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The Manhattan Project's Taskmaster

Philip Morrison

Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man. Robert S. Norris. xxiv + 722 pp. Steerforth Press, 2002. $40.

Racing for the Bomb is an extensive account of the life of General Leslie R. Groves, who oversaw the building of the first atomic bombs. Both deeper and wider than a biography, the book documents and vivifies events that still affect us today. Author Robert S. Norris, a scholar of nuclear weapons, has used as his key sources Groves's own words, the documents of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the memories of its members.

The Corps of Engineers has dressed the stage of our national drama since Thomas Jefferson's first term as president. Congress authorized the Corps of Engineers in 1802, constituting it at West Point as a military academy. But its roots go back to the American Revolution: Our Revolutionary leaders read the French philosophers, and our victory was sealed in alliance with a few French engineers and the troops and fleet of Louis XV, near Yorktown in 1781. Since the War of 1812, officers of the Corps of Engineers have worn buttons that read Essayons: "Let's try." They have continued to build—the starry base of the Statue of Liberty, the Panama Canal, the Lincoln Memorial, the Pentagon and widespread other works on land and water.

General Groves's daughter Gwen and wife Grace discover . . .Click to Enlarge Image

Commissioned officers are few (nearly all of them drawn from the top cadets in each senior class at West Point): In the middle of World War II, there were 945 officers in the Corps of Engineers. Today, only a few hundred lead about 35,000 civilian professionals on widely varied missions. On completion of any mission, the responsible officer is evaluated in writing by his or her superior. Nor is this a matter of empty formality—the evaluations are treated as determinative. More is required from the best.

Groves was among the best. He ranked fourth in his class at West Point, graduating 10 days before the end of World War I. Choosing a commission as second lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, he was sent to the Engineer School, where he stood at the top of his classes. In 1936 he graduated from the rather rote-bound Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, and in 1938 he was selected to attend the smaller Army War College, where highly regarded officers are given tasks that require original work.

Groves was promoted to major and made an assistant to the Quartermaster General in 1940, joining the Construction Division of the Quartermaster Corps. During his meteoric rise there (he made colonel within four months), he worked on building the Pentagon and led the biggest housing project in history, constructing camps and cantonments for our troops. In 1941 he became chief of the Operations Branch and began working on creating a government-owned, contractor-operated munitions industry. At peak a million men and women were at work under his direction.

In 1942, having impressed his superiors with his administrative ability, organizational skill and decisiveness, Groves was chosen to head up the Manhattan Project. He was dismayed, because he had wanted to go to the battlefield, but he saw a silver lining—the opportunity to insist on being made a brigadier general right away. He later likened taking the post to becoming "the impresario of a two-billion-dollar grand opera with thousands of temperamental stars in all walks of life." Among those he considered prima donnas were some of the scientists.

Quite a distinct elite arose among nuclear physicists worldwide during the four decades leading up to the first nuclear explosion. This was an intensely trained, interactive group, eventually numbering about a thousand. Prolific in speech and print, they performed mainly as star soloists. Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Lise Meitner, Niels Bohr, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Stanislaw Ulam, James Chadwick, Irène and Frédéric Joliot-Curie, Yoshio Nishina, Werner Heisenberg, Andrei Sakharov—these originators of the bomb, who shared a certain understanding of nature, have become figures of multinational myth.

General Groves with J. Robert Oppenheimer.Click to Enlarge Image

A few weeks after taking charge of the project, Groves toured the university laboratories that were working on it in Chicago, Berkeley and New York. Military and scientific cultures clashed immediately. Groves thought the scientists were too focused on the small scale of the laboratory to appreciate the size of the industrial and engineering effort that would be needed. They were not "go-getters," he complained—they "preferred to move at a pipe-smoking academic pace." In Chicago Groves met Szilard and they took an immediate dislike to one another. Groves perceived him as typical of scientists and other academics who were "willing to have other people killed and wounded to protect their own interests but . . . unwilling to participate in the dangerous occupation of a soldier." To Szilard, a European intellectual who had come to the United States from England four years earlier, Groves was uneducated and boorish. Apparently sensitive about not having a Ph.D., Groves boasted to the Chicago scientists that his own 10 years of demanding formal education should be recognized as equal to two Ph.D. degrees. Szilard, famously mercurial, exploded once the General had left the room: "How can you work with people like that!" A crevasse yawned between them, both personal and cultural.

