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John Manley’s Interview (1965) – Part 2

Dr. John Manley was one of Oppenheimer’s principal assistants at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Manley helped Oppenheimer manage Los Alamos’ laboratories and worked alongside a number of well-known scientists, including I.I. Rabi, Robert Serber, and Edward Teller. Manley surveyed the landscape around the Trinity Test site before the test and witnessed the explosion from inside a wooden bunker. In Part 2 of his interview, he recalls the Trinity detonation, as well as working with men like Leo Szilard and General Groves.

Date of Interview:
March 9, 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 mispellings and other errors.]

Groueff: So, Dr. Manley, we talked about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer. So, the meeting was attended by about 400 people.

Manley: I would guess that, yes.

Groueff: I see. But, the policy was decided in smaller—

Manley: Oh, of course. These were general information meetings, so that people would know what was going on. There was a chance to bring out any ideas and so on.

Groueff: About once a week?

Manley: About once a week, yes.

Groueff: And, by night?

Manley: Yes.

Groueff: And, they would last what, for about one hour?

Manley: The talk would be roughly an hour, and then the meeting might last for two.

Groueff: Who might talk?

Manley: The different people.

Groueff: Different people, okay. I see.

Manley: Yes, reporting on their progress you see.

Groueff: From the stage. And, then questions.

Manley: Yes. Actually, I don’t think that they went up on the stage. They just stayed down on the floor and there was a microphone. It was a very informal sort of thing.

Groueff: The policy was decided in small conferences with leaders.

Manley: Of the divisions, yes, which mostly it was a technical counsel which is comprised of mostly of the division leaders.

Groueff: And, some people like [Neils] Bohr when he was here?

Manley: Right, and [Richard] Tolman when he would come out and Charlie Lauritsen was another consultant. Hartley Rowe was another consultant more on engineering phases and so on.

Groueff: Did you have contacts with General Groves at that time?

Manley: Yes, I had been with Groves off and on several times actually, but I guess that I got best acquainted with him during this period when I was in his office after having been sent there by Oppenheimer to provide liaison.

Groueff: That was after—

Manley: It was after Trinity, but at the time that the Japanese action was to take place.

Groueff: Before Hiroshima?

Manley: Right. Well, I saw quite a bit of Groves then because I had met him years before. He and I always got along fine because I was sufficiently open with him. I think that the first time that I met him; I got into a discussion about military training with him. You see.

Groueff: Here?

Manley: No, no in Washington.

Groueff: In Washington?

Manley: Yes.

Groueff: And what? And you disagreed?

Manley: Yes, sure. But he has a respect for an individual, I think, who has his own opinions and is willing to defend them and so on.

Groueff: He’s a highly intelligent man?

Manley: Oh, very, yes. I have a lot of admiration for him. He was sort of a bastard to many people because of the things that he had to do in his job I think. Another characteristic of him, which I noticed very much there is that it was very difficult for him to open his mouth to say anything without really putting his foot in it as we would say. He was just completely clumsy in his way of speech. Just after the drop, and when we knew in the office the success of the Hiroshima thing, he tried to praise the staff in the office. He had a little meeting. It was the most clumsy thing that I think that I’ve ever listened to.

Groueff: Yes, he was tactless and he just didn’t know how to—

Manley: Yeah, just unrefined almost one would say in social graces somehow, and human contact.

Groueff: He didn’t care for social graces?

Manley: No.

Groueff: Or for the feelings of other people?

Manley: There wasn’t any evidence. I never knew what was really inside him.

Groueff: I think a lot of scientists underestimated his intelligence because they thought that a military man by definition has to be stupid.

Manley: Stupid, yes. No, but not me. I had really still great respect.

Groueff: You think that he had the understanding of the problems even scientific in the broad lines?

Manley: Yes, and he knew which people to trust. That was very important. I think that he and Oppenheimer always got along very well.

Groueff: He speaks very highly of Oppenheimer, and yet they couldn’t be more different.

