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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

General Leslie Groves’s Interview – Part 6

In this interview, General Groves discusses his relationship with some of the famous scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Harold Urey, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, and Ernest O. Lawrence. Groves also discusses the Chevalier incident and how Oppenheimer’s affiliation with the Communist party raised suspicions among fellow scientists of his motivations. He explains why he respected Oppenheimer and selected him to direct Project Y.

Date of Interview:
January 6, 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: I think another thing that may interest you is I always make an effort to get letters like this one to Miss Dupree out at once when it is warm and they can appreciate it and not think well this is just an afterthought.

Stephane Groueff: You do not keep letters piling before answering.

General Groves: Oh yes I do, I usually take, I always took incoming mail and looked at it and took out the things that had to be answered right away and then it more or less sorted out. During the war at intervals, which were rather frequent maybe once a week sometimes more often I would take any correspondence from anything that had to be written. We would work in the evening and I would dictate to Miss Solara all the answers to all those to clean things up, that was the way we could keep up.

Of course I did very little correspondence during the war, there is nothing in writing. I was talking this morning to General Reynolds, who was in charge of Personnel for the Service Forces and telling him that one of the problems I had was not having any papers. He said he understood that because he did not remember ever seeing many papers signed by me. He said everything was verbal, and I said, “Yes, we did not want anything on paper because that was just a security hazard; if you put it on paper it became a security hazard.”

This Nicaraguan affair might be of interest to you, you are looking for background on me. It showed the same traits, you might say, that were later somewhat important, and it also shows some of the training that I had received. When Managua was destroyed by earthquakes, we got the news—we were about fifty miles away from Managua in the town of Grenada. We got the news immediately from, well, we felt the shake, which was pronounced. All of the servants and other natives of that class immediately told us that Managua had been destroyed. How they knew, it I do not know, they just assumed it there was a volcano up in that area.

Then about two hours later, I guess it was, we got a very garbled telephone message, which had come to us in this way. When Managua was destroyed, the Marines, who had a large headquarters there, erected a radio station out of the ruins, sent a message to Washington. Washington then sent a cable to us advising us so we could offer assistance and that came down by cable through Panama, up to southern part of Nicaragua, where it was then telephoned via a makeshift line. You always felt the louder you shouted, the more apt they were to hear you. That is the way we got the news.

Our commander, Colonel Sultan, took a detachment up there immediately. The next day he came back and said the biggest problem was the water works. And that he had told the American minister who had been placed in charge by the American Red Cross and given Red Cross funds, this was before the day of American aid to anybody, that he would have an officer come up to repair that. He said he would bring his best officer and one that he knew could do the job.

When I got up there, I was horrified because the pumps were out, all the water distribution system was gone because everywhere it went into a house the earthquake had broken the topline going in so you had water running out of everything. The main line from the Crater Lake had been separated by the exact faults and the pipes were about three feet apart, where they were supposed to connect. They had to have water immediately, that was sanitary, or else you would have the chance of an epidemic. There was no water line pumping down at the Lake Managua, which was not sanitary by any means.

We started pumping, we put those into order and started pumping from those, hand-feeding more or less the chlorine. There were no methods of doing it otherwise. When we finally got it up to the Marine camp, which was at the head of the town, quite a long hill, of course there were water hydrants in between where people could fill buckets and get water. You could smell that chlorine about two or three blocks away. It did give them a satisfactory temporary water supply.

In the meantime, we made one good pumping unit out of the two that we had down at the Crater Lake, where the water was absolutely pure. To do that we had to build a retaining wall at the bottom, otherwise boulders kept coming down. And of course the quakes kept on, there were something like ten to twenty quakes a day, smaller ones of course. They are always smaller after the first main one, but still, enough to send a lot of boulders down there. The pipe leading up the hill, it crumbled just like taking a piece of soft taffy candy and bend it and how it crinkles on the inside, that is the way that pipe looked. That had to have a piece put in and cut out and another one put in. It had to be joined where the other two came.

There is one other interesting thing happened. There was a pipe foreman for the water company, he was a Cuban, he spoke perfect English. He had had at home fortunately his notebook book showing all the pipe connections in the town. I think actually he had been bribed by various people to give them the next size of pipe and things of that kind; anyway, he had that at home. When I talked to him the first time, he said, “As soon as I can get ahold of it.” After a few minutes he said, “Lieutenant would you mind if we spoke Spanish? I am all upset.” He said, “I can speak English, but I am just too upset for that.”

