Nuclear Museum Logo
Nuclear Museum Logo

National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

General Leslie Groves’s Interview – Part 1

In this interview, General Groves discusses the start of the Manhattan Project. He remembers the troubles he had working with Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner and the importance of redundancy in designing the bomb and plants like the T-Plant. He recounts how the Project came about in the first place, and the early discussions about how to proceed with uranium enrichment, plutonium production, and bomb development.

Date of Interview:
January 5, 1965
Location of the Interview:


[We would like to thank Robert S. Norris, author of the definitive biography of General Leslie R. Groves, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man, for taking the time to read over these transcripts for misspellings and other errors.]

General Leslie R. Groves: No, but was entirely different type. He was not the pushing type, he was the introspective type that was always very modest and shy, and you could look at him and you could feel that he would almost start to cry.

Stephane Groueff: That was Dr. Wigner.

Groves: Dr. Wigner.

Groueff: I talked to him on the telephone and I asked him, by the way, about [Leo] Szilard, of course, they are great friends. So, he was rather reluctant, but he said, “Yes, personally, I got along with him, but a lot of people didn’t.” 

So, I said, “All right. Tell me, what is the thing that they most reproached to him?” And he thought for a moment and he said, “You see, modesty wasn’t his quality.”

Groves: Well, that is true. Well, you see, one thing that happened there was that he, when I took over, [James B.] Conant told me, he said, “Now, you’re going to have trouble with Szilard.” 

And I said, “Well, why is that?” 

And, he said, “Well,” he says, “he wanted this project to be turned over to the scientists. He always resented [Vannevar] Bush and myself, and, because,” he said, “we weren’t nuclear physicists. And, therefore, he was bitterly opposed to our running it, and he was going to be still more to your being in there.” Which was absolutely true. 

It was awfully funny. I had the problem of, I wanted to get everything I could out of Wigner, who was a very fine theoretical physicist. And so every time that I went West, and I normally went by train, because air service was so poor. I would leave Washington on the Chicago train about 5:30 in the evening, or 5:00, I have forgotten which went on, and then I would get to Chicago the first thing the next morning. Then I would go straight to the University of Chicago and spend most of the day with them. And then I would get on the train for either San Francisco or Hanford or Los Alamos. 

They were very good trains and I had a lot of things I had to take some time, once in a while to go over the reports that I had. Although I did not like reports, I did have to read some of them. So it was very convenient to stop in Chicago. I would usually stop also coming back, because I would normally come back by train. I had tried going by air, and on one trip for example, it took me longer than if I had gone by train.

Groueff: Because of the weather.

Groves: Because of the weather and because of the wartime restrictions, which required the planes to take a full load, which meant short hops, because they could not load up with gasoline. And so you could not fly over any disturbance. I was grounded I think in Texas on one occasion for over two days. 

Of course, traveling by air, too, was bad, because you could not use any of the time for any work, because you could not read anything, and of course, you cannot write anything. Whereas travelling by train you could lock your compartment and go to work, whereas on a plane you were always fearful that you would drop to sleep with these papers, and you just were not going to drop to sleep with those papers. 

So I would normally stop in Chicago. And either going out or coming back, I would have my officer out there arrange a luncheon, at which we would invite maybe ten to twelve people. And at this luncheon, the purpose of the luncheon, primary purpose was to build general goodwill. Of course, you could not discuss anything at a luncheon, because you were in a public place.

Groueff: Where was the lunch held?

Groves: Oh, it would be held usually downtown at one of the downtown hotels, because that was the best place to hold it. They seemed to appreciate it more. And when we would get through, everything would be very lovely. My officer in charge there, Major—Captain and then later Major A. V. Peterson, would tell me, he said, “Well,” he said, “I think it’s all right now. I think Dr. Wigner is feeling much happier.” 

As soon as they would get back to the university, Peterson would report that they had just barely arrived when Szilard popped into Wigner’s room and five or ten minutes later, Wigner felt just as he had before.

Groueff: But, why? He was resentful of the fact that the Army and the ––

Groves: No, he was, I think the plea that Szilard constantly made to him was that I did not like Wigner, and that I looked on Wigner with contempt, which, of course, was absolutely false. I did like Wigner, and I had the greatest respect for his intellectual capacity. But they would talk together apparently in Hungarian Yiddish.

Groueff: I see.

Groves: And I know they did not talk in German, or they would have been overheard, but they could talk to each other, you see, in Hungarian Yiddish, and nobody would understand them. In any case, it was a very touchy thing. 

Later, in order to improve the situation, the DuPont Company invited Wigner to come to Wilmington and spend several days. Well, they went all out for him while he was there. He had a gold carpet, plush, super plush treatment that they said they had never given anybody else. The president of the company devoted time to him, and I think had him to lunch. And he met everybody and they did everything they could, but he went away not feeling—always suspicious. And, I think the suspicion was created by Szilard, suspicious of the motives at DuPont.

