[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 Groves: It was the fact that I had been led to believe that I had understood that they were very far along and therefore it was very close to the point where we could start making blueprints.
Stephane Groueff: The report the President receive from [Vannevar] Bush and [James B.] Conant as one committee was rather optimistic.
Groves: Well, it was optimistic but it did not go into details. The basis on which I had formed my opinion was my understanding at the time of my appointment that it was ready for me to draw up the detailed construction plans and to start construction. That was the surprise to me. I think it’s important to emphasize that they were working, but they worked a lot harder later.
Groueff: It wasn’t a climate of urgency or emergency?
Groves: There was a climate of working and hard work, but not of the type of urgency that was developed later. That’s a contrast I would like to make. It’s not that they weren’t working harder than they had ever worked before in their lives but that afterwards they worked a lot harder. I think also to emphasize afterwards they gradually they had this oppressive weight hanging over them of the fact that real money was being wagered on what they thought they could do. That was an entirely new experience to any of them. None of them before had ever been in the position where they had to think that well, if I don’t succeed then somebody will have lost a great deal of money, much more than I could ever imagine. I think that started to bear down and to have an effect.
Groueff: A burden of responsibility.
Groves: A burden of responsibility. Before a scientist in the academic world, if he proved something and discovered something he would become well-known scientifically and get his name in the encyclopedia and occupy a distinguished academic position. But if he failed, nobody thought anything about it. It was just as important to prove that something couldn’t be done, as it was to prove that it could be done because their ambition was knowledge and knowledge is two things: first that it is possible and second that it isn’t. So this was an entirely new experience because it wasn’t any good for them to prove that it couldn’t be done. It had to be done. And somehow, if it couldn’t be done one way, they had to discover another way to accomplish it. That was the big difference. There’s more feeling of responsibility that was developed than one of urgency.
Prior to development, they undoubtedly had it before hand, but it’s one thing to be talking about well, if we’re successful then they will spend $10 million on us than to have somebody say well, we’re starting to spend $100 million on what you think you may be able to do. Now you better be able to do it. Now that is the difference you might say.
Now, at the University of Virginia—it wouldn’t be well to name names of course—they were proceeding on a most leisurely course, where they took vacations. They went off and worked academic hours. They were really working at these other institutions but they weren’t working with a sense of urgency, which immediately makes people work harder and they spend less time talking about the weather.
Groueff: They dropped everything else.
Groves: You might say it gradually developed into where it was 100%. Every minute was devoted to thinking about this thing.
Groueff: Could you remember some of those visits—for instance Berkley, Chicago, and Columbia—when you visited them the first time, what you saw, whom you saw, how did you get there? If you can, describe it like a tale.
Groves: I don’t know without looking at the diary, which came first. I can look that up and let you know if you’d like me to. I don’t know which one I went to first. It’s a little confusing in the diary as to that. But at any rate, the distinct visit would have been, for example, to Chicago and I would assume that I went out there by rail and got there about nine o’clock in the morning. I spent the morning I know going to the various sections of the laboratory and talking to people.
The first thing that I wanted to do after talking to Arthur Compton, whom I had met previously I believe at an S-1 Committee meeting, was to reduce the number of approaches they were making towards the cooling of the pile. The first thing that I wanted was to get something that you could proceed with. Well, you couldn’t proceed very well if you had five different proposals as to how you cool a pile. Well, when I got through that morning, I talked to Szilard, who had been working on that, and talked to various others.
It was agreed by all concerned that there was no reason why we shouldn’t eliminate right away all but two of these proposed methods of cooling and that one of them seemed to be the best and we would concentrate on that. That was helium. And later, as you know, we changed back to the water. But, that was a sample. Here, we had five when I walked into the laboratory that morning and at the end of the morning we had two with one of them very strongly favored. Then we went back to water. But, the whole idea was we had to get our teeth into something.
Groueff: Then you had a pretty good knowledge about the process. When did you learn about the pile? That was in the first weeks of your job. You just took the job and you had never heard of those piles did you?
Groves: No I didn’t know anything about these things until I took over. Then, I learned about them very fast.
Groueff: Who briefed you?
Groves: Well, I imagine that I would have been briefed initially by Gen. [Kenneth] Nichols, who was then a Colonel.
Groueff: And then Compton?
Groves: And then by Bush and Conant to some extent, but not so much. Then, when I went out there, then it was by Compton of course—details of it. But by that time, you see, I had already arrived at an understanding. It’s important to remember that at that time they didn’t know either. Now, that’s the thing that people can’t understand. They say well, “How could you know all this?” Well, the answer is nobody knew any better. For example, we talked a lot about the lattice today but we didn’t know too much about the lattice then. Everything of that kind was the same.
The big thing that stands out in my mind of course was the afternoon meeting in which we assembled and Compton brought in about fifteen to twenty of his leading men.
Groueff: In Compton’s office?
Groves: No, in a big, sort of a luxurious library effect with a lounge I think somewhere around there in his general laboratory area. They went through on a blackboard the equations that would lead to a definition of how much material would be needed. I thought I had told you about that particular meeting where they so far didn’t know what it was.
In this case, after considerable discussion, they went through this on the blackboard to show me just how much material would be needed for a bomb. I was not particularly interested in whether it was a uranium-235 bomb or a plutonium one. I was willing to assume along with them that they would have the same properties. The thing that stood out in my mind as a result of that was the fact that it was my first experience with seeing the modern physicist work at the blackboard. The figures were very hard to follow. They don’t write clearly and they tend to put in little exponents that are so important but are very difficult to read.
Groueff: Who was doing that, Compton?
Groves: No, it wasn’t Compton. I don’t know who it was now.
Groueff: But people like Szilard were there?
Groves: Oh yeah. And I may have told you I was shocked because in this room there was Compton, [Enrico] Fermi, and [James] Franck, all three of whom were Nobel Prize winners. I don’t know if there was anyone else there or not who was a Nobel Prize winner. I had never met a Nobel Prize winner until I got onto this project. The S-1 Committee had Compton, [Harold] Urey, and [Ernest] Lawrence on it.
In any case, when they got through with this it all seemed very straightforward mathematics. But, I saw what to me was a mathematical mistake and I wondered if I was being trapped—if they just wanted to see what I knew. Finally, I thought I might as well come out with it. So, I asked them and I just said, “I can see everything but how you get from equation number five to number six.” Then, they said well there’s nothing wrong, that’s very simple. Finally, I said I might as well plunge. I said, “Well, how does ten to the minus six become ten to the minus five?” And then the man said, “Oh, that’s an error,” and he just took his finger and he erased the new one. That didn’t give you a feeling of confidence in their arithmetic at least. That made note, then they went all the way through and corrected it, which just made a difference of a factor of ten in their answer.
Well now, when they got to the answer I asked them at that time—I’ve forgotten what the constant was, what the figures were—but I said that means say ten kilograms of pure material. I said, “How accurate is that?” They said that’s accurate to a factor of ten. Well, as an engineer I expected them to say oh, maybe 25-50%. I wouldn’t have been surprised if they said well it will vary from maybe half as much to twice as much, but a factor of ten sort of staggered me. It was the first time I had ever heard that term used. Engineers of course couldn’t be that inaccurate.
Groueff: One kilogram to 100.
Groves: It actually meant that if you said ten pounds, the factor of ten could be one or 100. Now, my first thought and what I expressed was, how do you expect me, if I want so many bombs per month, to build a factory to build either one or 100 pounds?
Groueff: They comprehended this time?
Groves: Well, it’s just the same, just as idiotic. I think the expression—I may have used this in my book—was that it’d be just like getting a caterer for a wedding reception and telling them, “Well, we don’t know how many guests we’re going to have but it will be somewhere between; it might be ten or it might be 1,000. Now, you prepare the correct amount of food here and don’t have a great deal of excess and don’t let it run short.” To me, that was the most revealing thing I went into.
Groueff: Were you shocked that day?
Groves: Well no, I don’t shock. But I would have if I were shockable. I just said well, that’s it. But immediately I knew what it would result in. That was, instead of being able to start off and say we wanted to design three bombs a month, that we were going to design on the basis of somewhere between three-tenths of a bomb and nine bombs a month.
Groueff: That probably put you on equal footing with them. At least they realized they can discuss their problems.
