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Norman Hilberry’s Interview (1965) – Part 3

Manhattan Project Locations:

Dr. Norman Hilberry obtained his doctorate in physics from the University of Chicago in 1941. During WWII, Hilberry was a physicist and the right-hand man to Arthur H. Compton at the Metallurgical Project (Met Lab) in Chicago. In the interview, Hilberry witnessing the Chicago Pile-1 going critical for the first time, and how this success was presented to a committee to prove an atomic bomb could be created. He explains the differences of opinion of scientists and the military on the number of atomic bombs needed, and how quickly it could be done. Hilberry also elaborates on his own background, as well as on the various personalities of some of the scientists he worked with, including Leo Szilard, Enrico Fermi, Eugene Wigner, and General Leslie R. Groves.

Date of Interview:
March 7, 1965
Location of the Interview:


Stephane Groueff: You remember this visit now?

Norman Hilberry: Oh, boy.

Groueff: Could you tell me about that part?

Hilberry: This was one of the reasons why the pile got built under the West Stands. The Manhattan District had been building a building out in the Argonne Forrest out in the Park District to build this, but it was held up with some labor troubles and various other things. These projects hung in the balance all the time. The intent had been to just carry one through. That was the intent on January 1 of ‘42. And we were given until May 15. 

Actually, what we were told to do—I do not know whether this shows in writing anywhere—but what we were told was to prove that you could not make a bomb, that you could not get a chain reaction and you could not make a bomb.

Groueff: Could not?

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: Why?

Hilberry: If we came out that way, this is what the outcome would have been. And nobody knew what the outcome was going to do. Why we would have burned our money. We would have proved it could not be done. If they told us that we were to do this and then we did do it, then we would have thrown away an awful lot of money.

Now how true this is, I do not know. I do not know if it appears in writing anywhere. But at least we started off to see what could be done. And the first deadline we faced was the May 15 meeting of the S-1 Committee or the Review Committee in Washington, when the budgets for the next year had to be put in. Because the intent had been, at that time, that the whole effort would be concentrated on the most promising project.

Well this was pretty short order. I am sure the boys were working in Columbia with their pile. But we certainly were not going to get deliveries on good graphite. We were not going to get deliveries on good uranium. We were not going to be able to really prove one way or the other what was which. All we could do is just get all the data we could.

So we got the chemists working like mad on what the impurities were in these materials that Fermi was using, both in the graphite and in the oxide. They were later using oxide in Columbia. And then try to estimate from these what could be done, if these could be eliminated.

Well, we got on the train. Compton and I got on the train to go down to Washington for this meeting. And people had been bringing in data right up to the last minute before we left for the train. And this was always too late. The first couple of times, I just practically had a nervous breakdown.

Compton would never leave for a train until it was impossible to catch it. You would get in the car and start off – where if I had been doing it, every light would have turned red just as I got there. With Compton doing it, every light would turn green just as you would drive along. And if you were really late, then something would have happened to the train because the train would just be pulling in as you rode up to the curb. I finally just gave up; if we did not leave the laboratory until five minutes after the train was supposed to have left, it never bothered me because something would have happened to the train. Sure enough, there it would be.

So we got on the train. We started doing work on this data for AH’s report the next day. And the longer we worked on it, the more clearer it was that there just was not any question that if we got the materials we already knew how to make. See, this was May. [Frank] Spedding was in business now. We did not have Mallinckrodt [Chemical Inc.] going yet. But we knew what it should be possible for Mallinckrodt to do.

By this time, we had the data on what the impurities were in the materials.

Groueff: So you knew it was possible?

Hilberry: So Compton went into that meeting and announced just point blank that it would work. He put the numbers down, “Here is what we have. This is what we know the impurities are. We know we can remove these thus and so, and we know we can remove these thus and so. So there was no question about will it work.”

Groueff: But the principle was not proven at that time, no?

Hilberry: Well the principle was clear. Yeah, this was clear that this would work. If you could get the impurities, then it would work.

Groueff: You were sure of it?

Hilberry: Oh, this one we were sure of.

Groueff: Even before the pile?

Hilberry: There just was not any question. If we could get these impurities out, it them work. So he just made this statement, and he fouled up. He said we would have the chain reaction by January 1 of ’43. We will have the first gram of plutonium separated by January 1 of ’44. And we will have the first kilogram come by January 1 of ’45.