I said, “Go ahead and speak Spanish.” So within twenty-four hours I learned all of the Spanish that was specifically applied to water works.

Fortunately, it was all on the same English conversion, so it was not difficult. I was lucky again and luck is important. I had in my organization a Sergeant who had been wounded severely in World War I, had done taken what was the equivalent of GI assistance because he was so badly wounded and had graduated from college. Then he had gone with the Fairbanks Morse as a student engineer for about a year, and then as he put it, said, “I got enamored of a girl and I was more interested in the girl than I was in my job, and I lost my job and I did not get the girl.” Anyway, he had been a student engineer the year that these particular semi-diesels had been made, so he was thoroughly competent with a little thinking and a lot of help to put these things back together again.

The Fairbanks Morse people sent their representative up from Panama, and he took one look at it and he said, “I cannot do anything with this, this is a mechanics job and I am a sales engineer.”

I made a few harsh comments, and he sat up on the bank about two hundred feet up, I guess it was, the Crater Lake went down about five. And to get labor, which we needed a lot of to keep clearing out the debris that was coming, we used impressed labor, which was picked up on the streets, by the Nicaraguan Guardia, which was their form of regular army. This was impressed labor and we kept them under guard and camp so they could not get away. Of course, a lot of them escaped during the night, but that was all done by the Guardia, we had nothing to do with it, we could not afford to be involved in that but the thing was a great success.

Groueff: It is part of your experience.

General Groves: It is part of the experience of an engineer; you build up and up and up. You know, so many people have the idea that you come up to something and without any previous training, well, it is like taking a boy where your honor system is very severe, it is very difficult to say the day he comes, “Here is the system, now you follow it.” You have to break him in gradually just as you break a horse. There is no reason why you can break a human being any better than you can break a horse. You do not break a horse except by gentling him; just that takes time. It takes time. Every little thing that is done, success or failure, should be a benefit to that man’s future development. That is the story of that.

What else do you want?

Groueff: I have so many other questions to ask you, but I thought today if you can tell me a few things about some of the top scientists, the way you saw them and the way they behaved and the way you appreciated them. The people I have in mind are [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, [Harold] Urey, [Vannevar] Bush, [James B.] Conant.

General Groves: Suppose I just start off.

Groueff: [Ernest] Lawrence, [Percival] Keith with Colonel [Kenneth] Nichols. Oppenheimer looks very aged now.

General Groves: Yes, have you talked to him yet directly?

Groueff: Not yet, no and now it will be rather difficult because they just opened a new play in Paris [“In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Heinar Kipphardt] and I heard he is not happy about it.

General Groves: Not happy about it at all, and he should not be.

In the first place, I wish when you had these typed out, that you would put at the head of each one “Strictly Confidential.”

Groueff: Absolutely.

General Groves: And “Not read over by General Groves, read over or corrected in any way”. The reason for that is that I just want to be frank with you and that is–-

Groueff: And that is valuable.

General Groves: And I would also appreciate it if you would have your typist in this area, type out an extra copy to send to me, because it will be a help to me in what I am trying to write. I have not yet written what I thought of these individuals. The nearest approach that I have come is writing on General [James C.] Marshall and I do not know where those papers are right now, I am not sure that I could find them easily.

To start off with Oppenheimer, Oppenheimer had been involved in the project before I was assigned. He had been involved from the start, he had been selected as one of the assistants to [Arthur H.] Compton, and Compton had these assistants scattered all over the country to work on the theoretical portion of the bomb. In other words, if you got the fissile material, was the bomb a feasible thing to do no matter how impractical it might be? Could there be an explosion? What would the force be? How much material would be required for a critical mass? What type of general design of that mass that you have, that you wanted assembled in a solid ball, which would be the assumption, or just what did you want it in? Would the mass be particularly much greater if instead of being in a solid ball it was in the form of a cylinder?

That involved a great deal of theoretical thinking because there was so little experimental data available. Compton never assembled that group in one spot where they worked together. They more or less worked and carried on their academic work at the same time.

When I first got into the picture, my first objective as I thought of it myself was, “Get this thing moving and what was necessary to move it.” Well the first thing was to start off and get Oak Ridge. We had to do something, we could not just sit our fannies, as it were and continue to meditate and argue about things. I wanted to impress everybody with the fact that we were a moving organization.

