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 established the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in early 1943.

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 Manhattan Project:

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!.

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