They used to say, the claim used to be made that DuPont would not employ any Jews. Well, they did not have many, because when they looked over their potential employees, they wanted a certain type of man. 

They wanted a man who was a good—they felt would be capable of becoming at home under any circumstances. And they also were very meticulous as to dress. A DuPonter, if you went into a room with 30 people there in the room at that time, you could normally pick out a DuPonter.

Groueff: Conservatively dressed and well-dressed.

Groves: Well, because of, you might say his general clean-cut, neat appearance.

Groueff: I see. Nothing sloppy or—

Groves: Nothing sloppy, nothing extreme.

Groueff: Showy.

Groves: And, nothing showy, and also extremely good manners. And a quickness of perception, and of course, a tremendous mental capacity, too. And, they were looking for people of a different type that you would find in the academic world, as a rule. 

In any case, Szilard, by his constant play on Wigner, was a distinct menace to our success. Later, when he was doing all his agitation about not using the bomb, once he could not use it on Hitler—perfectly satisfied to use it on Hitler, or on the Germans.

Groueff: Not anybody else.

Groves: But not on anyone else. I do not think there is anything moral in his attitude towards the Japanese, because I never saw any signs of any great moral outlook on his part. I am sure that it was just a case of, Hitler surrendered, that revenge on the Germans. After he surrendered, it was a case of, “Well, let’s do something that will make a name for myself.”

Groueff: What was his role in Chicago? He worked with—not with Wigner.

Groves: No, he just was there, and he was not doing much of anything. He was supposed to have certain activities, but he was really just a thorn in the side, I think, of everyone. Initially, when I first talked to him, he had been working on the methods of cooling. They had at that time either around four or five different proposals for how to cool the pile. When I arrived there on my first visit, I spent about an hour with Szilard on these things, along with, of course, Dr. Compton was with me, I am sure. And, at the end of that hour, I had struck out all but two of them, and probably had really centered on one.

Groueff: On the water.

Groves: No, it was not the water.

Groueff: Air.

Groves: It was helium.

Groueff: Helium, yes.

Groves: As I recall, and later, after the DuPont people investigated it thoroughly, we went back to water, because some of the inherent problems in helium. 

But, the main thing was, it was rather typical of that period. Here they were scattering their shots in all directions, and they were not saying, “Well, now we’ve got make a decision, we’ve got to pick this or we’ve got to pick that.” Now, it was all right to pick two with one the primary and one a secondary, which is what I did. But it was terrible to be scattering over five different areas. 

Now, it was different on our choice of three different approaches to the separation of fissionable material. And the reason that was different was that we had no idea as to whether we could do a particular one or not. We had the feeling—and when I say “we” I am referring particularly to Conant and myself, and also, I think, Bush—we had the feeling that if we put everything on one plan, that that thing might develop into a scientific roadblock, where you would find that something was absolutely impossible. Just for example as we found it was impossible later in the design of the bomb to use the gun-type bomb with plutonium.

Groueff: Yes, I read that finally you made the decision to drop the gun, plutonium gun. Why was that? Why a gun would be good for uranium and not for plutonium?

Groves: Spontaneous fission was possible.

Groueff: With the plutonium.

Groves: Due to one of the isotopes. That is no longer classified.

Groueff: Yes.

Groves: But, at that time, of course, it was highly classified. One of the isotopes of plutonium—I have forgotten which one, oh, 240, I think, but I am not absolutely certain now—but it was one of the isotopes that showed a tendency toward spontaneous reactions.

Groueff: So you could have been dangerous.

Groves: So it could have been dangerous in the course of the assembly.

Groueff: But not with uranium.

Groves: Not with uranium-235. You see, with the gun coming together, here you had two pieces, really. You had this thing, just shooting in together.

Groueff: Together, yes.

Groves: Now, as this came, approached, we did not want that to go off, or to start the reaction until it was almost seated, you see.

Groueff: Just centered, yeah.

Groves: Just before it hit, we wanted it to go off, infinitesimal time, so that at the time that the reaction was, the maximum of the reaction was going on, we would be as close to being fully seated as possible. It would not quite be there, and coming out it would be just a little––

Groueff: Not too soon, not too late.

Groves: And just a very small fraction of time. If we tried that with the plutonium, it might have gone—say, as this projectile went into the seating target—it might have gone off maybe out in here, in other words. But it was not ideal.

Groueff: Yes.

Groves: And it might have gone off in here.

Groueff: Premature.

Groves: Prematurely, so that we would not have the maximum effect. And, of course, it could go off prematurely and cause quite a lot of trouble.

Groueff: But how did they discover that that could have happened theoretically?

Groves: I think it was by samples, certain experimental work that was done on it.

Groueff: And then the decision had to be taken to––

Groves: Go to the implosion type for that. And, of course, there was a very interesting thing on the implosion type, and that was that we had originally considered this. A man named [Seth] Neddermeyer had worked on it for a considerable length of time and he was very enthusiastic about it. It was not a straightforward plan. 

