring faster than they could be absorbed by practitioners in the field, many fundamental concepts in nuclear physics and chemistry had yet to be confirmed by laboratory experimentation.  Nor was there any conception initially of the design and engineering difficulties that would be involved in translating what was known theoretically into working devices capable of releasing the enormous energy of the atomic nucleus in a predictable fashion.  The industrial base created in a handful of years to transform these theories into reality was, by 1945, comparable in size to the American automobile industry.  Approximately 130,000 people were employed by the project at its peak, from laborers to Nobel Prize winners.  The Manhattan Project was as much a triumph of engineering and industry as of science.”

Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada. One of the scientists assigned to the Manhattan Project was a young man from Six Nations, Arnold T. Anderson. He was the second child of Samuel (a teacher and hereditary chief) and Minnie Anderson, and named after two English poets, Matthew Arnold and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He attended high school in Caledonia and later McMaster University.

Arnold was always curious about the way things worked. He was also keen to experiment with chemical concoctions. Even as a child, he was determined to create the perfect snow snake wax, not only to help win a competition but also for the satisfaction from the creative process itself. That desire for hands-on action may have contributed to his leaving the university before graduating. The Jay Treaty permitted unfettered transit across the Canada–U.S. border, and like so many others from the Reserve, Arnold sought employment in New York State.

It was during the Great Depression and people were grateful for any kind of employment. Arnold answered an ad for a “foreman” position. Without a degree, attaining any position was a daunting challenge, but somehow he managed to talk his way in and began his career in the field he loved as an $85-a-month “temporary” at Mathieson Alkali. From there, he secured a position at Union Carbide. He knew that he still needed to keep studying to bring his chemical knowledge up to the level required, so he subscribed to all the latest chemical journals. The “new thing” that everyone in those journals was talking about was “nuclear chemistry” (later it became obvious that this was not really chemistry but physics, and the field is now called nuclear physics).

When the Manhattan Project began to look to industry for help in putting together a team, Union Carbide put forth the name of Arnold T. Anderson as someone who might be of use. Between 1942 and 1946, the Linde Air Products Division of the Union Carbide Corporation operated two facilities in upstate New York for the Manhattan Engineer District (MED). The two sites—Chandler Street, located in Buffalo, and a former ceramics plant in Tonawanda—were converted to process uranium-235, and produce nickel for the development of the gaseous diffusion barrier for the K-25 Plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Sworn to secrecy, he never talked about what his contribution to the Manhattan Project was, but after the war, he did receive a letter of gratitude from President Harry Truman. He also was awarded an honorary doctor of science degree from Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University) and received presidential commendations from Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

After 38 years of service at Union Carbide, he retired as a manager but never stopped working. Among many things that he did, he served as a special advisor to the United States Commission on Civil Rights, the United States Senate’s American Indian Policy Review Commission, the National Research Council, the National Science Foundation’s Advisory Committee for Minority Programs in Science Education, and the American Indian Engineering Council. He served on many boards but his proudest achievement came in 1977 when he along with several other Indian scientists and engineers formed the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES). He was its first Executive Director. Since its founding AISES has given more than $12 million in scholarships, one of which is named for A.T. Anderson following his untimely death in 1983 at the age of 67.

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