So we had the chain reaction December 2 of ’42. We had the first gram of plutonium extracted on Christmas Eve in ’43. And if DuPont had known what Compton had said, we could have had the first kilogram by – actually, it was two weeks late. It was something like—it was in the second week.

Groueff: So it was fairly accurate, the prediction? And he made the proposal to the committee, to Compton, Bush, [Eger V.] Murphree, [Ernest] Lawrence?

Hilberry: I am not sure whether [Gen. Wilhelm D.] Styer and—

Groueff: Not yet [Lyman J.] Briggs, I think.

Hilberry: Yes, I think Briggs was still on it at that time. But he came back and told us at the laboratory what we reported. They nearly passed out. They said, “Well you cannot prove it. It has not been done. Oh, no!”

Compton said, “Well, you just cannot escape the figures. There they are.” And it turned out that it was absolutely right.

Groueff: So it was after this meeting that they disapproved?

Hilberry: Yeah, so this was the first hurdle.

Groueff: Yeah.

Hilberry: Then they sent out this review committee. Well, there were a couple of things about it. In the first place, there was a question of, should there be a selection? In the second case, DuPont had insisted on it.

Groueff: DuPont insisted?

Hilberry: Yes. And they had the pressure put on them to take over the bulk part of it. They said, “Well now just wait a minute. This is crazy enough as it is. We want to be sure that this one at least is no crazier than the others. Before we will agree, we want a review of the whole situation to see how this stacks up. Sure, we have been following this and working with it. We want to know how this stacks up with the rest of it.”

So it was at that time that the W. K. Lewis Committee was set up. We had already had some sessions with DuPont high command. It was one of the few times I ever saw Compton mad. He met with the DuPont, I guess it was the Executive Committee, with Groves. [Charles] Stine, in summing up, made the famous comment to Groves that it was his personal opinion that he was not—

Groueff: Who was that?

Hilberry: Stine.

Groueff: Stine from DuPont.

Hilberry: It was his opinion there was not more than one chance in 100 that this thing could be made to work. But the government felt that it needed to be done, all right, DuPont would step in to do it. Compton practically blew his top. He announced that if DuPont thought there was no more than one chance in 100, he was not entirely sure that this was not proof that DuPont better get kept out of it. If they had no more confidence in the outcome than that, he felt that they better look for somebody else who had somewhat more confidence in what they could do. But this was talk DuPont was not accustomed to either.

But they were right. They had every reason to want to review the whole picture. The whole time they looked at the diffusion process, there were miles, and miles, and miles of lines that had to be absolutely vacuum tight, not just partially, but absolutely tight. Then they looked at this thing of Ernest Lawrence’s, which it was thousands, and thousands of circuits that all had to work absolutely right at the same time. Figure your chances of that. They decided maybe we were not as crazy as we had looked.

Groueff: It sounded very crazy, no?

Hilberry: Yeah, so then they agreed to go ahead. But we knew from Stine’s comment. Stine had said, “You never had a chain reaction.” He said, “I just had no choice but to assume that there is not more than one chance in 100.” So we knew that the thing that we had to do somehow was to get that proof. We would get it on the line. And the time to get it was before the committee got there, if possible. And if not, get it on that day. It was no accident that they arrived just on the day.

Groueff: Yes.

Hilberry: If we could have gotten it a day ahead of time, we would. But everybody was there at the time too. Then we took over the woodworking, the University’s woodworking shop, to machine this graphite. Because to machine the outside surface off, to be sure that any surface impurities were gone. There was Fermi over there, stripped to the waist, handling these graphite wires and bars. He was just doing it with everybody else. We were all over there. And it did not make any difference who everybody was. It was just getting this stuff in the machines so we could get that thing up.

Groueff: It was a bit like bricklaying, no?

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: One by one you layered it?

Hilberry: Yeah. We did not have enough graphite to make a cube. So we filled out the corners, you see, with four by fours. And then built it up so that essentially, you had—well the idea was to have a complete sphere. But it went critical before we got the full sphere.

Groueff: So it was not an accidental, the arrival of the committee?

Hilberry: Well we were just very, very happy that we had succeeded in meeting it because this was the final – this was why we asked Greeny [Crawford Greenewalt] to go over. So there would be one of their group present.