Now, the gun type, one of the things that had to be done and was not easy to do was to force the scientific personnel, and that applies to all development engineers as well, to stop searching for perfection. Get something good enough, but do not try to have a perfect device, because if you try to have a perfect device, just as soon as you get almost there, then somebody will think of something else. It is just like an automobile, when the plans for an American production, the plans for a car usually are made about three years before they come out.

Groueff: Yes.

Groves: You might use that as an example. Just talk to somebody in the automotive industry in this country as to how long do they have to start planning, and when do they make their key decisions. And you will find that actually the key decisions on the 1966 car were made probably six to nine months ago.

Groueff: So, if any improvement occurs in between, it is too late to do it.

Groves: It is too late. Now, you can do certain things. You can make one change that is not too vital. For example it takes months and months to design and to develop the principles to design and test and get the dies, stamping dies, ready to make, say, the fender.

Groueff: Yes.

Groves: You cannot come in two months before the time that you are bringing the model out and say, “Oh, we want to change the shape of that fender.”

Groueff: So, you applied this thinking to the bomb.

Groves: Yes.

Groueff: You had no time to achieve perfection anyhow.

Groves: You could not achieve perfection. That is one of the things that made people think that I rode roughshod over them. The reason was that we just could not change.

Groueff: You wanted it on purpose.

Groves: You purposely had to stick to your knitting and just go right ahead once you have done it. Now in the case of the three different processes, you see, we felt that maybe we would come along and we would get into a scientific block that you just could not get around. In other words, you would discover something that said, “No.” For example, supposing we had discovered that plutonium would not be fissionable.

Groueff: Because you were not quite sure it was.

Groves: Well, we did not know. We had never seen plutonium. You see, the whole, the design of the plutonium chemical reduction plant at Hanford was based on a millionth of a pound of plutonium.

Groueff: A millionth of a pound. Was that the one produced by Seaborg or the one produced by the pilot plant in––

Groves: That was produced by Seaborg.

Groueff: Seaborg.

Groves: And the cyclotron.

Groueff: Just as an experiment.

Groves: Well, developed for finding that there was such a thing, and he produced a millionth of a pound. Well, now if you try to figure out how much that is, you are pretty good.

Groueff: And, you needed pounds and pounds, huh?

Groves: Yeah, this whole plant consisted of about 60. I think there were two of them [the T Plants]. They cost somewhere around, I guess around $50 million apiece, something like that. Now, there again, the reason for two of them was because, not that we needed two, we needed one. But we could not be certain that something might not go wrong with that, and we would have a contamination problem in there.

Groueff: Were there two at Hanford?

Groves: Yes, the two at Hanford. And they were completely separated, you see. The whole idea was that if one got contaminated and needed some changes and we could not fix it, why, we had the other one to go to. While we had all of these various mechanisms for remote control, there was no way that you could get down inside, because of the radiation.

Groueff: So, once it starts––

Groves: Once it started––

Groueff: Nothing, yeah.

Groves: That is true. Now, for example, these tremendous—the assembly of what would be the equivalent of a retort or a big bowl, was about the diameter of this desk. And that is about five feet, and probably about three feet, four or five feet deep, and sort of pear-shaped, I guess would be the best way to describe it. That had to be installed, various things had to be put into to it. 

But once it was in, if we ever had to remove any piece of equipment, we had a crane which was operating by periscope. It was behind an eight-foot concrete wall, I think it was eight feet. And, this crane had certain attachments hooked onto it, so that you could—one of them, for example, was a tremendous wrench that would fit over the bolts that put this equipment together and could unscrew them and take the whole thing apart. And, then the crane would grab the whole piece and take it on out and put it in what we call dump heap, which was, of course, highly radioactive, and it would just sit there. Then it would go down to the other end of the runway and pick up the new equipment, which could be shoved in there without being subject to radiation. And, then a door opened and the—

Groueff: In the meantime, the operation would be stopped?

Groves: Just enough, no, to just be stopped in that one retort.

Groueff: Not the whole plant.

Groves: No, because it was not a continuous process. It was more like a candy factory where they had twenty different kettles.

Groueff: I see, okay.

Groves: And this reminded you a great deal of a candy kettle, except they were a little bit bigger. The nuts must have been, oh, three, four inches in diameter. This big sort of a grip would come down over it and then the operator could operate it. It took a lot of skill to handle that crane, not so much skill as practice, because he was doing it through a periscope.

Groueff: Yeah, I saw in DuPont, a young scientist, Frio, who was developing periscopes. That is also a very interesting story.

Groves: And, the things of that kind. Now, there were many things, then there question of improvement of individual things. 

In the implosion type of bomb, we needed certain detonators to start the explosion of the regular explosives that drove the plutonium into its proper position. Those detonators were not satisfactory. The job of improving those detonators and getting a better one was turned over to DuPont into their regular explosives department. There was nothing secret about it, they were just told what, they told as a confidential––

Groueff: Wilmington.

Groves: At Wilmington. They developed this thing, so that in less than 30 days before our actual use of the bomb in action, they produced what we wanted. And that reduced our chances of failure, due to this one cause alone, from 1 in 300 to 1 in 30,000. 

