Top positive review
29 people found this helpful
A Long Fuse
on 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."