General Leslie Richard Groves (1896-1970) was the military
commander of the Manhattan Engineering District - the
Manhattan Project - during World War II, which produced the first
atomic bomb. Born in Albany, New York, he was an engineer by
training; after brief stays at the University of Washington and MIT,
he graduated from West Point in 1918, and was commissioned a Second
Lieutenant. He did graduate work at the Army Engineering School, graduating
from there in 1921. He gradually worked his way up the ranks, and
after studying at the Command and General Staff School (1935-36)
and at the Army War College (1938-39), he was appointed to the
War Department General Staff.
Prior to September 1942, then Colonel Groves was the deputy Chief of
Construction in the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for all US and
overseas-based Army construction projects, including the Pentagon building.
Up to that time, he had been modestly involved in studies on the growing
project to build atomic weapons. He helped with the acquisition of land
for the facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Argonne, Illinois at this
time. In September, he was offered a combat command position overseas, but
that offer was countermanded by then Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, who
placed Groves in command of the Manhattan Engineering District on
September 23, 1942, immediately following his promotion to
Brigadier General. At the time, the Manhattan Project was little more
than a theoretical feasibility study by physicists and chemists around the
country, and it was Groves' job to make the atomic bomb a reality.
His role in the Manhattan Project was to coordinate and supply the necessary
materiel and infrastructure. It was under Groves direction that the huge
nuclear facilities at Oak Ridge and Hanford,
Washington were designed and built. It was also Groves' responsibility
to obtain large quantities of uranium ore. He was part of the committee
that drafted the Combined Development Trust in 1944, which allowed the
United States to obtain all the uranium in the Belgian Congo from the
Belgian government-in-exile. However, Groves was not a scientist,
and he left the design and testing of the bomb and development of the required
physical and chemical theory under the leadership of his civilian counterpart
J. Robert Oppenheimer. It was Groves' decision to place Oppenheimer in
charge of the scientific effort. At the time, he qualified this decision by
saying that more qualified men like Ernest Lawrence and Harold Urey could
not be spared from their current work. However, he fully backed Oppenheimer,
even to the point of expediting his security clearance in spite of questions about Oppenheimer's
suspected Communist sympathies. It was on Oppenheimer's
recommendation that the Manhattan Project obtained land in
Los Alamos, New Mexico, including the Los Alamos Ranch School for Boys, and
Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in early
General Groves also took charge of security and intelligence for
the Manhattan Project, since the counterintelligence programs within the
War Department and FBI could not fully handle the job. The Manhattan Project
included hundreds of civilian scientists and military personnel, British
and Canadian scientists, as well as many exiled European scientists
like Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, and Edward Teller. Groves highly
compartmentalized the project, ensuring that few scientists would know all
of the information required to design a nuclear device, and he kept a tight
lid on activities at Oak Ridge, Hanford, and Los Alamos. For the latter,
the laboratory maintained only a small office in Santa Fe, and all civilian mail traffic in and out of the lab and city was via a single Santa Fe post office, PO Box 1663.
Groves was also in charge of the Alsos Project, to gather intelligence on
the Axis (primarily German) nuclear program. Alsos was established because
apparently the various intelligence agencies within the Allied
nations were not collaborating effectively. Groves was placed in command -
again to minimize the spread of nuclear information - by General
George C. Marshall in the fall of 1943. (As a side note, Groves was dismayed
to learn that by coincidence, "alsos" was the Greek word for "grove,"
but he felt it would be a greater security risk to change the name after the
project was established.) The first Alsos mission was to Italy accompanying
the invading Allied forces in 1943, and it determined that the German
nuclear program was not very advanced. Later Alsos missions to France and
Germany (after the invasion had begun in 1944) captured many German nuclear
scientists including Werner Heisenberg, and large amounts of nuclear
material ahead of the advancing Soviet army.
After the bomb was tested and used against Japan in July and August 1945,
Groves oversaw the transition of the Manhattan Project from a military to
a civilian one, and eventually handed over control to the newly-established
Atomic Energy Commission on January 1, 1947. During this time, he oversaw
the technical aspects of weapons production for the Navy's nuclear tests at
Bikini Atoll in 1946. After the Manhattan Project, he was appointed
Chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, a position he held until
his retirement from the military on February 29, 1948.
After he left the military, he served as a vice president in the Remington
Rand and Sperry Corporations. In 1962, he completed his memoir,
Now it can be told, from which most of this information was taken.
He died of heart disease in 1970, and is buried at
Arlington National Cemetery.
Groves was not a scientist, nor was his main contribution in engineering. He
did not "create" the bomb, nor did he order its use against the Empire
of Japan. But his role as coordinator of the many facets of this massive
and complex project was certainly a key to its completion.
The closing paragraph of his memoir is an appropriate assessment of the
In answer to the question, "Was the development of the atomic bomb by
the United States necessary?" I reply unequivocally, "Yes." To the
question, "Is atomic energy a force for good or evil?" I can only say,
"As mankind wills it."
The memoir Now it can be told: The story of the Manhattan Project
was first published in 1962 by Harper and Row, New York. It's a fascinating
read, regardless of your opinion on the bomb. Other useful information
on the Manhattan Project can be found in Richard Rhodes
The Making of the Atomic Bomb, and Richard Feynman's
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!.