Groueff: So, only 30 days before the Trinity explosion, you did not have perfected the deployment method?

Groves: This was 30 days, not before Trinity, but 30 days before the use in action. About July 1, somewhere around July 1.

Groueff: After Trinity?

Groves: No, before Trinity, July 16.

Groueff: 16th, yes, I see.

Groves: So, it was some time before Trinity, but not very long before, a few days. This was just one of the items in the chain that by producing a better unit, we were able to reduce our chances of failure.

Groueff: When you say that did not look for perfection, and you had to go with whatever you started, was it an exception when you changed the barrier, when the whole—

Groves: No, that was not a change, when we changed the barrier. We changed the barrier, because the first barrier would not work.

Groueff: But it was already being produced in sort of––

Groves: ––It was being produced.

Groueff: ––industrial scale.

Groves: It was starting to be produced on an industrial scale, and the plant, or its production was generally pretty well completed, not completed yet. But it was well on the way towards completion, and operating people were actually in there operating part of it.

Groueff: But it was not good.

Groves: Well, it was not satisfactory, and I felt that we would gain in our ultimate goal if we changed at that time. And, that is the one thing that, of course, is hard to do. It is awfully easy to keep on and say, “Oh, no, we can’t change.” It is just as hard to do that as to say, “No, we won’t change unless we have to.” And that was really the philosophy.

Groueff: And, that was one of the major decisions, I understand now, one difficult decision. I agree the opinion of the English, and I see that you have this new book they published. They admitted that they were wrong.

Groves: One of the best things in there—I have not read it all yet—but was this statement attributed to Chadwick, which probably was contained in a letter that went back, to the effect that decisions were made promptly. 

Now, that is the big difference between the way that we operated and the way that things are generally done today. If you think of all the time that is spent in the preparation of reports and studies and economic analyses and money costs and all the rest of it today in the slightest decision, that is why they cannot get anything done. Now, actually, you save money as well as time, and you get a better product if you do not hesitate so much. 

It is the same thing as an illustration in the construction of a new building such as an office building or an apartment house. If you can cut say two months off the construction time of that building, you are going to have—your income is going to start two months sooner. You are also going to find that it actually probably will not cost you as much to finish it, because you have two months less of overhead. You may spend some more money on a little overtime here and there, but your overhead, which includes, of course, your interest on the money while that is going on. If you have seen some of these buildings in New York, where they delay and delay and delay in getting started.

Groueff: It is a waste of money.

Groves: That is particularly true in such buildings up at—well, the Sperry Rand building up in Rockefeller Center was delayed and delayed in starting by the owners, the Uris and the Rockefeller combination. I never could understand—I knew why—but, it seemed to me like a terrific waste of money to have this thing dragging and dragging, and then finally getting started. Because you lose all the interest on your money and your taxes that go on, so that it is not necessarily cheaper to do these things slowly. 

The main thing is however, to get, not to delay on decisions. So often, you will see—and it is true of almost everything, including industrial development—they will spend months and months making their first final decision, the decision to go ahead. Whereas, and then they may want something to come onto market say for in time for Christmas of 1965. Well, they delay so much that the people that actually have to—in making the first big decisions—that the people that have to do the job spend an awful lot of money and they do not get as good a product. Because they are constantly trying to make up with overtime and you can work some people beyond the effective time of overtime, particularly today when people are not accustomed to working.

Groueff: But your way was to take the decision immediately.

Groves: Make the decision––

Groueff: Even if you do not have all the elements¬¬––

Groves: To make the decisions when they had to be made. In other words, anything, any decision, the failure to make which would cause a delay in the completion of the project, was made irrespective of how much data was available. 

Groueff: But, before you came in the picture, who were the men who took the major decisions, who were the driving––

Groves: Nobody, nobody.

Groueff: But, how––

Groves: Because, it was in the hands of a committee.

Groueff: A committee.

Groves: And, like all committees in Washington at that time under the—it was a trait that I think developed a good deal during that period. Because Roosevelt was president and he was a great delayer. He never wanted to make a decision until he had to. We also had a great many academic people who had never had to make decisions and who could very well wait until tomorrow, the next day.

Groueff: Usually, behind the committee, there is always somebody who is the driving spirit.

Groves: Well, this committee, if you read the Smyth Report and see how that committee, the committee control of uranium development” change, change, change––

Groueff: Yes, from Briggs’ committee to––

Groves: Yes, and constant change¬¬––

Groueff: This one––

Groves: And constant changes within the committee as well. 

Groueff: But wasn’t there any man behind that who was causing those changes, somebody at the level of a Secretary [Henry] Stimson or President Roosevelt?

Groves: No, this was all in the hands of Dr. [Vannevar] Bush.

Groueff: Dr. Bush.

Groves: Dr. Bush, who had [James B.] Conant as his advisor. Conant was a very able and very strong man, just as Bush was. But Conant also was a very fine subordinate, because he would not—he always wanted to do what Bush wanted. 

