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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Robert S. Norris’ Interview (2013)

In this interview, Robert S. Norris traces the chronology of the Manhattan Project from its inception in 1942 through the early years of the Cold War. Dr. Norris, author of “Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man,” talks about the crucial role of General Groves, whose energy and determination impelled the Project forward at an incredibly quick pace. Norris also discusses the controversial decision to drop the bomb on Japan and the Soviet atomic program that developed shortly after the end of World War II.

Date of Interview:
February 13, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly and we have our guest, Robert S. Norris.

Stan Norris: Right. 

Kelly: Do you want to say your name and spell it?

Norris: I am Robert S. Norris, R-o-b-e-r-t, middle initial S, last name Norris, N-o-r-r-i-s. It is February 13, 2013. We are here in the offices of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. 

We are here this morning to talk about Hanford. As a biographer of General Leslie Groves, it is my perspective to look at how he made the decision to site the plutonium production and separation in the state of Washington, and how he went about all of that. He got the job on September 17, 1942 and dove quickly into a host of decisions about how to make the bomb, to develop testing and use the bomb.

One of the immediate things he did was to buy Oak Ridge in Tennessee, which was already being looked at as a place to enrich the uranium and also to make the plutonium, which recently had been discovered by Glenn Seaborg and his team in California.

Almost immediately, Groves decided the company that he wanted to oversee the making of the plutonium was DuPont. Groves was in the Corps of Engineers. The Army Corps of Engineers had already built dozens of munition plants in the run-up to World War II, knew people in DuPont very closely, and had worked with them.

One of the immediate things he did was to go to the president of DuPont, a man named Walter Carpenter, and basically ordered him to take over and build this plant. He could not tell Carpenter what it was that he was going to build. He could not tell him the location of where it was. Carpenter said – well I will get back to you. He went to his executive committee and really without knowing what the mission was gave Groves a yes answer, and off they went.

One of the immediate things they did was to decide to separate where the plants were going to be. Originally, they were all going to be in Oak Ridge in Tennessee, and Carpenter and DuPont and Groves decided to locate it somewhere else. A list was put together by the Corps of Engineer, and eventually the Pacific Northwest looked like the best place to do this. 

Groves recruited a young Lieutenant Colonel named Franklin Matthias, Fritz Matthias, along with two DuPont engineers sent them off to the northwest to look over the sites. They looked in California and Idaho and eventually Washington. In December, this is in December, 1942, Matthias – they are flying over and he sees that this area in the state of Washington is ideal and comes back to Washington with a report, gives it to Groves, and basically on New Year’s Day, 1943 the decision is really made to site the plutonium facility in the state of Washington.

Over the next few weeks, Groves actually makes a trip to Washington to make sure that it is the right one. They begin procedures to take the land that they need, which eventually grows to half the size of the State of Rhode Island, and they proceed to take control of this area and put into place the things that will eventually become the reactors and the chemical separation plants. I think there were over 500 buildings that are built, train tracks, roads, living quarters for what will eventually be about 51,000 workers at the peak to build all of this.

The location was based on criteria that they had set forth. Then Matthias knew it had to do with a reliable source of electricity. There were two dams nearby, one was the Bonneville Dam and also on the Columbia River; they needed vast quantities of water to cool the reactor, which they used. This was, of course part of the decision process – which kind of reactor to use. Should it be air-cooled or helium cooled or water-cooled? Eugene Wigner, one of the Hungarian “Martians” was the chief designer of the water-cooled graphite moderated reactors, which became what was built at Hanford. 

Eventually three reactors were built and the B-reactor became the first one to produce plutonium. January 1, 1943 is the date when Groves made the decision to locate things at Hanford; the first reactor becomes critical in late September 1944. In a mere 20 months, they build the reactor and everything that was needed and plutonium started to be produced in the reactors at Hanford. 

Of course the immediate start up faced them with a serious problem because the reactor, after a few hours, shutdown. Why did it shutdown? It shutdown because of a particular phenomenon of physics called xenon poisoning. The design of the reactor of course has different tubes. How many tubes to make and fill with fuel rods was another decision that DuPont and Groves came to. The overall reactor had 2,004 tube spaces, but it was only filled with 1,500 originally. There were many people who said, “Well, let us just build a smaller reactor.” But both DuPont and Groves were conservative and built excess in the expectation that it might be needed and in this case – it was.

