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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,185

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This is the grave of Leslie Groves.

Born in 1896 in Albany, New York, Groves was the son of an Army chaplain. So they moved around a lot. Dad was the chaplain blessing soldiers as they wrested colonies from Spain and the people in Cuba and the Philippines who wanted to be free, just as God wanted. But young Groves stayed in the U.S. at various military bases. Dad was out of the military for a bit to recover from tuberculosis but ended up being recalled upon recovery.

Growing up around the Army, Groves really wanted to go to West Point. He eventually did, but it was a struggle. He had to apply a couple of times, briefly attending both the University of Washington and MIT in order to prepare to qualify. It’s possible he was a bad test taker. But he eventually was admitted in 1916 and he was part of the class with the shortened studies to get into World War I more quickly, being given a graduation in 1918. He never saw action before the war ended. He was named a first lieutenant and was sent to France in 1919. All the fun with none of the dying. He became an army engineer and was posted around the country during the 1920s and 1930s, slowly rising in the organization. These weren’t exciting years for the military, as the nation had embraced its isolationism once again and there weren’t so many imperialist wars to fight, at least if you weren’t in the Marines and thus the shock troops for American capitalism in Latin America.

What Groves was good at was making friends up top. General Edmund Gregory, by 1940 the Army’s Quartermaster General, was one mentor. He worked with Groves to get the latter promoted, first to major and then to colonel in 1940. As such, he would have a major job in the upcoming war mobilization. He worked with the Construction Division of the Army, rapidly building all the camps they could, often through private contractors, and was noted for his reforms and demands for efficiency and accountability. His ability to manage enormous projects was noted by the top brass.

In September 1942, Groves was given the mission that would make him famous: heading the Manhattan Project. This was a tricky thing for a lot of reasons. First of course is that it was the Manhattan Project!! Hardly to need to go into more detail there. But also, he and the head of the scientists at Los Alamos were not a great match, though they did make it work. Whereas Groves was a military man to the core, Robert Oppenheimer was a left-leaning scientist who was a bit of a mystic and who believed strongly in the open sharing of science. Many of the Manhattan Project scientists were leftist European emigrés who despised Hitler but also definitely did not despise Stalin. Moreover, science is based on the idea of sharing research and collaboration, whereas for Groves, with secrecy being the number one thing, keeping everyone in their silos was his idea of how this should work.

Oppenheimer usually comes out of these discussions looking better than Groves, but we should be clear that this project would have not succeeded without Groves’ strong leadership, or someone like him anyway. If there was one thing Groves could do, it was manage enormous projects. He was given a somewhat perfunctory promotion to brigadier general based on the principle that the scientists would respect that rank more than a colonel (to be clear, Groves really pushed for the promotion). Also, while we focus on the science when we talk about the Manhattan Project’s achievements, 90 percent of the budget was construction. Someone had to manage three disparate sites in areas that had almost no infrastructure and then build an unprecedented weapon there while men and materiel moved across the nation between them when necessary. It was Groves in the end who pushed for Oppenheimer to run the project’s science, even know the latter was not the most prominent scientist in the nation by any means at that point. They might have a stormy relationship, but in the end, they got the job done. Moreover, it’s worth noting that Groves respected Oppenheimer enough that he mostly let the scientist get his way. And although Groves had no love lost for the left, he also ignored Oppenheimer’s old communist connections, which of course would come back and haunt the legendary scientists during the Cold War.

Meanwhile, not only did Groves have to manage all the construction, but he was also placed in charge of manning a lot of intelligence operations on nuclear issues with enemy countries, which meant things such as have to administrator operations to get scientists out of Europe and capture Nazi scientists. And he ran the counterintelligence operations in the Manhattan Project to try and keep the nuclear mission a secret, but Stalin did have his spies in there and given the political proclivity of many of the scientists, it was probably impossible to keep all of this under wraps. The vast majority of course never told a soul what they did, but the USSR did have real spies there, some of which at least would be caught after the war. At the end of the war, Groves was involved in everything from choosing the targets for the bomb (he was among those who refused to bomb Kyoto, knowing its historical importance and he had it taken off the conventional bombing list too), to figuring out if a B-29 would be able to carry the thing.

After the war, Groves remained head of the project through its 1947 conclusion, when the Atomic Energy Commission was created. He was then named to head the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, which was designed to develop limits on the use of nuclear weapons in war. But Dwight Eisenhower, now Army Chief of Staff, did not like Groves at all. Calling him on the carpet, Eisenhower ripped him a new one for both his arrogance and his grandstanding for promotions. Groves was a difficult guy, no question, but it’s surprising Eisenhower went after him this hard, making it clear the ability of him to advance and engage in meaningful work was now over. In response, Groves resigned from the military in 1948 after a retroactive promotion to lieutenant general.

After he left the military, he was a prime person to take advantage of the growing military-industrial complex. Sperry Rand soon hired him as a vice-president. He was president of West Point’s alumni association as well. He retired in 1961. He wrote his own memoir of the Manhattan Project, Now It Can Be Told, and it was published in 1962.

Groves died of a heart attack in 1970. He was 73 years old.

Leslie Groves is buried on the confiscated lands of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia.

If you would like this series to visit other people involved with the Manhattan Project, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Kenneth Bainbridge is in Chilmark, Massachusetts and Ernest Lawrence is in Oakland. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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