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

Article excerpt

Norris, Robert S. Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man. South Royalton, Vt.: Steerforth Press, 2002. 722pp. $40

Today, when a major weapons system commonly takes decades or more to develop, it is hard to imagine that the greatest weapon system of them all, the Manhattan Project, took just three years from start to detonation over Japan. Those three years were the stuff of high technical and engineering drama: vast new industrial facilities were constructed in secret across the United States, two billion dollars were spent without congressional oversight, new scientific laboratories were secluded in the high desert, and a unique U.S. Army Air Forces B-29 unit was created. All this took place under the direct command of Major General Leslie Groves, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whose management style set a norm for large systems-development programs that persists today.

In the popular recollection of the Manhattan Project, the physicists Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, and the Los Alamos Laboratory dominate. They are attractive figures who have remained in the public eye. Yet Groves, never a popular or sympathetic personality, was the man who put it all together. As such, he is worthy of serious attention.

Robert Norris, research associate with the Natural Resources Defense Council and scholar of nuclear issues, has written a long-overdue biography of General Groves. While the central theme of this work is Groves's leadership of the Manhattan Project, Norris does a thorough job of integrating into the story his formative years, family, Army career prior to the project, and postwar role in establishing a national policy for atomic weapons.

The sheer audacity and scope of the Manhattan Project remain impressive today. Based on theory and some critical experiments at the University of Chicago in the late 1930s and bolstered by a letter from Albert Einstein to President Franklin Roosevelt, the United States in 1942 committed itself to building an atomic bomb.

Groves, who had had a distinguished career as an Army engineer and had been the overseer of the building of the Pentagon, was selected to head the Manhattan Project in August 1942. Within just a few months, Groves brought together some of the best engineering officers in the Army, initiated vast land acquisitions for several large industrial operations for the purpose of isotope separation, established the basic technical compartmentalization policies that shaped the entire project, and brought into the program a number of prominent industrial corporations to build and run the plants. As the project grew, Groves fought for and won the highest priority for critical materials within the government's wartime allocation scheme, cornered the world market for uranium ore, set up the Los Alamos Laboratory, and appointed Oppenheimer as director.

Groves was a technically shrewd and aggressive man with complete confidence in his own judgment and willingness to take enormous technical and industrial risks with untried processes. …