After they determined why the reactor shutdown in September of 1944, they decided to fill up the other 504 tubes with fuel rods, which would overcome the process of poisoning which halted the reactor originally. Now, had that not been done, had they built a smaller reactor, had the poisoning been impossible to overcome, of course the plutonium would not have been ready when it was. The conservative engineer mind of Groves and the conservative engineers at DuPont built in a solution to this problem, which they did not know they were going to face originally, but did face and did overcome.

Hanford, as I said, is a gigantic expanse of land that was taken. They only used about ten percent of it to build the particular buildings that they needed. Originally, there was, I think, some 500 buildings all supporting two processes of reactor production and chemical separation. There were the two main parts to extract plutonium from the irradiated fuel rods. There was a fuel rod factory there to make the fuel rods; the fuel rods went into the rector. The reactor was eventually critical and turned on and working. Then what we needed to do was to push the rods out of the reactor into a cooling pool, then take the rods to the chemical separation canyon, which is an enormous facility to separate chemically the irradiated fuel rods and extract plutonium.

Now all that was needed for the test, which was codenamed Trinity, which took place on July 16, 1945, all you needed was about six kilograms, about 13 pounds or so, of plutonium. Then you needed an equal amount for the bomb that was eventually used to end Nagasaki. All of this activity at Hanford was to produce a very small amount of plutonium. After a while, the engineers at DuPont, with Matthias being the area engineer, were to produce the plutonium in a calculated way so that you knew how much you were going to have. After a while, after all the problems were solved in early 1945, Groves began to see approximately when he would have enough plutonium for a test bomb – a test gadget – and a real working military bomb.

The plutonium was transported in an interesting way from Hanford, Washington to Los Alamos, New Mexico. I think it is a perfect example of Groves’ obsession of compartmentalization, of keeping everyone just doing the task they were assigned and no other. What they did was after the plutonium came out of the chemical separation plant, it was put into a convoy of vehicles, it was put into a panel truck. The convoy went from Hanford, Washington to Utah outside Salt Lake City, and it was met by another convoy that had come from Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Those that came from the state of Washington did not know where this was going – they just turned it over to the convoy that met them in Utah. The convoy from New Mexico did not know where this came from, so everybody who was participating in the transportation of the plutonium from Hanford to Los Alamos either did not know where it was going or did not know where it had come from. This is how the plutonium got to Los Alamos, most of it. As we got closer to July and August, there were some airplane transports also, but most of the plutonium, which came in batches as it was finished, was transported in this way which was designed to keep everyone ignorant of exactly what they were doing, basically.

Well, in the beginning of explorations into atomic physics and what it may mean, it was originally located at several universities – Columbia University in New York, the University of Chicago, and in Berkeley. These were the main ones, but there were many others doing small-scale research. At a certain point, Vannevar Bush, who was basically Franklin Roosevelt’s science advisor, realized that this was going to have to be a much larger effort, which it could not be done in a university laboratory.

The Army had to be brought in really at the end of 1941. Just around Pearl Harbor Day, Bush gets the okay to transfer responsibilities to the Army. He did this also because it was going to be expensive, and it was easier to hide a large appropriation within a growing budget that was designed to fight World War II eventually, and to bring in the Army into the effort. The logical organization was the Army Corps of Engineers.

By the time we go through the early part of 1942, by the summer time, we eventually get a commitment by the Army. Of course they are doing many other things. The war is underway, they are fighting all over the world, they are fighting in the Pacific, they are about to fight in Europe—so there is not great enthusiasm about this wild idea of making a new kind of bomb. Finally, it does get the Army’s attention, and they assign an engineer, a man named James Marshall, he is assigned in the summertime of 1942.

Bush and his colleague, James Conant, who is also president of Harvard University and part of the team to mobilize science for the war effort, they decide Marshall is not moving fast enough, he just is not the man for the job. Basically, under the direction of Bush and Conant, they ask General George Marshall, no relation to James Marshall, “Give us your best, we have to move faster.” They look at then Colonel Leslie Groves who was involved in more than 100 projects of mobilizing America’s efforts to fight World War II. He is building munition plants, airfields, depots. With his left hand he is building the Pentagon, which a stun in a remarkably short period of time. Groves is already controlling about a million people in this mobilization effort, and by the time we get to the summer of 1942, a great deal has already been done to mobilize the war effort within the United States.

