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VINE VOICEon October 26, 2002
As biographer Robert Norris himself concedes, there have been many accounts of the Manhattan Project since World War II, several biographies of Leslie Groves, and even Paul Newman's memorable depiction of Groves in the film "Fat Man and Little Boy." Norris hoped to achieve the academically definitive biography, and no one can accuse him of failing at that. He is thorough. In fact, there is unintended humor in the "racing" title: as late as page 214 the search for real estate for Hanford and Oak Ridge is just getting underway. Groves's bomb has a long fuse.
Leslie R. Groves entered West Point on the eve of World War I. When the United States entered the war, the Academy's curriculum was compressed into a two year matriculation in the belief that many new officers would be needed quickly on the European front. As timing would have it, neither Groves nor many of his fellow cadets saw action. What resulted, however, was a glut of peacetime officers, an undesirable situation for ambitious career officers like Groves. Eventually Groves's accomplishments would outrun his rank, a major political liability. In the end, however, Groves himself was his own worst enemy. Intelligent and self-motivated, Groves became an accomplished engineer at the Academy, though it would seem that as a cadet he acquired the skills without the polish. As an officer in the Corps of Engineers he was brusque and dogged, except with those who could advance his career. Superiors tolerated his rudeness and obesity because he could kick behinds and deliver the goods. In peacetime he might have been shuffled out; but as the Nazi shadow extended closer to home, a man of Groves's productivity would be annually disciplined for his interpersonal shortcomings and "punished" with greater responsibilities. It was thus that Groves became a major force in the construction of the Pentagon, and ultimately a secret weapons project based in the New York District of the Army Corps of Engineers, the so-called Manhattan Project.
To the uninformed, Groves's contribution to the production of the atomic bomb was as scoutmaster for a collection of scientific mad monk geniuses in the desert of New Mexico. In fact, Norris leaves the impression that Groves was more of an absentee landlord at Los Alamos. The real action was going on elsewhere, primarily in massive industrial complexes at Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. In some respects the building of these two industrial facilities was as impressive as the making of the bomb. That Groves was able to build not one but two mammoth atomic factories in roughly eighteen months is staggering.
As Norris tells the story, Groves enjoyed a decent relationship with Robert Oppenheimer and most of the scientists working for him. He did not totally understand the intricacies of atomic physics; in truth, the entire project was a foray into the unknown. Where he excelled was in translating theoretical problems into practical management components which he executed against incredible odds: shortages of rare substances and wartime civilian labor, secrecy and security, political and military infighting, and concern over the German nuclear program, to cite a few. When his scientists were divided over opposing theories and techniques, Groves's favorite stratagem was simply to test both possibilities in laboratory situations and select the one that worked.
Which raises the question of costs and accountability. The funding of this massive secret project is probably a good subject for a separate work. Suffice to say that Groves drew his funding from an extraordinarily large but innocuously named account, and that funding was one problem he did not have to face, at least until after the war. Conveniently, there was in fact no one-certainly not his [many] senior officers-who could question the wisdom of Groves's expenditures and management techniques. He answered, nominally at least, to a civilian board appointed by Roosevelt, which included James Conant, President of Harvard. But from this narrative the board's primary relationship with Groves appeared to be running interference.
After Japan's surrender, Groves exercised a proprietorship over the newly confirmed nuclear technology, and he would parcel it out sparingly and reluctantly. He advocated an American hegemony of nuclear weaponry-no international control of atomic bombs, no sharing of technology with allies-and even within America he embargoed information to most government agencies, including the White House. Groves protected the stockpile, and since the weapons were stored as component parts, Groves could obfuscate the true strategic strength of the American arsenal as political needs dictated. Norris contends that Groves forged much of this nation's current nuclear philosophy during and immediately after the Manhattan Project.
New technology notwithstanding, the old politics would eventually derail Groves. In 1948, during his annual fitness review, Groves was told by Dwight Eisenhower to his face that his maverick days were over and that he would not be appointed chief of engineers. Eisenhower, who regarded Groves as a loose cannon, made it clear that too many officers had been rubbed the wrong way by his arrogance. No fool, Groves submitted his resignation and spent several years with Remington Rand in the early years of computer development.
Norris depicts Groves's role in the atomic espionage trials of the 1950's in a benign light, [Gregg Herken's new work depicts the General's involvement in a darker light] and I suspect that the author's closeness to his subject made him somewhat less critical of Groves's tactics and style. Overall, this is an extremely valuable work for several reasons. "Racing for the Bomb" is a commentary on the pros and cons of national crisis management, the dilemma of giving someone enough power to get the job done without creating a dictator. There is also a message here about contemporary nuclear proliferation. Have India, Pakistan, Iraq, and North Korea mastered their own Manhattan Projects, or is nuclear proliferation simply a matter of espionage and horse-trading? One can almost hear Groves saying, "I told you so."