I joined the Chicago physicists weeks too late to be present for that visit from Groves. Although I, too, found him to be arrogant and (as Norris discusses) somewhat bigoted, over time I grew to realize that his ability to get things done in wartime Washington and his familiarity with the structures of big American industry made him a fit leader for so novel and ambitious an enterprise.

Norris organizes the core of the book that deals with the Manhattan Project around a quotation from William Consodine, a lawyer from New Jersey who had a military background and was a confidant of Groves: "General Groves planned the project, ran his own construction, his own science, his own Army, his own State Department and his own Treasury Department."

A chapter called "His Own Construction" deals with the atomic factories at Oak Ridge and Hanford. At Hanford, design changes made by Groves himself on the advice of senior engineers at E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Company saved the day—changes that the Chicago physicists had imprudently argued were a waste of money. We had proposed using 1,500 fuel tubes in the reactor core, but the engineers insisted on a design that accommodated 2,004. When the reactor was initially started up with only 1,500 tubes (the outer 504 were left empty), neutron-absorbing xenon-135 built up and "poisoned" the reactor, halting the chain reaction. I felt this failure keenly—we were supposed to have tested for the effect beforehand, using the heavy-water reactor near Chicago; instead we had spent our time on more interesting but less salient experiments. If it had been necessary to rebuild the reactor at that point to make room for 2,004 tubes, the plutonium project (although not the Hiroshima bomb) would have fallen several months behind schedule.

But Groves and the scientists were not always at odds. The chapter "His Own Science" suggests that Groves's difficulties with Szilard were atypical. Apparently the General got on well with most of the scientists working on the project, particularly Oppenheimer. Clearly Oppenheimer respected Groves's abilities, and I was led by his example to do likewise.

Two chapters on "His Own Intelligence" (one focusing on domestic and another on foreign concerns) describe the security practices and daring procedures Groves helped develop. A main element of his approach to security was widespread compartmentalization, which consolidated his power. Of all his policies, this strict compartmentalization was most exasperating for the scientists, who believed that sharing ideas was a major and helpful matter of principle.

We now know that the dominant security leak from the labs was the work of expert Klaus Fuchs, a productive compartment all by himself. He secretly relayed mainly his own detailed results to Igor Kurchatov (head of the Soviet nuclear program) and others in Moscow. Groves anticipated that 5 to 20 years would pass between the United States' first use of the bomb and an initial Soviet nuclear test; the scientists' estimate was 5 years, and we were proved right—the actual delay was only 4 years and 3 months.

A short chapter titled "His Own Air Force" discusses Groves's role in forming an Army Air Forces combat unit to deliver the bombs. In "His Own State and Treasury Departments," Groves's circumventions of cabinet-level departments are described: The Secretary of State didn't even learn of the atomic bomb project's existence until January of 1945, by which time Groves had already undertaken secret negotiations with other nations for uranium ore rights without the knowledge of the State Department. Control over uranium ore worldwide was something Groves sought early and persistently. He used North American sources to start with and turned next to the Congo, often writing personal checks for the ore; these checks were drawn on accounts in Groves's name that were funded through the Treasury Department without the Secretary of the Treasury knowing what the money was to be used for. By war's end Groves had in place a formal U.S.–British-Canadian world cartel.

Priorities, wages, taxes, audits—Groves handled all of these scrupulously (apart from some overbuilding—perhaps done with the next war in mind?). He had a better grasp of the diverse problems of the real-world project than the scientists had. Was he the indispensable man of the Manhattan Project, or was it, say, Fermi? I favor Fermi, but others might easily point to the General's wide swath.

The scientists of the Manhattan Project were, broadly speaking, Enlightenment figures who believed, as I did, that reason and prudent conciliation would one day lead to international control. Well, that day has not yet come. The General's narrower views have so far won out. We Americans still live at high risk in an adversarial world, where security is thought to flow from ceaseless achievement and a devoted "all-fulfilling patriotism," even though, over time, new weapons for new wars might be deployed under any flag—or none.

The headlines disclose that the great nations still calmly insist on their option of cruelty. Will our proud power forever awe every rival, or will it some day breed fury?

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