Groves: Another thing I did at that time—and I did it I’m sure then because I did it everywhere I went—I emphasized to these people that while I didn’t have a PhD, I had been to school a great deal and just let them know that I had ten years of formal education after I entered college. I said, “That would be the equivalent of about two PhDs, wouldn’t it?” And I emphasized that Colonel Nichols had a PhD.
Groueff: He was with you?
Groves: He was with me and he was then the assistant to the district engineer who was Colonel Marshall. But he had already been involved more than Marshall had with what might be termed the scientific people. That put us on a level. So, from that time on I never heard much said; never once did I hear any question about our being uneducated. I did hear of course that we weren’t physicists and we weren’t chemists. But I said there were quite a few other things. But we knew enough.
Also, remember this: physics and chemistry, particularly radioactive chemistry, microscopic, was a specialty that nobody knew anything about except the few people that had been in it. So, you were not at a loss there. Also the chemists, because they had so much dealings historically with industry, they were much more reasonable to get along with. Whereas the physicists, particularly atomic physicists, had had no experience whatsoever with industry. Few of them like Ernest Lawrence and Arthur Compton had had, but they were the exceptions.
Groueff: No one in the Chicago group?
Groves: I think nobody but Compton probably. The reason was that no company wanted them as a consultant because physics didn’t have any application in the industry. Once in a while you’d get a bridge with a peculiar vibration, but generally you’d only go to the very top-notch physicist. There wasn’t any consulting work for anybody except the very supreme being.
Groueff: That was your first visit to Chicago. The whole atmosphere—was it friendly or was it very tense and some animosity?
Groves: No, I would say the only animosity was that of Szilard.
Groueff: You felt it immediately?
Groves: Well, I knew it before I went out there because I had been told that he would resent me. And primarily, on the grounds that he had resented Bush and Conant and particularly wanted to have their authority replaced by a committee of scientists of which he would be one, and he thought the dominating one. Not because he was the best physicist, he realized that he was not, I’m sure. But, because he felt he had more savoir-faire on affairs. Well, he may have had.
He thought that because he had been in it at the beginning that he should remain at the top of the thing and really be dominating. I knew this would be the case. I didn’t know how that would last forever as it did. And I didn’t know how much influence he had on certain of his fellow scientists, particularly [Eugene] Wigner.
Groueff: Was Wigner at this first meeting?
Groves: Oh yes.
Groueff: Yeah, so all the top people were there.
Groves: As far as I know they were all there. If they weren’t there it was because they hadn’t either joined yet or because they were away at the time.
Groueff: Were you and Nichols in uniform?
Groves: I imagine not.
Groueff: It’s more likely that you would be in civilian form.
Groves: I would guess that I was in civilian clothes for that. The general rule that I made for myself and for Nichols and Marshall was that we were in civilian clothes where we felt it would attract undue attention to our being in uniform. Generals weren’t too common, and even today if you see a General in an airplane you observe him more closely than you would if he were in civilian clothes. Of course, Nichols I imagine was a lieutenant colonel. Marshall, I guess he was a colonel by that time. At any rate, you would notice it. If you saw anybody that was a colonel you would notice it.
Groueff: Yes, especially at a university with laboratories; it would be for security reasons.
Groves: Yeah. I don’t know whether I was in an overcoat or not, but you see as soon as you put on an overcoat it becomes particularly noticeable because of the two black stripes on your sleeve. One stripe, the lower one was about that thick and then the upper one was about that thick.
Groueff: You can’t miss it.
Groves: You can’t miss it. People are curious. Naturally they see a General around campus. And at that time, as I said, Generals were scarce. So, that was a general rule. It was observed throughout until such time as we felt there was no longer any advantage to be gained from it. We wore uniform while traveling and then changed just before we got there and then changed just after we got back on the train. The only time you ran into any trouble was if somebody saw you get on the train in the civilian clothes and then you emerged later in uniform. Well, they wouldn’t know that unless they were particularly observant. This was not to protect us against being observed by enemy agents because that wouldn’t bother them at all. But it was just to prevent general discussion of what’s a General doing here.
In one case, and I think it was at Chicago, I got on the train in civilian clothes. We always traveled in bedrooms or compartments because we had papers you see. So, we had to have locked compartments. The lock wasn’t secure, but it was enough so that you’d hear it if somebody tried to break in if they had to use force. If they could get in quietly they would be alright. But normally they’d have to make enough noise so they’d wake you up. And that was the whole theory of it. I used to just tie the handle down so that nobody could open it, except by real noisy methods.
Groueff: Did you sleep with your briefcase?
Groves: Well, I never used a briefcase.
Groueff: You didn’t carry any papers?
Groves: I carried papers, but I carried them in a brown envelope usually.
Groueff: And you would sleep with this?
Groves: That would be put under the mattress. And then of course a lot of people carried briefcases, but I didn’t. I didn’t want a briefcase because I had never liked them. You also attract attention to them. If you carry papers in a brown envelope like that, nobody thinks anything about it. They know those aren’t important.
Groueff: Did you carry a gun when you traveled?
Groves: Oh yes.
Groueff: You always had it. So you would put it also near you?
Groves: I always had it. I had a small gun that was a .32 on a .25 frame, automatic pistol. You could carry that in your trouser pocket here and it wouldn’t show. I didn’t have a holster on or anything. I just carried it loose.
Groueff: Just in case.
Groves: Loose in my pocket. And of course I only wanted it principally at night.
Groueff: Especially when you traveled.
Groves: I mean only in traveling. I didn’t carry a gun any other time.
Groueff: Not in the city?
Groves: Oh no. The other thing was that on this one occasion when I was observed I got on the train and there was an officer of whom I had known for a number of years who was much older than I was. He knew me fairly well. His father had been a captain in the same regiment with my father. So, he was about twelve years older than I was. After I had gotten dressed I had seen him as I went down the aisle right by when he was in a regular, open part of the Pullman [train car]. When I got back into uniform I came through there and I thought well, I better fix this up and see if he saw me. I went in and I said, “Hello Frank, glad to see you.” Of course I always gave my name, which has always been Army customary. No matter how well you know them, unless you see them every day.
And he said, “Oh yes, I saw you get on.”
I said, “Well, just for your information, just so that you won’t make a slip, I’m authorized to wear civilian clothes. Also, nothing is to be said about it. We don’t want any talk about it.”
He said, “I understand. That’s perfectly alright. You can trust me.”
And that’s all he said. He didn’t ask me what I was doing or anything else. No officer did, who knew anything.
Groueff: Why did you have to go back into Army clothes?
Groves: Because I wanted to land in Washington in Army clothes.
Groueff: I see. You wouldn’t arrive in civilian clothes.
Groves: No. In other words, that would attract attention. Someone would say, “What’s this officer doing in civilian clothes?” I figured the best thing to do is to change in a hurry.
Groueff: In the compartment?
Groves: In the compartment. On one occasion going to San Francisco, I knew there was nobody in that train, so I thought well I will just change to civilian clothes before I have breakfast. Normally, when I did that I’d have breakfast brought up to the compartment, but there was some difficulty and I said, well I will go back to the diner. And I went back there and there was only one vacant seat in the diner and the dining car steward took me up to that one. There was a man in uniform sitting right next to me. Before I could do a thing, he’d seen my ring.
He said “Oh, I see you’re a West Pointer.”
I said, “Yes, I am.”
Then he wanted to know what class. He said, “I graduated from West Point in ’17.”
I said, “Oh yes, you graduated in April ’17 didn’t you?” He looked a little bit surprised.
I said, “Yes, you were on my Beast detail.” That surprised him some more. I’d forgotten. I think finally I told him—I couldn’t help but give him my name and he wanted to know what I was doing.
I said, “I’m in the Army.” I said, “Just forget you seen me in civilian clothes. It’s authorized.”
Groueff: Because without authorization, you couldn’t wear civilian clothes?
Groves: Oh no. You had to have authorization. And of course, my authorization was given to me by myself because I was solely responsible.
Groueff: It’s quite strict.
Groves: It was in times of war, you see.
Groueff: You can’t just go home and put civilian clothes on and go out.
Groves: You can in time of peace.
Groueff: But not during the war?