As soon as I was promoted to Brigadier General—I did not take active charge before that, and the reason was, I think I explained it in my book, I did not want to enter the project as a Colonel. I wanted everyone on the project to think of me as a General. Because there is no one who has a greater regard for rank, in my opinion then and now, to the academic world, and that is worldwide. They may laugh about it and they may over in this country claim that it is not so, but it is so. They are the ones who really respect rank. I wanted to come in there where they thought of me as being on this elevated rank, instead of a rank that was no longer as important as it had been. After all, to the civilians there was no difference between a lieutenant colonel and a colonel.

At any rate, that was the reason for the slight delay, and there was no reason for jumping right in any case. I had to get some knowledge before I started being looked to as the man who was making the decisions. Actually, Colonel Marshall, the District Engineer, knew, Colonel Nicholas knew, and those were the ones I was dealing through.

Oppenheimer was seen not too long after I actually took over. I first went to Oak Ridge, approved Oak Ridge, which I could have done without going down there, because I knew enough about Tennessee. While I had never been to this exact spot, I did know enough. You could not properly, as the head of such an organization, prove that something was so important without ever having seen it. I went down there and looked at it very carefully with Colonel Marshall, went over the ground. It met everything that I had urged him to have in the site when I was just an advisor whose opinion did not have to be respected. I immediately ordered that the land takeover was to be initiated, and that was it.

At that time, we did not even know what we were going to put on Oak Ridge in the way of installations. It had been thought originally, before I came into it, that all separation plants would be put at Oak Ridge. In other words, we would have one big plant and that would be it, that one area would include every one of our activities. And that was the basis on which we got our original acreage there, fifty-four thousand acres, I believe. That was the basis.

We wanted power, we wanted reasonable water, we wanted living conditions where people could work the year around on construction without any delays or any unusual difficulties. Of course, I knew we would have rain to an annoying point at times, but people could still work out of doors. The population was very good from the standpoint of labor because it was one that would really work well. I thought it was a good site, and so it was approved immediately. As soon as I got that done and they started the necessary takeovers, Stone and  Webster was enabled then to go on with the planning of the headquarters building down there for offices, the town, the waterworks, the sewage works and everything pertaining to the living conditions that were necessary: roads and fences and everything of that kind.

Then I started to review the laboratories—Columbia, Chicago, and Berkeley—to see just where we stood scientifically. I knew that once we were pressing very hard, I wanted to make these scientists realize that we were waiting for them, that they did not have a minute to spare. We were just waiting there saying, “Come on, come on with your data.” I went to these various laboratories right away and I was horrified immediately to see how far they were from anything that was essential for us to do any construction with. They just did not know anything, they had not carried the research far enough, they were not pressing it, they were doing it in a more normal, scientific manner.

In the course of that time, I think at Berkeley, I met Oppenheimer. I talked to Dr. Compton about the situation, and then I met Oppenheimer. And I believe it was after that time of meeting Oppenheimer, or just before I met him, that I had concluded that in addition to having the plants for fissile material, we had better start thinking about doing something about designing the bomb. What would we need? How did we know anything about it? Maybe there was something there that would be forgotten and would take maybe a year to solve. We would come up and have everything ready and then we would sit there, “No, we do not know how to make the bomb.”

That, I believe, was the first step that I took that was outside of the original sphere assigned to me, which was essentially construction and operation of the fissile plants. Nothing was said about it. I talked to Conant and Bush about it when I got back, and they agreed it should be done.

I talked to Oppenheimer. Meeting Oppenheimer you were immediately impressed at that time and his pictures, as you saw them last night, showing him during those years I think are truer picture appearance-wise than today’s picture. Today’s picture makes him look much older. I do not recall just how old Oppenheimer is, you can find it.

Groueff: About forty, I think. Very young.

General Groves: You mean now or then?

Groueff: Then.

General Groves: Oh no, he was younger, he was about––

Groueff: He was about thirty-six or somewhere around that.

General Groves: He would have been about that. He had a health situation for a number of years. That was the reason he did not complete his graduate studies under Dr. [Max] Born, but went on down to Switzerland. He was not strong by any means and he was a source of disturbance that way. He was a very sound man. He was born in 1904.

Groueff: So that was in 1942.

General Groves: In 1937, you see him. He had a wide experience in theoretical physics and it showed in everything he said. I quickly learned that he had no experience in administration and had no particular qualifications for administration in any way. In fact, you would have thought of him as a cloistered professor type. I was appealed to by his great grasp of everything. I was appalled by his ignorance of American history, military history, anything pertaining to operation of this kind.

Oppenheimer’s great mental capacity impressed me, I think, when he told me that he had learned Sanskrit just for the fun of it.

Groueff: As a hobby.