Groueff: Were you present? You went, yeah. Was it dramatic, or no?

Hilberry: Well only in the sense of anything like that is bound to be dramatic. But we knew so thoroughly what was going to happen.

Groueff: You were not afraid of something unpredictable like blowing up Chicago, no, would happen?

Hilberry: I never felt such a perfect ass in my life. We took every conceivable measure, safety, just obviously. We had these boys up on this scaffold with this cadmium solution to throw down in these big glass bottles. They would you just heave them over, and dump cadmium, which would stop the reaction. I had a safety rod hooked up with a great big weight on it so if you cut the rope, it would pull it in. I stood there with this axe to cut the rope.

Groueff: Oh, you were the axe man.

Hilberry: And well we had done all of these experiments on the lifetime of the delayed neutrons. And we knew just what happened. And the process itself, you see, is completely independent of whether it is critical or not. You achieve criticality at the point at which the losses outside are just equal to the rate at which you make neutrons inside. Well obviously, the neutron inside did not know what is out there. So it is going to keep on behaving just the same no matter how you—

Groueff: React.

Hilberry: Yeah. So there is no new phenomenon coming in. It is just that you made it a little bit bigger, so that finally you have got to replace in which you have got equilibrium. And Fermi had calculated what the recorder should read, for every position on that fission rod. Well he did not make any noise about this.

But we knew that he knew what he was doing. But he had calculated each one of them. And he took them by these small steps. You see, they spent all morning, clear up to three o’clock in the afternoon, just running one step after another. And every step, just checking out these calculations. Now if there had been any deviation, he would have stopped it.

Groueff: So it acted exactly the way he predicted?

Hilberry: Behaved exactly according to theory, with every step. Fermi was an expert showman. And so he convinced himself beyond any possible doubt that it was behaving absolutely the way it should. Then he said, “Pull it out ten inches.” And then he was much interested, “Ah!”

Groueff: It was down inside, no?

Hilberry: He knew damned well, he’d known since the day before, just exactly where it was going to be. But he went through this whole business step by step.

Groueff: Drama.

Hilberry: Well, he wanted to assure himself beyond any possible—he guaranteed it. He wanted to assure himself beyond any possibility of doubt.

Groueff: But none of you was nervous about physical danger or explosion?

Hilberry: No. I certainly was not and I do not know of anybody else who was.

Groueff: The story that reports about this is that everybody was terribly happy.

Hilberry: Yeah, sure. It was clear. We had gotten this damn thing done while that goddamn committee was there. This was the important thing.

Groueff: To get the go ahead for the—?

Hilberry: Sure.

Groueff: I wanted to ask you also if you can describe a few of the key men there, the human side, for instance, [Enrico] Fermi and [Arthur H.] Compton and [Eugene] Wigner. How do they work and how do they behave with the other people there in the laboratory? What kind of men they were?

Hilberry: They were all of them first-class professors. They were accustomed to working with students. They all had been trained, as I say, in the school of standing on your own feet intellectually. Fermi was the most completely self-confident and unassuming man that I have ever known. There was never any, not even the faintest suggestion of braggadocio or anything of this kind. But also, there was never any slightest question in Fermi’s mind that there was anything that he could not do.

Groueff: Complete self-confidence and no doubts.

Hilberry: No doubts whatsoever, but at the same time, not the slightest suggestion of—he was modest.

Groueff: Yeah, that is an unusual combination.

Hilberry: A combination that just was almost unbelievable. Even when he was stating something, he clearly was just the law. It was done with modesty. There was no pretense about it. It was just a statement of fact.

Groueff: That’s part of the genius, no?

Hilberry: Apparently so. Wigner is an extremely brilliant individual. And he has all of the European courtesy. Dr. Fermi did not. Fermi was also an extremely courteous individual. But with Wigner, it is just apparent. And again, the same basic self-confidence was present. And then the story about – of course, Gene [Wigner] did not get married until, oh, Gene must have been in his late forties or fifties, anyhow.

But they used to tell the story before he was married. They asked if you had heard that Gene had gotten married, and they discovered his wife was pregnant. They were going to have children. And this made Gene really happy. And a time came when the child should be born and nothing happened. So he took his wife to the doctor. And he said, “Well these things, you cannot always tell. We might have miscalculated.”