Groves: Not during the war. You were supposed to be in uniform all the time. For example, when war broke, I was at an ordnance plant out at Sandusky, Ohio, not too far from Cleveland on the lake. On the train coming back, I of course knew by that time that war was on, as soon as I got back to Washington instead of going to my office directly as I normally would have done—it was Monday morning and we were in civilian clothes you see—I went home, got my uniform out, and got it on, then I went on down. I think I telephoned as soon as I got home down there and told them I would be a little late because I was getting uniform on. The officer I telephoned said, “I got mine ready last night.”
I said, “I suppose there’s an order out, isn’t there?”
He said, “Yes, there is an order out. It came out in the papers.”
I said, “Well, anybody ought to know enough for that anyway.”
At that time, we were required to wear uniforms once every quarter just to show that we had them. The rest of the time we were not supposed to be in uniform because they did not want to emphasize to Congress how many officers were in Washington. Now they don’t bother about that. But even today they’re allowed to be in their offices in civilian clothes. But very few of them take advantage of that. If they’re going somewhere they can wear them. Quite a few in certain offices wear them from time to time.
Groueff: Now, do you remember also the visits to Columbia and Berkley because those are also very important?
Groves: The visit to Columbia was about the same time. I don’t know which one was first, but I can check on that. There’s a little confusion as to the exact dates. I can say which I went to first. Anyway, at Columbia we went through the whole laboratory.
Groueff: Again with Nichols?
Groves: I imagine with Marshall and possibly Nichols. Then at that point we went through with Urey who was the head and also, in most of it, with [John] Dunning.
Groueff: So you would arrive first and Urey will meet you?
Groves: No, we had gone to his office.
Groueff: To his office. And you see him alone?
Groves: Usually see him alone and then we would make a tour.
Groueff: Did you know him before that or was that the first time meeting him?
Groves: Well, whether I had met them at the S-1 Committee or before I saw the S-1 Committee, but I’ve got that note down here. Then we went through the lab and I would say that the things that impressed me the most were the dominating, almost domineering personality of John Dunning and his great talkativeness. You’d ask him a question that called for an answer of yes and you’d get a thousand words in reply. [He was] very exuberant and very confident and all that. Then we went through the laboratory. The thing that impressed me the most of course was I wanted to see the barrier, the barrier material. I can still remember the size of that piece of barrier, which was about the size of a silver dollar.
Groueff: The Norris-Adler barrier?
Groves: It was the first piece they had; I don’t know just what it was called. But at any rate, it was something that they couldn’t make in quantity if they could reproduce at all. But yet, that was the piece on which we designed our whole gas diffusion plant. Now, that was the big thing that struck me there. I was bothered about the relationships between Urey and the rest of his people. And I wondered whether he could handle Dunning, which I found out soon afterwards that he couldn’t. And I think I had not known at that time of the friction between Dunning and Urey and the failure of [George] Pegram—the Dean of Science up there—at settling the problem. He just went along with it.
Groueff: Dunning was the stronger personality of the three of them?
Groves: Yes, but you see, he was under Urey, who was the head of the project. And also, they were both under Pegram, the Dean of Science. That was about the story there.
Groueff: The real work there was done definitely under Dunning and not Urey?
Groves: No, the real work there was a combination. I never knew who did do the real work. But I know who got it done and that was Lauchlin Currie.
Groueff: I see. That was later.
Groves: That was later. Well, anyway the thing that impressed me is they said they would have first the size of this barrier material they had and their very confident statement that they would have it completely solved in two more weeks.
Groueff: The barrier problem?
Groves: Yes, and that was what I carried away with me from there.
Groueff: Did they have the design for the cascade and the whole process?
Groves: No that was really being done more by Dobie Keith than it was by them.
Groueff: Yeah, and [Mason] Benedict.
Groves: Well, of course to me it was Keith because he was the head. And while you probably heard a great deal from the scientific people about how Benedict was the brains, after all it was Keith that was responsible.
Groueff: Keith himself gives a lot of credit to Benedict. But he was the one who was making the decisions?
Groves: Oh yes. He was making them, subject to my approval. He was the one that argued them all out with me. While once in a while Benedict would be brought in to answer something particular, generally it was Keith who was the man who was doing it.
Groueff: Yeah, Keith tells me you gave him complete freedom and freehand. You never had problems with him.
Groves: No, I didn’t have any problems with him, excepting that he was in some ways a problem child too. He was a man who should have been a college professor; he would have been a great one. But the trouble was that he wanted money and what money would bring. If he had come into being now, he’d had been a professor because they now get so much money. He wanted these things, but he had a lot of the impractical viewpoints of a professor. But at the same time, he had the other angles too.
Groueff: He had the drive that the others didn’t have.
Groves: Oh yes, he had a drive and he had a willingness to make a decision instead of saying well maybe we can get something better around the corner. And he was entirely satisfactory. For one thing, you couldn’t get a man who was pure and simply an executive and a driver who wasn’t also thoroughly trained scientifically and the two don’t go together normally. You don’t get the perfect man for anything.
Groueff: Would you agree with the statement that the main credit for the design and construction of K-25 goes to Keith?
Groves: Well, not the construction, but the design and the engineering. And also a great deal of the development of what is development engineering. If you take this thing properly, you find that you start off with plain, pure, theoretical thinking. Then what I term theoretical research, then you get into practical, scientific research. Then, you come into engineering development. Then, you come into engineering. And then, finally, out of engineering comes the plans and then you build according to those. So then comes construction. Then comes the actual operation.
Groueff: So, Kellex did the engineering?
Groves: They did the engineering, they did the engineering development, and they even did some of what was really scientific development.
Groueff: They did a great job.
Groves: They did a great job and it was all due to Keith.
Groueff: And he’s quite the colorful guy. He’s rather emotional.
Groves: Oh yes, very much so.
Groueff: That will make him a good character.
Groves: Yes. Anything that you throw in his direction is certainly well justified in the way of credit.
Groueff: Do you remember first meeting him and when you discussed the formation of Kellex and the big assignment to do the engineering?
Groves: No, because I think the reason for that is that Kellex had already received a contract from the S-1 group to do this thing. But, it hadn’t been thought of anything—
Groueff: He tells that he was still rather hesitant because he had, like a lot of those engineers, a big admiration for W.K. Lewis who was his teacher. And Lewis told him that he should accept. He accepted, but in his mind he had to start with a pilot plant and it was against all of his background and his ideas of engineering. Then, he met you. He remembers, but not too well, some meeting in the winter in the evening in New York. The two of you went to a French restaurant and you talked and he was very impressed by your complete determination, no matter how difficult this is. You wouldn’t discuss whether it would be done or not; it would be done. So after dinner you walked up and down Fifth Avenue and he said that if he took the job he would like to have freedom over the decisions—not to ask and write letters for everything. You said [that was] exactly your idea. Keith is in charge, that’s his business and you let him do everything he wanted. And you gave him full support.
Groves: That would be true. The only thing that I would have added would be that “You’re going to have a completely free hand, but don’t forget that the government is supplying the money and I am responsible. That means that I’m going to interfere anytime that I think I want to.” It would be that kind of a thing. I said “Really, it will be limited by the time that I have but you will never be delayed for a decision.” That was the theme and we just said time after time, “While you’re responsible, it’s government money. I have the responsibility. I know the overall picture, which you don’t. I’ll interfere just as much as I have time for. But you’ll never be delayed for a decision. If I’m not there, you can make the decision and you’ll have the utmost support.”
Groueff: Would it be a fair assumption for me to put that your first meeting—whenever it was—you were in favorably impressed by him?
Groves: Yes. I was favorably impressed because it was evident to me that here was a man with industrial experience. He was a crossover between engineering and theoretical science. For that reason, he was a very rare bird.
Groueff: He’d get things done.
Groves: He had what you would call “verve.” That’s the best expression that I can come up with.
Groueff: He certainly has it.
Groves: He still has it. After all, he was able to talk these big oil companies into many, many millions for this hydrocarbon research that failed.
Groueff: I didn’t talk to him a lot, but I heard a lot from other engineers. He was both admired and criticized like all colorful people and emotional people like that. I understand that he was a rather poor administrator and he hated red tape and channels. He would go over the head of all his assistants and directors and go straight in the middle of the night and call some scientist or some young assistant practically to ask about the progress of his work, which caused the superiors to resent. There was a man there called Baker, Al Baker, who was exactly the contrary.
