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General Kenneth Nichols’s Interview – Part 2

In the second part of his in-depth interview with journalist Stephane Groueff, General Kenneth Nichols discusses his key role in the Manhattan Project and the chain of command. He explains his relationship with fellow Manhattan Project directors General Leslie R. Groves, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and scientists Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant. Nichols recalls purchasing 1,200 tons of uranium ore from Belgian Edgar Sengier for the project and the challenges of developing a barrier for the gaseous diffusion plant. He also discusses financial accountability and Congressional oversight of the project.

Date of Interview:
January 4, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Groueff: General Nichols, Part 2.

Nichols: But Dobie [Percival Keith] came back immediately, or shortly thereafter, with the suggestion we build more gaseous diffusion base plants, and that was why we built the K-27 plant.

Groueff: A base?

Nichols: Yeah, a base. See, more base, to where he then optimized. How do you optimize the K-25 system with the electromagnetic? It shows how open-minded Dobie was, to where once he saw a set of facts which proved that his line of thinking was wrong, he immediately grabbed it and came up with an even better solution. So, we built more gaseous diffusion plants.

Groueff: So that material which—

Nichols: The material which went into Hiroshima came out of a combination of the thermal diffusion plant, the K-25 plant, and the Alpha and Beta plants, the electromagnetic.

Groueff: Thermal diffusion, too?

Nichols: Yeah.

Groueff: As the first stage or the final?

Nichols: First stage.

Groueff: First. So the first—

Nichols: It fed into the gaseous diffusion. The gaseous diffusion fed into the electromagnetic, and the material that was used in the bomb came out of the electromagnetic. You could not have produced that amount of material if it had been the electromagnetic alone.

Groueff: Later the electromagnetic was discovered and—

Nichols: The last thing that we did in the Manhattan District before turning over the plants to the [Atomic Energy] Commission was to prove that you did not need the electromagnetic plant.

Groueff: So the K-25 was—

Nichols: The K-25 and K-27 was then able to make bomb material, and the electromagnetic was shut down. We actually issued the order in the Manhattan District just before Christmas of ’46. We turned over at the end of the year to the Commission.

Groueff: As far as the first bomb is concerned in my story, the K-25 was never completed according to the first design.

Nichols: That is right.

Groueff: Only a certain degree of enrichment, which was fed into the electromagnetic.

Nichols: The electromagnetic, yeah, that is covered your New World.

Groueff: In The New World, yes, but then I have to correct that, because I thought that Keith meant that finally—

Nichols: He may have meant that finally in the gaseous plant, see, at the end of ’46, proved it could do the job all by itself.

Groueff: He wanted to make a point how successful—

Nichols: Yeah, that plant was far more successful than any of us ever dreamed it would be at the time.

Groueff: It is fantastic after all, and then he tells me—

Nichols: The other amazing thing is that this is one thing that Groves and I tangled with Dobie on and he was just stubborn. See, we wanted a pilot plant built, and I think Dobie deliberately dragged his feet to where there never was a pilot plant completed for the gaseous diffusion plant. His line of reasoning, and he explained it to me time and time again, he said, “Nichols, if you design every component correctly, when you put it together, it will work.”

Groueff: It is a very courageous and risky thing, no?

Nichols: Oh, is it?

Groueff: Oh, yeah, with half a billion dollars or so involved.

Nichols: But that was the way he designed that plant.

Groueff: It still works?

Nichols: And it works, and it still works.

Groueff: [John] Dunning tells me, since the beginning until now, it works like even a normal industrial plant. You have to improve or to build or to—

Nichols: An amazing engineering job.

Groueff: That is part of my story. It is fantastic.


Nichols: But now that particular plant, of course, a tremendous number of people were involved in it, organizations. Like Columbia and Dobie Keith and Kellex and Carbide & Carbon under George Felbeck and old Jim Rafferty. In the construction, you had J. A. Jones and Ford Bacon Davis, and you had K.T. Keller with Chrysler. I talk to him sometimes.

Groueff: Yes, I just found his address and I am going to call him.

Nichols: See, there was another case where—

Groueff: Sometime with the plating, no, nickel.

Nichols: Yeah, K.T. That was another little argument we had with [Harold] Urey, because he insisted it should be solid nickel.

Groueff: And there was not enough nickel?

Nichols: Not enough nickel and K.T. said, “Well, I think you can nickel plate on steel.”

Not to Urey, you could not. He said, “No, it will have pinholes.”

Groueff: I do not know anything about plating, but was it—

Nichols: It is a case of perfect plating.

Groueff: Impossible, then. It had to be perfect.

Nichols: It had to be perfect to where any little pinhole in the plating, your uranium hexafluoride would immediately start corroding the steel.

Groueff: A pinhole, and you are talking about miles.

Nichols: Talking about miles of plating. The idea was you, according to SAM lab and mainly Urey, that you could not do the perfection job required. In fact, they recommended we should not even give Keller any money to prove it. Keller said, “Well, I don’t need any money to prove it. I’ll go spend my own money.” Which he did.

Groueff: He solved the problem at Chrysler, then?

Nichols: Well, Keller said it had been solved, that they had a guy, I forget his name, you can get it from K.T.

Groueff: Heinemann, or something?

Nichols: Do you remember, Virginia, what it is that Keller is always spouting about, we never decorated?

Groueff: Keith told me about a Dutchman called Heinemann.

Nichols: I think that sounds like it. But, anyway, he had perfected this method. Several years before, they had been using it on bumpers. They decided they could not afford it, they did not need that degree of precision. So Keller just said, “Go ahead,” to this guy, “You prove you can do this.”

I remember going out to see Keller with these vats he had out there. He would set it up somewhere in the automobile plant, getting samples. He said, “Now, get Urey to test these.” They tested to where—

Groueff: It worked.