Manley: I should say. Heavens no! I mean the fluency of Oppenheimer and the clumsiness of Groves, there are all sorts of contrast.

Groueff: And yet, it was quite a decision at the beginning in spite of all of the bad reports and security on Oppenheimer; General Groves put his foot and said that that’s the man, and Paul Arugal as the eye on security.

Manley: Yes, right. Took a lot of guts, but that’s what he had, and that’s what made him so valuable that and the intelligence.

Groueff: So, he didn’t have actually serious problems with the scientists here, no.

Manley: I think that Oppenheimer was a pretty good barrier. He would do things about the community or so on that would really create an uproar, then Oppie would sort of go to work, and he’d try and eventually get Groves convinced that he couldn’t operate that way, you see.

Groueff: But, not in the scientific things?

Manley: No, he had nothing to do with those. No, he trusted Oppenheimer, and the general direction of the laboratory, I think, very much.

Groueff: So, there was not so much of animosity of conflicts with scientists, but it was mostly the sort of jokes about him.

Manley: That and things about the Army management of the place, the housing and the PX, the commissary.

Groueff: Who was responsible for that? The local officers?

Manley: The local officers. The first one was [Whitney] Ashbridge.

Groueff: Ashbridge.

Manley: And then, Colonel [Herbert] Gee was after that. [Col. Gerald R.] Tyler came much later. In fact Tyler was essentially post war, you see. He was a Navy guy.

Groueff: I see, but those two men were they unpopular with the scientific community?

Manley: Rather, I think, yes. And, there was a definitely isolation between the civilians, socially, and the military.

Groueff: And the military, so that’s reflected in Groves. Everything that the military people here would do, some stupid mistakes.

Manley: Yes, that of course was blamed on Groves. Oh, sure, I mean, he was the bait. Yeah. I remember Oppenheimer being so mad at me because one of the reasons why I was supposed to be there of course was that Oppenheimer could hardly contain himself about the success of the mission from Tinian to Japan you see. Well, and that’s only natural. After all, he put four years of blood, sweat, and tears into it. 

And so, I was to try to get in touch with him by phone. We had a little code worked out. Immediately after the drop, as soon as any information came back because it came back to Washington you see—well Groves put a complete clamp on it, and wouldn’t let me call Oppenheimer or do anything.

Groueff: Oppenheimer was here at Los Alamos?

Manley: Oppenheimer was here in Los Alamos. It was understandable from that point of view because you see the President was supposed to make the announcement. He was on the Augusta coming back from Potsdam. And so, everything was just—

Groueff: Even though Oppenheimer—

Manley: He didn’t know. The people including myself in Groves office, we knew, I think, around 7:00 in the evening Washington time what the general effects had been. Of course, Oppenheimer knew roughly when the drop was scheduled. It might have been called off or something like that, but it wasn’t. So, and I remember very specifically because it was 11:00 the next morning when I got Oppenheimer on the telephone with Groves permission finally. At the same time that the whole thing came over the radio, and Oppenheimer was hearing it on the radio you see.

Groueff: He knew it before you called him.

Manley: Just about simultaneously. Why the hell do you think I sent you to Washington? I walked around. Psychologically to me, that was a very impressive time because here I walked around in Lafayette Park in Washington. You know where it is, opposite the White House there. All of these people were wandering around. Here I knew something that they didn’t know, and about what the effect would be when they learned about it the next day. It was just really a very interesting experience. Well, that’s another time with Oppenheimer.

Groueff: That describes Groves—that even to a man so closely associated like Oppenheimer, an order is an order. He wouldn’t make any exception to anyone in the world.

Manley: That’s right. And, deference to the President in a sense, you see?

Groueff: I just want to ask. What were those courses at the beginning given by [Robert] Serber to—

Manley: Oh, right after the Trinity business, there was of course a lot of work in getting things overseas and so on, but not so much in the laboratory. There was a definite lull after Trinity was successful, especially among the nuclear physicists who had done all of these measurements and then had gone into engineering. Well, we couldn’t do much about the engineering phases really. I think that that was really the kind of psychological atmosphere that said well, let’s get together and learn something about what’s going on in nuclear physics, and really have a chance to get ourselves back up to date after being concentrated on a very applied kind of problem. So, these courses were organized.