Groves: Baker was a man with completely no capacity whatsoever. He was just what I term a typical stolid engineer, the kind that we used to have. He went into engineering because he probably repaired a lawn mower some time. His family all said, “Well he would make a great engineer.”
Groueff: But no imagination.
Groves: He had no imagination. He wasn’t too able. Keith had a lot of trouble with him. I’m sure that every time that Keith wanted to find out something, if he’d ask Baker, Baker would have said, “I’ll look into that and let you know.”
Groueff: Keith would call directly the people and Baker will be furious.
Groves: And also, that was exactly what I did. I would never call a man who had to ask somebody else if I could help it. I wanted to talk to the man who knew. Then my philosophy was that it was that man’s responsibility to inform his superiors of our phone call and what he had said if they want him to. It caused a lot of trouble because people didn’t like it. But, for example, in the Corps of Engineers where it was objected to the most, in the Los Angeles district, supposing there was a camp there and I wanted to find out what was going on, if I did it according to the way they wanted, I would have called the Division Engineer in San Francisco. He would have then called the District Engineer in Los Angeles. He then would have called the area supervisor—he divided his district into sub districts. That sub district engineer would then call the area engineer at Camp Haan, for example. And then the answer would come all the way back. And also, when you get through his answer very often leads to another question.
Groueff: So you have to do it all over again.
Groves: As a matter of fact, I always called direct. The orders in Los Angeles were that if they ever got a call from me, they were to report it immediately, first to their superior, if they couldn’t get him, then directly to the district engineer and if the District Engineer wasn’t available, it went right up to the Division Engineer. Excepting that the District Engineer usually cut it off because I called other people; it was alright to call him direct, but not one of his subordinates. It was all right to jump one level in between; he felt that was all right because that had been done in the engineers for years.
Groueff: How did your subordinates take that?
Groves: They didn’t like it. They talked about it. The division engineers would come into Washington and complain, but they never would talk to me about it. They would usually complain to the Chief of Engineers who was General [Eugene] Reybold who would tell them, “You better talk to [General Thomas] Robbins about that. I’m sure there’s no intention to shortcut you because he was not a strong man.” He’d come out and talk to Robins, who was my immediate superior and sort of a chairman of the board to my operations. Then they would go down and talk to my immediate subordinate, one of them, who was in charge of operations and was an officer who had resigned after World War I and was more of their general age level than I was.
See, I was much younger than any of them, which made it worse. They’d complain to him about it. He’d say, “Oh, don’t bother about that, Groves means well,” or something like that. Or, “I’ll try to do something.” Then, after these people had left, they would never come in and see me when they should have seen me right after the Chief really— Robbins maybe, and then me.
I would normally see Robbins several times a day. We had the same common entrance office, which was a great big office, and then these offices on the side that were tremendous offices. The suite had been designed as the office suite of the Chief of Staff and the Secretary of War. They didn’t occupy them. I would go in and see Robins a couple of times a day and tell him what was going on. He’d say, “Oh, Lacy Hall [00:51:04] was in.”
I said, “I saw him. What did he have to say?”
He said, “Well he spent two hours telling me what a terrible fellow you were.”
I said, “Well, he didn’t come in to see me.”
He said, “Well, I told him if he had any complaints he ought to see you,” but he said, “I don’t want to see him.”
That was the way it was. It’s always that way. If you’re in a highly technical area where you want to know, for example, are you short of pipe? Or anything that wasn’t in the way of a schedule. If I said, “Are you behind schedule?” The Division Engineer could have told me by looking at a piece of paper. Actually, the division engineers and most of the district engineers didn’t know as much about the jobs going on in their districts as I did. That made it very embarrassing for them.
Groueff: Yeah. They didn’t like you talking to them.
Groves: It’s the only way it could be achieved. I don’t know, did I tell you to see Frank Creedon here in town?
Groueff: Yeah. I saw him in January.
Groves: Well, you got an idea of what kind of fellow he was. Well, he didn’t put up for any of that intermediate thing.
Groueff: Yeah, and he was also very sort of strong.
Groves: Oh, very strong but also a little bit weak in certain areas, which I took care of. He got all upset if there was something stupid in the way of direction coming to him. Or, if he needed material and he couldn’t get it, then he wanted to know why can’t I get it. But he was extremely successful as long as he was working directly where he could appeal to me in the chain of command.
He was extremely successful when he worked on the Rubber Administration because there had a very strong man in [Williams] Jeffers, the head of the Union Pacific Railroad, who saw to it that he got everything he needed. Then, he didn’t do so well after the war when they got him to go out to Hanford, working for General Electric, because he didn’t get that kind of support. He got one of these, what I term, pillow operations where any time you hit it, and it’s just like a pillow. You want something, you hit it, and you get. You don’t get a turn down, but you get no action. And he didn’t do well out there.
Groueff: Talking about Keith and Creedon now, another question that comes to my mind. I understand from some of the associates of Keith that he was calling them all the time, in the middle of the night, and he would arrive in the laboratory just a few hours even after giving the assignment asking already how it’s doing, etc. So, some of his people still admire him, but they think probably part of it was done on purpose in order to create this atmosphere of continuous emergency, urgency.
Groves: Oh, I don’t think so. I think Keith was just that way. That was his normal temperament and what he would do anytime if he had an excuse to do it. In other words, he wouldn’t do it during times of peace because he couldn’t get away with it. But in time of war, he felt that he could get away with it. And he was so imbued with the idea of how fast can we get this done.
Groueff: That makes me think of what I discussed with Creedon. He was describing a few trips that he took with you at the beginning I think.
Groves: That was before the Manhattan Project.
Groueff: And he said that you were killing him physically with sort of taking trains at the most impossible hours. You would leave, let’s say by two o’clock after midnight somewhere or you would arrive on a Sunday morning at seven o’clock in a place. And just when he was exhausted and he said, “Let’s have breakfast,” you would say, “No, no, no. We have to go to a meeting.” And, you would call some very important people in town for meetings, some top people, at a very inconvenient hour or day, like a Sunday morning. I wonder how much you did that to keep the urgency?
Groves: I’ll tell you the reason I did it was because the only time that I could get away from here without interfering with things here were generally on Sunday. That was after General Somervell came in. I didn’t want to be away during the weekdays if I could help it. So, I normally inspected on Sunday, where I would not miss any time. I’d leave on Saturday afternoon. We worked Saturday afternoons. I would leave about five o’clock on Saturday afternoon and I’d get back here about five—the planes used to get in about 5:30 in the morning on Monday morning.
These people at any one of these places, for example an ordnance plant, they wanted to be there when I was there—not the town’s people, but these were all the people that were involved in the project—the contractor and the engineers and all that. Well, I imagine that a lot of them would have rather played golf on Sunday than to have me there, but that was the only time I could get there. Also, I saw no reason why they shouldn’t work on Sunday anyway, for a thing like that. The only disadvantage of that was I didn’t see the men at work. But, I had seen so much of that before that I could imagine and I could tell pretty well how well they were working.
One thing that used to annoy Creedon when he went out with me, he said, “He doesn’t stop for lunch!” Once or twice I caught him. He was in another car from me and they would stop somewhere and just grab some sandwiches and carry them on eating. He would usually tell me about it afterwards. He’d say, “Well, I sneaked a sandwich on you today.”
And I’d say, “Oh, I saw you do that.” He always wanted me to go to these ordnance plants, which meant that he had to go with me. But, it was the case that they very distinctly got the impression from me that there was no limit as to the hours they should work. There was no limit as to working all the time and that it was dreadfully important.
Now, the same thing was carried through with Keith. But I think Keith was the type that normally wanted to do it anyway and here he had his advantage. Now, there was one thing that bothered Keith considerably. He wanted to do the construction work of this thing as well with his Kellex Company. Well, I had seen his company in operation. I’d met Keith before, you see, because they built an ammonia plant with a new process, which is now the general process used—at least, it was used for a number of years, it may not be what they’re using today. But in any case, this plant, I had watched their construction there. Keith is not a good construction manager. As you can imagine, he wouldn’t be with his temperament. I also didn’t want him to get over extended.