Nichols: Then the question was raised, how do you do it? He said, “That’s your problem. Is it good enough?”

Groueff: But why Chrysler had to have this job? Chrysler has only—

Nichols: We had picked Chrysler to do the job of making all the diffusion cans.

Groueff: After the barrier is made?

Nichols: Well, it was supposed to have all to contain the barrier. Another outfit, Houdaille-Hershey had the barrier. We picked Chrysler, because it involved so many millions of holes that needed to be drilled in these two plates. So Keller was interested in it, in the standpoint that he was making this can, and he wanted to nickel-plate the inside of that instead of making a solid nickel, and then the same for all the piping. He developed a method for nickel-plating steel so that you could have a nickel plate rather than solid nickel. We would have had to end the project if it had been solid nickel.

Groueff: The whole project?

Nichols: Sure.

Groueff: So, which were—

Nichols: There was not enough nickel in the world.

Groueff: This kind of tremendous difficulties, even impossibilities according to the knowledge and technology of 1942, ’43—am I correct by saying that the barrier was one of them? The nickel plating was one of them? The pumps?

Nichols: The pump seals, barrier, and the general tightness of the plant.

Groueff: I see, the vacuum?

Nichols: The vacuum tightness of the plant, to where you had miles of pipe and less than a pinhole of leakage.

Groueff: But when you had the idea of this plant, didn’t that sound like an impossible thing to do? How did you think you will do it?

Nichols: It is the simplest thing in the world just to say, all you need to do is pump gas and hold it at a vacuum and seal it so that nothing leaks.

Groueff: Yeah, but when you ask how, there are no such filters or barriers, there are no such pipes?

Nichols: Well of course, when we first got into it they said up at Columbia, “We have a barrier.”

Groueff: Ah, and that was the first, this Norris-Adler, the thing which was not good.

Nichols: We never authorized the gaseous diffusion plant until June of ’43.

Groueff: But in the meantime, you spent a lot of money?

Nichols: No, no, we did not spend much money.

Groueff: Ah, June of ’43, ah, yes.

Nichols: In June of ’43 is when we authorized the gaseous diffusion plant.

Groueff: But you did not have barrier at that time?

Nichols: We did not have anything by that time. We did not know how we would do the seals, and we felt in ’43 we would use a Norris-Adler barrier. It was in the Spring of ’44 when we spent a hundred million bucks that Urey lost his nerve and we started worrying about a barrier.

Groueff: Didn’t you have sometimes Urey’s feelings, because the whole thing sounded like an impossible task? As you say, no nickel, no pipes, no barrier, no process.

Nichols: No, it was not.

Groueff: The corrosion problem—

Nichols: There never was a time that I ever felt we were up against a hopeless problem.

Groueff: You never—

Nichols: I felt there were damn times when you were discouraged.

Groueff: But, all the time, you knew it would be done?

Nichols: Well, like, take the time when Urey lost his nerve on barriers. We had Lyman Bliss and George Felbeck and Dobie Keith saying, “We can lick this problem. Just give us enough money and we’ll lick it.”

Groueff: But there was no precedent in industry or in history about solving those particular—

Nichols: Well, I would say on most of these problems we were pushing the state of the art, particularly when you think of engineering, beyond the known limits. But that did not mean you could not do it.

Groueff: The amazing thing is that the exploring and engineering and industry all was done at the same time, without blueprints or models or pilot plants, most of the time.

Nichols: Well, we had—

Groueff: Your barrier was finished by—

Nichols: We had finished all the tanks that held them— not all of it, but a good part. That is why we spent so much money and all the piping and the tanks were sitting there down at Oak Ridge empty, waiting for us to build a barrier. We built the plants, at Houdaille-Hershey, the Norris-Adler barrier, had to rip out all the—

Groueff: Was this at Decatur?

Nichols: Decatur, yeah. Rip out all the insides and put in a new line.

Groueff: Did Keith tell you his decision of changing Decatur, or it was coming from you?

Nichols: When we finally decided that we were going to try this other barrier, we would sit around the table and decide what all had to be done. Revising that plant was part of it. Once we decided, why, then the various people all up and down the line would give the okay. But that was a typical way of decisions, where we would be fooling around and waiting to see what could be done. When we finally found what could be done, we was all out to do it.

Groueff: Now, if I want to be correct and objective in describing this fantastic thing of K-25, do you think if I interview or I mention or give the credit to those people would be the right thing, or you see somebody else there? I’ll tell you the people I have in mind: Keith, Dunning, [Manson] Benedict for the cascade, [Clarence A.] Johnson for the barrier, Keller, [Lugwig] Skog, [J. C.] Hobbs, [Judson] Swearingen, now who is—

Nichols: Oh, no, you have missed one very important guy, George Felbeck.

Groueff: Oh, Felbeck.

Nichols: With the Carbide & Carbon.

Groueff: He died, yeah, he died.

Nichols: Backed up by Carbide & Carbon and Lyman Bliss.

Groueff: And Bliss?

Nichols: Now, Lyman Bliss was never—I did not really ever ask if he participated in anything, except he was a hell of good advisor. Jim Rafferty and Lyman Bliss were our contacts for Carbide & Carbon and George Felbeck was the project manager for Carbide & Carbon. But George Felbeck was—

Groueff: One of them.

Nichols: Was one of your real leaders. Not that he was contributing to the engineering design, but he was one that I was saying was constantly offering constructive criticism, because he knew we had to operate the plant.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: In regard to the barrier, why, he started work on certain things. I know he was one that said, “Well, goddamn it, we’ll make this thing, I mean, if somebody else doesn’t.” And they started work on it.

Groueff: I am trying also to find, even the more—

Nichols: But if you are going down as low as your are on Kellex, you have to go through quite a list on Carbide & Carbon, down, and include at least Clark [E.] Center.