General Groves: As a hobby. He had a tremendous knowledge of everything, excepting, as I say, the industrial operations, management, our government, the way it operates, and of our country’s background and everything pertaining to military history or military operations. I was not disturbed over these lacks because I found very few college professors had much knowledge of these things. I was impressed by his capacity.

Groueff: Immediately.

General Groves: Immediately. You could not help it. I was also very cognizant of one other thing and that was that there was nobody else. After I talked to Bush and Conant about it, I got hold of Oppenheimer and talked some more to him. I know one time that we talked was on the train from Chicago to New York. He was going part way I think. He and Colonel Marshall and I think Colonel Nichols and I all sat in one of these small roomettes. There is not much sitting space there as you know, and I think we talked for about two hours on this problem. Then we talked in Washington about it and in New York, and he got a group of people together at my request in New York and they talked it all over.

His selection by me, my thought that I would take him, did not meet with the approval of either Bush or Conant. It did not meet with the approval of Ernest Lawrence or Compton or Urey. Compton and Urey did not mind too much. Urey, as I say, never had any opinions anyway.

Groueff: Compton was not impressed.

General Groves: No, Compton was not impressed, and the reason that he was not was that Oppenheimer was not a Nobel Prize winner.

Groueff: Urey and Compton were.

General Groves: Urey and Compton were. Then Compton had working with him, Fermi who was one, Franck who was one. Oppenheimer had just been in a field where there are not too many given. Usually they come out of the experimental physics or experimental chemistry and not out of the theoretical. In any case, he had not gotten any and that was held against him. Also, in their opinion he was an upstart, you see, although he was not much younger than Lawrence. He had always been a lesser figure at Berkeley than Lawrence. There was a certain amount of jealousy I think between Lawrence and Oppenheimer, it was sort of natural. They were competitors and very young.

Groueff: Young and aggressive.

General Groves: Young and aggressive and competitors. Oppenheimer may not appeal to you as being aggressive, but he always had his eye right on the ball.

Groueff: He did?

General Groves: Oh, yes.

Groueff: Because he looks to be so shy, retired.

General Groves: Oh yes, but I do not think he ever failed to realize that, “Here is where I should be moving to.” He had taught at Berkeley and he also taught at CalTech, I think he took a term at Berkeley and a term at CalTech, and each institution paid him for the time that he taught. Oppenheimer had outside means, considerable outside means. He did not need to work.

Groueff: From his family?

General Groves: From his father. Anyway, there was objection. I finally said to Bush and Conant, “Well do you know of anyone else? Who do you know that is better?” Compton went along with it on the grounds that if at any time towards the end, that he could just take over from Oppenheimer and bring it to a successful conclusion. Lawrence I think had some of the same ideas, but Lawrence also thought that we were wrong in starting out to do this at this time. As he put it at that time, he told me, “Thirty scientists in three months could design this bomb.” Well they probably could have, but they would not have been ready and it would not have been the best bomb and we would not have known what the strength was. We would not have known a lot of things. He said, “It is wrong to start this, because we are taking men from the biggest job of all, which is getting the fissionable material and putting them on work,” and he said, “Not necessary at all.”

Anyway, Conant even went to far as to send me a telegram asking me to delay. He was in Boston, I think, asking me to delay the final decision until he could get back and talk to me. I do not know if that telegram came too late, or whether I waited until he got back and talked to him or not. In any case, Oppenheimer was selected by me, and Bush and Conant acquiesced, very unwillingly but still acquiesced. The whole basis of it was that there wasn’t a better man. It was not that he was ideally suited for it, I pointed out his weaknesses for the job, and yet including his—well I did not mention his very bad security—

Groueff: Security.

General Groves: Status. 

Groueff: Yeah.

General Groves: All of that.

Groueff: Did you know about his regular activity before?

General Groves: Yes, I knew enough about it.

Groueff:  And Bush/Conant?

General Groves: They did know about it and they were not concerned about that. 

Groueff: This was not based on––

General Groves:  It was based on science only, on his ability to run this kind of an affair. 

Groueff: Wasn’t there opposition by other people on security grounds?

General Groves: Not until afterwards. 

Groueff: Okay.

General Groves: But in any case, that was the story of his selection.  Soon after his selection, I had some trouble. At the time of his selection, we were very definite at that time that we would go along with this as a civilian affair, and then possibly towards the end we would put them all into uniform to make them military for security reasons.