Groves is looking forward to going overseas and being a combat engineer as they prepare for the invasion of North Africa and eventually the invasion of Europe. It is not to be. On September 17, 1942, basically his boss, his Army boss, a man named Brehon Summerville, who was a force of nature by himself, tells Groves, “I have another job for you.” Now Groves of course, one of his responsibilities was to look over the shoulder of James Marshall who had been chosen in the summertime. Groves already knows that this longhair stuff about atomic physics and these kinds of crazy scientists that want to build a bomb, so he already has an idea of what James Marshall has done or has not done. 

On September 17, 1942, he says “Not that thing, no.”

Somervell says, “Yes, you have to go see Vannevar Bush, the Carnegie Institution, you have to go see General Styer, who was my assistant and find out the lo down on what is going on in this project.” General Groves salutes. At this point, he is still a colonel. As a matter of fact, as a good Army officer, he salutes and does what he is told.

He goes to see Bush. He marches into the office, and Bush has not really been told that there is a new man on the block here to oversee this project. Groves being a bit gruff and rough begins to quiz Bush, and Bush is quite startled by the whole thing. It does not go well that very first meeting between Groves and Bush.

After Groves leaves the office because he is not getting good answers here from Bush who is holding back, Groves returns to his office and begins to plan about how he is going to go about this. Bush calls the Secretary of War Office and says, “I think we are in the soup here, this is who you have chosen and his feathers are smoothed.” 

He is now told, “Yes, this is the man I want. This is on high from General Marshall and Secretary Stimson; this is who it is going to be.” Bush is now secure in knowing that this, the man he is going to have to work with, and they become a great team and there is no problem after that. 

Groves immediately undertakes a host of decisions that are set into motion the course of the Manhattan Project. On September 19th, he orders that Oak Ridge, Tennessee be the place where the uranium enrichment work is going to be done. He sends his assistant Colonel Nichols, who with the earlier James Marshall had been a part of the background here of what happened in the summer up until September. Nichols is sent to New York to inquire about some uranium ore that might be available. Sure enough, there was a man in New York, a Belgian named Edgar Sengier who had already transported twelve hundred tons of uranium ore from first Africa and then to America to safeguard against possible Nazi’s using it in Europe. This was a great windfall that Groves got a running head start here, he already had some high value uranium ore to work with. He realizes also because of doing all these military projects that the priority system is going to be an important one. 

He wanted to be at the top of the priority system to get the resources you need. He marches into the office of War Production, a man named Nelson, and again Nelson out of the blue does not know who this colonel is. Groves has a letter to himself saying I want AAA priority on anything I need, and Nelson does not know what to do here, who is this person. Of course he has not been told what the project is; he has not been told that this it the person who is going to lead it. Groves says, “Well, I guess I am going to have to say to President Roosevelt that you are not on board on this project.” Well this startles Nelson and causes him to sign the letter. Throughout the rest of the war, Groves will have AAA priority on anything he needs to fulfill his mission.

Groves is the kind of personality where – no nonsense, made decisions, a great person who was able to size others up and know that they could be given responsibilities to perform their job. These were all qualities that had been shown before in Groves’ earlier career. He was at West Point, he was fourth in his class, he was intelligent, he was a quick learner, he did larger and larger projects throughout the inter-war period.

He graduated from West Point in 1918 and had a series of jobs through the twenties and the thirties, which were ever larger and eventually were so large he was in charge of all Army mobilization as I said in the run up to World War II. He rose to the top in terms of being considered to undertake this project, which nobody knew would work or not. But Army leadership, George Marshall, and as I mentioned before, Brehon Somervell, thought that if it could be done, this is the guy who could do it. As it turned out, it was.

If there is a secret to the building of the bomb, I think it goes to the culture of the Corps of Engineers. This is a formidable group of people who were a special part of the Army. The best and the brightest at West Point always went into the Army Corps of Engineers—in Groves’ class, in previous classes, and subsequent classes—if they were the most intelligent and they were really a cast in the book of people who work together. They knew each other, they followed each other’s careers, they always examined one another and how well they were doing. In what became a very large Army, they still remained a very tiny group. Throughout, they would know what others could do, and they kept close track of each other. 