Most of these people liked to take on more work than they could do. So I said, “We’re going to divide this up and I don’t think you’ll have the construction.” Well he pled for it and pled because it meant an awful lot of money to his firm. While we didn’t pay the normal rates—after all this was maybe an estimate of what would have been $200 million. That would have meant a fee of probably around $4 million. We cut the fees to beat the band. I know that when it came to setting the fee on their engineering work for example, according to a chart that the Undersecretary of War had gotten out for various size of jobs what the fee should be, I guess they would have gotten maybe $6 million or $7, or $8 million. They were willing to take about $4 million. I think that I reduced it to about $2 million. I said the basis on which I’m doing this is not percentage; I said your company has normally earned so much per year, which I knew. I said, “This is going to take almost 80% of your time from now on in, that is, if you still carry on your other work. But this will be 80% of your whole firm’s business—not of Kellex, but of the Kellog company.”
I finally just said that it would be based on the basis of what they would earn otherwise. In other words, if their profits were normally $2 million a year and we took up 80% of their time, we should pay them $1,600,000 per year for the estimated length of time. Well, they, of course, objected no end to that, told me I was taking their life-blood and so forth, but it was alright. It was one of the few transactions I had approved by the Secretary of War. And the reason was that setting a fee of that size, there would be so many possible criticisms later that I did not feel it was anything that one man should do on his own without somebody else—
Groueff: Especially private organization.
Groves: In other words, somebody could properly have said, “Well he gave them $1,600,000, it was only worth a million, look at what he gave them, just gave them.” So I explained to the Secretary how it was arrived at and he approved it. It was one of the few times.
And that was only done because, as I told him, I said, “I’m not ducking this at all, but I just feel that it’s something that might cause political criticism of the administration and, therefore, it is something that you should know about. And also, by the very fact that you have been informed in advance when there’s time to do something about it, indicates that it was above board and that there can be no criticism.” Well, he allowed that was sound and that was it.
Groueff: But with the exception of DuPont, all the other companies were all paid fees.
Groves: They all had fees.
Groueff: Like Stone and Webster.
Groves: Oh, yes. They were engineers, you see, and that was their business. And Union Carbide were paid a fee and so were Tennessee Eastman.
Groueff: The construction then was done by Jones?
Groves: Done by Jones.
Groueff: But Keith wanted it for them [Kellex]?
Groueff: And Jones did a very good job?
Groves: Oh, he did a magnificent job. The basic reason, I think, and what you should put in, was that I separated the construction from Kellex not because of any lack of confidence in Kellex’s ability to do it, but just that I felt that Keith already had all he could do. He should concentrate on the engineering and that we would be sure of getting the engineering right if he did not have the other to do. And if his firm had had the construction, he would have been in head over heels.
Groueff: He did get along very well with Jones.
Groves: Oh, yes. There was never any friction there. And I think Baker went down there.
Groueff: What was the job of Bacon and Ford?
Groves: Ford, Bacon, and Davis?
Groves: They were the contractors who built the conditioning building for the equipment that went into the gas diffusion plant.
Groueff: What do you mean by conditioning building?
Groves: Because of the importance of not having any leaks in the system, every joint had to be inspected by X-Ray and the pipes had to be tested and it had to be conditioned so there could be no dust and that was done in this big building. The reason that Ford, Bacon, and Davis was given the contract for that—and they did not only the building, but I think they did the conditioning too—it was done because they had worked for a number of years with Union Carbide and there was the closest cooperation between the two organizations. And Carbide had confidence in Ford, Bacon, and Davis.
When you have a situation like that, you have a whip hand over the engineers, over the builders, because they were not going to impair their reputation with Union Carbide because they were looking forward to the future. They had a stranglehold on construction that Union Carbide went into and they were not going to lose that. And, therefore, you had an incentive there that was far beyond what you normally had.
Groueff: And they did a good job?
Groves: And they did a good job. It worked out just as I thought it would and worked out without any difficulty at all. You did not have to supervise them to any more than normal because you knew that they were going to please Union Carbide. They were much more interested in pleasing Union Carbide than they were in pleasing me, which is an ideal situation to have. But I think on Keith, the big thing that he had was just what he has got today: this enthusiasm and a tremendous capacity for understanding scientific engineering. He had been in it all his life because the oil refineries were full of similar problems and the chemical industry. So he had many things at his fingertips that the average engineer would have had to put—
Groueff: And they were used to taking some risks and making decisions?
Groves: Yes, that business has always been a pioneering business. They have had to take a process and engineer and build to that process and then make it work.
Groueff: It was a relatively new industry in this country?
Groves: Well, it is a new industry throughout the world.
Groueff: All those men were young. I mean, when they started—
Groves: Yes, they were still young. But the thing was that that was a new industry throughout the world because originally oil refineries were just plain refineries. And then cracking came in and all the other things that make them get many barrels of gasoline out of every barrel of oil as it were. I do not know what the ratio is today, but it is astounding how much product comes out of what they put in. And so it was a natural direction to make.
Groueff: What is amazing, I think, is the composition of the Kellex Group, which was formed by several top people, Vice Presidents of different companies or directors, who served under Keith, but retained their individuality and their bad tempers sometimes. Some of them were quite prima donnas, but it was not a red tape organization at all.
Groves: Oh, no. And of course, the company itself was a subordinate to Kellogg, and as such they were owned completely by Kellogg.
Groueff: But they brought into Kellex some top people from other companies.
Groves: Yes, and a great many of those people were brought in. Keith got a number of them, but some of them he could not get and he used to have me go out and get them for him. That is, he would talk to the man and the man would say, “Well, I would be glad to come if my company would let me.” And then Keith would go to the head of that company and he would turn him down and then I would move into the picture and would urge the company to—
Groueff: I know [George] Watts told me that you got him from Chicago.
Groves: Standard Oil of Indiana?
Groueff: Standard Oil.
Groueff: No, the pump man, Watts.
Groueff: Watts. Keith asked him, the company said no, and you went to Chicago and one day the President called him to his office and you were there and he said, “Watts, you are going to Kellex, to New York.” And he liked it. He was a Chief of Engineering, one of the top men at Standard Oil of Indiana.
Groves: Well, that was the way it was done. And we did it repeatedly on a number of things. It was awfully hard for them to go to a company and say, “We have got to have this man.”
And they would say, “Well, why should we give you this man?”
“Well, it is important work.”
“Well, who says so?”
Groueff: Yeah, he could not tell them the secret.
Groves: And he could not tell them anything about it and also he did not have prestige enough for that. Well, I had the prestige by reason of the rank and because of the force with which I presented the problem. I just said, “Well, it is very important war work, I can assure you of that. And that is the opinion of Mr. Stimson and General Marshall.” And that’s it. And then I would talk very pleasantly and also these people were always—it was unusual for them to have a senior military officer come to their offices to see them. Usually they would get a letter.
Groueff: So they were flattered and impressed?
Groves: They were flattered, you see, and they could not help but be flattered and impressed because normally they would have gotten a letter from anyone else. And then they would have said, “Well, I wonder who wrote the letter. I wonder if he saw what he was signing.” That is the impression he would get.
Groueff: But you would go personally.
Groves: I would normally go personally. Well, on this one case with the General Motors engineer that I think I told you about, I did not have to go personally because I just called up Henry DuPont of the DuPont Company and he took care of it completely. He did not have to have any explanation because he was in on the project, knew what it was, and wanted us to succeed naturally. So that he took care of the whole thing. In just a few minutes from a flat refusal, why there was “He will be there.”
Groueff: Actually, you did not have refusals, no?
Groves: We had some—
Groueff: Or important.
Groves: We had some refusals, but anybody that we wanted, we always got. There might be some people that we were refused on and I said, well, there is no use bothering with him. But this extended to everything. It was astounding what degree of people it went down to on occasion. With Oppenheimer, one interesting case was he wanted one particular professor from the University of Kansas. He was just an instructor in physics. According to the President of Kansas, who was Deane Malott, he was not anything much. Well, Malott refused, said, “He is not going to go because we have been robbed and robbed of people and we just are not going to let any more go because we will have to close up the university.”
So I was brought into the picture and I talked to Malott over the phone, I think. He said, well, he just could not do it. I am not sure I even talked to him. But he finally agreed that we could have him provided we replaced him with a particular man from a junior college in St. Joseph, Missouri, which is right across the river from Kansas. And then, more or less, the same thing was repeated. And we finally wound that up by getting a high school physics teacher to take the junior college professor’s place, who then took the Kansas University’s place, and then we got the man that Oppenheimer wanted. And I did not know anything about it—whether he really needed him or not. I did not like the idea at all.