Groueff: I have not—Center?

Nichols: Clark Center is your best man today to talk. Jim Rafferty is dead. He was the President of Carbide & Carbon Chemicals. But the people of Carbide & Carbon today who know the story, Lyman Bliss is up in New York and Clark Center, who is still down in Oak Ridge.

Groueff: Yes, I have—

Nichols: Clark Center was the fourth man in the organization of Oak Ridge for Carbide & Carbon.

Groueff: I see. And Bliss is in New York.

Nichols: Bliss is in New York. He is sort of retired now, but still alive and on the payroll, and an elder statesman for Carbide & Carbon.

Groueff: I will try to see those men.

Nichols: Lyman Bliss, he never got into the details like Dobie Keith, but he was one that Groves used a lot and I used a lot to give his judgment of what they were doing. He has the operators.

We looked upon the operator here to tell us when the plant was something they could operate.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: We had our troubles. George Felbeck and Dobie Keith are two industrial people who can clash as ardently as any two scientists.

Groueff: Between themselves?

Nichols: That is right. Both strong, opinionated people.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: But it was that type of guy that made this stuff possible.

Groueff: That made it.

Nichols: It was a case of, how do you keep them all working reasonably together? We never wanted people that agree. We were not looking for agreement on everything, because what we were looking for is the right answer, who is right.

Groueff: On the electromagnetic, who would be the people? [Ernest] Lawrence, of course, but he is dead.

Nichols: He is dead. Of the people now living—Wally Reynolds can give you a damn good story.

Groueff: Who?

Nichols: Wally Reynolds out at the University of California. He was more on the administrative side, but he is very loyal to Ernest Lawrence. A fellow by the name of [William M.] Brobeck.

Groueff: Brobeck.

Nichols: And [Robert L.] Thornton.

Groueff: Thornton.

Nichols: And [Major Harold A.] Fidler, Fidler was government [Berkeley Area Engineer].

Groueff: Fidler.

Nichols: He is now working at the University of California for Thornton. And of course, [Glenn] Seaborg and [Edwin] McMillan.

Groueff: Was Seaborg on the electromagnetic? He was on the plutonium.

Nichols: Well, he was out there with Ernest Lawrence, but he was mainly on plutonium. He knows the people out there.

Groueff: But the father of the whole thing was Lawrence?

Nichols: Ernest Lawrence, Ernest Lawrence.

Groueff: What kind of a man was he?

Nichols: Ernest Lawrence is one of the most brilliant American scientists, I think, that has ever lived. All scientists, you know they have bad personalities. Ernest Lawrence, I would classify him as a type of guy you would want to have as a friend, no matter what business he was in.

Groueff: Pleasant?

Nichols: Pleasant. Of course, he could be mean as hell when somebody crossed him. But, generally speaking, he was pleasant. Of all the scientific organizations, his was the most cohesive, the most loyal to him, where they worked as a team. Everywhere else, we had dissension among the scientists.

Groueff: I see. So he was a leader?

Nichols: Ernest Lawrence was a real leader of scientists, and he encouraged everybody. Oh, those guys would just swear by him and would work night and day.

Groueff: But why? Because of admiration and respect? Or he was tough with them?

Nichols: Both. In other words, Ernest was tough. He would not tolerate anybody fooling around with anything. When something looked like it was going to fail, or was failing, he would cancel it. He is one of the few scientists I know that would, when a project was not going the way it should and he realized they were off on the wrong track, would ruthlessly cancel it. You find very few scientists that have the guts to do that. They want to keep on playing.

When I went into General Manager [of the Atomic Energy Commission], on the first trip out to California, we were at that time playing with—oh, what the hell did they call the damn thing? I forget it, but it was a substitute for a reactor for making plutonium, and Ernest had promoted it on the basis we were short of uranium. Of course, the minute we discovered we had more uranium—this was after the war, I went into General Manager in ’53. Why, he realized he was on the wrong track.

I remember my first visit there as General Manager, Ernest Lawrence said, “Can I ride out with you, Nick, out to Livermore?”

I said, “Sure.” I always hated to ride with him, because he is such a lousy driver. He would talk to you and look at you.

But he said, he admitted it, he said, “We’re on the wrong track.” He said, “No, I want you to cancel this thing.” He said, “Your first act as General Manager, kill it.”

I said, “Why don’t you?”

He said, “I can’t.” He says, “It’s under Standard Oil of California now, their research division. They’re all for it.” He says, “All of my people are for it.” He says, “You can do it.” He said, “I’ll back you.”

I said, “That’s all I want to know.”

Groueff: So he was not stubbornly defending it?

Nichols: But yet, when it came to pushing the electromagnetic, as long as he thought it was going to work, boy, he was just—

Groueff: A promoter.

Nichols: A wonderful promoter.

Groueff: A good public relation—

Nichols: Yeah, he would occasionally try to kill the gaseous diffusion just to build more. He was a promoter, he was a promoter and a scientist.

Groueff: He is an enthusiastic man? Talkative?

Nichols: Very, very enthusiastic. He had a lot of drive, ego. He was a good leader and a good scientist, and there were not good—

Groueff: It seems to me that all the great scientists had tremendous ego, no?

Nichols: Well, they have to have. You do not stick on some of these long-range projects if you do not have ego.

Groueff: Especially, the ones who also have responsibilities for leadership, like Lawrence.

Nichols: Because, I have been through a lot of these things, this and guided missiles, and unless you have on a project—I am talking about a project that goes off in the wild blue yonder, I mean, way beyond just engineering. Unless you have what I call a crusader in the organization in a key spot, you stop it at the first sign of failure.