Time went on and nothing happened. So finally, the doctor got disturbed. And discovered that the difficulty was that it was twins. One was saying to the other, “You first.” And the other was saying, “Oh, no, after you.”

Groueff: I hear of this kind of polite manners.

Hilberry: And it is sincere.

Groueff: Yeah, a shy man?

Hilberry: Yes, very.

Groueff: Shy, but the same time a kind of ego?

Hilberry: No, just assurance.

Groueff: Just assurance. Was he easy to work with or was he temperamental? Because a lot of people told me about his friend [Leo] Szilard. He was a very difficult man and caused a lot of trouble and drama there. So was Wigner like that?

Hilberry: No, Wigner was very different from Szilard. Look, any of these folks are individuals. And one has to face the fact that you are dealing with an individual. Eugene was one of them that was most violently concerned about letting these industrial people into the business. And he could express himself quite graphically about the way he felt. He went along with the decision and worked with the DuPont people. Eugene, I think, never was willing to agree that you needed more than one bomb.

Groueff: I see.

Hilberry: He was convinced that the thing would be so devastating that you just did not need more than one.

Groueff: So he was one of the leaders of this.

Hilberry: So he felt very strongly when the decision was made that okay, if it was going to be used, it had to be production. He felt that the scientists could build the facilities to make one or two much faster than they having the industry do it. And if they had been willing to buy that the basic principle, he probably would have been right. And Leo—

Groueff: Now he must have been a very colorful, original?

Hilberry: He was a real character if there ever was one. He had a brilliant mind. He worked over with us at the Heights at NYU for some time, doing neutron experiments of various kinds. Well the head of the department by the name of Dick [Richard] Cox. Leo would come in each morning with new ideas that were just enormously better than those he had yesterday. He had gotten everybody yesterday all started off on experiments that were just going to reshape the subject of physics.

Groueff: In an enthusiastic way?

Hilberry: Oh, yes.

Groueff: And he was outspoken, an extrovert, emotional?

Hilberry: Oh, yes. And they would come in and the boys would be starting in to get this experiment off. “Just forget that one.” As [Walter] Zinn once said, he had learned there was only one way to get anything done. And that was to say, “So now, look Leo, this is what we are going to do. Yes, this is it. Get out of here and stay out and I will get it done.”

And [Dick] Cox commented. He said, “There is just one good way to use Leo.” He said, “He was just born before his time.” He said, “If we just perfected this fast freeze business.” He said, “You put enough freezing.” He said, “You freeze him.” Then he said, “Once each year, you thaw him out for half a day.”

And he said, “That one-half day, he would have 100 ideas. And then you would shove him back in and you would freeze him. Put him away in storage.” Then he said, “That would give you one year to find out which two of those 100 ideas were absolutely brilliant and which ninety-eight were absolutely no good at all.” And he said, “That way, we could really make progress.” But he said, “This business of having him come in every day with all these ideas, you never get anything done.”

Groueff: While people were working, he would come and discuss new ideas and not let them work? Or steering up?

Hilberry: He just moved at such a pace. And he was bright. There was no question. He had a good mind. And again, Leo was one of these folks that was law unto himself. Leo had lots of problems.

Groueff: What kind?

Hilberry: Problems with the security people and everybody else.

Groueff: Why?

Hilberry: There was a feeling on the part of many people that Leo knew no law except himself. And he was convinced essentially that there was only one salvation for the human race. And that was a single world government. And he was so sure of himself that it was at least conceivable that he would take the decisions as to how to achieve this into his own hands.

Groueff: And to rule the world government?

Hilberry: Well no, but you just never knew when he would decide that you ought to visit King George, or God knows who.

Groueff: He was mostly interested in this high level of political ideas?

Hilberry: He began to be. As soon as it was clear that this thing was going to work, then he began. Probably, Leo faced up to what the social complications of this were going to be before anybody else did.

Groueff: And he expressed it in very violent manner, no?

Hilberry: Well, typical Szilardian—they were violent, but vastly persuasive.

Groueff: And he did not like the military, no?

Hilberry: There was a certain amount of mutual concern.

Groueff: Groves and Szilard did not like each other at all.

Hilberry: Leo would lead the security boys on a morning chase, lose them in the railroad stations.

Groueff: And he enjoyed it, no?

Hilberry: He had to have me enjoined in this company. That was for sure.

Groueff: So he was the kind of very individualistic original who did not fit in the organization pattern.