But the whole thing is that if you give subordinates in that kind of an operation any chance to excuse poor performance, either by lack of support or because they did not get the man that they needed, why you are weakening the effort. On the other hand, if they get everything they ask for, that puts them on a terrible spot. And of course, you can hold them down.
Now we did have some trouble with Notre Dame where somebody went there and, apparently without talking to the President, got one of his physics people to Los Alamos. [It was Bernard Waldman, see “Racing for the Bomb,” fn 63, p. 628] And I do not know just how I got into it, but I had a nasty letter from Father O’Donnell, or whoever was president of the university. And I replied to it and told him that it was extremely important work and that I wish to apologize for the way in which this man was approached and something like that. I assured him that it would never happen again insofar as I could prevent it. I said, “Of course, things do go wrong in an organization, but I will assure you that if I need anyone else from Notre Dame, you will be approached first.” And then I issued an order—no more men from Notre Dame. It was not worth the effort.
The same thing happened with Yale where [Charles] Seymour, the President, just could not realize there was a war on. He never did, even after the war was over. And he took this man, [John E.] Vance, who had been an Assistant Professor there and refused to promote him on the grounds that he had not had enough services as an Assistant Professor and Vance said, “Well, I have been in the Army.”
He said, “Well, that is not teaching at Yale.”
So Vance became disturbed. He had been an extremely able operator for us and had done tremendous jobs and also had worked at the United Nations—the first negotiations there under Baruch. So I always said that Vance had the highest power employment agency working for him ever. He had myself, he had Nichols, he had Bernard Baruch, and he had John Hancock, who was then the Senior Partner of Lehman Brothers. And [Ferdinand] Eberstadt, who was the head of F. Eberstadt and Company.
And it was not very long before he was offered a position as Head of Chemistry at New York University, made a full professor and head of the department, as I recall. And he has been there ever since. He is a man that if you have not talked to, you should talk to.
Groueff: I have now. Vance.
Groves: John Vance of New York University. He went out on a trip. He was with the Secretary of State’s Stettinius for flying across the Atlantic and in a meeting in Brazil. And then the Secretary said, “Can you come to the conference in Mexico City with me because I am going to meet with all the South American states and I would like to have your advice while I am there?”
And Vance said, “Oh, General Groves wants me back in a hurry.” And he said he had to fight to get away from Stettinius. He came back and he came into my office—it was a Saturday.
And he got there fairly early in the morning, I think, and I was very busy and I just said, “Well, I will have to see him when I get a chance.”
And finally, Mrs. O’Leary said to me, she said, “You know, Vance has been sitting out there for hours now. He is just back and he would like to get up to New York and his wife is up there.” I think that was his station then.
And she said, “The first thing you know you have him here and he will not get back and he will wait around all Sunday and all Monday too.”
And she said, “Why don’t you see him?”
And I said, “Oh, all right, bring him in.”
So he came in and I said, “I have not any time to talk to you, but I wish you would write me a report on what you did.” I said, “You can write it in long hand.”
Because the only people there who could have typed it for him were Mrs. O’Leary because I did not want the others to know what he had been doing. And he came in and he writes a very small hand and it is sort of like it was engraved. And he wrote it apparently—it did not take very long to write it. This absolutely perfect report of about two pages.
Groueff: About his South American—?
Groves: About his negotiations with the President of Brazil and Stettinius. And that was the kind of a fellow he was. And on that very plane going over from Africa, Stettinius had been at Yalta, and then had gone to Moscow, and then he had his entourage on the plane. Vance flew over to Liberia to join him and then fly across the Atlantic with him so that he could post him before he got to Brazil as to just what was needed and how to carry the thing forward.
Well, then he got there and Stettinius was delayed and nobody could find out where Stettinius was. And we got a cable finally from Vance saying, “I have been here now for five days and no signs of what I am here to meet,” or something of that kind. Well, he just waited. That is all he could do. And he did not want to talk to the State Department because I do not think that there is anybody up there that knew our problems. I think those two were all away or something. We did not want to stir them up by saying, “Where is the Secretary of State?” The first thing they would want to know is, “Well, what business is it of yours?” And there are only two other people in the State Department that knew of our interest. They had only known it a short time.
Anyway, he finally did show up and then had to go up to a reception, so he took Vance along to go up to this reception, which was all black, of course. And then they flew across the Atlantic—and this he told me some time ago—he said, “You know, one thing that interested me was that I never thought of it until afterwards, but, you know, one of the State Department people on that plane was Alger Hiss.” And Stettinius and Vance went up into the private cabin of the plane and Vance explained just what was the objective and all that.
When he got down there, they decided the best way, apparently, to handle it. Vance went to the big reception given by the Brazilian President for Stettinius, went with him as his aide, borrowed all of the gold trappings from the man who was his aide, and he stayed home and Vance went as his aide. And then sometime during the evening, they retired to a private room with [Getúlio] Vargas and Vargas’ daughter, who acted as translator, Stettinius, and Vance. Then they got an agreement from Vargas that Brazil would enter into an agreement with us, giving us first refusal rights really on all the thorium and uranium production of Brazil.
Groueff: They had important uranium and thorium?
Groves: They had important thorium and I was sure they had uranium, but I had no proof of it at all.
Groueff: But he did know what it was about. He was told?
Groves: Well, he was just told it was very important and I think Vargas was very friendly to the US. He may have found out—later he may have gotten some hint. I think the agreement was for monazite sands, which contain thorium, and any other rare earth bearing soil. It was essential; they thought we were after the thorium and they were not quite sure why we were after it, I do not believe, and I do not think Vargas cared. At any rate, that was the kind of a man that Vance was and, oh, he was a humdinger.
Groueff: I will try to see him.
Groves: And still is. He did an awful lot. Everything he touched was always—he impressed you when you meet him. You will not think of him as a college professor by any means. You will think of him as a business executive or a great engineer or something like that. He also will give you some background. He went to the Bohr Institute, as I recall, in Denmark. He was a chemist. I am pretty sure he went to the Bohr Institute.
Groueff: So his job was for special missions?
Groves: No, his job essentially was he worked directly for Colonel Nichols in the New York office, I think on raw materials.
Groueff: Oh, I see. Procurement.
Groves: Not the procurement of them but the processing of them, I believe. I think that is what his job was. Then, of course, after you saw him, you started to want him on special missions. I do not know how many others he had. I think that was the only one that he had as I recall.
Groueff: So he was a member of Nichols staff. Is that right?
Groves: Yes, but also saw quite a lot of me during the second period.
Groueff: Can you describe your visit to Chicago and Colombia?
Groves: Well, the first visit to California, I think that I probably went out by train. You see, I went by train to California and also to Los Alamos a great deal because you would reach Washington in the evening at about 5:00 pm I think. And the train went through Baltimore. And I would often take Mrs. O’Leary with me as far as Baltimore and dictate to her. Then she would come back by train from Baltimore.
Groueff: Not to waste time.
Groves: Well, just to clean up various things. And then went onto Chicago by train, would get there about 9:30 in the morning. And then the train for California or for Los Alamos left, I think, at 6:00. I have forgotten, I think that was the time it left. And that gave me all day, you see, in Chicago. Then I had two nights on the train and one day. And one day I normally devoted to reading whatever I had not been able to read in Washington so that I got caught up all the time on that.
And then when I would get there, I would send the papers back by special courier. There were always couriers going back and forth. You see, we could not send much by registered mail because if it got to be Top Secret, it had to go by courier. It is an expensive way to operate, but it is the only way you could do it. And I did not want to keep these papers and there were normally couriers going back and forth anyway. They were either papers that had to get back in a hurry—very seldom that would be the case—but these were more in the nature of reports and things that I thought I should at least glance over. And then I would turn them over to the courier. So I normally did not have any of those going back excepting what they had given me there.
At Berkeley, I first went up the hill with Ernest Lawrence. He met me at the train, I am sure.
Groueff: You knew him before from S-1 Committee?