Groueff: You had enough of these characters like Keith, and Dunning seems to be—

Nichols: Dunning, same way.

Groueff: Felbeck, like this?

Nichols: Felbeck, same way. In other words, when you say, “Stop gaseous diffusion because you do not have a barrier,” why, boy they would all hit the ceiling.

Like I can remember one time, Arthur Compton was that way, where Ernest Lawrence was attacking the gaseous diffusion plant and Arthur Compton was defending it, because Urey could not defend it. Finally, it got around to where Arthur was praising it above the plutonium project. I think it was [James B.] Conant that debated him. He said, “Well, we got it all set. We wanted to eliminate one project, so we will keep the electromagnetic and the gaseous diffusion and eliminate the plutonium.”

Boy, you should have seen it, just like lighting a fuse on a rocket. You should have seen Compton take off. I never seen fire again in a man’s eyes in the way it did with him, when he realized what he had done. He was just trying to help out the gaseous diffusion plant. [Laughs] But, no, these guys had what it takes, except for Urey.

Groueff: But, on the contrary, do you think people like Bush and Conant were egotists, or on the contrary, seem to be? 

Nichols: Sure.

Groueff: They are? They are. It is amazing how, probably it is, as you say, it is necessary.

Nichols: It is necessary. I watched a lot of missile projects, a lot of research projects in the Army, Navy, and Air Force go down the drain, because you did not have a guy that was a leader.

Groueff: And the leader always is on the egotist side?

Nichols: When you talk about organizations, in other words, you need organization to accomplish these things. But in addition and more important than the organization is a leader. Now, that man does not necessarily need to be the top scientist, it might be the second one.

Groueff: But organization with a leader, and not organization with a committee, it does not work.

Nichols: A committee is—

Groueff: Does not work, huh?

Nichols: Like we had the S-1 Committee, but that was solely to adjudicate between the various projects. You had the leaders on the Committee and boy, they were running their own—

Groueff: Who was the leader then before the Army took over?

Nichols: Conant and [Vannevar] Bush.

Groueff: Conant and Bush. Because some very important decisions were taken, like going all the five methods.

Nichols: That is right. Very good decisions.

Groueff: And very risky.

Nichols: Bush had the nerve to make this type of decision.

Groueff: He had nerves.

Nichols: After all, he was sitting – of course, Groves would never admit this – he was sitting above Groves on the Policy Committee. Bush could have vetoed any move Groves wanted to make on a technical line.

Groueff: He also had the ear of the President.

Nichols: That is right. He had the ear of the President. So, if Bush at any time had lost his nerve, that would have ended the project. If Bush at any time had said, like on the gaseous diffusion plant, if Bush at any time had said, “Well, Urey’s right—”

Groueff: Then Groves would be overruled.

Nichols: Groves would probably have been overruled.

Groueff: So Bush was the really—

Nichols: Bush was in a position where he could have exercised a veto power.

Groueff: And Conant?

Nichols: Conant, same way. Conant then became advisor to Groves, along with [Richard C.] Tolman.

Groueff: I have not met the two men yet.

Nichols: Tolman is dead.

Groueff: No, I mean, Bush and Conant. But from what I read about the two of them, I sort of confuse them in their role. How would you describe the difference between the two men, as personality or as the manner of their working?

Nichols: Bush was the top man and embraced a much wider field than Conant did. Conant finally narrowed down almost completely 100% for the Manhattan Project.

Groueff: I see. And Bush was—

Nichols: Bush was still pushing the whole SID, all scientific effort for the military. His effort on the Manhattan Project was more as a senior statesman. Backing in the scientific [inaudible] U.S., he was in really in charge of that and had 100% support and the ear of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Conant was a top scientist that was 100% on the Manhattan Project. Originally, he was sort of a deputy to Bush, over everything. They decided that this was so important that Conant should spend his full time on it. But Bush still retained his contact, to have the overall say as far as reaching the President was concerned, tying in with Britain and that kind of thing.

Groueff: But for the detail or the sort of day-to-day tough decisions—

Nichols: Day-to-day, tough decision, you had Conant and Tolman. Like typical of a type of decision, like when we got in trouble with the electromagnetic plant with nothing coming out of the spout. Conant and Tolman looked into it and then we got Charlie Thomas to appraise it. When we finally made the decision what to do about it, we called in the Tennessee Eastman top guy, who was dead wrong on this one, and let Charlie Thomas give his report of what was wrong and what they should do. Well, Conant and Tolman were sitting there to tell Groves and myself, “Charlie is right.”

Whereas you had an Eastman Kodak guy, just as outstanding as Charlie Thomas if not more so, saying, “No, we’re on the right path. Just let us go ahead and we’ll make this work.”

We did not want to back just Charlie on it, but with Conant and Tolman and Charlie Thomas all on recommending this, we said, “Do it that way.” I know they were very much disgusted with this Eastman Kodak guy, because he knows damn well he was wrong. [Laughs] But that is typical of how we made a decision. You just get these people in a room, and I know in that one we listened to them all day long, everybody’s presentations.

Groueff: You said Conant and Tolman were advisors to Groves?

Nichols: For any technical decision.

Groueff:  But was Conant more powerful than—

Nichols: Than Tolman?

Groueff: No, than Groves?

Nichols: Oh, no. Conant recognized that Groves was the boss, but yet the system was, for a technical decision, you only need a technical decision when scientists differed. That type of thing, where you had a difference of opinion, Conant would recommend, who can you get in there to study this in detail and come up with an independent—

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: Like Charlie Thomas on this particular one.

Groueff: But let us say that Groves or you made the wrong decision, who could fire you? Bush and Conant?

Nichols: Well, Groves could fire me any time he wanted, and I used to see that I got requested every now and then so in case he wanted to, I could go off in war and probably get promoted faster. But the only one that could fire Groves at that point would have been Conant and Bush ganging up on him.