Hilberry: You used Szilard as a yeast. And you can only do with so much yeast.

Groueff: Because he was not directly involved with some of this development, no?

Hilberry: He was just all over everywhere. You never knew what rug he was going to crawl out from under. And that was all right because—

Groueff: You never assigned him a particular task?

Hilberry: You did not assign Leo anything.

Groueff: Didn’t he have a job like everybody to, or was he just exchanging ideas?

Hilberry: We used him as a communication device.

Groueff: And he was good with that?

Hilberry: Yeah, he was mainly communicating himself. But at the same time, he communicated everybody else.

Groueff: But was he friendly, or was he on friendly terms or difficult?

Hilberry: Oh, he was a very friendly individual. Just completely Szilard.

Groueff: Ego?

Hilberry: Yes, in this case.

Groueff: And no modesty? He was not like Fermi?

Hilberry: He was not a braggart. But I would not know how you describe Leo. We had trouble with him when he lived – I can give you one example. He lived in the Quadrangle Club at the University. He had a room there. He had rooms other places too. You just never knew where Leo had a nook. But he had a room there. He was sometimes there and sometimes he was not.

But there was a running feud between Leo and the housekeeper. Because Leo insisted that as long as they had maids taking care of the room, it was their job to flush the toilet. He would not flush the toilet. The maids insisted they would be damned if they were going to flush the toilet. This got to be a crisis. But this, I think, illustrates—

Groueff: So he was kind of peculiar. Now how was he physically? Untidy?

Hilberry: Oh, typically, universally. Upon occasion, I have seen him anything but untidy. But I would say in general, he was.

Groueff: Not paying attention to this kind of thing.

Hilberry: No.

Groueff: And Wigner?

Hilberry: Wigner was always, more or less, immaculate.

Groueff: Neat.

Hilberry: Yeah, and the same with Fermi.

Groueff: Was Wigner friendly to the people?

Hilberry: Oh, yes.

Groueff: They kept apart – in other words, was there some distinction between the Americans and the refugees?

Hilberry: No.

Groueff: Socially?

Hilberry: No.

Groueff: You were all friendly?

Hilberry: Yeah, I could not tell if it was—

Groueff: Did Szilard speak good English?

Hilberry: Very.

Groueff: Very good, with an accent?

Hilberry: Oh, yes.

Groueff: But a good vocabulary?

Hilberry: Yeah, all three of them spoke much better English than the average American.

Groueff: Well, they were highly educated men.

Hilberry: Sure.

Groueff: Szilard, I read some of his writing from different subjects like politics.

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: It is very original.

Hilberry: Well he had got a really good head on his shoulders. But he was perfectly sure that when he had written it, this was the last word. In fact, the one he wrote three months later would be very different. It did not bother him in the slightest. Three months later, this was the last word. The other was a—

Groueff: So it was not a dull place, this laboratory with Szilard there and all those characters?

Hilberry: Oh, no.

Groueff: No?

Hilberry: No, it was not a dull place. And we had other characters. They were not all of them just refugees.

Groueff: Who was a colorful man, or who was the wit of the place in sense of humor or jokes?

Hilberry: I would not know. Everybody was just working so damned hard. Most of what humor there was, was pretty dry.

Groueff: I see.

Hilberry: Because this was just almost impossible, to recreate the sense of fantastic urgency that just hung over the entire thing. It was just as real and tangible as the buildings themselves. And the individuals that came into the project from outside were just swept into that same feeling of overpowering necessity to move with assurance. As we used to say, “As far as we were concerned, there was only one currency and that was time.” And that this simply had to wipe away any other consideration. The dollar is fine. But if two dollars would save a day – if twice as much money could save a day—

Groueff: You were spend it.

Hilberry: Spend it. And cover yourself at every point with alternatives until you were certain of an alternative, it was not going to be needed.

Groueff: Then you discard it, then continue on the others, no?

Hilberry: Right, well in general, you did not even discard then. You carried it at least to the point—you kept it alive. Because somewhere down the line, it might mean, again, the saving of time. And it just seemed inconceivable, when you came up to that May 15 deadline. At that point, even the centrifuge, all four of them, had come to the point in which it was obvious that every one of them would work. Are you going to talk to Oppenheimer?

Groueff: I will. Yeah, I will in time.