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on May 7, 2002
The US development of the atomic bomb during WW II obviously was a key event in the 20th century. This excellent book about a truly remarkable man, details that story in a fascinating way. The simple history of the bomb centers around brilliant physicists and the discovery of fission. Not to diminish those accomplishments, the story of the Manhattan Project and the creation of a practical military weapon is even more interesting. General Leslie Groves created and ruled an enormous organization (in excess of 200,000 people) that solved complex engineering problems, built plants from scratch, ran production, created an airforce, an intelligence agency, a PR department and in many ways a private state department, all of which worked in concert to accomplish the goal in an unbelievably short period of time (when you learn all that was required). The practical development of radar and atomic weaponry during WWII completely redefined the perceived value of science and engineering. The story of this early example of high-tech entreprenuership is worth reading in many dimensions, and hard to put down once you start.
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on October 6, 2002
This biography fills a significant gap in the historical record: behind the incredible scientific and engineering triumph of the Manhattan Project, there was a master administrator. Leslie Groves is that administrator, the take-charge guy who knew how to inspire, find competent people to whom he delegated tasks, cajole and bully his way into the historical achievement of the first working atomic bomb. In this bio, you get to know who he was, how he operated, and what he did. There is no doubt he was a great and talented, if somewhat unsung, man.
Nonetheless, Groves' life and methods are not exactly something that would inspire a lay reader about the epoch. There are far better books for that, such as Rhodes' Making of the Atomic Bomb, which is the most readable and best reported and researched of the whole shelf of books on the subject in my opinion. No, this is a book of value principally for specialists in scientific and military history and for atom-bomb buffs. There was info I needed in it and could only find there, so it was most useful for a scholarly purpose. But it was not a fun read about a rich time.
Afterall, when contrasted to great politicians or scientists or adventurers, there is a reason why very, very few bureaucrats find a narrative niche: they are simply not as interesting or as comprehensible. Norris even says as much, when he admits there were not many layers to Grove: he was a competent and arrogant man, who when given extraordinary authority during the war was capable of achieving extraordinary things. At the end of the war, he refused to change along with the army and instead retired to a corporate position and as a curmugeon who corrected in excruciating detail the innumerable accounts that kept appearing.
I do not mean to diminish Norris' achievement here, only to put it into perspective for prospective readers. The prose is clear, if a bit lackluster. But this is very good scholarship and a useful addition.
Recommended for specialists only.
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on December 18, 2014
This was a fascinating but long, slow read. Whereas most books written about the development of the atomic bomb focus on the years of the development efforts (generally early 40s to the use in August 1945), this book starts with General Groves' family history to help understand where and how his abilities to organize and run a major development effort like the Manhattan Project were developed. It leaves you with the obvious conclusion that General Groves was indeed the right man at the right time to make the development of the bomb conclude much earlier than it likely would have under someone else; resulting in many additional deaths in the Pacific and potential invasion of Japan. Along the way I learned much more about Groves and the development efforts of the Manhattan Project than is generally presented in other books. His drive to excel that was instilled in him from his father carried him through his career in the Army Corps of Engineers. In striving to accomplish assigned goals, he did create enemies that somewhat blemished his later career and practically forced an early retirement from the military family he loved. Excellent book; I didn't rate 5 stars mainly because it was a slow-going read even though the information presented was quite fascinating.
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on May 26, 2002
For those interested in the development of the atomic bomb, this book fills a gap, telling who made the American program succeeded where other nations failed or followed later. General Groves drove the project relentlessly to timely success with immense resources, personal determination, project management skills, and effective delegation. Without Groves, the world would have changed more slowly. A good read, if a bit slow on Groves' life before the bomb.
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on September 12, 2014
I was not interested in half the book becasue it was about his personnel life and I was more interested in the development and processing the bomb and delivery system and is not really easy reading in regards to his life. I know he was not perfect, but everyone has two sides, to much of his walking on water. Repeated his goodness to many times, no one is that perfect.....
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on November 14, 2014
Tremendous amount of detail about this amazing man. There is no question that without General Groves, the bombs would have been available months later! The writer spared no effort in chasing down every detail about Groves. And yet he uses a great amount of easily understood words and phrases to make it flow nicely.
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on July 2, 2014
An excellent biography of a somewhat forgotten man and a very underated, in importance, member of the Manhatten Project. The book was particulary good in its description of the military culture of the day, and how that contributed to the ultimate success of the making of the atom bomb, and how this also contributed to General Groves' lack of later historical standing.. The book is lengthy, but well worth reading.
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on October 7, 2011
The biggest engineering feat of all time conducted in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is never talked about in school. You will learn all about this and the man behind the project. The army chose Leslie Groves to lead this huge undertaking which he did with total success. What engineering feat was it? Building an entire city secretly during WWII in order to extract uranium for the A-bombs--The Manhattan Project. This project changed the world forever. This book is a must read.
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on September 1, 2013
A great read that I could not put down. Showed great research and accomplished the goal of an unbiased story on an American Hero, General Groves.
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