Groueff: I thought that there were some courses at the beginning of the project.

Manley: Oh, I’m sorry. I misunderstood you.

Groueff: When scientists arrived here in order to brief them, no?

Manley: That’s right, yes. Those are the Serber lectures. I had forgotten them.

Groueff: Was it like a lecture in a professor to the students?

Manley: Exactly, that’s right.

Groueff: So, the scientists would go there and sit, and he would explain all of the problems?

Manley: Other people lectured I think besides Serber on various phases of it, but they got to be known as the Serber Lectures because he did most of it.

Groueff: Did you go to Trinity yourself?

Manley: Yes.

Groueff: Where did you see it from?

Manley: I was in charge of one of the three shelters at Trinity. I was at a so-called, “West 10,000.” There was a North 10,000, and the South 10,000.

Groueff: At 10,000 meters?

Manley: Yards, I guess. So, roughly meters.

Groueff: Yeah, about ten kilometers.

Manley: Roughly meters. I had the responsibility for the people and for the instrumentation in that particular shelter. I remember some of that pretty vividly because the whole thing was such a fatiguing business. From about one o’clock until about four or so in the morning, I think that I was the only person awake in the whole shelter. People were just lying on the floor asleep, just dead.

Groueff: It was like a bunker?

Manley: Yes, it was heavily timbered structure with earth piled up over it.

Groueff: I see. And you slept there the night before?

Manley: Yes, we finished checking out our instrumentation pretty well about one o’clock in the morning and of course, the shot was delayed on the account of the weather decision at least and went off about 5:00.

Groueff: So, you lived there the weeks and months before like the group of [Kenneth] Bainbridge?

Manley: Well, yes. We lived there at the camp, which was a little ways away.

Groueff: You were part of this for several weeks?

Manley: Yes, sure. In fact, I personally was out running a transit in the desert surveying locations for blast gauges. We did everything, you see.

Groueff: So you were not the group like Oppenheimer and the others, who came only for the test?

Manley: No, I was actually there. I made many trips back and forth.

Groueff: How did you see it?

Manley: The first view of the explosion, we had a periscope. I think that all of the bunkers were equipped with what’s called a projection periscope, where the image is put on a ground-glass screen from behind, and you can see that.

Groueff: On the screen?

Manley: Yes. And, that was just inside of the door. The door was open deliberately, so that the pressure would equalize. You see. It was quite a wide door. This was just inside, so we collected around this screen to see.

Groueff: How many people?

Manley: I would say roughly a dozen.

Groueff: A dozen?

Manley: Yes. And, people who were in charge of various pieces of equipment in that shelter recording information about the explosion. And then of course just immediately afterwards, we all went outside, so that we could get the full view. I think that all of us were really impressed mostly by the light, the illumination of that whole wide valley.

Groueff: Fantastic?

Manley: Just fantastic! I should say so.

Groueff: You were nervous or tense?

Manley: For me at least, I didn’t detect really tenseness. I think that because we were so fatigued we couldn’t be tense.

Groueff: And you were not afraid for your personal safety that something would disintegrate the atmosphere?

Manley: Oh, no. Of course, we’d even looked at some of the calculations on that.

Groueff: I wanted to ask you a few questions about yourself and your background, where you come from, where you were born, and everything.

Manley: Well, I grew up in Illinois. I went to the University of Illinois as an undergraduate. And then, I went to Michigan for my graduate work.

Groueff: In Physics?

Manley: In physics, yes. I graduated in a course that’s called, “Engineering-Physics,” which is sort of in between. And then I went into pure physics let’s say for graduate work. I spent a year abroad immediately after I graduated, just bumming mostly, and then a year with General Electric in their research laboratory. Then I went back to school. That was in the Depression years, and they weren’t giving me any money. The work week was three days or something. So, I decided to go back to school, and I went to Michigan and got my degree. I think that I went there in ’31, and got my degree in ‘34. Then I went to Columbia.