Groueff: With [General Wilhelm D.] Styer?

Nichols: With Styer and [Admiral William] Purnell and Mr. [Henry] Stimson.

Groueff: I see. So they were acting mostly as a watchdog committee?

Nichols: Well, on the Policy Committee. Bush was on that. He had a position higher than Groves, but not the full-time responsibility. You had over Groves, Purnell and Styer and Bush, and then reporting to—no, not Conant.

Groueff: No, for Bush?

Nichols: See, he was under Bush, and they worked as a team. And then, of course, Stimson.

Groueff: How much did Stimson interfere?

Nichols: I think you are using the wrong term, “interfere.” Because I do not think anywhere along the line here do you have the idea of people interfering. The only time you had what you might call interference is where somebody in a chain of command had some questions, whether the right course was being followed. Or were worried about could they justify their end of it.

Like I can remember one time when [Robert P.] Patterson—see, they were concealing where all this money was, which was not being appropriated. When they went over a billion dollars—what was the name of that Irishman he brought in from New York? Virginia, do you remember? Contractor? I will think of it in time. But anyway, Patterson got worried when he went over a billion dollars, because only about six senators and congressmen knew about this.

Groueff: Six senators or congressmen, yeah.

Nichols: Three in each house. This was all concealed in the military budget. The rest of Congress did not know what this money was for. When he went over a billion, he got worried, because he was covering it.

Groueff: Who was that?

Nichols: Patterson, the Undersecretary of War. He got this Irishman up in New York, a good contractor, and I know Groves explained what it was. He said he was going out to Hanford and Oak Ridge and you can tell him anything except production figures and when the first bomb will be ready.

But I have always remembered his calling me in Chicago. He had made arrangements for me to go out to Hanford. Then he called me in Chicago, he said, “Nichols, I don’t see any reason to come to Oak Ridge?” He says, “Is that like Hanford?”

I said, “Yeah, except it’s about three times as big.”

He said, “Well, are you using the same contracting methods and construction methods?”

I said, “Well, not quite the same, because we got different contractors, but I think we’re doing an equal job.”

He said, “Well, I’m satisfied.” He said, “I’m not worried about what you’re doing.”

He went in to see Patterson. He got back to Washington and Patterson was going off somewhere and the secretary tried to put this guy on. “No, all I need to do is see him for two minutes.” So let him in to see Patterson.

He said, “Judge, you don’t need to worry.” He said, “I’ve been out to Hanford. I talked to Nichols and decided not to go to Oak Ridge.” But he said, “Boy, they’re spending money hand over fist.” But he says, “They’re using good construction methods, they’re not wasting.” He said, “It’s the best organized job I’ve ever seen for that size.” And he said, “Nothing has been as big as this as far as construction concerned. But, Judge, you don’t need to worry.”

He said, “What do you mean I don’t need to worry?”

He said, “Well, you don’t need to worry.” He said, “If this thing succeeds, they won’t investigate anything,” referring to Congress. “If it fails, they won’t investigate anything else.” [Laughter] But he said, “You don’t need to worry.”

We were just passing on where we were vulnerable, from the standpoint of what we were using.

Groueff: This side is very interesting about the financial thing, the spending.

Nichols: Yeah, and a comment on that is the GAO [General Accounting Office], the Comptroller General testified before Congress after the war that it was the best administered project in the war. We had a deal with the Comptroller General. We explained to him the size of the thing and what we were going to be doing.

Groueff: Did you explain to him—

Nichols: Not what it was, no.

Groueff: No, he did not know? Even the Comptroller General did not?

Nichols: But we made the deal with him that he would put a man at Hanford and at Oak Ridge, and they would keep his audit within thirty days. We ran our own finance offices. All the money came to me as District Engineer and dispersed by our own finance officers.

Groueff: Where did the money come from?

Nichols: From the Army.

Groueff: From the Army.

Nichols: Expediting production.

Groueff: It requires a lot of money.

Nichols: We had to deal with the Comptroller, and he would have a man at both places and he would keep within thirty days of our expenditures. Ss we would complete our audit – we had our own auditing force – and pay the bill, the Comptroller would okay it for the final audit within thirty days of the time we paid it. So we were current with—

Groueff: I see. But those two men, they knew all the details? They knew what was going on?

Nichols: Oh, yes, they knew generally what we were doing.

Groueff: But, not the Comptroller, not their boss?

Nichols: No, he just picked out two of his key guys and said, “I’ll depend on them.”

Groueff: And you agreed with him?

Nichols: My chief administrative man, a guy by the name of [Major Charles] Vanden Bulck, who is dead now, would say, “Well, you have to talk to this guy. He’s getting troublesome on certain things. He doesn’t like what we’re doing.”

I can always remember one. He objected to the fact at Oak Ridge I had okayed a free fare for schoolchildren. They could get on any bus. We were running the bus by contract, the bus system, and we charged ten cents to go twenty miles to go to the plant. We were subsidizing it.

Groueff: Who had to okay the big things like building a new plant?

Nichols: Well, I would. My signature would go on the plans or somebody working for me. Groves would do that—

Groueff: That was your responsibility?

Nichols: Yeah, it was. Under my organization, paid all the bills.

Groueff: But you accounted to whom?

Nichols: Nobody. Groves set up finally an Inspector General to audit my accounts just to say they had been audited.

Groueff: So you had complete carte blanche?

Nichols: That is right, and then with the Comptroller there too. Well, we had the law we had to live up to at all times.

Groueff: It ran into millions?

Nichols: About a billion and a half.

Groueff: Billion and a half.

Nichols: But, just to show how the Comptroller worked, in this bus deal, he was objecting to the idea that I did not have the authority to give free transportation to schoolchildren. So I called him in and the line of reasoning went something like this. I said, “You’re not questioning the ten cent fare for the workmen.”

