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Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man

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Colonel Leslie R. Groves was a career officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, fresh from overseeing hundreds of military construction projects, including the Pentagon, when he was given the job in September 1942 of building the atomic bomb. In this full-scale biography, which draws upon new sources, including archival material and family letters and documents, and features several previously unpublished photographs, Norris places Groves at the center of the amazing Manhattan Project story. The bomb was built in ...
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Colonel Leslie R. Groves was a career officer in the Army Corps of Engineers, fresh from overseeing hundreds of military construction projects, including the Pentagon, when he was given the job in September 1942 of building the atomic bomb. In this full-scale biography, which draws upon new sources, including archival material and family letters and documents, and features several previously unpublished photographs, Norris places Groves at the center of the amazing Manhattan Project story. The bomb was built in just over a thousand days during which Groves drove manufacturers, construction crews, scientists, industrialists, and military and civilian officials to come up with the money, the materials, and the plans to solve thousands of problems. Until now, scientists have received the credit for the Manhattan Project's remarkable achievements. But more than any other individual it was Leslie R. Groves who made things happen. It was his operation, and in Racing for the Bomb he emerges as a recognizable American type: the take-charge, can-do figure who succeeds in the face of formidable odds. Norris persuasively demonstrates that Groves was the right man in the right place at the right time. Racing for the Bomb also reveals in-depth for the first time the story of Groves's crucial and decisive role in the planning, timing, and targeting of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki missions, offering new insights into the complex and controversial questions surrounding the decision to drop the bomb on Japan. Groves's actions during World War II also had a lasting imprint on the nuclear age and Cold War that followed. Procedures and practices developed during the Manhattan Project became the building blocks of the "national security state" and the "military-industrial complex." His influence on key institutions of postwar America was extensive, and has been overlooked for too long.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
The development of the atomic bomb was the greatest scientific achievement (for good or ill) of World War II. Many of the histories of the Manhattan Project, such as Richard Rhodes's well-known The Making of the Atomic Bomb: The Discovery of Nuclear Energy, have focused on the scientists and their important work. But it was just as much an industrial and organizational triumph, and a tough manager was needed to ramrod this complex project through to completion. Groves (1896-1970) had gained his experience through years of projects that allowed him to evaluate construction companies and manufacturing processes. His skills included decisiveness and an ability to size people up, assign them achievable tasks, and push them as hard as necessary. Without his strong leadership and vision, it is doubtful that the bombs could have been used to end the war. In contrast to William Lawren's The General and the Bomb, which focuses strictly on the Manhattan Project, Norris's book has a lot of information about the general's formative earlier life. Norris (Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940) is an experienced nuclear analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council, and he uses his expertise to good effect. Suitable for the history collections of all libraries. Daniel K. Blewett, Coll. of DuPage Lib., Glen Ellyn, IL Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Norris (research associate, Natural Resources Defense Council) celebrates the life of General Groves (1896-1970), whom he considers to have the dubious distinction of being the indispensable person in the building of the atomic bomb and the critical person in determining how, when, and where it was used in Japan. Despite the book's title, a significant amount of the material focuses on Groves' youth, education, and early career before he was tapped to head the Manhattan project. Further material discusses his later involvement with the politics of nuclear arms after the close of World War II. Groves' overwhelming influence in the Manhattan project, Norris feels, was also instrumental in building the national security state that has continued to characterize the post-war years. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
An overly detailed but useful biography of an unacknowledged founding father of the nuclear era. Leslie Groves, a spit-and-polish West Pointer with a zeal for efficiency and secrecy, was just the right choice to head the Manhattan Project, to judge by Norris's (Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940, not reviewed) account. Having been one of the lead engineers responsible for building the Pentagon, he knew all about marshalling vast resources and conflicting personalities, capabilities of which national security advisor Vannevar Bush was well aware when he convinced Franklin Roosevelt to appoint Groves to lead the then-most secretive project the government had ever undertaken. Bush explained, "there ought to be one officer, of fine technical qualifications, assigned to become utterly familiar with this whole matter," but, writes Norris, the reason for putting an Army Corps of Engineers officer in charge of the Manhattan Project "was to hide the expenditures for the project within the corps' massive budget." As commander, Norris writes, Groves shared responsibility for the use of the atomic bomb on civilian targets in Japan, about which Groves had no qualms; adds Norris, that use was not a matter of if, but of when-a foregone conclusion once development of the atomic bomb began. Moreover, Groves set in place procedures designed to ensure secrecy and compartmentalize knowledge, so that one Los Alamos worker never quite knew what another was up to (procedures that current Los Alamos administrators might do well to adapt, given recent scandals there). Whatever his accomplishments, Groves was a martinet, as Norris shows; he managed to offend most of thescientists, officers, and politicians with whom he came into contact, and he ended his days as a right-wing ideologue convinced that the government was full of "deep-dyed Reds," "pink Reds," and "little shades of pink." Though burdened with unnecessary data (on, for instance, the distribution of Groves's West Point classmates through various corps of the Army), Norris's narrative is of much use to students of the atomic age.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781586420673
  • Publisher: Steerforth Press
  • Publication date: 3/10/2003
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 722
  • Product dimensions: 6.14 (w) x 9.27 (h) x 2.02 (d)

