The Manhattan Project's “Indispensable Man”

review by Joseph B. Rosenberg

Bookcover: 'The Jews of Prime Time'General Leslie R. Groves: The Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man by Robert S. Norris; Steerforth Press, 2002

The genius of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's administrative paradigm was placing highly motivated people into key jobs and giving them the authority to complete their mission. In the case of building the atom bomb, two of FDR's best appointments, George Catlett Marshall, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. and his boss. Republican Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. fortuitously appointed Leslie R. Groves, a West Point graduate, as head of the Manhattan Project.

Over the course of 546 pages, the author, an expert on nuclear issues, illuminates the life and career of Groves and tells how the Army Corps of Engineers developed his intellect and managerial abilities.

After guiding the construction of the Pentagon, the building of the bomb involved Groves in a highly secretive project that engaged his intellect and utilized his ability to get things done.

Groves gave a bravura performance, dealing with scientists and corporate America at a number of secret sites. He kept aspects of building the bomb compartmentalized and ran his own intelligence and uranium acquisition operation. After the war he was marginalized by those whose toes he had stepped on. After leaving the Army in 1948, he had a quiet successful civilian life.

Groves’ most critical judgment, the use of J. Robert Oppenheimer as the chief atomic scientist despite his pro-communist associations, tested the two men’s post-war friendship, but the conservative Republican Groves did not abandon Oppenheimer when his security clearance was withdrawn during the McCarthy era.

Like everyone who worked for FDR during World War II, there was only one mission: defeating the Germans and Japanese. The Manhattan Project successfully ended the war and scared the rest of the world about the dangers of the atomic age. Unfortunately, Groves’ views on nuclear proliferation were lost in the postwar political hubbub, but that doesn't diminish his role in developing the bomb before the Germans or Japanese could use it against us. Mr. Norris’s book negates the image of General Groves as bomb-builder that has been widely seen in the movies and TV. He was not just a stocky irascible martinet as played by Paul Newman; he was an administrative dynamo and a hero for his times.

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This story was published on September 17, 2003.