“Oh, no, because you are allowed to subsidize bus transportation for a war project.”

I said, “I can build a schoolhouse?”


“I can hire a teacher?” I said, “Could I charge a penny for these school kids?”

“Yes,” he said, “That would be more reasonable.”

I says, “Then you’re questioning not the legality, but the reasonableness of it. That’s my job, not yours.”

He said, “But it’s wasting money.”

I said, “It isn’t wasting money.” I said, “We have to keep these people here working. We have to keep the families content. If they have to worry about shelling out a penny, we wouldn’t get enough pennies to warrant collecting it. I’m doing it in the interest of morale and getting the kids to school. All you’re questioning is my judgment now, not the legality of it.”

He said, “I guess you’re right.” But he said, “I wish you would charge a penny.”

I said, “No, that’s my decision.” I said, “If you could tell me on the judgment end of this thing, you should sit in my desk, not auditing me. Your sole audit, ‘is it legal?’”

Groueff: Who was the Comptroller General?

Nichols: Oh, McCarl, or no, Lindsay [C.] Warren.

Groueff: Lindsay Warren. He had the two representatives. But you said that you had the free authority for all the expenses, and they were audited?

Nichols: They were audited. The contract authority, if it went over so many million, I forget what, Groves would okay with approval. People below me could approve so much and would sign and I would approve. Certain other size contract, I would sign, Groves would approve. Because we wanted a two-step procedure in each case.

Groueff: It is enormous responsibility, no?

Nichols: But when it came to paying the bills, that was solely in my bailiwick. Groves did set up what he called an Inspector General. First with a classmate of mine, that is [Elmer Elsworth] Kirkpatrick [Class of 1929 and Nichols’ Deputy District Engineer. Performed many sensitive missions for Groves, e.g. set up the 509th CG Bases on Tinian].

Groves tangled with him because he said, “The trouble is, you go and inspect Nichols and before you report to me,” he would come in and tell you what was wrong.

I would say, “Okay, Kirk, how do you fix it?” He would tell me that answer and I would say, “Okay, well, here it is fixed.”

He would report to Groves, “I found the following thing wrong, but it’s fixed.” Groves just got mad at him one time and he said, “Well, you’re supposed to report it to me and I’ll tell Nichols to fix it.”

I said, “Why should I do that, when I get it all fixed for you?”

But we did have in every case a check. No matter who did what, there was somebody checking them.

Groueff: But, as you say, the Congress did not know anything except for three and three—

Nichols: Until the spring of ’45 when we went up for another $600 million, which put us over the appropriations of two billion. They then had a few Congressmen fuss about where this money was going, that it had gotten out somehow. Yhey actually had a hearing down at Oak Ridge on our appropriation. At that time, we were authorized. That is covered in the—

Groueff: I even, when Truman also was sending to the—or that was before?

Nichols: That was just about the same time as Truman came in. But this had been going before FDR died. Whether it was after he died or before, I do not know. But anyway, the Appropriations Committee came down, had a complete hearing. We showed them everything and we could tell them anything except the number of weapons, the rate of production, and when the first one would be delivered.

Groueff: Probably interesting for me to see one of those men who visited, their impression. Did they learn it for the first time? They had no idea that the bomb was being built?

Nichols: I think most of them at that time did not know. Now, [Albert J.] Engel; I think McMahon was down, wasn’t he, Virginia? The other three of the five who visited in May 1945 were Clarence Cannon, John Taber, and J. Buell Snyder.

Virginia: [George H.] Mahon?

Nichols: Mahon in Texas.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: Yeah, Mahon of Texas. I know my job was to handle Engel, because he was supposed to be the roughest one.

Groueff: Is he alive, do you think?

Nichols: Engel died, but Mahon is still alive. He will remember it, because I had dealings with him afterwards, Army appropriations. A hell of a nice guy. I am pretty certain you could find out—

Groueff: Because that is where the whole story, when they heard for the first time?

Nichols: Well, they knew a little bit before. In fact, I think Stimson and a few others had been over to try to talk them out of this, and then finally agreed this was the thing to do. Let them go have a hearing.

Groueff: Did Truman know?

Nichols: Truman did not know at the time he became President, except he knew it was something big and he had been asked to lay off. The Truman Committee.

Groueff: It is fantastic, the vice president, it was obviously kept secret.

Nichols: I do not think Truman knew.

Groueff: What was the salary then of men like Groves and you, at the time handling billions?

Nichols: Well, I was a colonel and you can look up in the pay table what a colonel got, but I do not know. I doubt it was more than about seven or eight thousand a year.

Groueff: Seven, eight thousand a year.

Nichols: Of course, we had an upper limit on any contractor in those days of $10,000. But then we had special concessions. Like Dobie Keith was one of the highest paid. We had the authority to waive this military regulation on the maximum you could pay anybody.

Groueff: But you had limits?

Nichols: Theoretically we did not have any limits, except that we had to keep it reasonable. In those days, people did not get such high salaries. Dobie was one of the highest ones we paid, and my guess would be probably it was $25,000 a year. Now, we had others like DuPont. That was one where we had problems, because DuPont was a high-paying industry. I think one there went as high as $40,000, we were reimbursing completely. Now, in some cases, they would cover that out of their fee, rather than get a waiver.

Groueff: I see. But for the military people like you, it was just—

Nichols: No, it was just whatever your pay scale was, and I have forgotten what it was at that stage of the game, but you can look it up. I forget what a colonel’s pay was, and then they raised it about six times since then. But it was enough. People were not worried about what they were being paid at that stage of the game.

Groueff: So my question, what I put wrongly was, about Stimson, what was his role?