Read an Excerpt

General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man

By Robert S. Norris

Steerforth Press

Copyright © 2002 Robert S. Norris.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 1586420399


Nearly sixty years after the end of World War II, the public's fascination with the Manhattan Project shows no sign of diminishing. The story of developing, testing, and dropping the atomic bomb is an exciting one, filled with the elements of great novels and high drama. The stakes at the time were huge, the political and moral issues profound, the legacy in the decades that followed lasting.

The most glaring omission in the vast literature about the Manhattan Project is the personal history of the key person who made it a success, Gen. Leslie R. Groves. Remarkably, there is no scholarly biography of him, of how he helped shape one of the great events of the twentieth century. Most histories mention Groves, of course, usually having him appear on the scene in September 1942 to take charge. Sometimes passing reference is made to him having overseen the building of the Pentagon, or that he went to West Point and was an engineer, but not much else. His character remains indistinct and out of focus. While he is described as the chief administrator, he is not shown going about his task or depicted as the indispensable figure, integral to the success of the project. In overlooking Groves's role we lose valuable perspectives on many interesting debates that continue to surround the bomb. To place Groves back at the center of events, where he was and where he belongs, offers new insights into these important issues.

The purpose of this book is to provide a fuller picture of the life and career of Leslie Richard Groves, and his role in the beginnings of the atomic age. What did he do the first forty-six years of his life to prepare him for his most important assignment? Why did the leadership of the army pick him to manage the Manhattan Project, and how did he administer it? What influence did he have on the use of the bomb on Japan at the end of the war? Would the bomb have been ready in time for use without him? What did he do after the war?

Of equal import, and equally neglected, is the question of Groves's influence in shaping what is sometimes called the national security state. The phrase attempts to define the new governmental departments and agencies that emerged in the aftermath of World War II and evolved throughout the Cold War, and the procedures and practices by which they operated. These features include the widespread concern for security and secrecy, compartmentalization as an organizing scheme, "black" budgets, the reliance on intelligence and counterintelligence, and the interlocking relationship of government, industry, science, and the military. All of them first emerge during the Manhattan Project.

At the center of the Cold War - the thing that made it different from all that came before - was the bomb. Though Groves was not alone in recognizing this, he did understand, long before it was used, how important this weapon was going to be in the new world to come.

I will argue that Groves was the indispensable person in the building of the atomic bomb and was the critical person in determining how, when, and where it was used on Japan. Without Groves's vision, drive, and administrative ability, it is highly unlikely that the atomic bomb would have been completed when it was. The Manhattan Project did not just happen. It was put together and run in a certain way: Groves's way. He is a classic case of an individual making a difference. Being in the right place at the right time is the secret of winning a place in history; rarely does a person arrive there by accident.

Though his perspective was always that of an engineer and an administrator, Groves's grasp of the pertinent scientific principles was more than enough to get the job done. He displayed a remarkable ability to choose among technical alternatives when it was hard to know which path would deliver results, and he did so quickly. He made many crucial decisions that, had they been the wrong ones, would have resulted in failure or delay. His judgment of whom to choose as his subordinates and whom to rely upon for counsel and advice was uncanny. To get such things right once or twice might be considered a matter of luck. To do so over and over speaks to a person having informed judgment and keen instincts. Of all the participants in the Manhattan Project, he and he alone was indispensable.

The way Groves has been depicted in the literature about the Manhattan Project is mostly a collage of inaccuracies, caricatures, or superficialities. Supposedly authoritative sources do not get even the most basic facts of his life correct. An example is the entry in Oxford University Press's American National Biography. The author has Groves accompanying his father to Cuba and the Philippines, serving a three-month tour of occupation duty in France with the American Expeditionary Force immediately after World War I, having two daughters, winning the Nicaraguan Medal of Merit for his work there on a canal, spending six million dollars a month constructing military facilities on the eve of the war, and assuming control of the Manhattan Project (med) on September 7, 1942. We also learn that by the spring of 1945 there was enough plutonium to create several weapons, that "a 400-pound device" nicknamed Little Boy demolished Hiroshima on August 6, and that four days later Nagasaki was bombed. Just about every "fact" cited here is wrong.