Thus, Groves was not unique. I think there were other Army Corps of Engineers who could have performed this task, but Groves had these special qualities that were shared by his brothers in the Corps of Engineers.

For example, Brehon Somervell eventually is given the assignment to head what becomes known as Army Service Forces. He is outfitting the entire American Army, eight million people. He had this same skill that Groves had; he was slightly older than Groves. As a product of the Army Corps of Engineers, and the education that they went through and the things that they were given in terms of the responsibilities of building big, big things – I mean we are talking the Panama Canal.

If you look at the history of the Army Corps of Engineers, you see that they have redrawn the landscape of America in terms of harbors and dams and rivers and big, big projects. They had the kind of confidence that they knew they could do these things. Thus, they plunged into them with great decisiveness, making decisions that were enormously costly. But they had the confidence that they would do it. Groves had this in spades, I mean, he just made big decisions, in a hurry, out of his instincts, out of his knowledge, out of his intelligence, chose qualified people to carry out his wishes, let them do their job. 

Time after time Groves can be seen as someone who was very good in choosing people. The best example is Robert Oppenheimer, which was Groves’ decision. Other people did not think Oppenheimer was going to be the man for the job, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. Some people even said that he could not run a hamburger stand, he had no administrative experience, he had no managerial background, and he was a theoretical physicist, brilliant no doubt.

Groves saw something in him which led him to believe he was the man who was going to oversee the scientific direction of the building of testing and using of the bomb. It turned out to be the case that Oppenheimer was a brilliant choice, organized a team in Los Alamos. Groves did it again and again and again and again with populating all of these different sites – people in Oak Ridge, people at Hanford – the major sites. He chose again and again people to carry out his mission and let them do their jobs. He had very tight lines to them through the phone and through visits, face to face, finding out what they did but not micromanaging things, and letting them do what they had to do to succeed which they did.

This was a quality that Groves had, but it was shared by others who had the same kind of skill. It is certainly the case with General George Marshall, certainly the case with Secretary Stimson, all of these people had this similar quality of being able to size someone up and know that they would do the job and let them do it, which I find is a remarkable trait of the times. Part of the success of winning World War II, and in this case developing an atomic weapon. 

I think again part of the secret of building the bomb in such a short period of time was this quality that many had that, first of all, it was a very serious time here. Perhaps the Germans were building an atomic bomb, and we had to build one first. We had to overall win the war against first the Germans and then the Japanese. The overall seriousness of the situation was extreme. These people that occupied these high positions did not lack in ambition, and certainly Groves was one of those. After he dusted himself off on September 17th and realized he was not going to go to Europe and be a combat engineer, I think he decided, “This is how I am going to make my mark in this war. I am going to commit every ounce of talent and resources that I have to it.”

From really the minute he got the job, he was off to the races and never let up and put his foot on the accelerator full speed ahead. He had driving ambition and he saw that he could only achieve his goals by combining his ambition with other people’s ambition.

I think the thing he saw in Oppenheimer was not only a very intelligent, brilliant man, but someone who had perhaps been slighted by his brothers. He had not had a Nobel Prize, and Groves had the pick of the lot here if he wanted to choose someone who had already been given high accolades. I think he saw in Oppenheimer an ambition, what I call a route to immortality, that they both joined together and do each other’s work for them. Oppenheimer knew that Groves could supply him with anything he needed, any amount of mechanical workings or any scientist that he wanted. All Groves had to do was pick up the phone, make sure that that scientist was part of the scientific team in Los Alamos or anywhere else. Groves saw in Oppenheimer a skill to mobilize, to crack these difficult questions.

Again none of this had been done before. Yes, it all was theoretically possible, and it had been shown by these smart scientists that it should be the case. Then it became a process of how to engineer it, how to make it practical, how to turn this theory into a working one.

General Groves, I mean, he did not waste a minute really. From September 17th on, he was full speed ahead, pedal on the accelerator and never let up. Every day was a series of probably several dozen phone calls to all of the people who were working for him. His offices were over in what was then called the New War Building, which is today the old part of the State Department Building, on the fifth floor in a small suite of offices which just a handful of people at the very pinnacle at this giant pyramid. 

