11 of the Best Books on the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was a secret military project during World War II that focused on the development of atomic weapons. The project was named after the Manhattan Engineer District, the area where the research and development took place.

If you want to learn more, check out our list of 11 of the best books about the Manhattan Project. You'll learn about how it was researched and developed, how it was created, and more behind the scenes about this historic venture in the United States.

Books about the Manhattan Project

1. The Making of the Atomic Bomb

The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Written by: Richard Rhodes

Published: 1986

Pages: 886

This book is one of the most unique and comprehensive tomes on the atomic bomb you will find anywhere. The early parts of the book on nuclear physics history may seem daunting but are explained in concise and digestible sections. It then examines the Nazi's rise to power and the antisemitism and issues during World War II. Because of this, many of the scientists escaped Germany and were able to help the U.S. effort.

After that, you get to meet the people who worked on the bomb, including scientists, politicians, and military leaders. Seeing their differing viewpoints is enlightening and informative. You then get to learn more about “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” were made, tested, and then dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Rhodes does a fantastic job of writing in an unbiased way and just stating the history and facts as much as possible.

It is compelling and terrifying to see what happened to Japan's people and then think of what could have happened to the world if the Nazis had built an atomic bomb first.

2. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos

109 East Palace

Written by: Jennet Conant

Published: 2005

Pages: 448

In the early days of World War II, a team of American scientists descended into the New Mexico desert to build the atomic bomb. 109 East Palace tells the story of Robert Oppenheimer and the secret city of Los Alamos, where some of history's most brilliant minds worked to change the course of warfare. It is impressive how the thousands of people who lived there spent years lying to family and friends about what was happening to protect the war effort and themselves.

Drawing on extensive archival research, author Jennet Conant, one of Oppenheimer's first recruits, brings this fascinating chapter in history to life.

From Oppenheimer's private diaries to the accounts of his colleagues, Conant offers a unique perspective on one of America's most important scientific endeavors. If you're interested in learning more about the Manhattan Project and its masterminds, be sure to check out this book that shows what life was like from the inside.

3. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II

The Girls of Atomic City

Written by: Denise Kiernan

Published: 2013

Pages: 373

In 1943, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the secret city of Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to build the atomic bomb, he had no idea that thousands of women would descend upon the isolated town to take on some of the country's most critical work. Many of them young and single women came from all over America to help win World War II.

This city, which didn’t exist before 1942, ended up with over 75,000 people living there by the end of the war. These included women who were scientists, doctors, administrators, and construction workers who operated behind the scenes to make the atomic bomb a reality. However, many didn't know what they were working on as the government didn't tell them. Most didn't even realize they were doing this to help build an atomic bomb until "Little Boy" was dropped on Hiroshima.

This book tells their story for the first time. Using diaries, interviews, and previously classified documents, Denise Kiernan brings these women to life and reveals their enduring legacy.

4. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer

American Prometheus

Written by: Kay Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

Published: 2005

Pages: 736

Simply stated, this is one of the best biographies of the man nicknamed the “Father of the atomic bomb.” Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin provide an in-depth exploration of the father's life of the atomic bomb. This biography is a detailed account of Oppenheimer's journey and provides a historical context for the events that surrounded him. It delves into how he could gather some of the greatest minds in the world to help build the bombs. Always a supporter of social justice, he had to look at his choices and his own beliefs.

As you read this book, you are taken on a journey from Oppenheimer's early days as a prodigy at Princeton University to his work on the Manhattan Project during World War II, finally to his controversial trial for treason in 1954. This book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in learning more about one of the most influential figures in modern history.

5. Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb


Written by: Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Published: 2012

Pages: 154

You might be surprised to see a graphic novel on this list, but this must-read for anyone interested in this historical event. It is unlike any other book on this list as it shows, through words and illustrations, everything related to the atomic bomb. This includes the origins of the theory for it, the early work, and the Trinity Test. It then continues with the bombs being dropped on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the early Cold War that resulted from developing these weapons of mass destruction.

Something we loved is that even though the physics of these weapons are so complex, Fetter-Vorm does a fantastic job using his illustrations to explain them. It is a quick read and an excellent primer on the events, and the artwork is stunning beyond belief. It also will educate you on a lot of the people that worked on the bomb, primarily those who haven't been mentioned and were instrumental in helping develop it.

6. The General and the Genius: Groves and Oppenheimer -- the Unlikely Partnership That Built the Atom Bomb

The General and the Genius

Written by: James Kunetka

Published: 2015

Pages: 480

The General and the Genius is a historical account of the relationship between Leslie Groves, Director of the Manhattan Project, and J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the project. Even though they worked together, their backgrounds couldn’t have been any different: Groves was a hardnosed uncompromising guy engineer. The latter used any tactic necessary to get everything built as quickly as possible.