In fact Groves was a larger-than-life figure, a person of iron will and imposing personality who knew how to get things done. He was ambitious, proud, and resolute. From the moment he was appointed to head the Manhattan Project, he was determined that the atomic bomb should be the instrument to end the war. For that to happen required enormous effort constructing and operating industrial plants of unprecedented size and function, with no moment lost.

He was brusque, sometimes to the point of rudeness, and cared little what others thought of him. He expected immediate, unquestioning compliance with his orders, and had little patience with abstract ideas, which might distract from the immediate job at hand. He reacted firmly and defensively to those he judged as threats to the attainment of his goals. His detractors often pointed to his corpulence as a sign of his unsuitability for the post he occupied. Exactly why this was the case is never explained, but it reinforced their negative image of him as arbitrary and ignorant. When he was overweight, which was most of the time, he did not look like what we expect a general to look like, but it had no effect on his ability.

The book is divided into seven parts and is largely chronological. The first three parts - ten chapters in all - cover Groves's life and career to the point of being chosen to head the Manhattan Project. Groves's roots are traced back to the mid-seventeenth century. The general's deep-seated patriotism derives in part from being an eighth-generation American, with special pride reserved for a few military forebears. Son of an army chaplain, Groves grew up on forts and posts all across America amid the military culture and traditions of the early twentieth century. This exposure, plus a highly competitive family situation, set him apart as a self-sufficient and driven young man. For reasons that we will see, his upbringing fostered self-reliance and independent judgment. From an early age he was iron willed and insistent on doing things his way. Self-assured and confident of what he wanted, he had decided by the time he was sixteen that the army would be his calling, and that it was essential to get into West Point. During his years there - abbreviated by the pressure of World War I - Groves earned an excellent record, graduating fourth in his class and choosing the elite Corps of Engineers as his branch.

Over the next twenty-three years, to mid-1942, Groves gained extensive experience participating in, and at times overseeing, a variety of construction and engineering projects. Along the way he met and worked with scores of army officers, corporation executives, architects, engineers, and contractors, many of whom he would later recruit to help him build the bomb. It is crucially important to examine who these people are and the relationships that Groves had with them. In this period we also see Groves's personality shaped in fundamental ways by the special mores, traditions, and culture of the interwar army and Corps of Engineers.

Just before entering Engineer School in 1919, Groves and his classmates went to Europe for a short summer study tour of the battlefields of France and Germany, his developing engineer's mind soaking in everything he saw. We also see him express his contempt and distrust of European culture and his belief in the superiority of everything American.

Groves married his longtime sweetheart and started a family. His career advanced steadily as years of hard work increasingly drew the attention of his superiors. A four-year tour in the chief's office in Washington put him in a small circle of engineers that would have an enormous influence on his career and perspective. Foremost among them was Col. Ernest Graves, the person from whom he probably learned the most. Clearly marked for advancement by senior officers, he was then sent to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later the War College, completing the schooling expected of those who hold high positions in the army.

The busy three years prior to being chosen to head the Manhattan Project started with an assignment to the General Staff, then to positions with army construction during the mobilization period for World War II. By the spring and summer of 1942 Groves was basically in charge of all army construction in the United States, overseeing hundreds of projects and expending huge sums of money. One of these many projects was to build the Pentagon.

The core of Groves's life was the extraordinary experience, beginning in the fall of 1942, of running the Manhattan Project. After the war, one of his aides provided an acute characterization of the different roles that he performed simultaneously: "General Groves planned the project, ran his own construction, his own science, his own army, his own State Department and his own Treasury Department."

New insights about the Manhattan Project emerge by sharply focusing on Groves's expanding responsibilities from 1942 to 1945. At the outset he was engineer and builder, charged with constructing the plants and factories that would make the atomic fuels - highly enriched uranium and plutonium. As the project accelerated, Groves came to oversee a vast security, intelligence, and counterintelligence operation with domestic and foreign branches. Through his final-decision-making power he was ultimately in charge of all scientific research and weapon design and kept close watch on the laboratory at Los Alamos. He was involved in many key high-level domestic policy issues, and in several international ones as well. By 1945, in addition to all else, he effectively became the operational commander of the bomber unit he established to drop the bomb, and was intimately involved in the planning, targeting, and timing of the missions. One is struck, in discovering all of his many activities, by just how much power Groves accrued. As a West Point classmate and friend later observed, "Groves was given as much power in that position as any officer ever has had." A remarkable statement.