Groves: Yes, I had met him before. And when we got up there, he said, “Now, you are going to have a surprise here because you have been listening to all these theories in Chicago and Columbia. Out here you actually see separation going on.” Well, I was sort of amazed and delighted and I thought, well, this is more what I had expected when I came in to the project.
And so we got there and he said, “Now, you look through here and he described how he originally had this cyclotron there and then it converted over into the calutron. And he said, “Now, you look through here and you see that arc there doing the separation.” And, of course, you know the principle of that separation is the mass and the difference in mass.
And he said, “Now, you look at that and that is the arc going around. That gives the separation.”
I looked through there and I saw this big electrical arc. And then I said, “Well, now how long does this thing have to run to get real separation?”
And he said, “Well, it takes a long time to get the vacuum. And in the machine itself, it will take from 24 hours to get a vacuum that is sufficient.”
And I said, “Well, how long does this thing run? How long have you run it at any one time?”
He said, “Well, it is never run for more than ten or fifteen minutes at a time.” And this is after he told me about how I was going to see things actually separating.
And I said, “Well, how much separation do you get in the baskets? I suppose you get quite a separation there.”
He said, “Well, actually, we do not get any separation at all. This is all just passing through it.” So that was his going concern.
Groueff: That was in the Calutron?
Groves: In the Calutron.
Groueff: On the Radiation Hill there?
Groves: Up on the old Radiation Laboratory up in that big round building. I guess they have still got the old one there, have they not? That was my introduction to something that worked. And it was quite a problem as to whether we should continue that thing or not.
Groueff: What was your first reaction? You were deeply disappointed, no?
Groves: Well, I was not disappointed so much, excepting that my hopes had been raised unduly when he told me that he had something that was working. I did not expect when I went out there to see anything that was working. But then to be told that.
Groueff: He was still enthusiastic. He thought it was great.
Groves: Oh, yes. And he was a little bit shocked when I said, “Well, after all, you have got to get that time up.” Well, the same thing happened at Pittsburgh when I went there to see the centrifuge. And I do not know which one I saw first of all. Maybe I can straighten it out. But I do not think I can, because I have tried to do this before and it does not jive.
Groueff: No, what is important for me is not to say some enormous sort of untruth. Correlate the scene and the month, and I will know.
Groves: The centrifuge, which was the one that we abandoned, when I saw that at Pittsburgh, they had one cylinder working. Have you ever been in a rayon factory?
Groves: Well, they have big tall drums—at least the one that we had was about this diameter, I guess, and about the height of this room. And it spins at a very fast rate. I think that this one was supposed to spin at 18,000 rpm. And I think that was about twice—well, it was decidedly greater than the speed of rayon because they have a similar process in there, spinning. And that depended also on the mass and by spinning, you collected the material at the inside edge of the drum and you got it out.
The equipment had been developed at the University of Virginia by Professor [Jesse] Beams, who is still alive, and he was a true professor. They shut down for Christmas holidays. They only had a couple of graduate students. And yet he was on the S-1 Committee at one time. So he knew the urgency and all that, but it had not translated into his mind.
Then they sent the equipment itself up to Westinghouse, I think, who made the equipment. They sent their designs up. It was made there and it was being tested in the Westinghouse research laboratory.
Groueff: In Pittsburgh?
Groves: In Pittsburgh. And a Dr. Chubb was the head of that lab, but he was about to retire and he was to be succeeded by Dr. Edward Condon. And Condon was a physicist.
When I saw this thing, I said, “Well, now, this looks practical,” excepting of the batch process and really not too much of a batch process because you bled off each tank. It was like raising maple syrup; you tap each tree and that is what you would have to do there. Well, anyway, it looked thoroughly feasible and not out in the clouds like these other things.
And then I said, “How fast does this have to spin?” They told me and I said, “How does that compare with anything that has been done?” Well, it is twice as fast as rayon or I do not know the exact figure—relationship.
And then I said, “Well, these things will have to spin continuously, won’t they?”
And I said, “Well, how long have you run this?”
“Well, up to about fifteen minutes.”
I said, “Why haven’t you run it continuously?”
“Well, we didn’t think it was necessary and we also thought it might not stand up under it and we would lose all the advantage of having it here.”
And you talk to them and you just got this idea of taking their time deliberately. And these were industrial people, but the company itself had not paid any attention to it naturally. They had already contracted, I think, for a battery of about six to eight of these to be built and installed at Standard Oil of New Jersey Operations.
Groueff: [Eger] Murphree.
Groves: Murphree was there. And Murphree was not a driving type. And it was obvious to me that this thing was so far from amounting to anything, that it was not a good approach to take. I think, looking back on it, that we should probably have gone ahead with it. But to do that it meant that we would have had to completely done something to drive Beam into a different frame of mind as far as a sense—
Groueff: This was under Beams and Murphree?
Groves: It was under Beams, Murphree, and Condon. Each one was a different piece of it.
Groueff: But Stone and Webster also were hired by Murphree, no? For some development, I understand.
Groves: Yeah, I think that was in connection with it. But Stone and Webster was not a driving concern by any means. We used them and they were alright, but they were not what you would call anybody who had a whip.
Groueff: Not like Keith.
Groves: Oh, no. No, and at Oak Ridge even, after their job was cut way down, although it was still a tremendous job, we insisted on their hiring Creedon as their General Construction Manager.
Groueff: They did not like that.
Groves: They did not like it a bit, but I just insisted that they had to get rid of the man they had. And they just thought that anybody they put down there they would have trouble. And the President of the company, [John] Lotz, came to me and he said, “Now, if we relieve this man down there—we know you want us to—would you be satisfied if we put Frank Creedon in there?”
And I said, “Well, I don’t know if you can get him.”
And he said, “Well, I think we can get him if you will get him away from [William M.] Jeffers for us.”
And I said, “Well, that would be agreeable to me. I think you would make a very wise choice.”
But Lotz did not want to do it. Creedon rubbed him the wrong way because Creedon was a go-getter and Stone and Webster was a company formed by— the two original partners were in their prime when I went to MIT in 1916. See, this was twenty-four years later, so they were no longer in their prime. And I think they were dead, as a matter of fact. I am not certain whether they were dead or one of them was still alive.
But the company, like so many of these engineering companies and service companies, had just become a nice bureaucracy. They dealt primarily with electric power companies. They received retainer fees and they designed leisurely. There was no get up and go to them. And while they had done several munitions plants for us, they were not what I would term particularly—they did not have the drive. And when they first were selected to go do the engineering on Manhattan Project—that was before I took over—I recommended them as the best firm. And the reason was they were the only one that was big enough to do it. And I figured, well, the engineer officers should supply the drive. Well, that is the way that it actually worked out in the end. But we took away a great deal of their work because it was just a case of relieving them of some of the burden.
Groueff: You had DuPont and Kellex and all those?
Groves: Yeah, you could not expect them to do it all. It was far beyond their capacity. Nobody could do it all.
Groueff: So this centrifuge was a combination of rather mild characters and not a very active firm.
Groves: Well, no, Stone and Webster did not have anything to do with that decision.
Groueff: So it was mostly Murphree, Beams, and Westinghouse.
Groueff: Did you decide then and there that it should be disconnected?
Groves: Yeah, that there was no reason to go on with it. I also went to the laboratory down here, the Naval Research Laboratory, and saw the thermal diffusion and that did not impress me. They again, were operating on the basis that you had plenty of years to do this in.
Groueff: But you did not disconnect that one, no?
Groves: No that was not in my bailiwick. You see, that was Naval Research, although I could have taken it over if I had wanted it—taken over the process, as we did later. But the thing there was that they were working with really one scientist on it. And there was a little supervision from the chief physicist down there and that was about all. It was just a little piddling affair. But the basic reason for not doing the thermal diffusion was that we were thinking of a process that went from start to finish and that process was not suitable for that. The amount of coal it would have taken to furnish the steam was just out of this world.
Groueff: The temperature would be very difficult.
Groves: Well, it is very easy to double the enrichment. But to get 100% purity would have been well nigh impossible.
Groueff: So that is why at the end it was very suitable to feed the connection ahead?
Groves: At the end, we suddenly realized that affair. And the difficulty all arose from a general failure to get a clear-cut understanding. This applied to everybody on the project—the difference between purity and enrichment.