Groueff: So, Bush was the boss?

Groves: Well, yes, and no, because it was the committee, and Bush could not get it away from the committee, really. Remember that Bush spent his life dealing with scientists, and so had Conant, and educational people as well. And that was the reason, one of the reasons, why I think Bush felt that his organization was not equipped to handle anything. He had a small organization, not too large, mostly of academic, scientific people. They just were not equipped and he knew it, and that is why he made his recommendation that this should be turned over to an Army engineer. 

But it is very interesting to trace that turnover, because it was never intended that—at the time, it was not thought out to see just how this was all going to develop. Nobody pictured that I would become such a dominant character. The picture was, I am sure, that as General [Wilhelm D.] Styer told me, speaking for [General Brehon B.] Somervell and going over the details, that I would reduce their theories, their work, which was already completed according to Styer, all the experimental work, and out of that I would produce the final blueprints, not the preliminary, no experimental work, just the final blueprints.

Groueff: To apply what the scientists already––

Groves: Had completely determined. Not that they were still thinking about it, but had completely determined. And I was to draw up the blueprints, build the plants, and staff and operate the plants.

Groueff: They did not expect you to be a decision-making authority.

Groves: No.

Groueff: No.

Groves: No, they did not expect either that I would take over such things as Los Alamos.

Groueff: I see. So, the whole thing came by itself, the development, and because you started taking decisions and each decision––

Groves: The main reason was, I would say, that there were two reasons why it developed as it did. One was that my natural characteristics, which you can call domineering or dominant or brash or self-confidence, or anything else you want to, but there were certain characteristics there that led to a very vigorous control.

Groueff: But they did not choose you because of these characteristics, they chose you because of your capacity as an engineer?

Groves: No, they chose me because, well, in the first place, they had started this thing, and this is something that is a very delicate matter to handle. And I wish you would show a great deal of discretion in handling it.

Groueff: I will try.

Groves: When they first started this thing, Bush’s recommendation was very clear that it was now time to put the work of constructing and of building the plants in the hands of the Army engineers, an Army engineer officer. And that the OSRD [Office of Scientific Research and Development] work had been completed, in other words, scientific, which is quite far from the truth. But, anyway, his feeling was that they were, and I think, of course, that meant that Conant felt the same way, that the scientific people were reaching a doodling stage where they would not make a decision, but they would constantly be trying to improve their knowledge and all of that. 

In any case, he made this recommendation. He procured to the president and procured, of course, Stimson’s and Marshall’s concurrence first. The first thing he did, that General [George C.] Marshall did, was to have General Styer investigate the whole business. Styer was placed under wraps, he was not even allowed by Marshall to talk to General Somervell, who was his immediate superior. He was just told that he would tell Somervell that he had been assigned a special mission by General Marshall, that he had asked General Marshall to bring Somervell in on it, that Marshall had refused, and that he would continue to try to get that thing across. 

Well, Styer investigated the affair and decided that yes, it was reasonable to say that it could be done in time to be of effect during the war, which was what Bush and Conant had said, you see. They had said, “If it is turned over to the Army Engineers, it will never done otherwise,” was what they really said.

So Styer made his investigation. I do not know where he went. I do not know whether he ever told me. I did not ask him much about it later. Anyway, he made it, and sometime during the course of it, he got the approval of Marshall to tell Somervell. As he put it, he said, “I was in a horrible, embarrassing position, because Somervell,” well, he did not explain it. He did not have to, because I knew Somervell. But Somervell––

Groueff: Did not like that.

Groves: He did not like it a bit. He was sort of, he was jealous of a lot of things and that was one thing he thought, “Why shouldn’t I be told about this?” Anyway, Styer came back and the result was a concurrence on the part of the Army to this kind of a setup. Sometime in June of that year, it is in the books here, Somervell and Styer, possibly with some concurrence, some discussion with General [Eugene] Reybold, I do not know, who was then Chief of Engineers. But without any discussion with General [Thomas M.] Robins, who was Deputy Chief of Engineers and head of construction, or myself, who was Deputy Chief of Construction in the Engineers, and as such knew everybody and knew all about them. They set up this special engineer district, headed—and they selected for it Colonel James C. Marshall.

Groueff: Marshall.

Groves: And if they had talked to me about it, if they had talked to Robins, Robins would have immediately have talked to me, unless he had been put under wraps. But in any case, I would never have recommended Marshall for the job, because he just was not fitted for it. He was too nice a fellow, he was too amenable to scientific advice, and he also was very set on building up a neat organization where everything fell into line, all the paperwork was competently handled and all the rest of it. He also did not have the physical strength, in my opinion, to carry on such a thing. 

But we were not consulted. And this went back, I think, to something that—there was a story that was told me many years ago by a very close friend of mine, who was retired and very powerful in the Corps of Engineers on the Mississippi River. He had really been responsible for the so-called Mississippi River flood control plan. He had been a great football player and football coach at West Point. His name was Colonel Ernest Graves, and he had been very successful in World War I.