It is strange to say that the thought of doing it that way came from what I had been told by Conant and [Richard] Tolman. Conant had worked as a chemist on gas in World War I, one of the latest gasses. I think it was Lewisite, I am not sure, but one of these very horrible gasses that was developed at the end because they thought the Germans were doing it too. They put those people into uniform, as I recall, and they had them behind barbed wire. They were really in a concentration camp. I think Tolman was involved in that to some extent and I do not know whether he was in it, but it was well known, we knew about it.

That was the thought we had, that we would continue. Then it was done on the basis that, we have a very small group, we were not going to have anything like this large group. After Oppenheimer was selected, we had trouble from [Isador I.] Rabi and [Robert] Bacher, both of whom said that if it was going to be military, they would not have anything to do with it, and furthermore they would advise anybody who asked them anything about it not to go.

Groueff: Rabi and Bacher?

General Groves: Rabi and Bacher.

Groueff: But not Oppenheimer.

General Groves: Not Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer accepted it, and we actually had him cleared. He had to have a physical, and he was willing to sign all the waivers that were necessary. Of course, the Army could not accept him physically because he had this bad lung, you see, among other things. I do not know how many defects he had at that time, but the lung was enough to keep him out.

The final result was, we did take Oppenheimer. We started out on the base of a very small establishment there. Every prediction was that it would be small. As usual, I doubled the estimate knowing that these people were not too sound. Also, then I added to that my own estimates of the supporting cast, which I knew they would not understand. The fact that you had to have garbage collection, you had to have transportation, you had to have medical and all that, I added that on. They gave me the figures on the first group of scientific people, how much they would have to be and how much it could expand, which was a great underestimate. Oppenheimer, we then selected Los Alamos. Every contact I had with Oppenheimer increased my respect for his intelligence. 

Groueff: You liked him as a person at the beginning.

General Groves: Oh, I would say yes.

Groueff: He was a pleasant man?

General Groves: Oh yes, very pleasant, if you do not have any resentment towards the man who was totally different from what you are, in every way.

Groueff: He is really direct opposite.

General Groves: Direct opposite, almost the direct opposite at that time.

Groueff: Physically and finish with his––

General Groves: Physical? The only way that we were alike was mentally in our ability to grasp things quickly. While his mental capacity was in other lines than mine, you might say, still we were equally astute.

Groueff: Did he like you or did he have this attitude of some intellectual to military people?

General Groves: Yes and no. One of the reasons for that, as a sideline, was this: in order to set that thing off, I started right off by letting them all know that I had just as much education as they had. In Chicago, I remember when we had a big meeting there, with every Nobel Prize winner they had, about thirty people, we were discussing how much material would be required for a bomb and something came up. Anyway, it gave me the opening I was waiting for and I said, “Now, I would just like to make it plain to everybody. You all know that I do not have a PhD., Colonel Nichols has one, but I would like to tell you that from the day I entered college I have had eleven years of formal education,” in which I was doing—I guess it was eight or ten. Anyway, I gave them the number of years. I said, “In all that time I was able to devote all of my attention to my studies. I did not have to earn any money outside, I did not have to teach freshmen or sophomores. I was not a laboratory assistant, I was learning.” I said, “You can figure out just how many PhDs I would have had by this time,” and that is all that I said.

I wanted everybody to know that background, and it was done deliberately. I talked about Colonel Nichols being—not only having a PhD. I did not tell them it was sort of a shady one in my opinion, but it could have been gotten without the usual requirements. It had been based largely I think on a fellowship he held over in Germany for a year. They combined that with his Master’s degree work at the University of Iowa, I believe, and managed to get a PhD. I did not emphasize that part, I emphasized his PhD, his study abroad in Germany, which impressed a lot of them because most of those men were too young to have been to Germany. It was a period when Americans did not go over there, particularly if they were of Jewish background. And then my own extensive years of study. That put us on the proper basis, and there was never any question. I do not think, as far as Nichols and myself were concerned, there was never any question on their part that we were their equivalents, educationally speaking.

Groueff: Oppenheimer too, he was very––

General Groves: Oh yes, he was too smart to be anything else. Some people told me, they said, “Oh you ought not to trust Oppenheimer, he says the most horrible things about you behind your back.” 

I said to them, my reply was, “Well you know I was brought up in the Army and all my life I have heard criticism of the commanding officer. I have never known one who is any good.” I said, “I am not surprised that they say things about me that I would rather not hear.”

Well that stopped some of them but some of them said, “You do not realize how bad it is.”

I said, “Well, there is nothing compared to what I used to say about commanding officers I know.” It did not bother me at all.