Groves: That seems simple once you see it, but what it was was this: if you took the thermal diffusion process, it was not difficult to raise the purity or the enrichment from 0.7 to 1.4, which is about what we did. We aimed at about 2 point something. In other words, we aimed it three times. But what we did not realize was—we said, “Well, what good will it do us to have 1.4%?” What we did not realize was that that meant that our production would just be tripled.
Well, it tripled if you change from 0.7 to 2.1, which is what we are aiming at. You actually triple your production. And nobody thought of that and all the way through. And what made it worse was that later, after making the preliminary decision on this basis, we decided that we would carry the gas diffusion process only up to a certain degree. I think that has been published. I am not certain. That would be fed into the electromagnetic.
And at that time, we should have thought again about thermal diffusion. But the trouble was that thermal diffusion, to put it bluntly—[Ross] Gunn, the chief physicist down there was very secretive. He wanted all the credit. He would not tell anything to anybody. And the review board that I had go into it in detail had W.K. Lewis on it. It had Urey on it. I do not know who else, but men that were supposedly at the peak of such things, and particularly Lewis. And they all came away with the feeling that there was something funny about it. In fact, they even said that they just could not help but feel that the figures were fudged a bit.
Groueff: Again, just did not want to give away his secret?
Groves: He would not give away anything, you see. He was so secretive in it that people naturally got a distrust of him. And also, the results were contrary to the theory, do you see? In other words, it just could not be done and yet it was. And so that was the reason for it. And Gunn was very hostile to Bush and Conant. He had been on one of the uranium committees and had been eased off because they found he was no good and a troublemaker. He was a second-rate physicist who was in the government service and just kept on there. And by a reason of force or seniority, finally reached a position where he was the top physicist at the Naval Research Laboratory. They probably did not have many down there anyway. And when he started, he was probably maybe the only one. And he just lived longer, that is all.
Groueff: And also probably some rivalry with Navy and Army?
Groves: No, I do not think so. If there was it was, only in his mind.
Groueff: He was an officer or a civilian?
Groves: Oh, no, he was a civilian.
Groueff: A civilian, all right. So it would not apply.
Groves: Well, no, normally, you would find more of it in the civilians than you would in the officers.
Groueff: So it is not a kind of West Point-Annapolis—?
Groves: No. That is all exaggerated that you read in the papers.
Groueff: Only in football.
Groves: Only in football. I would say and that is almost true only in football. In other words, they do not care much about the other sports. Well, they like to win all right, but it is not anything that they think about at all.
Groueff: Yeah, you are quite friendly with people in the Navy and vice-versa.
Groves: Oh, yeah, there is no problem there at all. Of course, we had not served so closely with them as we did in this last war before. But there had never been any question of that kind. That is just one of these newspaper —it makes a good story.
Groueff: But now from what you tell me, those five methods that you reviewed, all of them sounded very pessimistic and practically not feasible.
Groves: Oh, yes, they all sounded unfeasible. And it was just a question of which was the least.
Groueff: Now, for instance, Lawrence, when you saw this, did that not sound rather fantastic or even childish, I would say, for a little gadget, which would work for ten minutes and which will produce a few micrograms, to build an industry, which will produce kilograms, and with enormous magnets, enormous machines, and thousands of people working. At that time, did that not look completely unfeasible?
Groves: Well, it did to the DuPont people. Did I tell you about the DuPont review?
Groueff: Oh, yes, the committee. Lewis, Greenewalt —
Groves: Yes. And you see what kind of an answer they got.
Groueff: Yeah, they were very unfavorably—
Groves: Very unfavorably—they said it should be abandoned. And the only people that did not want to abandon it were Conant and myself. And Conant, I think, convinced Bush. Maybe Bush was in favor of it also. But the essential reason for doing it was that both Conant and I had the greatest confidence in Ernest Lawrence’s drive and of all the projects he had the most industrial-like operation. That is, I have never seen anybody who was as domineering in his control as Ernest Lawrence was.
Groueff: In his laboratory. So he ran the lab like an industrial plant.
Groves: Well, he ran it on the basis that as far as authority went, it was like an old time—
Groves: No, it was more like an old time industry of years ago. If you did not agree with Ernest Lawrence, you kept quiet about it or else; it was unheard of you to dispute him in public. You could make suggestions to him. You could say, “Well, I think you would better look into this.” But it had to be done very carefully, as I understood it.
Groueff: And you realized that that would be a very important element?
Groves: Yes, well, it naturally appealed and his enthusiasm and his willingness to work and the fact that he had had engineering experience in connection with this cyclotron. After all, he had become part engineer when he built the cyclotron. And that was a big advantage to us.
Groueff: At that time, when you first met him at Berkeley, how did he see the future of this industry?
Groves: Oh, yes, he was a great enthusiast for everything. If you had asked him then, he would have said, “Why, by five years after the war, there will not be a single power plant built that is not atomic energy.” He was that kind, very enthusiastic. He would have been a success at anything he ever attempted. He would have knocked the spots out of Billy Graham as an Evangelist. He would have been a great promoter in Wall Street. He would have been a great real estate salesman. He could have done anything. He just had bubbling over with enthusiasm.
Groueff: So your skepticism did not cool him off when he saw your disappointment?
Groves: Oh, no, he did not see any disappointment from me. All he saw was he had a couple of questions that apparently he had not thought about because they were unpleasant questions, so he would not think of them, publicly. But at the same time he would be striving his utmost so that it would not happen. He had pride of accomplishment.
Groueff: So as a person, he impressed you immediately and you knew that that was your man there?
Groves: Yes. We knew that he was man enough so that if had had one of the other processes, I would have liked it better, but he did not. And if we had not had that process, we never would have done it, I do not believe. I cannot imagine any of the others that we would have done it with.
Groueff: He was the only man who could do this electromagnetic—
Groves: I think so. I think so.
Groueff: You had go-getters there, [like] Lawrence. You had Keith in K-25. DuPont was active with plutonium, no?
Groves: Oh, yes, as soon as they took over I did not have anything to bother about. They did everything as they should have. Of course, I kept a very close track of it and all to supervise it and made a lot of decisions for them. But, essentially, as soon as they took over, you knew that they had the grasp. And they had also worked with me, a lot of the people had. I think, for that reason, there was more mutual confidence. But they were just top notch and I knew it when I got them.
Groueff: Much more so than the Chicago people? Was Compton a very active man? Was he a go-getter?
Groves: No, he was. He was very proud of his capacities, but he was not a good administrator. He did not understand administration. Hilberry helped him a great deal and he got some very good people in from outside to help him. People like—oh, he is now at Standard Oil at Indiana—Larry Kimpton, I think is his name. He was President of the University of Chicago for a while after the war. He is the next President, I think, after [Robert M.] Hutchins. And he had left the University of Chicago; he left at some time, I do not know just when, after the war. And he left it because he just could not stand Hutchins.
And then he was offered the job as President to succeed Hutchins. He was a college President who had gone to Stanford University, had been a football player there, a great big, robust gentleman. He told me once, he said, “Well, I went to Stanford and played football before we had this recruiting of athletes.”
He said, “I was purely an amateur in every way.” But he said, “There was a funny thing, something happened recently.” Of course, the University of Chicago did not have football. Hutchins abandoned it. And Kimpton was trying to figure out how to bring it back, not on the basis of the Big Ten, but on the basis of moderate intercollegiate athletics on a reasonable basis.
And he said, “You know, I was at a meeting of college presidents out here not too long ago and there happened to be a meeting of the coaches of the Big Ten in the same hotel and down the hall form us a ways.”
And he said, “I don’t know how many times the door was open in our place because it was hot or something. I was sitting near the door and I don’t know how many times these reporters barged in and would not believe me when I said, ‘No, we were the college presidents, not the football coaches.’”
But he got quite a few people like that in there.
Groueff: Compton was not a leader like Lawrence. He was not the spirit of the—
Groves: No, and he was not looked upon as the greatest physicist there. Fermi was and that did not make it any easier. Now, Fermi had been at California. There had never been any doubt but what Lawrence was the great physicist. Now, Compton, of course, got the Nobel Prize too long before Fermi did. But it was not quite in this field. It was on cosmic rays, as I recall.
Groueff: Yeah. Yeah, he worked on cosmic rays. That is how he met [Norman] Hilberry actually, who worked also on cosmic rays.
Groves: But that is the story on him.