Groueff: And then, you joined this group of [John] Dunning and the others?

Manley: Yeah, so first I was with [I.I.] Rabi’s group. And then after two years, I went more or less on my own, but I was doing neutron experiments, and so was Dunning. The apparatus was up in Dunning’s laboratory on the top floor, and so I knew Dunning. I can understand what [Harold] Urey thinks of Dunning for instance.

Groueff: Dunning was and still is a great promoter?

Manley: Very much so. Very smooth, very ambitious. Right.

Groueff: And a good scientist. Not modest?

Manley: Oh, no. Fairly genial and so on, but I don’t think that people like Urey and some of the others respected his intelligence. This was the difficultly because he’s not—

Groueff: Dunning’s intelligence?

Manley: Yes. He’s not a highly intelligent person. When you talk about the Szilards the Fermis, Oppenheimers, and Bethes and so on.

Groueff: Not in the same category?

Manley: No.

Groueff: As a young man was he very sort of ambitious?

Manley: Yes, and his wife was even more so.

Groueff: Oh, so he was trying to get as much credit?

Manley: Yes, and I think that the thing that most of resented about him was the kind of political maneuvering, which we considered beneath us, you see, for position in the department in the university, social position and so on. This was evident in the very early days.

Groueff: Socially and about his career?

Manley: Yes. This was evident in the very early days.

Groueff: Most of it being with [Dean of Columbia George Braxton] Pegram?

Manley: Yes. In fact, he was sort of looked upon as a white-haired boy. You know that expression.

Groueff: But not very popular with his colleagues?

Manley: I think that that’s true. Most of the other people, I think again felt that he was getting where he was not by sheer ability, but by this maneuvering.

Groueff: Politics?

Manley: Sorry, yes. There’s usually one in every physics department in every university.

Groueff: So for Urey, who was a well established then, the Nobel Prize, and chemist must have been very difficult to deal with.

Manley: It was very understandable that they were like this.

Groueff: Tell me. First, you started talking about yourself. So your home and your family are from Illinois?

Manley: No I was unmarried. I was actually married in New York during the period I was at Columbia.

Groueff: Your father and mother came from—

Manley: From Illinois, yes.

Groueff: But [yours was] a family connected with science or with education?

Manley: No. My father was a lawyer. My mother never went even to college.

Groueff: So, you chose physics for yourself?

Manley: Yes. Right.

Groueff: Now the last thing that I wanted to ask you about the Chicago days. Why were there difficulties and fights around the Hungarians there, or the foreigners?

Manley: Well it was mostly [Leo] Szilard.

Groueff: Szilard personally?

Manley: Of course [Edward] Teller, at that time, was in Berkeley most of the time.

Groueff: But, [Eugene] Wigner was there?

Manley: But, Wigner was there.

Groueff: Wigner was a polite man, no?

Manley: Yes. You know the story about go to hell please?

Groueff: No.

Manley: This was something about his car. He was so mad at the mechanic or about the garage or something that his phrase in expressing his anger was “Go to hell, please.”

Groueff: So, he was always—

Manley: Very formal and very polite, yes.

Groueff: But, not unpleasant.

Manley: No, not at all. I don’t think that there were any. I don’t remember any cases in which he was a sort of focus of any rebellion, whereas Szilard definitely was.

Groueff: Szilard, from what I understand, was not in charge of responsible for any particular group, but he was flying around.

Manley: He was a floater or something.

Groueff: What was his job? Why was he there?

Manley: Well, he was there I think largely because he was in it in the very early stages in the Columbia days when things started there.

Groueff: Mostly Einstein things.

Manley: I don’t think that that had much to do with his immediate association with it. The Einstein came from his interest in the whole problem really. Well, he was the one who recruited me as a matter of fact.

Groueff: Who, Szilard?

Manley: Szilard yes.

Groueff: And, you knew him?