Groueff: Graves.

Groves: Graves. Graves told me one day, he said that he had just been up to see the Chief of Engineers, who was then General [Edward] Markham about something. And he said, “He turned me down.” And he says, “I think that’s just terrible.” He went along with the Assistant Chief, General Pillsbury.

I said, “How often does he turn you down?” 

He said, “Oh, about every three months, he’ll turn down something.” 

I says, “Is it every anything very important

He said, “No, it isn’t, but why does he do that?” 

And, I said, “Well, he just wants to put you in your place so that he doesn’t, you don’t start to think that he’s doing just what you tell him. So, just show his great––

Groueff: Authority.

Groves: “His authority, he will do that once in a while.” Well, that was absolutely true. 

Well, Somervell had been in the Chief’s office off and on. He was there for quite a time when I was there. And, he had seen this, he knew Graves very well, and he knew about this. So, every once in a while, he wanted to put me, and me particularly, and incidentally Robins, in our places. I had much more than any one man could do anyway. So, it was not a case of that on my part, but it just was very poor. It resulted in three major mistakes. Every time he did it, it turned out badly. Once was when they started the Alaskan Can Oil business that created quite a stir and was not well-handled. 

Groueff: The Alaska––

Groves: Alaska highway business, and the petroleum development up there. Well, it was essential to start it, because the Navy said they could not guarantee delivery of gasoline to Alaska for the use of our airplanes. So, it was essential to start it, but at that time, the Chief of Engineers instructed not to place this under the Construction Division. The whole reason was that Somervell just thought, “Well, they’ve got enough to do and Groves is getting too powerful, and we won’t turn it over to him.” Anyway, that was what was done. They picked very poor people for it, to handle it. 

The major mistake was made by Somervell, in addition to picking poor people, which led to trouble later and Congressional criticism and all that. But the biggest trouble was that Somervell did not realize that the important thing to do was to keep checking on the Navy. And if I had been in charge of it, under Somervell’s direction, I do not care whose direction, I would have insisted on asking the Navy about every month, “Could they now supply oil up there?” And, the day that they said they could, I would then have recommended that the work be abandoned. 

And if we had done that in the Army, all the Congressional criticism would have gone out the window. Nobody would have said a word. All they would have said is, “Well, why did you do this? Why did you spend all this money and then stop?” We spent it because the Navy said they could not supply us. As soon as they said they could––

Groueff: We stopped it, yeah.

Groves: We stopped it. And, it was purely a military operation. It would have gotten by. Well, that was one of them. The next one he did was, the Niver Continental Highway, down in Central America, which also had the—troubles in Congress. That also he kept out from under us, but he selected the personnel, and he selected a man that I never would have selected for it, because he had been working for me. He was older than I was, just as the people up in Canada, in fact, everybody was senior to me, you see, excepting for temporary reign. Any case, that went bad. 

Then, when it came to this one, again, they did it, and they selected Marshall, which I never would have selected. It was not placed under us, but Robins and myself were asked to give Colonel Marshall any help that we could. So, we moved in more or less, but without ever getting into the picture as to the dealing with scientists or anything.

Groueff: But you were put into the secret.

Groves: To some very limited extent. I do not even know whether I knew that uranium was involved. I knew that they had a tremendous task, but I did not have any concept of how—what the magnitude was. I selected for him, I advised him and he accepted my advice, to take Stone and Webster as their chief engineers and constructors. Because at that time, Marshall did not have the concept, and I do not think anybody else would have, of what the size of the job would be. 

I also advised him on the selection of the site, which later became Oak Ridge, that is, that it should be in that general area within about fifty miles of Knoxville and the TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority] area. In other words, I said, “That’s the place for this project,” and the reasons why and all that. 

Well, in any case, that was the story. Marshall was not fitted for this particular type of work. Well, Bush and Conant were dissatisfied after a few months. I do not know just when. They liked Marshall personally, very well.

Groueff: But, he was not driving enough––

Groves: He was not––

Groueff: Not a leader.

Groves: Nothing was happening.

Groueff: I see.

Groves: In other words, instead of starting the thing at Oak Ridge, which, if I had been in his place, within a month, I would have had Oak Ridge started. They had not decided to start at Oak Ridge. Various people said, “No, we should wait, we should wait, we should wait.” Well, that is what was not needed. Also, [Ernest] Lawrence wanted it near Berkeley, [Arthur] Compton wanted it near Chicago.

Groueff: Each one pulled––

Groves: And [Harold] Urey wanted it up near New York. They were all pulling against each other, and nobody saying, “Well, we’ll put it at Oak Ridge.” 

Now, he did not bring in anybody to lessen the load on Stone and Webster, who were completely out of their depth, because it was just too big a job for the one firm, big as they were. And there were certain other things that could have been done that were not done. 

In any case, Bush also had a great liking for people that he knew. A stranger always reacted unfavorably on Bush.