Nichols: In my mind, Stimson was the highest government official that took full responsibility for this thing.

Groueff: But was he actively—

Nichols: I think Stimson summed it up when we brought him down. He was down there the day before FDR died, and he made a complete inspection of Oak Ridge. Stimson told me, he says, “You know, a lot of you guys are responsible for getting this job done, but if the thing flops, I know who’ll be responsible for the failure.” That was Stimson, and he was right on that. Stimson was the one that, like he would tell Patterson, “Conceal the money.” He was the one that was always, either with Bush or Stimson alone, that went to the President to get the okay from any Policy Vommittee recommendations. Groves to Policy Committee to Stimson to the President. Stimson was the boss. He was a government official that had the overall responsibility. He made the deal with Congressmen that he would conceal this money.

Groueff: But was he informed regularly or in detail?

Nichols: Oh, yes, he was informed every time we wrote a report to the President.

Groueff: By Groves and by Bush?

Nichols: By Groves and the Policy Committee, by the combination. Groves would write the report, and I would usually help him. That was our authority. Once that was okayed—a report by Groves, okayed by Bush, Purnell and Styer, okayed by Stimson and okayed by FDR, see, that was the chain of command. That was our authorization.

Groueff: But Stimson was actively—

Nichols: Stimson kept up-to-date on the progress. He was not worried about whether we did one thing or another. He was interested in the overall amount of money involved and when we thought it was going to work. He carried the ball with the President in regard to use. He was really the one, I think, that made the decision to use the bomb.

Groueff: We will see that tomorrow night.

Nichols: Unfortunately, he is dead, because I think he could give the only real story.

Groueff: But wasn’t [Harvey Hollister] dBundy his assistant? Which one is that?

Nichols: Not the one that is—

Groueff: Who was [inaudible].

Nichols: You’re talking about the father of him.

Groueff: The father of McGeorge Bundy, who was with the President. Now I asked you about this Belgian, Edgar—

Nichols: Oh, Sengier.

Groueff: Sengier. Could you describe him for me and your first contact?

Nichols: Well, I first got the lead from [Thomas K.] Finletter in regard to Sengier having some uranium. The organization was getting other inklings. We had a rather, I would call, unethical guy [Boris Pregel] who was trying to take us over the ropes and sell us this ore that he knew about on Staten Island, and the guys he was going to get it from Great Bear Lake up in Canada. His story was so inconsistent, I was troubled. First we had to expedite a contract so he could get the stuff out in the summertime and then the next minute was, you could only get up Great Bear Lake in the wintertime. Where it was coming from, it was all an inconsistent story.

We started getting some rumors that there was other ore available in the U.S. Finletter called me one day, and Sengier had contacted him saying he had this ore and the U.S. government would want it. Well, Finletter found out somewhere that we were tied into uranium, but he did not know for why. So he called me and asked me if I was interested in uranium. I went over to see him. He told me that I should go see Sengier and tell him that he had asked me to call on him.

I went up to New York. Well, first we got an okay from the S-1 Committee. We were getting estimates on how much we would need and we found we could not possibly get the amount we needed out of Great Bear Lake. I went up to Sengier, and it was rather an amusing little meeting.

Groueff: Where was that?

Nichols: Up in New York. I cannot give the exact address.

Groueff: In his apartment?

Nichols: No, in his office. He was heading Union Miniere and several other Congo companies. His Société Generale owned the whole business. I introduced myself. I was in civilian clothes. He was rather interesting. He said, “What do you want to see me about?”

I said, “I understand you have some uranium.”

He said, “Well, are you a contracting officer?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “Because too many people have been around here about this uranium and they just want to talk.” He said, “You have authority to buy if you decide to buy?”

I said, “Yes.”

He said, “How much authority do you have?”

I said, “I’ve got more authority than you have uranium, I’m sure.”

He said, “Come on in.” We sat down at a table and he said, “I have a few more questions.” He was a very abrupt guy.

Groueff: Polite?

Nichols: Oh, just as polite. You know Belgians generally are polite, but they are abrupt.

Groueff: Well, how did he look?

Nichols: At that time he was in his sixties, and he always impressed me as very white. Sort of a plump man and very sparse hair.

Groueff: A white face?

Nichols: A very pale face. He wanted to know if I was in the military, and I had to prove it. I gave him my identification card. He said, “Now, if I sell you this uranium, it’s going to be used for military purposes.” He said, “You don’t need to tell me what, I think I know.” But he said, “All I want is your assurance as an officer in the Army that this is going to be used for military purposes.”

I said, “You have that assurance.”

He said, “Well, let’s make a deal.” He sent for a folder and told me how much he had in Staten Island and how many drums.

Groueff: It was the first time you heard that it was in New York?

Nichols: Well, it was the first time for sure. It turned out he had 1200 tons, and we agreed on a price. Well, did not really agree on it. He just said, “Well, the price that we’ve been charged was so much.” We agreed that I would get possession of it immediately. He wanted to retain the radium and precious minerals, because he did not want this other guy in New York to get control of the radium, because they had a monopoly on radium. We were going to purify it up in the Canadian refinery. We made the general understanding that we would protect his interest as far as radium and precious metals were concerned and would store them for him until after the war, and would pay on the uranium content and agreed as to how we would referee what it was. Then made a deal for an option to purchase all he had aboveground in the Congo. They were hand sorting this damn stuff, because it came out of Shinkolobwe to 65% U3O8. To give you an idea of it, we think we have got a good mine out in the west if it is three-tenths of one percent.

Groueff: My God.

Nichols: They were hand sorting it to 65% and their waste piles were 20% uranium, U3O8. They had that stored just outdoors over in Shinkolobwe. They had hand sorted this stuff, and that was the waste that went by.