Manley: I knew him from Columbia. I was at that time at Illinois, and he called me. Szilard was there I think there because of his intelligence, his overall knowledge of the beginning of the project of Nuclear Physics, of Chemistry and so on. He’s a very intelligent individual.

Groueff: Also interested in philosophy, politics, history, this stuff, no?

Manley: Yeah, sure.

Groueff: Do you consider him as an outstanding mind?

Manley: Yes definitely.

Groueff: Brilliant?

Manley: Definitely brilliant. Yes. But, just these qualities, you see, were the things that prevented anybody in his right mind from putting Szilard in charge of anything.

Groueff: It is similar to what we talked about Bentley and [Robert] Bacher—a well-organized serious man.

Manley: Yes.

Groueff: He was a man of—

Manley: Almost flighty in some ways.

Groueff: Great ideas, but changing?

Manley: Yes, and with really no technique of how to get things done with people or things. He developed more of that in the later days. I think that there’s an interesting contrast, you see. I was remarking earlier about how Oppenheimer developed so quickly this ability to take charge of things from a theoretical physicist. It was clear that Szilard wasn’t going to be able to do that sort of thing.

Groueff: But, what was his reputation? People liked him?

Manley: Oh, yeah sure.

Groueff: But, there were probably a lot of jokes around him and about him?

Manley: I don’t remember so much that. I sort of remember that he was, very frequently it seemed to me, sort of taking people off to the side to go over for coffee or something like that, to plead his latest case for doing something different than the organization.

Groueff: So, he always had some new ideas.

Manley: Yes, or a new complaint about the way that things were going. He was very irritable about procurement problems.

Groueff: Yes, and rather difficult to live with? I mean.

Manley: From that point of view, yes. Sure.

Groueff: He didn’t get along at all with the Army, with Groves and even with industry?

Manley: That’s right. Sure. He was just too impatient.

Groueff: How was he in his physical aspect?

Manley: Oh, he was very roly-poly jolly sort of individual. Very talkative, yes, but talkative not in the Kiwanis sense at all, but always with some imaginative idea and very well worked out.

Groueff: Enthusiastic about it.

Manley: Yes, right.

Groueff: High-strung, emotional?

Manley: Not particularly emotional, no. I think that he was, I would say, a rather placid personality in outward appearance and normal action. But he could get quite worked up about a metal hydride not producing uranium fast enough or something like this, you see, or the graphite problem.

Groueff: Rather self-centered?

Manley: Yes. He was. At that time, he was unmarried. He sort of lived in an intellectual world of his own really, I think.

Groueff: And, ego?

Manley: Plenty I think, yes.

Groueff: I mean.

Manley: But not in an obtrusive way, I would say.

Groueff: I mean, for his ideas and scientific things.

Manley: Oh, yeah, Sure. But it was supported. Therefore, people had respect for him in contrast to Dunning.

Groueff: Great intelligence?

Manley: Yes, yeah sure. Have you read The Voice of the Dolphins? His book?

Groueff: No. I must. I will get it.

Manley: That will tell you a little bit.

Groueff: I read two pieces about him in Life Magazine or some other magazine published with quotations from this book. He seems to be also a very original mind even about political things. Was he talking politics at that time?

Manley: I left there when Los Alamos was established in ’43, and so I really had very little contact with Szilard after that. I know that he was very active in political things essentially after the Trinity test and the Franck letter and so on, which you know from the history.

Groueff: I see, but when he was there, he worked under whom Compton?

Manley: Most directly under Allison, Samuel Allison. He was another interesting individual and well known for his statement about going to work on butterflies.

Groueff: No, I didn’t know that.

Manley: On butterfly wings I guess it was. This was the result of the failure in the immediate post-war period to declassify scientific information rapidly enough.

Groueff: Yes, so he said that—

Manley: That scientists might as well study butterfly wings.

Groueff: That was after the war?

Manley: Yes.

Groueff: But, he was one of the important men in Chicago?

Manley: Yes, and then he came out here.

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.