Hilberry: When you are at Los Alamos, I do not know who you have got on your list. But amongst others, I think John Manley is the—

Groueff: I have him, yeah.

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: [Norris] Bradbury and Manley.

Hilberry: He was with [Geoffrey I.] Taylor and [Richard] Feynman. While up for his induction, they called him for draft. And they rejected him. They said he was psychoneurotic. Knowing Feynman, I can easily believe. He decided there was no use arguing about this. He would just get rejected, as he did.

Groueff: He must have been a kind of practical joker also.

Hilberry: Yes.

Groueff: He thinks of all censorship, and played tricks on them.

Hilberry: Do you know the scalers? Have you looked at any of the equipment at all?

Groueff: No. What is funny about the scalers?

Hilberry: Well these are the instruments that count. And there is one column that goes – one light will go on. That is one. The second time, a second light goes on, and so that it goes on every other time. And then the next one goes on every fourth time, so that you have a scale of 128. And Feynman would sit there with his fingers and imitate this thing.

Groueff: As a joke?

Hilberry: Yeah, which took finger dexterity. He would make a fine pianist.

Groueff: Because he came to you, to Chicago?

Hilberry: No, I do not think—was Feynman at Chicago at all?

Groueff: Yeah, he was there from the Special Missions Group as a liaison to learn what you were doing and also to report what they were doing.

Hilberry: Yeah.

Groueff: Mostly on the theoretical side.

Hilberry: Because as I remember it, Feynman reported directly out to Oppenheimer, as far as when we set up that group in the summer.

Groueff: Did you personally – did you go to Los Alamos?

Hilberry: I was down there once only.

Groueff: But not just to work?

Hilberry: No.

Groueff: And Hanford?

Hilberry: Yeah, I lived out there for – well, I went out the early part of July of ’44 for two weeks. And I got back for the first visit back to Chicago three months later, so that I was out there almost continually from July through September. And then I practically commuted for the next four months.

Groueff: By plane?

Hilberry: No, train.

Groueff: Train, yeah, a long trip.

Hilberry: Back and forth between Hanford and Chicago.

Groueff: But tell me, Hilberry, how did you get involved at the beginning of it? And I would like to know something about your background, where you are from, where you were educated, what specialty, and what did you study? About your background.

Hilberry: I started out being a Methodist preacher’s son in Nellie, Ohio.

Groueff: You are another preacher’s son. There are a lot in the project.

Hilberry: Yeah, you find this in science in general, you see.

Groueff: Right.

Hilberry: Went down to the local college. And then went to University of Chicago for graduate work. Then went to NYU and taught at the school for three years. And then moved up to the Heights.

Groueff: In New York?

Hilberry: Yeah, and I taught up at the University Heights, then came back to the University of Chicago for ’40 – ‘41. And then started running into arguments with the dean of the graduate school about my thesis. He and I did not see quite eye to eye. We were very good friends. But we still would not see eye to eye. I finally proved that he was wrong, and he admitted it. But then I went on and did something else. I did my thesis with Compton then. So I did not get my doctorate until ’41. And it was after that that we did this cosmic ray business.

Groueff: But you studied physics, no?

Hilberry: Oh, yes, I was a physicist.

Groueff: And specialized in some special field?

Hilberry: Well I ended with the cosmic ray studies. Before that, I had been largely in spectroscopy and optics.

Groueff: Not in nuclear physics?

Hilberry: No, except the cosmic rays. Nuclear physics pretty well grew out of the cosmic ray business.

Groueff: It is interesting, this background of so many people of the project are sons of ministers, like to begin with, General Groves.

Hilberry: Yep, at ours, we had a graduate fraternity that was made up entirely of graduate students at the University of Chicago. And these included people from the biological sciences as well as the physical sciences, physics, chemistry, geology, all the various biological things. And the general run was that over fifty percent of the folks in the class, we had had about forty members, over fifty percent would be preachers’ sons.

Groueff: Well how do you explain that general phenomenon?

Hilberry: You were brought up with books.

Groueff: Yeah. And the parents take special interest in education of the children.

Hilberry: Yeah, as far as our family was concerned, it was just taken for granted.

Groueff: That you should be educated and read?

Hilberry: No, the education question just never came up, you see. Of course, you would go to college. And it just never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go on for a doctorate.

Groueff: So it was a normal thing to follow?