Groueff: Unfavorably. What kind of a man is Bush? I have not met him.

Groves: Oh, He is a very fine man. For example, when he first saw me, he did not like––

Groueff: Yeah, I read that he did not like––

Groves: Me at all. And, he, and of course, that was the fault of Styer, who had not called up Bush and said, “We’ve selected Groves for this, and he will be over to see you.”

Groueff: So, it was a surprise when you arrived.

Groves: But instead, he did not know what I was doing, and we were sort of fencing back and forth, because I was sort of surprised at his attitude. I did not say anything, or anything like that. But that was typical of Bush. And then later, there was nobody who was a stronger supporter or closer personal friend than Bush was.

Groueff: But, the first impression was––

Groves: The first day, he always resented anything strange, apparently.

Groueff: Is he cold in appearance or shy?

Groves: No, no.

Groueff: Friendly?

Groves: Very friendly, and he looks just like his pictures. He is not an academic scientist. He is really an inventor, an inventive engineer, I would say would be the best thing for him.

Groueff: And energetic?

Groves: Oh, very energetic.

Groueff: Dynamic?

Groves: Dynamic, everything.

Groueff: Not procrastinating.

Groves: No, I do not think he was a procrastinator, and lots of nerve.

Groueff: Lot of nerve, yeah.

Groves: Yeah. You see, when Bush and Conant recommended to the President that this thing should be pursued vigorously, that took nerve to do it. It took nerve to say, nerve that very few men have, that, “This is beyond my capacity and the capacity of my organization, therefore, bring in an outsider.”

Groueff: That is quite a courage.

Groves: It took a lot of courage, and I think a tremendous, it was really moral courage.

Groueff: And also they recommended to go ahead with all the five methods.

Groves: Well, then, at that time, they did not know what they were doing, you see. They were just playing around. 

Well, anyway, Bush, having had dealings with Styer, wanted Styer to head this thing for the Army. Styer did not want to head it. Styer is not what I would term a chance-taking type. He was essentially a very fine chief of staff or executive. Everybody in the organization always liked Styer, that I know of. When he came into the construction division, when Somervell took that over, he was always the buffer between Styer, between Somervell and his section heads. 

Groueff: Was he an older man than you, of course?

Groves: Well, he was. He graduated in 1916, no, Somervell graduated in ’14, and Styer graduated in ’16, and I graduated in November of ’18. Normally, my class would have been 1920, if it had not been for the war. 

Groueff: I see. So, Styer was your superior.

Groves: Yes, he was before the fast promotions started. Then I was made a temporary colonel in November of ’40. And Styer was not made, then Somervell took over. Somervell did not want to be a temporary colonel, he was a lieutenant colonel. He wanted to be made a general. He was afraid apparently if he was made a colonel, that somebody would say, “Well, why should we make him a general?” Anyway, so he stayed a lieutenant colonel until they finally, sometime I guess in February or January of ’41, made a bunch of Brigadiers and temporary, and he was made. 

And, all through that time, you see, I was a colonel and he was a lieutenant colonel. So was Styer. But that made no difference to me. I just said, “Well, he’s the boss.” And Styer was the executive, and then all through there, you see, Styer was made a colonel right after Somervell was promoted. But he was always junior to me.

Groueff: But you got along very well with him.

Groves: Oh, yes, perfectly, because I just said, “Somervell is the boss of this organization. He wants Styer to be his number two man. I don’t care anything about the rank.” 

And I had insisted on that in my own organization, that we would not, that this was war and we could not depend on permanent rank or temporary rank either. So we had juniors serving under or serving over seniors. And I told the seniors who started to object to it, I said, “Well, if you don’t like it, I’ll be very glad to relieve you and you can go anywhere you want to, I’ll take care of you. You won’t be, it won’t be held against you that you don’t want to. I recognize that that may be something that goes against the grain. It’s perfectly all right.”

But the same thing had been said when I came into the Construction Division and when it was still fully QM [Quartermaster Corps]. The head of it then had just called in all his officers and said, “Now, if you don’t like Groves coming down here and being the number two man, why, any of you want to can be relieved, we’ll send you where you want to. It will not be held against you in any way.” None of them wanted to go.

Groueff: So Bush was discontent?

Groves: Bush wanted Styer, and he was discontented with Marshall. He wanted Styer to take Marshall’s place. Styer did not want to go for personal reasons. I think he did not, well, he knew that it was just a wild goose chase, and he was very well satisfied with what he was doing, which was Chief of Staff of the SOS [Services of Supply], or ASF [Army Service Forces], I guess by that time. He thought, he did not know, he might succeed Somervell in that position, or he might eventually get an overseas assignment. But, any case, he did not want anything to do with something that was just wild and hectic. He would not have made the decisions fast. Everybody would have liked him, much more than they did me. Everybody would have liked him. He also, I do not know, he just did not want it. Somervell did not want to lose him, because Somervell always wanted to hang on to the people that he liked the best, he hung onto. 

