The Manhattan Project's 'Martians' Didn't Look Like America
A Commentary by Michael Barone
The Manhattan Project didn't look like America. Undertaken today, it would be criticized for failing to meet diversity and inclusion guidelines.
Today's human resources department professionals would be triggered if they looked at the list of physicists hired to produce what President Franklin Roosevelt was told could be a uranium-based bomb "with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known." They would be astounded that the president, in his haste to develop such a weapon, as he put it, "before Hitler got it," authorized the hiring of scientists without any attempt to match the diversity of the American population.
They would have noted that Leo Szilard, who drafted the letter signed by Albert Einstein that alerted Roosevelt to uranium's potential, was born a Hungarian Jew and was educated in the Realiskola, one of Budapest's elite high schools. And that among the lead physicists at the Manhattan Project were three other Hungarian Jews from Budapest educated at a single school, the Fasori Evangelikus Gimnazium, in the years during and just after World War I -- Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller.
Szilard even had the nerve to joke about their common origin. When asked why there was no evidence of intelligent extraterrestrials, he said, "They are already here among us -- they just call themselves Hungarians." These men were obviously a product of both nature and nurture, of hereditary mental capacity and a brilliantly stimulating education. Von Neumann, for example, could divide two eight-digit numbers in his head by age 6, while his parents had him tutored in French, English, German and Italian.
The "Martians," as they were called, though not a representative sample of the American population in 1940, got the job done. The Manhattan Project, secretly spending as much as 1% of gross domestic product, developed two types of atomic bombs within five years. Seventy-six years ago this coming week, they were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which led to the surrender of Japan -- and the saving of hundreds of thousands of American and millions of Japanese lives.
The Manhattan Project's success owed much to Roosevelt's uncanny knack at choosing the right person for the jobs he considered important and to the clear need to hire the very best physicists available. And the prominence of the Martians, who grew within a few kilometers of each other, is one example of how the very best talent is unevenly distributed among humankind.
You can see something like that if you've been watching the Olympics over the years. As the writer Steve Sailer noted, runners of West African descent have dominated Olympic sprint events for years (a Chinese runner was the first sprinter with no such ancestry to qualify as a finalist since 1980) and runners of East African descent have dominated long-distance races for years as well. Something in the environment in which their ancestors evolved, plus rigorous training and personal discipline, accounts for their excellence.
In any field of measurable human endeavor, individuals' capacities are distributed on a bell curve, with most people clustered toward the center and only small numbers at the left and right tails. Some combination of nature and nurture -- heredity and education -- accounts for who ends up where.
Those clustered at the upward bulging middle of the bell curve, taken together, tend to look like the total population. Unsurprisingly, they are most of the total population. The very small number of people at the narrow right-hand tail -- the most brilliant physicists and the fastest Olympians -- as groups often do not resemble the larger population. Fairly or not, excellence is not evenly distributed among all definable segments of the population.
This sticks in many people's craws. As we are taught by the critical race theorist Ibram X. Kendi, when Black people do less well than white people in any field of human endeavor, the only explanation can be systemic racism. The proper response must be some combination of reparations and racial quotas and preferences.
That theory obviously isn't applicable to fields where people of African descent have disproportionately excelled. Nor is it likely that American Blacks will soon be represented proportionately to population in the right-hand tail of the IQ bell curve, given the gap between Black and non-Black people's IQ scores that has persisted despite half a century of attempts at remediation, as documented in Charles Murray's recent book, "Facing Reality: Two Truths About Race in America."
As Murray argued, the correct response is to judge people as individuals, not members of a race or other collective. And to appreciate that every group of people in the right-hand tail of any bell curve looks like part of America. Just like the Hungarian-born "Martians" in the Manhattan Project.
Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for the Washington Examiner, resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and longtime co-author of The Almanac of American Politics.
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