“I believe that Los Alamos exists because of Groves,” said Lab historian Roger Meade. “He hired directors [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, who created and built the wartime lab, and [Norris] Bradbury, who kept the lab relevant after the end of the war and laid the foundation for its permanence.”
Early military influence
Military leadership seemed to be in Groves’s blood and his destiny. In 1896, the year Groves was born, his father transitioned from a full-time Presbyterian pastor to a military chaplain. Growing up on military installations and witnessing his father’s dedicated service were influential on Groves’s educational and professional decisions.
In his book Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project (1962), Groves reflected on how he “came to know many of the old soldiers and scouts who had devoted their active lives to winning the West,” whose stories left him “somewhat dismayed, wondering what was left for me to do now that the West was won.” However, after World War I, Groves’s life path became clear.
Starting a military career
At the U.S. military academy West Point, Groves’s education was fast-tracked through a War Emergency Course because of the United States’ entry into World War I. He later graduated from the Army Engineer School, Command and General Staff School, and Army War College.
After serving on several military bases at home and abroad, Groves joined the War Department General Staff in Washington, DC, to direct the location and construction of a site for training and mobilizing Army personnel. He then led the construction of the world’s largest office building at the time: the headquarters for the U.S. Department of Defense and a symbol of the military, what would come to be known as the Pentagon. Construction of the Pentagon began in 1941 and was completed in 1943. These large planning and construction projects helped prepare him for what would be the biggest project of his life.
Leading the Manhattan Project
The Manhattan Project had begun in August 1942, but many of those involved found progress too slow and inefficient for such an urgent objective—the development and production of the world’s first atomic bomb. The project needed someone who would shepherd its construction and advancement more aggressively, and the name that came up in discussions was Leslie Groves.
The pace that Groves set for the construction of the Los Alamos wartime lab was ambitious indeed, and this efficiency earned him the reputation of having “no time for the subtleties of diplomacy . . . By temperament and training, he was an authoritarian,” according to American Prometheus, which also noted that Groves’s aide Col. Kenneth D. Nichols said, “He has the guts to make timely, difficult decisions . . . I hated his guts and so did everybody else, but we had our form of understanding.”
Choosing Oppie and Los Alamos
Groves needed a scientist with a breadth of physics knowledge, rather than a specialization, to oversee the scientific administration of the laboratory. Groves chose physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer despite opposition from the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) and Military Policy Commission, which expressed numerous concerns over Oppenheimer’s past associations with friends and family members who had ties to the communist party. Additionally, as Groves states in his book, “Oppenheimer had two major disadvantages—he had had almost no administrative experience of any kind, and he was not a Nobel Prize winner.”
Groves was certain of his choice, though, and issued the following letter: “In accordance with my verbal directions . . . it is desired that clearance be issued for the employment of Julius Robert Oppenheimer without delay, irrespective of the information which you have concerning Mr. Oppenheimer. He is absolutely essential to the project.”
Groves’s instincts were correct. Oppenheimer’s role became one of many decisions Groves made that proved instrumental to the Manhattan Project’s success. Another was choosing the site of Los Alamos.
Groves drew on his experience in construction and site preparation to make the critical decision of where the secret scientific laboratory, called Project Y, would be located. After discussions with Oppenheimer, Groves sought a location that was isolated enough for scientists to collaborate freely but could support the construction of critical research and development facilities. With agreement from the search committee, Groves settled on a rural area in the northern New Mexico mountains, inhabited by a few homesteaders and a boys’ boarding school.
Deploying the atomic bombs
Once the bombs had been successfully developed, there was another critical decision to make. Groves consulted with members of the U.S. administration and a Target Committee, which included other members of the Manhattan Project, to discuss the where, when, and why of potential locations to drop the bombs and end the war. Groves never wavered from this objective, recalling in his book, “In such a climate, no one who held a position of responsibility in the Manhattan Project could doubt that we were trying to perfect a weapon that, however repugnant it might be to us as human beings, could nonetheless save untold numbers of American lives.”
Five sites were chosen within Japan, to be bombed consecutively until a declaration of peace could be made. “I had set as the governing factor that the targets chosen should be places the bombing of which would most adversely affect the will of the Japanese people to continue the war,” Groves wrote. “Beyond that, they should be military in nature.” Once Hiroshima and then Nagasaki had been bombed, the U.S. military began preparations for a third site. However, the emperor of Japan agreed to a peace treaty before the third bomb could be delivered.
With the official end of World War II on September 2, 1945, Groves received numerous awards and commendations, including the Distinguished Service Medal, Commander of the Order of the Crown from Belgium, and Companion of the Order of the Bath from Britain. These awards recognized Groves’s accomplishments as well as the military allied relationship between the United States and other countries.
After the Manhattan Project
Groves relinquished responsibility for the MED and Los Alamos in 1947. He went on to pursue a civilian career but maintained ties with the military. He was promoted in retirement to lieutenant general and served as president of the West Point alumni organization, among other distinctions.
Groves died from heart disease at the age of 73 and is interred at Arlington National Cemetery.