What eventually came to be hundreds of thousands of people eventually worked on the Manhattan Project, not all of them full time. They built things and left, but hundreds of thousands of people were part of the Manhattan Project. For Groves, every day was a series of phone calls, making decisions, making dozens of decisions, every single day.

General Groves everyday faced decisions that had to be made, smaller ones, and medium ones, and some very, very large ones, eventually. He conducted all of this out of his small suite of offices on the fifth floor of what was then the War Building, today the old part of the State Department Building. At the time it was just completed really, and the Army Corps of Engineers had moved into it on the sixth floor, as not to arouse too much attention, Groves decided to stay in the same building and just occupy some offices on the fifth floor, which he did. That is where the Manhattan Project was run from, that is where ground zero was with regard to the Manhattan Project.

There was another set of offices in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which eventually Nichols, Kenneth Nichols, was the district engineer and oversaw things having to do with what took place in Oak Ridge, Hanford, and so on.

Groves did not waste a minute during the day. He traveled a great deal, and he would go to these different places, he would go to Oak Ridge, he would go to Hanford, he would go to Los Alamos. He would visit the corporation offices of the different corporations he had recruited. He would often go to New York for the day or Wilmington, Delaware, which is where DuPont was. He would not waste any time aboard the train.

Again, we see what sort of person he was in terms of his managerial skills. Oftentimes assistants would get on the train with him if he were going to, say, Chicago, or even all the way out to New Mexico. He would dictate letters and tell them things to do, they would get off the train with their letters that had to be drafted and go back to Washington and send them off. That was a way that he made every minute count.

Sometimes people would come and get on the train, let us say he is in New Mexico, they would get on the train in Chicago and ride back with him to Washington, inform him of everything that has happened. These were the letters that came in, these were the telephone calls. The time that it took to go by train from Chicago back to Washington was not wasted in the time he got to the office and was ready and informed and used the time to great purpose. 

At a certain point, the secretary of war thought that he even needed his own airplane to cut down on the amount of time. Thus he did get the plane eventually to get to these places. The secretary of war was also concerned that perhaps Groves might die of a heart attack, or be in an accident and be killed. Then what would we do? They decided on a number two, which became another General, someone named Tom Farrell, Thomas Farrell, who became Groves’ number two and was told everything and had a role in the last months of the war in building the bomb.

General Farrell is an interesting man, another Army Corps of Engineers. Groves liked this engineer brotherhood that he knew firsthand and gave many of them responsibilities and had close relationships with the corporate people who had these same kinds of skills. People who could make decisions on the spot and move forward. I titled my biography of General Groves “Racing for the Bomb,” and I think this element of speed was felt certainly very, very intensely by General Groves, that not a minute could be wasted. It might have a role in deciding the war and ending the war, which I think it did. Thus, speed was the utmost in almost everything he did. There was no relaxation, he never took a vacation, he worked eighteen hours day, and he expected the same from everybody else. Thus, the whole energy of the project was built around not wasting a minute, in developing and testing and using the bomb.

Of course part of the element of speed here was to take a rather unorthodox way of building these plants and conducting the overall operation. Normally it would be sequential, you build maybe a pilot plant, you then design something, and you would develop it. What Groves decided was there was no time for any of this. Everything had to happen at the same time. There was no way to build a pilot plant and then piggyback on it to build the larger thing. You had to go ahead and design things, begin to build it and compress everything into one process by which you would end up with the finished plant. There was no time for any of this, otherwise the plutonium that would be highly enriched uranium, which I think were the pacing items for everything. When there was enough highly enriched uranium for a bomb it was ready to be used and it was.

By an amazing coincidence, at approximately the exact same time down to the day, there was enough plutonium for a test and another amount for using for the bombs. Both bombs were ready at approximately the same time. It did not have to be that way, I mean, that to me was an amazing coincidence; that out of these two very, very complex processes – how to enrich uranium through various methods here, electromagnetic separation or gaseous diffusion or thermal diffusion – and all three ways were used.