I got an option on that, and the price was the cheapest that anybody ever bought uranium. But he had forgotten the commission. I know his lawyers came over later and we just wrote these things out as we had agreed to them. He wrote them out on a yellow pad in about seven or eight sentences.

Groueff: And you took it with you?

Nichols: And we both initialed it.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: We said, “Well, I want to start hauling the uranium away tomorrow.”

He said, “That’s all right.” He said, “We can complete the contract as our lawyers can work on it.”

We worked for about three or four months and finally completed it. I was always amused. One time his lawyer came to see me and says, “You know, the old man forgot to charge the commission.” He said, “He looked up the table, what Union Minière gets and if we sell it to anybody without a salesman, it should have been 15% more.”

Groueff: For the American agent?

Nichols: For the American market, for the American agent. I said, “Well, that’s just too bad. You go back and ask Mr. Sengier whether he doesn’t accept everything that’s not on that yellow pad.”

He said, “God, I wouldn’t have the nerve.”

I said, “Well, then why ask me?”

Groueff: So, the agent never got his—

Nichols: There wasn’t any agent. But it was amusing. They were worried about breaking the market. I think they had an agreement with Port Hope refinery that any uranium sold would be a certain price.

Groueff: Why did they have this uranium here?

Nichols: He had been following some of the work done by the French scientists before the war, and he knew the importance of the uranium as a possibility. Sengier knew what the hell we were doing.

Groueff: He knew, but, you never told him and he never—

Nichols: Yeah, I never told him and he never told me. He just said, “I think I know what you’re doing, but you don’t need to tell me. Just assure me it’s for military purposes.”

Groueff: Do you think there was some patriotic motives, element in his decision? Or it was purely—

Nichols: I think it was partly patriotic, partly commercial. Their main market at that time was radium, and they sold about 300 tons a year of uranium to the ceramics industry for coloring. I think his main interest was probably commercial, to have a radium supply in USA, in case Europe was overrun, as it was. He had shipped some stuff from the Congo to Belgium, which was captured by the Germans and [General George S.] Patton finally rescued it. You can get the story of that from Groves. Shipped a big bulk of it to U.S., and stored in Staten Island. I think he realized it had a possible military significance, but also had a commercial significance. He was interested—I think he had some indications from other people that this project was continuing in U.S., so I think he was interested in getting it into the right hands.

Groueff: So, he was pleased that it will go again—

Nichols: He was always most cooperative. I mean, from then on, I continued negotiations to get the stuff above shore, above land, above the mine. The mines were flooded. Then in the Quebec Conference in ’43, FDR and Churchill signed an agreement setting up a joint ore procurement agency. From that time on, it went into Groves’ hand. Prior to that time, I had been more or less given the job of rounding up uranium. But then they made it international, and that took me out of the picture. By that time, we had our ore supply. They opened up the Shinkolobwe mine and other things.

Groueff: Sengier lived in New York? He remained here during the war?

Nichols: He remained in New York all during the war. Went back and was really the senior guy in this organization in Belgium after the war.

I remember one other time when we expanded, or got the Department of Defense to ask for the first expansion of the Commission, they said they could not get enough ore. I said, “What’s wrong with Sengier? He’s got enough ore.”

“Oh, no, he claims he hasn’t.”

They finally arranged to where I went to a party for Sengier and the Commission, where I got him off in a corner after dinner and I told him we needed more ore. He said, “Well, you assure me it’s not going to commercial? This is military?”

I said, “That’s the only reason I’m interested. It’s for the military use.”

He said, “How much do you need?” So I told him. He said, “Well, tell the Commission I’ll be more amenable tomorrow.” He trusted me, as he knew I had never gone back on my word at any time, and I felt the same way.

Groueff: You developed a personal—

Nichols: Developed a personal relationship with him. He knew that if I told him that was for military and we were not building up a stockpile. He had a political problem in Belgium. If he told them that he was selling this to where we would have a corner on uranium for ultimate commercial market, why he would have a political problem. If he said he was only meeting our military needs, why, he could get by.

Groueff: But during the war he had enough power for his company to sign anything? He was the boss?

Nichols: He was the boss. I know like when it came to arranging ships to bring it over here, or the transport over, the transportation people said, “Why don’t you fly this stuff over?”

Sengier said, “Listen.” He said, “You let me bring it over, will you?” He said, “If I turn it over to you, you’ll either put it in a convoy and the Germans will hear about it and sink it, or if you fly it, you’ll probably lose part of it.” He said, “I’ve got fast ships coming over here,” dealing in cobalt and copper and everything else.

Groueff: From the Congo?

Nichols: From the Congo. He said, “I will just add.” We’re buying about two thousand tons from him or more in the Congo. He said, “I won’t put more than 100 tons on a ship.” He says, “They’re all fast ships.” He said, “If the submarine sinks it’s just chance, I mean, it happened to be in the right place at the right time, because they can’t catch these ships that I’m using.” He said, “I’m willing to bet that I won’t lose more than one shipload out of 20.”

Groueff: And he did it?

Nichols: He did. He lost one shipload.

Groueff: Only one. Well, what ships were they?

Nichols: I do not know what he was using. He said, “Don’t ask me.” He says, “Leave that up to me.” He said, “I’ve got my channels.”

Groueff: To deliver the ore?

Nichols: “I’ve got my channels to the Congo.” He said, “It goes through yours,” he said, “I’m afraid of them.”

Groueff: Where did the uranium arrive? The ore, here in New York, I mean.

Nichols: New York. See, this was all stored at Staten Island, but I got that pretty well on this thing. I will just as well give you these.

Groueff: I think, oh, probably, I took too much of—

Copyright 1965 Stephane Groueff. From the Stephane Groueff Collection, Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Exclusive rights granted to the Atomic Heritage Foundation.