Basically Groves made nearly all of the significant decisions having to do with the bomb, from choosing the three key sites - Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford - to selecting the large corporations to build and operate the atomic factories. He chose the key military officers who were his subordinates as well as such important figures as Robert Oppenheimer and William S. Parsons, the weaponeer aboard the Enola Gay in charge of dropping the bomb on Hiroshima. We are fortunate to have an extensive record of his daily activities while he ran the Manhattan Project, kept by his trusted secretary, Jean O'Leary. Groves's detailed appointment book notes thousands of telephone calls, the visitors to his office, the appointments he had outside the office, and even some of what was discussed in calls he made to Washington when he was traveling. It is a valuable contribution toward our understanding of how Groves managed the project day in and day out. The cast of characters is enormous. Familiarity with who they were and what roles they played in building the bomb is essential to understanding Groves's centrality.

Just as important as building the bomb are the complex and controversial questions surrounding its preparation, its use against Japan, and the immediate aftermath. Groves knew from the outset that the factor setting the pace for the entire project was the availability of the atomic fuels. When there was enough highly enriched uranium and/or plutonium, the use of a bomb would soon follow. In an extraordinary coincidence, there were sufficient amounts of each fuel ready at approximately the same time, and within a matter of days after the material was incorporated into the two types of bombs, they were used to destroy two Japanese cities.

This was essentially Groves's doing, through his role in the Target and Interim Committees and his supremacy in controlling the test at Trinity and the combat missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In most of the vast literature about the decision to use the bomb and the bomb's role in ending the war, Groves has been slighted or ignored altogether. In fact, given his commanding position at the center of all the activities having to do with the bomb, he actually was the most influential person of all. It was primarily due to him that usable bombs were ready when they were and were employed immediately afterward. Groves alone knew all the details of the bomb and as a result controlled its testing, production, transport to the Pacific, and delivery on Japan. This of course was his job, and he performed it with a fervor and determination that few, if any, could have matched. He was the right man at the right place for the job. His superiors, civilian and military, were in perfect agreement that the bomb should be used when ready. As project head Groves had created a structure of such magnitude and momentum that it was, by mid-1945, unstoppable. By the summer of 1945 a decision not to drop the bomb would have been almost impossible. The "decision" to use the bomb was inherent in the decision made years before, to build it.

Groves's personal feelings about the bomb were not complicated: He never had any moral doubts, at the time or afterward, about using it. From the outset he believed that the bomb could be decisive in ending the war and saving American lives. As it turned out, with regard to the Pacific war it did both.

Groves never lacked ambition; nor was he modest about his accomplishments. From the outset of war he hoped that his efforts might contribute to winning it. In 1942 he was denied the opportunity to go to the theaters of war overseas. His actions make it clear that after a few moments of disappointment, he decided that building the bomb would be his achievement. Knowing it might end the war was one source of Groves's extraordinary determination and energy.

But Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not the end of Groves's job. When the bomb was no longer a secret, a host of new questions quickly emerged. Groves was instrumental in the preparation of much of the initial information released to the public about where and how the bomb was produced and the interesting personalities that were responsible. He did this through overseeing the writing of the president's and secretary of war's statements, press releases, and the Smyth Report, as well as allowing New York Times science reporter William Laurence exclusive access to the Manhattan Project.

Groves's final battles centered on the transfer of the Manhattan Project to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission, his involvement in the questions of international control of atomic energy, and his position as chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. Literally overnight Groves's situation changed dramatically, and Groves had trouble adjusting to the new rules of the postwar Pentagon and Washington politics. His often high-handed style and treatment of people during the war eventually caught up with him as several of the powerful enemies he made along the way had their revenge. In the end he was forced into early retirement.

After he left the army in 1948, he worked for Remington Rand (later Sperry Rand) and moved to Darien, Connecticut. He remained a public figure throughout the 1950s, speaking and writing on issues of the day, but from the sidelines. Much time was spent overseeing how his major accomplishment, the Manhattan Project, was being dealt with in histories, biographies, newspaper and magazine articles, films, and television. He wrote his own account, Now It Can Be Told, which was published in 1962. He kept up an extensive correspondence, served as president of West Point's alumni organization, the Association of Graduates, and took charge of building a retirement home for army widows. He retired from Sperry in 1961, and he and his wife moved back to Washington three years later. In his final years he led a quiet life, occasionally visiting his son and daughter, and enjoyed being a grandfather to his seven grandchildren.