His security was questioned by the FBI. They objected, like, “Oh get out, we’re not having a man with his background.” Of course, we had swapping arrangements with FBI on our own. We did our own work, investigations, but we were closely tied in, and my chief security officer was in constant touch with [J. Edgar] Hoover’s right hand.

Groueff: Hoover’s security. 

General Groves: Colonel [John] Lansdale. 

Groueff: Security, FBI.

General Groves: Finally, as you noted from my book probably, I merely wrote an order to our security people citing that Dr. Oppenheimer was cleared. He could not have been cleared in any possible way excepting by some such drastic action as that; you could not justify the clearance.

Groueff: Because of his records are going to the standards of the FBI would make it impossible?

General Groves: Because of the standards that we had made it impossible. In every case, the thing that the FBI did not appreciate, and this is not a criticism of the FBI, because I do not criticize them, they have their job to do. If we had observed all of the formalities of clearance, we would just about now be getting started, we just could not do it. For example, when the DuPont people came down, I talked to them, their people were not cleared. If every time we wanted to talk to a man we had to get him cleared, that would be six months more. 

Groueff: You had to use your judgment. 

General Groves: You had to use your judgment, which was formed entirely on your impression of the individual, just as you do when you looking into a story and you get three different angles from different people. You have to base your judgment on who has the most integrity and best memory. Who can I trust and who can’t I trust?

Groueff: In the Oppenheimer case, it must have been a very difficult decision. 

General Groves: No, it was not difficult. No decision is difficult.

Groueff:  Why did you trust him?

General Groves: Well, in the first place, he knew everything at that time. He knew so much that if he was, as I told you about Benedict Arnold, if he was inclined to feel that he had been unfairly treated, he could easily become a menace, then I would have been afraid, and that was one reason. He knew so much I did not want him out where he was not—in there, of course, he learned a great deal more. But he still knew enough when he left so that he could, and knowing the people and all that, he could have very easily have informed an enemy, or just in casual conversation with fellow scientists in the United States, could have given away so much information that it would have been a terrible thing. Particularly if he had animosity towards us. If he did not have animosity, then no he wouldn’t, if we said, “Please do not tell anything about it.” 

Groueff: He was not a spy.

General Groves: Well, there was no reason to suspect that there was anything wrong. The thing that is not realized by so many of our people today, they are the same people who were off base in the years gone by. During the Depression years, and during the Spanish War, all the liberals in this country and almost everybody, excepting what might be termed a hard-core five or ten percent, were in favor of the Spanish Communists winning. They saw nothing wrong with communism, they approved of the recognition of Russia by Roosevelt. They had no fears of communism. They thought it was just as nice as anything else could be. Actually one of the things that people held against Oppenheimer was that he had contributed a considerable sum of money, I think $500, for ambulances for Spain, which was to get ambulance equipment for the communist side of the Spanish War. At that time, everybody was a party, excepting as I say a small hard core like myself. It was Eleanor Roosevelt, was out preaching that doctrine all the time.

Groueff: Even [Ernest] Hemingway?

General Groves: Oh yes, and the New York Times and everything of that kind. I said later at this Chevalier investigation, I told Oppenheimer’s attorneys, I said, “You should take the editorials of the New York Times of that era and say, ‘Why should Oppenheimer have been on this side when the New York Times was so heavily down on this side with what Mrs. Roosevelt saying? How could you expect a comparative boy to know more than all these very wise people?’” He did not use that. Now that was one reason. Everybody who was in college at that time was infected by the idea of socialism.

Groueff: Socialism.

General Groves: Socialism. In my son’s school, which was Deerfield Academy and he was there from 1936 to ’40. It’s a New England prep school and probably has as strong a representation of what might be termed “good Americans” as any. It has a sprinkling of others because they do not want it to be too one-sided. My boy told me a funny thing, he said that they had a vote one time on “What would you like to be when you got out of college?” He said a tremendous number put down “WPA or on relief,” and that was the attitude. Then in the colleges, particularly in the sciences, a great many men got out of college and they found that there were no jobs, and they were not willing to go and do anything. They thought they should have a white-collar job, they were not willing to be a gas attendant, they had trouble getting the job, but eventually they would get one. They wanted to immediately go up to what they thought was proper.

A great many of them went on, particularly in the scientists and particularly among those with Jewish background, went into advanced studies because they could get grants from colleges that would pay them maybe sixty dollars a month plus tuition. They would really do about eight hours of work a day, but that was security and they did not have to go out and take a chance of being hungry. It was something they knew they could go with holes in their shoes and frayed shirts and patches in their pants, and everybody else was the same way.