You had enough highly enriched uranium at the end of July 1945, and this wholly different process where you built reactors and through chemical separation got enough plutonium at approximately the same time at the end of July, you had enough for a test in the middle of July and enough for a bomb in early August. To me this is quite striking that things worked out this way. It did not have to be, it could have been another way if other decisions had been made. In fact people have calculated that if they had gone ahead with the normal way of building things, that there would not have been plutonium for several more years. Thus, all of post-war history, all of World War II history and what came afterwards would have been entirely different if the plutonium had not been ready when it was.

Now, we could add even further here that Groves’ concern with speed and finishing this thing entered into the way Hanford operated. There was what was called the “Speed Up” program. Here,  the reactors were now built and turned at the end of 1944 and the beginning of 1945, and Groves had a supply of plutonium that was going to occur. He wanted it quicker; he wanted it faster. What do you do? Well you turn up the dial and you make those reactors go above 250 megawatts. Or you push out the rods that are in the reactor sooner, you do not let them cook and be critical as long as possible. That is another way to speed up things. The third thing is take them out of the cooling pool earlier and get them into the chemical separation plant to get the plutonium quicker.

At a certain point, Groves says we have to do all three of those things. As we go through February, March, April, and May, he is pushing DuPont, “Turn up the dial, push out the rods faster, do not let it cool as fast in the pools, I want the plutonium more quickly than what you would originally have done.”

Now, it has been calculated that if they had just let the reactors go and just gone through the normal process of not turning up the reactor, not pushing out the rods as quickly as they did and letting it cool the required amount, that the plutonium would not have been ready until October or November for the first bomb and for the test. The reason that there is enough plutonium – as I said, about six kilograms, about thirteen pounds for a Trinity test device and for the Nagasaki bomb – the reason that there is enough ready when there is, early July and early August, is because of this speed up program. Which, had it not been for General Groves, perhaps would not have transpired. I mean it was his decision to tell DuPont to make it more quickly and this is how it can be done, and this is what was done.

Again the element of the personality of the commanding general of the entire thing, I think, was instrumental in producing the plutonium when it was ready. When it was ready, it was tested, and the test was a success. Another amount was used in that first Nagasaki bomb. By that point of course, there was a supply of plutonium that was coming from Hanford to Los Alamos, and many third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh bombs were in line and would have been there had they been needed.

Of course, the two bombs were enough, but more were in the pipeline. By that point, Groves was able to predict and tell Marshall and Stimson, “This is how many bombs I can have” on given dates if Japan did not surrender, which of course, they did. More bombs were ready in the aftermath of August and on into September and October. Again, I think this demonstrates the intensity of the personality of General Groves in terms of speed and how every minute counted, and basically every minute did.

At a certain point, in 1944, the scientist discovered that the original design for their plutonium bomb was not going to work. We know that the highly enriched uranium bomb, what became known as Little Boy, was based on the design of two sub-critical pieces of highly enriched uranium being slammed together and exploding because it became a critical mass. That original design, using plutonium – two pieces of plutonium that were going to be pushed together – they originally thought they could do that. But throughout the examination of the properties of plutonium, the tiny smidgens that they had, they realized it was going to fizzle. It would not work.

Thus, Groves and all the rest of them and DuPont were faced with the prospect that maybe building Hanford – and Hanford cost about at the time 350 million dollars, which would be about five billion dollars today. It is a pretty big project. Perhaps it was in vain. Perhaps this plutonium would not be able to be used in a bomb. But like so many things with the Manhattan Project, just at the time that something was needed to solve it, it was. What was solved here was a different design to the plutonium bomb. Instead of slamming two pieces of plutonium together, we would take a ball of it and compress it inward. We would implode it and make it critical that way. Thus, this alternative design became the new thing that had to be figured out and developed and became the plutonium bomb design.

There was a crash program at Los Alamos to do all of this, and they stopped using the old design, which would not work. There was new hope that this plutonium design would be known, as implosion would be the new way to do things. How are you going to compress this ball of plutonium which is no bigger than your first or an orange and weighs about six kilograms, how would you compress it simultaneously with high explosives that are going to direct all of the explosive energy inward into a critical mass? That became the new problem that they had to solve, and of course they did.