Knowing that he'd need the right man to run the operation, he hired Oppenheimer, who was a man born to wealthy Jewish parents and used to high society, to assemble the scientific team. Kunetka explores how these two men interacted and balanced the demands of their positions while working to develop the first atomic bomb.

This book offers an interesting perspective on one of history's most important moments. He provides a detailed look at both men's backgrounds and their individual roles in the project. You will also get a proper understanding of how the scientists working on the bomb felt morally at this time. They may have been teammates in this operation, but it doesn't mean they always agreed. There were often confrontations and disagreements between them.

7. Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists

Brighter than a Thousand Suns

Written by: Robert Jungk

Published: 1958

Pages: 369

Most people don't realize that Oppenheimer and Einstein worked in Germany during the 1930s as scientists. They were forced to leave the country and came to the United States as the Nazis came to power. Originally written in the 1950s, this book is just as applicable as in today's world because of the continued military issues associated with them. Oppenheimer became the leader of the Manhattan project while Einstein continued his work on physics and how to make atomic energy.

When the U.S. government realized that the Nazis were also starting to work on an atomic bomb, they moved quickly to win the race for them. An exciting section of this book includes how many of the scientists in the U.S., who initially were very driven to build the bomb, became more concerned as they realized precisely what could happen with that type of destructive power. The last part of the book examines the choice of how to showcase the bomb: In a desert where no one was living to prove we had the power, Hiroshima, or the even more historical site of Kyoto.

Sadly, as we know, even though Japan was ready to surrender, President Truman still ordered the bombs to be dropped. This book gives a terrifying yet candid representation of how much destruction these bombs caused and sadly still can do today.

8. Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.

Manhattan Project

Written by: Cynthia C. Kelly

Published: 2007

Pages: 400

This book is a must-read if you want to know the inside thoughts and actions of the scientists and people working on the Manhattan Project. This incredible book includes a massive number of essays, documents, articles, eyewitness accounts, and so much more from this time.

This collection goes from the straightforward style to some of the more comprehensive writings on physics to get a good range of opinions and thoughts. You will find information such as Einstein's letter to President Roosevelt about the possibility of how these weapons of mass destruction could destroy the world. The information on the soviet spies who infiltrated the project and were able to have their atomic bomb soon after the war.

One of the most saddening parts is the eyewitness accounts of the bombs being dropped on Japan. The book ends with the observations of the moral views of the scientists working on the bombs and the fact that some of them left or begged the president not to use them.

9. Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World

Countdown 1945

Written by: Chris Wallace

Published: 2020

Pages: 320

This book looks back at the 116 days leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima by a president who wasn't even aware of the Manhattan Project until President Roosevelt died. Starting with the first moments when Truman becomes aware of the project, it delves into his psyche of the right choice morally and winning the war by dropping the bombs.

As the inevitable countdown begins, it becomes clear that this will happen, and Wallace does an excellent job at examining all the characters as the days go by up until the final second. In this book, you get a look at many details, such as the soviet spies, the pilots who fought to fly the Enola Gay, and even the civilians that lived through these vents. It reads like a thriller because of Wallace’s incredible ability to make you feel like you are in the room when all these decisions are being made.

10. The Apocalypse Factory: Plutonium and the Making of the Atomic Age

The Apocalypse Factory

Written by: Steve Olson

Published: 2020

Pages: 352

This book starts with the history of how scientists figured out that neutrons glue together electrons and protons and the nucleus of atoms together. From this, he continues to educate about how science evolved so that the atom bombs could be developed. However, this is just a primer for the main story as most people don’t realize that part of the effort to build the atomic bomb occurred at the Hanford Site in Eastern Washington.

In 1942 the government built a "city" of tens of thousands of workers and scientists. They made the first nuclear reactor and used them to extract plutonium. Many of the usual suspects, such as Oppenheimer and others, are mentioned, but many lesser-known scientists and participants are included. Some of these include women such as Leona Woods, who worked on Enrico Fermi's team. Unlike any of the other books on this list, Olson goes into the environmental disaster that occurred because of the reactors and continues today. It is a deeply researched and amazingly written narrative of this location and these times.

11. Hiroshima

Written by: John Hersey

Published: 1946

Pages: 196

"My God, what have I done?" were the words were spoken by Robert Lewis, the pilot of the Enola Gay after dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. In that second, 100,000 people died, 100,000 injured, who knows how many more from the radiation. Therefore, his question was, and still is, an incredibly poignant question, and this book delves into the effects of the bombing by following the lives of six survivors. In this book, he focuses on their stories and how their world was destroyed in a second.

He also shows how the people around them reacted and refused to express their own pain because they wanted to keep others hopeful and safe. The horrors of the bomb being dropped are explored in a way that can only be done by the survivors and by the tales of the deaths and atrocities that these survivors saw starting the second the bomb exploded over them. It is something that you will never forget and will make you question why wars exist and why humans seem to care so little for others during these times.