At Auburn Polytechnic in Alabama, a classmate of mine was on duty with the ROTC. Our pay then had been reduced by twelve and a half percent. It had not been high before. Along with all other government pay, it was reduced twelve and a half percent. This officer told me that he was the only man connected with the institution who was getting any money at all. He said the state just did not have any money and they were not paying the faculty, the faculty was doing without. The boys who were doing the best down there, getting along, the only ones who were getting along were those who were involved in the ROTC, in the two top tiers, and were getting a small allowance from the government. That was the condition.

Groueff: You would have to say again?

General Groves: These young professors or young instructors would be invited to go to a meeting. Maybe one of their seniors in the department would say, “There is going to be a very interesting meeting tonight, and a speaker is over here to tell us about how fine Russia is doing, or something about Moscow.” He would go along and then they would pass out cards saying, “Were you here and would you be interested?” First thing you know, he would sign a meeting card, which was an application for membership in the Communist Party. They might even pay his dues, they might just—average academic man would sign anything that was put before him if he was told it was for a worthy cause. He would sign a petition on the same basis, “Well sign this because this is a good thing.” Well many times they would go out and, “If you say it is good, why it is all right with me.” There was a lot of that going on.

Groueff: Do you think he was a politically naïve man?

General Groves: Very naïve. He did not know anything about such things. His wife had had this terrible experience, she had been befriended by the Communists afterwards. His sister-in-law was an ardent Communist.

Groueff: She was.

General Groves: His brother [Frank Oppenheimer] was a card-carrying Communist, which was not known at the time. He himself had attended a number of meetings, he had associated with people that were wrapped up in it, but so had everybody else in the academic world.

Groueff: But he was not a card-carrying member. 

General Groves: Not as far as I know, I do not think that was ever proven or suggested that he was. He may have signed a card at some time, I do not know. But as a man of means, it was natural for him. He was a bachelor at the time, I think, that he gave this money. For him to give $500 feeling as he did and his general attitude, it did not mean anything to him. Sure, his stocks did not have the income that they had had probably, but they still had so much more than anyone else had. He probably had an income bigger than the president of the university.

Groueff: Did you have an explanation about security with him?

General Groves: I had talked to him about it and I think Colonel Lansdale talked to him all the time about it constantly. Lansdale was very much horrified of my clearing him, he did not like––

Groueff: He was against.

General Groves: He was not against that so much; it was later when Oppenheimer reported to me about this incident.

Groueff: Chevalier––

General Groves: The [Haakon] Chevalier thing. Then Lansdale was horrified, but Lansdale eventually came to the opinion that I was right on Oppenheimer, that Oppenheimer was not a security risk.

Groueff: It was a calculated risk.

General Groves: Yeah, you risk it on everybody, you do not know. Today, you do not know today, for example, when cadets enter West Point, you do not know if he is a Russian spy.

Groueff: He may be sent years and years ahead.

General Groves: You remember in World War I how surprised the French were to find that some of the farmers who had lived there for thirty years turned out to be giving directions to the German artillery, and nobody had ever seen the slightest sight of it. Nobody had ever known anything about it. You just do not know if you have any incentive. I always felt, as I put it, anybody who entered West Point prior to 1933, I am not disturbed about. But anybody after that, you have to look at them.

Groueff: You cannot be a hundred percent sure.

General Groves: You cannot be a hundred percent sure, unless you know the family background. Of course, you have to watch out for blackmail and blackmail was one of the things I was always afraid about on Oppenheimer because I did not know.

Another thing that is true, is that—Ernest Lawrence made quite a point of this, he said that “The average Jew had no moral principles on a lot of scores.” He said, particularly with respect to sex life, he said, “You cannot trust them at all.” He said, “You take somebody that you think has been happily married for thirty years and you find him in bed with his stenographer.” That was a shock to me, but I learned to agree that that was so.

Groueff: Oppenheimer is from Jewish origin.

General Groves: You see the trouble is, I do not know, you are not Jewish?

Groueff: No.

General Groves: I did not think so, but I told them, the same thing, the trouble essentially is in my opinion, that the Jew who gives up his father’s religion, does not have anything to cling to. He gave it up because he is a little bit ashamed of it, and that is not a good thing. Now even those who have stuck to their religion have different ideals than we do. They very definitely have the “eye for an eye philosophy.” All you have to do is bump into it once in a while and you will see what they have, so that you cannot trust that thing.