General Groves left a deep imprint on the nuclear age that followed, one not always appreciated. Along with his broad influences on domestic institutions and international relations, Groves's hand is more clearly seen in the direct descendants of the Manhattan Engineer District itself. In many respects the practices and culture of the Manhattan Project carried over to the Atomic Energy Commission and its successors, and have lasted to this day. Hanford, Oak Ridge, and the many other facilities in the nuclear complex always have been run on the government owned-contractor operated (goco) basis that Groves first implemented. The university-laboratory relationship is intact, with the University of California running Los Alamos and Livermore. The AEC from its inception was largely a nonaccountable bureaucracy shielded from the public and most of Congress by layers of classification and secrecy, and the invocation of "national security." Arguments to build more and more bombs always took precedence over environmental, health, and safety issues, resulting in a troubling and costly legacy.

The Manhattan Project is also periodically held up as a model to emulate whenever the nation decides to undertake a large endeavor. It is worth asking what lessons from the Manhattan Project might be transferable to other large projects, and what was unique to the time.

Counterfactual arguments are popular in the literature about the bomb, and are sometimes useful exercises. One question worth pondering is what would have happened in the decades following World War II if the bomb had never been invented. Would there have been a major conventional war between the Soviet Union and the West? Probably so. As with all counterfactual arguments, however, we will never know. What we do know is that there was not a major war, and the bomb surely had something to do with this. The second half of the twentieth century remained a dangerous time, and the arms race threatened at times to spin out of control, but a major war between the superpowers was averted.

Two basic ways of attempting to live in a world with nuclear weapons confront us today, just as they did Groves. His way - and it is still the way of most - was the unilateral one. In a dangerous world a nation must depend upon itself, just as an individual has to. Trust and cooperation should not be relied upon given figures such as Hitler, Stalin, or their descendants.

The contrary path has its advocates, too. Two of the wiser men of the twentieth century saw early on that the bomb might bring a new type of order into the world. In 1943 Niels Bohr asked Robert Oppenheimer, "Is it big enough?" By this he meant, Was the bomb of such destructive power that it would make war impossible? Einstein's words convey the same thought: "It may intimidate the human race into bringing order into its international affairs, which, without the pressure of fear, it would not do." Order we do not have. But peace, of a kind, we do - or at least the absence of major wars between great powers following Hiroshima.

Excerpted from RACING FOR THE BOMB by Robert S. Norris. Copyright © 2002 by Robert S. Norris. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

A Note from the Author
Introduction: At the Top of His Game 1
Pt. 1 Early Life and Education, 1896-1918
1 Family Heritage: The Groveses in America 19
2 Growing Up in the Army (1897-1913) 27
3 Dick Defines His Future (Summer 1913-June 1916) 61
4 West Point (June 1916-November 1918) 71
Pt. 2 An Engineer in the Peacetime Army, 1919-1930
5 Caught Behind the "Hump" (December 1918-June 1921) 87
6 Married with Children (July 1921-July 1931) 97
Pt. 3 Getting on the Fast Track, 1931-1942
7 Learning the Ropes (July 1931-June 1935) 115
8 Finishing Schools (June 1935-July 1939) 127
9 Final Rehearsal (July 1939-Summer 1942) 139
10 Fateful Decisions 165
Pt. 4 The Manhattan Project, 1942-1945
11 His Own Construction: Atomic Factories and American Industry, Oak Ridge and Hanford 187
12 His Own Science: Oppenheimer, Los Alamos, and the Scientists 231
13 His Own Intelligence: Domestic Concerns 253
14 His Own Intelligence: Foreign Concerns 281
15 His Own Air Force 313
16 His Own State and Treasury Departments 325
17 The Groves Family During the War 345
Pt. 5 Racing to the Finish, 1945
18 Supplying Atomic Fuels: Enough and in Time 361
19 Groves and the Use of the Bomb I: The Target and Interim Committees 373
20 Groves and the Use of the Bomb II: Trinity, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki 395
21 War Hero for a Day (Mid-August-December 1945) 429
Pt. 6 Final Battles, 1946-1948
22 Caught in the Middle: Fights Over Domestic Policy (1946) 455
23 "The Best, the Biggest and the Most": Fights Over International Control 471
24 Chief of Special Weapons (1947-1948) 485
Pt. 7 Slowing Down, 1948-1970
25 Retirement and a New Career (1948-1961) 497
26 Last Years (1962-1970) 519
Afterword 541
Personal Interviews 547
Abbreviations 549
Notes 559
Index 684
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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 8, 2013

    Racing For The Bomb

    Racing for the bomb is as much about the building of the atomic bomb as it is General Groves. General Leslie Groves is an often neglected historical figure and deserves the attention provided here.

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