Hilberry: Yeah, just a normal pattern. And I think the general scale of values in a preacher’s family is an intellectual scale, obviously, and not a material scale, as they would not be preachers. I am sure you will find the same true in a variety of the others. One of my brothers took his doctorate in English. Another took his doctorate in history of architecture in fine arts.

The third brother, he started it in astronomy and took his Master’s degree, and then decided he ought to be a preacher. So then, he went to one of these divinity schools. He started preaching through the war as a chaplain in the Navy. Came back, he had a church in Ohio and was head of all the state youth, church youth activities.

About age forty-two, he decided the hell with this church business, ecclesiastical politics stunk. So he was going to get out of it. And why, he went and took some of these vocational test businesses up in Cleveland. And then they said, “Well, he is obviously a mathematician and he should not have been anything else.” Well, he had known that for a long time himself. He got himself a job with the Allison Division of General Motors as a mathematician, and is now a senior mathematician for General Motors assigned to the Allison Division as their aerodynamicist. So it pays you money. Take your choice.

Groueff: So you have three brothers and you are all in science and higher education?

Hilberry: And the university, the university act.

Groueff: I thought, especially talking to General—?

Hilberry: Clarence has been—the one that took English has been the president of Wayne State University in Detroit. He was made president when it was still Wayne University, the city institution. And he had the problem of making the transition from the city institution into a state institution. And it has grown. So it is one of the dozen largest universities in the country.

Groueff: Tell me about how you saw Groves during the war years when you met him. And what was your first impression? And then after you knew, what did you think of the man and of his job and his personality?

Hilberry: Well, as I told you coming out in the car, I admired the man enormously. Just for this kind of thing that you were mentioning a few minutes ago, his complete lack of consideration of personal concern in getting the job done. This was the one thing that counted. He once commented at one of these weekly meetings. He said, “Why I ever come to one of these things?” He said, “I know that every time I show up in this place I get beat.”

Now clearly, Groves was very different from all the other folks in the scientific side of the project, practically, the antithesis. The one thing that you have ground into you as a scientist is that there is no such thing as black and white. If you just look a little longer, you will find a blacker black or you will find a whiter white.

One reason scientists have difficulty in administrative positions is this careful weighing before you make a decision. And you just practically cannot get across to them the fact that the perfect decision too late is of no use whatsoever. But an eighty percent decision made at the proper time is effective. As long as you are batting average above sixty-five percent, you are not in bad shape. Because the only person that never gets anything done, is the one who never makes a decision.

And Groves, of course, had just as much difficulty understanding the scientist’s point of view as the scientist had understanding Groves’ point of view. Groves, “What is the best thing that you can see? Why? Well, that sounds reasonable. Let’s do it.” You got to make a decision.

And the scientist: “No, the precision, this is not absolutely certain.”

Groves: “Well, how certain?”

“Well, we do not know. Maybe there is a twenty percent chance that it should be something else. Maybe we want to hold off until they knew about the next twenty percent.”

In spite of the urgency, they never could see that the decision had to be made today if you were going to have something one year from now. And, of course, this just exasperated Groves to the bottom of his soul.

Groueff: He thought it was just procrastination?

Hilberry: No, but he understood that part of it. He understood why. But he could not understand why they did not understand it. And they were just unrealistic, which they were. On the other hand, they thought that he was just a blunderbuss, going off half-cocked. So this, I would say, was the main difference. Now I do not think we ever had the sort of personal antagonisms really within the Met Lab that did exist at Los Alamos.

But Los Alamos, you see, was completely Groves’ baby. Actually, the rest of the projects, the electromagnetic, the plutonium, the diffusion, were essentially run by [Col. Kenneth D.] Nichols. But Nichols was told promptly and completely that Los Alamos was none of his damn business. And Groves was going to run this himself.

Nichols, knowing that he had his hands full, and moreover just recognizing the value of having as few people really caught up with the actual weapons business as possible, I do not think Nichols himself was ever upset at that.

Now there were plenty of things he had to do about Los Alamos. But this was Groves’ baby. And certainly, Oppie—none of them down there. Well, [Col. James] Marshall took me aside after one of the first meetings that he came up to, when we were considering take over some more rooms at the University. We had been taking rooms, you see, here and a room there. So after the meeting was over, Marshall put his arm around me and pulled me off to the corner. He said, “Look, Hilberry,” he says, “Somebody has got to start making some planning.”