That is why it had to be tested in the desert of New Mexico on July 16th to see if it would work. They were so confident of the other design of highly enriched uranium, where two pieces of sub-critical highly enriched uranium are slammed together that they did not need to test it. They were sure that was going to work and thus it did at Hiroshima and the Little Boy bomb. They needed a test for the implosion design. Thus, what must have been an incredible shock when Groves first learned that the original plutonium design would not work and maybe all of his efforts at Hanford were a waste of money, which would not be good for a future career.

Part of the ambition of all of these people, of course, was to make a success of this and not to have a big white elephant at the end here that had wasted hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. That was always looking over their shoulder. Groves thought, “If this thing failed, they will put me in military prison here. I will never see the light of day again.” To say nothing of the decision to use the bomb to begin with – and this is very controversial topic that continues to occupy historians to this day about whether or not the decision to use the bomb was the right one.

Again, what would have been the situation for President Truman had he had a weapon available that he did not use, that he decided not to use, in the summer of 1945 to possibly end the war? American soldiers and military were being killed every day, and what if the war had gone on many, many more months, and afterwards had been seen that this weapon was available and not used? It loomed over Harry Truman’s shoulder as well in terms of making the decision to use the bomb.

Of course, Truman only became president in the middle of April after Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945. Already the war in Europe was about to end in another few weeks in the beginning of May, May 7th. It became the Pacific Theater that this bomb was going to be used, because it was not ready yet in May of 1945; it had not been tested, and it had not even been put together. The war was over in May, the test was done in July, and it was Japan that was going to be the target for this.

Truman thus was thrust into a situation where the momentum of going forward with using this bomb, I think, was so overwhelming that he really did not have a decision over it. If we use the word decision in some sort of calculated way where things are weighed back and forth, he would have to go against this momentum, which was just about impossible to do. He had in his cabinet people like Henry Stimson. He had as the chief of staff General Marshall. He would have had to have come up with a very, very strong reason not to use the bomb. I mean, I think that is the only decision that he could have made. He went with the momentum; he went with what was already moving at a very, very fast pace. I think the engineer of this locomotive was General Groves. I mean, he is pushing this thing as fast as he can. 

Things are going on around the building of the bomb. Of course, there is this Potsdam Conference in Germany in mid-July, when Stimson learns of the success of the test in the New Mexico desert. During that conference, he informs his ally Stalin that there is a new weapon to be used in Japan, and Stalin probably already knew about it, given the espionage and the crack in the security framework.

Stalin probably already knew about the successful test and knew that the United States was developing a super weapon in the middle of July when he was told by Truman that there was this new weapon and it was going to be used against Japan. Stalin nonchalantly said, “Well, I hope you use it wisely.” That was it. We know later that he also took—

No doubt Stalin knew already about the test that had taken place in the New Mexico dessert, as he had a couple of spies in Los Alamos who were transmitting information back to Moscow. The most well known of course was Klaus Fuchs. Later we learned that there was another spy named Theodore Hall, a Harvard student who was an American who was sent to Los Alamos and was this second spy that corroborated Fuchs information getting back to Moscow. I think there are others but have not been found yet. So there is more to know about Soviet espionage during the atomic bomb program.

Nevertheless, Stalin when he was informed of this new weapon by Truman and had this information from his sources, still did not do anything until Hiroshima. At that point, he orders his own people under crash program for a development of a Soviet bomb, which will take approximately the same length of time. It takes about four years, and in 1949 the Soviets detonate their first atomic bomb and transform geo-politics in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations. The Cold War is really now intense, and the arms race is underway with building what will eventually be tens of thousands of nuclear weapons on both sides.

It all really begins during the Manhattan project, and the Soviet program is really on hold. Not very much is being done. Of course the Soviets have many, many other things that need to be done to defeat Germany, and they cannot devote much energy to building the bomb until the war is ended. That they do at the end of 1945 and 1946. They eventually are successful in building what comes to be a fairly mirrored image of what was done during the Manhattan Project. They mobilize in some of the same fashion, they built plutonium reactors, they also built uranium enrichment facilities.

Of course, knowing that it could be done is probably the biggest secret of all. How you do it they figure out on themselves, but the espionage has been said to have saved them probably 18 months, maybe two years of effort that they did not have to go down dead ends and redo things. They learned a great deal from the Manhattan Project, and it helped them make their own bomb, which took them approximately the same period of time as the Americans.

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