Groves takes command

"We are in the soup!"

Gen. Leslie Groves. His forceful and effective manner was soon to become all too familiar to the Manhattan Project atomic scientsists.

By September 1942, the difficulties involved with conducting preliminary studies on nuclear weapons at universities scattered throughout the country indicated the need for a laboratory dedicated solely to that purpose. The need for it, however, was overshadowed by the demand for plants to produce uranium-235 and plutonium - the fissionable materials that would provide the nuclear explosives.

Vannevar Bush, the head of the civilian Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), asked President Franklin Roosevelt to assign the large-scale operations connected with the project to the military. Roosevelt chose the Army to work with the OSRD in building production plants. The Army Corps of Engineers selected Col. James Marshall to oversee the construction of factories to separate uranium isotopes and manufacture plutonium for the bomb.

OSRD scientists had explored several methods to produce plutonium and separate uranium-235 from uranium, but none of the processes was ready for production - only microscopic amounts had been prepared.

Only one method - electromagnetic separation, which had been developed by Ernest Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory at the University of California-Berkeley - seemed promising for large-scale production. But scientists could not stop studying other potential methods of producing fissionable materials, because it was so expensive and because it was unlikely that it alone could produce enough material before the war was over.

OSRD project leaders also could not agree on the location of the production plants. Lawrence, for example, wanted a plant built near his laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. Arthur Compton wanted plants in the midwest near his laboratory at the University of Chicago.

Marshall and his deputy, Col. Kenneth Nichols, had to struggle to understand both the processes and the scientists with whom they had to work. Thrust suddenly into the new field of nuclear physics, they felt unable to distinguish between technical and personal preferences. Although they decided that a site near Knoxville, Tenn., would be suitable for the first production plant, they didn't know how large the site had to be and so put off its acquisition. There were other problems, too.

Because of its experimental nature, the nuclear weapons work could not compete with the Army's more-urgent tasks for top-priority ratings. The selection of scientists' work and production-plant construction often were delayed by Marshall's inability to get the critical materials, such as steel, that also were needed in other military productions.

Even selecting a name for the new Army project was difficult. The title chosen by Gen. Brehon Somervell, "Development of Substitute Materials," was objectionable because it seemed to reveal too much.

Enter Col. Leslie Groves.

In the summer of 1942, Groves was deputy to the chief of construction for the Army Corps of Engineers and had overseen construction of the Pentagon, the world's largest office building. Hoping for an overseas command, Groves objected when Somervell appointed him to take charge of the weapons project. His objections were overruled and Groves resigned himself to leading a project he thought had little chance of succeeding.

After Groves met with Bush to tell him that he had been assigned to oversee the project, Bush complained that Groves did not have sufficient rank or tact to get the job done. "I fear we are in the soup!" wrote Bush.

Groves took on his new assignment with a determination to make it work.

The first thing he did was rechristen the project "The Manhattan District." The name evolved from the Corps of Engineers practice of naming districts after its headquarters' city (Marshall's headquarters were in New York City). At the same time, Groves was promoted to brigadier general, which gave him the rank thought necessary to deal with the senior scientists in the project.

Groves then asked the head of the War Production Board for the highest-priority rating for the Manhattan District. When the official refused, Groves threatened to tell the president that the project would have to be canceled because the board would not give him the necessary support. The official caved in to Groves' bluff, and the project was assigned top priority.

Groves also arranged to have a free hand in dealing with the War Department. In a meeting with the Army chief of staff, Bush, Somervell and others, Groves convinced them to form a Military Policy Committee to provide combined OSRD and War and Navy department oversight of the project.

That accomplished, Groves abruptly got up from the meeting to catch a train to Tennessee, where on the following day he arranged for acquisition of a site at Oak Ridge, Tenn.

Within a week of his appointment, Groves had solved the Manhattan Project's most urgent problems. This forceful and effective manner was soon to become all too familiar to the atomic scientists.

- Robert Seidel

Next time: The OSRD and the Manhattan District decide to build a weapons laboratory.