He said, “This is nonsense to talk about going to the University and take more than two full rooms that were ours.” He said, “How big do you think this thing is going to be six months from now?”

I said, “Well Colonel, I have not had time to think”.

He said, “That is what I thought.” He said, “I want you to go home right now.” He said, “I want you to come back tomorrow morning and tell me how much space we are going to need six months from now.” Then he said, “We will go to the University and we would take it all at once.”

Then he said, “We could make sense out of its use.” He said, “You just are toying on the edge of thinking that this is a small project.” He said, “I want to assure you that this is one of the biggest things that I have ever come up against.” And he said, “I am quite sure that it is huge.”

And he said, “You have got to sit down and figure out how big this thing is going to be, how big it must be if it is going to accomplish what it is going to do.” Then he said, “Let us do this in a reasonable fashion and get ready to do it.”

Well this was sort of a joke. I did go home. I came back the next day and decided we better take all of one wing, and various other things. That we better build a couple of structures and build them fast. Marshall said, “Well, this is beginning to sound more like it; now why?” So I went through what I had gone through the night before. He said, “Okay.” He said, “Now this makes sense. Let’s go.”

So we started building New Chem and took over Ryerson, took over part of the chemistry building, and did the whole thing in one package. And then we had a place to put people as fast as we could get them and get them to move to get things done. But it just took folks like that were accustomed to doing things. To bring you up short and say, “Now, wait a minute.”

Groueff: But did the scientists think that Groves intellectually was not at their level?

Hilberry: Oh, no. I think he was just different.

Groueff: Different, yeah.

Hilberry: He was just a blunderbuss.

Groueff: And he had no complex about the science. And he said, “They may have degrees, but I know also about—“

Hilberry: Groves had a feel for what could and could not be done. I would say his batting average in general was very good.

Groueff: Very good.

Hilberry: When it came to the engineering side of the thing, he had a much better grasp of what was involved than the—

Groueff: Scientific also, right?

Hilberry: He had a feel for how much time and how much effort these things take. Some of those boys did not have it at all. On the other hand, they rightly knew that Groves really had no concept of where the delicate points lay.

Groueff: What do you think of [Vannever] Bush and of [James] Conant?

Hilberry: Bush is a good old Connecticut Yankee whose first sense is just top flight. In the first place, he has a top-flight mind and then he has got the engaging personality to make it effective backed up with a real steel. There is nothing soft about Bush anywhere with a magnificently sulfurous vocabulary, which he doesn’t hesitate to use on any and all occasions. The twinkle in Bush’s eye is worth a million bucks whenever he wants to use it. Really, he’s one of the major pillars of American science and engineering. He is accomplished but the first analyzer and things of this kind are very real. He is a top flight guy.

Groueff: A man capable of decisions?

Hilberry: Very much so. There is no question about this at all. This was one of his own personal exasperations with the scientists is that he couldn’t get these guys down to earth. I think there is no question that Bush is more responsible for mobilizing the potentials of science for the nation’s defense than any other single individual just bar none. [James] Conant, on the other hand, is the keen intellectual and also an incisive customer. He combines both the intellectual discrimination and the ability and fearlessness to act. You’ve read he is moving in on the educational pattern. This takes just a fantastic amount of intestinal fortitude and yet he has an incisive, clean-cut, logical mind and believes it and is not afraid to act on the basis of his beliefs.

Groueff: And he is also capable of decisions?

Hilberry: Yeah, he couldn’t be President of Harvard without it. He made lots of enemies at Harvard because he was just this way but the two men complement each other. Bush is fairly easy to meet. I think you have the impression that you know more about Bush than you do because Bush wishes it that way. He appears to be completely open.

Groueff: Friendly?

Hilberry: Friendly, yes. This is backed up by tremendous amounts of reserve whereas Conant is a reserved individual from the start.

Groueff: Cold?

Hilberry: I think lots of people would say so, yes. I find it a little difficult. Of course, the position I was in is an anomalous position. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Conant and I never found it difficult to get along with him. Lots of people have found great difficulty in getting along with him.

Groueff: You think normally between the two the human approach, Bush will be more attractive to—?

Hilberry: Yes. 

Groueff: More friendly and anyhow it wound appear this way.

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.