Now at Los Alamos, when we were getting the affidavit or affirmation that the man would observe the security rules and so on and so forth, Oppenheimer suggested that in addition to having “So help me God” and so on in there that we have something, “On my honor as a scientist.” I have forgotten just what that oath was that we finally administered, but that would be very interesting thing to put in, to show how we dealt with this.

If you cannot depend on, just like a child, testifying in court, the court has to decide that child has enough of a fear of lying so he will tell the truth. I saw an article on that just the other day, I remember that this child had to be—if you went to church that was one thing, but he really had to have a fear of what we term “Puritanical hellfire.” Then you could depend on a child; otherwise, a child had no moral principles about lying.

Groueff: In his case, what was involved with his moral values about sex life?

General Groves: No, what was in doubt about him essentially was that his record was such that you could not say that he had not had Communist contacts. He had been so close to them, and had reasons to be grateful to them through his wife, that you could not tell. “Maybe there is a setup here, maybe he was planted.” 

Groueff: I see.

General Groves: You know possibly that the Communists used to make a practice of taking Communist girls and getting them to select certain young men they thought had promise, and just go out deliberately to entrap them into marriage. If they could not get the marriage, they would entrap them otherwise. The story of one party in San Francisco was quite shocking. One young scientist was invited to go to this party, he had been somewhere where they had some chamber music or something and he was quite involved in music. He commented on how much he enjoyed it. A woman who was very attractive said, “Do you like music?” And she engaged him in conversation. Oh yes, he liked it very much, so she said, “Well I wish you would come over. Would you like to come over? I am having a group in for chamber music at my house.” She had income of about fifty or sixty thousand a year, red-hot Commie.

He went and he was shocked after he found out that the whole purpose, he soon saw what was going on and he started to suspect that they were not so much interested in music. The story, as he told it—this came to me through some of my security people—he said, “After we had been there about an hour, I started to wonder if that was all the music they were going to have. I was starting to think about going home. Somebody, some girl yelled above the hubbub and said, It is about time for some fun.’ Somebody turned out all the lights and they proceeded to match up on the floor, maybe twenty or thirty people.”

Groueff: A real orgy.

General Groves: A real orgy. 

Groueff: That was the way––

General Groves: The purpose was to entrap young men that they thought would go places.

Groueff: All to make them subject to blackmail.

General Groves: Yes. Now then, if you go into the Alger Hiss case, the reporters who covered that told me that all through that case, the first trial before they were caught completely in perjury, Mrs. Hiss sat there and they called her, I will refer to her as “Hatchet Face.” They said that when he was on the stand, she dominated him, you could just see that going across. Of course, you know these reporters are pretty astute, particularly the ones that cover a lot of trials, they know what is going on. It had been my experience before that in studying this thing, that the average man who is intelligent and who you might say, if he does not progress, no, but if he progresses up he may be a socialist in his youth but he is a conservative when he dies. He starts off, if he becomes a communist, he soon wants to drop it. He does not want anything more to do with it.

Groueff: Like in France, they used to say anyone who has not been a Socialist before twenty has no heart. Everyone who stays a Socialist over twenty has no head. 

General Groves: Well, that is just it. Now in the Hiss case, before that I had come to the conclusion that a Communist who remained a Communist and who was successful always had a very strong Communistic wife who dominated him.

Groueff: It was true in Oppenheimer.

General Groves: Well, his wife was not a dominant; I do not think she dominated him.

Groueff: But he had this––

General Groves: He had the wife.

Groueff: The other one. The [Jean] Tatlock girl.

General Groves: Yes but I think that was purely sex.

Groueff: I see.

General Groves: That was my impression.

Groueff: It was not a big romance. 

General Groves: Well it may have been a romance, but he was so conscientious in a way and so tenderhearted, that young girl could have entrapped him into marriage if she had tried, if she had gotten there first. As I say, he had all of the sensitivity and the feeling that he owed it to them.

Groueff: She was a Communist, the Tatlock girl.

General Groves: Yeah.

Groueff: A member of the party.

General Groves: I think so, without question. I never had any doubts about it. I do not know whether she was or not, I never worried about it because I was so sure she was.

Groueff: How can an intelligent man like him who knew that he was settled and followed, why did he go to San Francisco and spend the night with her, knowing probably that he was followed? 

General Groves: Well he may not have thought that he was followed. She may have insisted on it.

Groueff: He was weak?

General Groves: He was weak to refuse it, and she may have threatened him. You do not know what happened.

Groueff: This story has never been completely clear.

General Groves: No, I do not think so. 

Groueff: She committed suicide. 

General Groves: She committed suicide presumably because, presumably she was–you better turn this off.

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.