Now, it was a question whether I would go to the Chief Engineer’s office, for example, and Somervell went to the General Staff, or whether I would go over there. I always thought he sent me to the Engineers, not because he did not like me personally. I do not know, there was nothing sympathetic between Somervell and myself. We just had tremendous respect for each other’s ability. That is the way I put it, to be perfectly frank. But he wanted somebody in the Engineers that he could depend on, would run construction so that he would never have to think about it during these terrific, early start of the ASF, when he was having too many other things to do. He just said, “Well, this is a little department that—” while I was spending an awful lot of money, and it was very important. “—this, I can forget about.” And, all the time, until I went on the MED, they never over there in ASF ever interfered in any way with our construction. 

Groueff: Let me see, I think that is running.

Groves: In order not to lose Styer, Somervell had to have some other name to throw in the box, and he threw mine in. He had the advantage there of knowing that General [George C.] Marshall would go along with, because General Marshall knew of me. And, he also, I think, had another angle to it. He wanted somebody who could drive this thing ahead. He knew I could do that, by actually having done it on the construction program. He probably thought that I could do it better than anybody else that he knew of, other than himself.

Groueff: Somervell?

Groves: Yes, that was his feeling, I am sure. And, then he also wanted somebody who could, if anything went wrong with this thing, and there is every reason to believe that eventually it might, and it would be a complete flop, he wanted somebody who could deal with Congress, who was accustomed to dealing with Congress, and who could stand up to––

Groueff: And, you could, yeah.

Groves: He knew that. As a sideline on that, in the Construction Division at one time, somebody appeared before a Congressional committee and apparently did not do very well, he was hesitant and so forth. And Somervell, much to the annoyance and disgust of everyone else in the division, announced one day at a meeting of the officers, that is the group heads that no one was to appear before a Congressional committee unless he had personally approved of the appearance in advance, and that he would not approve any of them anyway. And the only exceptions to that were himself and me, that we would do all the testifying. And, anything that came up, well, of course, that hurt some feelings pretty badly. But, it was just, you have to have a certain manner and certain ability to think quickly and to answer and to talk.

Groueff: Not to be too impressed by the Senators or afraid of them.

Groves: And also to give an impression to them that you know exactly what you are talking about and that you are as big a man or bigger than they are. You cannot be too deferential. He also had heard me say time after time in talking about various things that had happened, that the first thing to do in appearing before a Congressional committee was never to pass the buck. Always say, and he had heard me do it, in which a certain officer had not done well. And, there was criticism of the work, and when, at the hearing, which Somervell heard about, I had announced very bluntly that––

Groves: I think generally explains why, the reasons for my selection. When Mr. Stimson approved General Marshall’s recommendation on it, apparently my name went to the White House. I do not know just why, but apparently, the President was, who was Roosevelt, wanted to get his fingers into it. 

Groueff: Did the President know about you, or knew you personally?

Groves: The President did not know me personally. I had seen him, of course, at reception lines in the White House.

Groueff: The Secretary [Stimson] knew you?

Groves: The Secretary did not know me. General Marshall did. I had been on the General Staff under General Marshall, had met him slightly at that time. I had been there for about a year. He knew about me, because he had approved my promotion from Major to temporary Colonel, and that was very exceptional and it led to a good deal of discussion. I imagine my name had been brought up a number of times since then, so he knew a great deal about me, and knew my general reputation for getting things done. The President had got hold of my 201 file, which is the file kept here in Washington on all officers.

Groueff: What did you call it? 201.

Groves: 201, which is the personal file, showing his––

Groueff: The record.

Groves: Copies of his Efficiency Reports, his service, his records and so forth. And, apparently, he went over those personally, which I think is the wrong thing for a president to do. But that was typical of Roosevelt. 

And sometime after the war, I was told by a man who had been a young officer in the White House at the time, that he had seen this efficiency file and had been very much impressed in reading it. 

And I said, “Well, what in the world did it go over there for?” 

And, his reply was, “Oh, the President wanted to see it.” 

At any rate, I was selected. Bush, as you read in my book, was surprised. He had not wanted me, not because he was objecting to me, but he wanted Styer. And that is why he was so upset. Then, of course, added to the confusion was the fact that Styer did not notify Bush that I was it. At any rate, that was the situation when I came into the picture.

Groueff: So, you were selected on the highest level, President, Secretary, Chief of Staff.

Groves: I think the––

Groueff: Somervell and Styer.

Groves: Yes, I would say that really I was selected by Somervell. The original recommendation came from Somervell. And, I am sure that it was a case of, “Who can we get that we can slip in in place of Styer, so that you will not have to take it and I will not have to lose you?”

Groueff: Bush thought that you would not have enough tact with the scientists, or what?

Groves: Well, Bush I think felt that way more than he would have normally, because of the surprise. Oh, this was a very difficult meeting where I assumed that he knew and he did not know.

Groueff: I see.

Groves: So, that naturally––

Groueff: It was a–

Groves: Facts sort of went out the window, and Styer, as I say, Bush wanted Styer, and I––

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.