top of page
  • Mike Martinez

Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement”: Leslie Groves

A chapter in my upcoming book Public Service Exemplars: “A Finer Spirit of Hope and Achievement” is devoted to Lieutenant General Leslie Richard Groves Jr. (1896-1970). As a career military man who directed projects such as construction of the Pentagon and development of the atomic bomb, Groves might seem to be a curious choice for inclusion in a book on effective public administrators. He certainly is a controversial choice. The decision to design and deploy the bomb led to an arms race that continued for the rest of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century. Groves can be condemned as a myopic warmonger who failed to appreciate the larger repercussions of his actions. At the same time, in the words of one commentator, he earned “a reputation as a doer, a driver, and a stickler for duty.”

He was born in Albany, New York, on August 17, 1896, the third child of Leslie Richard Groves Sr., a Presbyterian pastor, and his wife, Gwen. Shortly after his son’s birth, Leslie Sr. resigned his position as pastor to serve as an army chaplain. For the next decade, the family moved to various army bases as Chaplain Groves was reassigned. As a result, Leslie Jr. became acclimated to itinerant army life while still a child.

Groves set his sights on entering the United States Military Academy at West Point, but he initially failed to earn a high enough score on the entrance examination after President Woodrow Wilson had nominated him. Groves enrolled at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology until he retook the West Point entrance examination. This time, his score was sufficient to earn his admission. He enrolled in June 1916, but the United States declaration of war against Germany in April 1917 changed Groves’ plans. His program of instruction was shortened, allowing his to graduate on November 1, 1918, a year-and-a-half early. He was fourth in his graduating class.

Commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers, Groves expected to fight in Europe as part of the U.S. war effort, but an armistice was signed in November 1918, before he reported for duty. He was sent to Europe in June 1919 on an educational tour of the battlefields of the late war. Following his European tour, Groves became a student officer in the Engineer School at Camp Humphreys, Fort Belvoir, Virginia. He was then stationed at bases in Georgia, Washington state, and Hawaii.

During these years, Groves advanced in rank. As part of the engineering corps, he also learned the principles of organizing and constructing facilities, skills that would serve him well later in his career. Around this same time, he married a young woman, Grace Wilson, whom he had met years earlier. The couple eventually had two children, Richard III and Gwen.

By 1927, Groves was the commander of Company D, 1st Engineers, at Fort DuPont, Delaware. That year, he suffered a series of setbacks that might have derailed his career. During a flood in New England in November 1927, Groves was dispatched to Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont to assist engineers in recovery efforts. When a pontoon bridge that the engineers had constructed was swept away by flood waters, Groves faced negligence charges. A month later, several of his men were killed when a block of TNT detonated prematurely. Groves’ superior officers were critical of his role in these episodes, but Major General Edgar Jadwin intervened. With his career rescued, Groves returned to Fort DuPont.

Groves gained firsthand experience dealing with large construction projects during the late 1920s and into the 1930s. The army sent him to Nicaragua as part of an expedition tasked with surveying the Inter-Oceanic Nicaragua Canal. After a 1931 earthquake disrupted Managua’s water supply, Groves took charge of a reconstruction project and helped to restore service. He received the Nicaraguan presidential medal of merit for his work.

Promoted to the rank of captain, Groves attended the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in the mid-1930s. He was stationed in Kansas City, Missouri, as an assistant to the commander of the Missouri River Division before attending the Army War College and eventually landing in Washington, D.C.

Groves earned a promotion to major effective on July 1, 1940. Soon thereafter, he was appointed special assistant for construction to Major General Edmund B. Gregory, quartermaster general. The appointment was no accident. Groves’ father was close friends with General Gregory.

Groves joined the Construction Division of the Quartermaster Corps at a crucial time. The division had acquired a reputation as ineffective and wasteful. Numerous construction projects were behind schedule, over budget, and shoddily completed, when they were completed at all. Groves proposed to reform the division and improve efficiency. During this time, Groves established his signature hands-on approach, constantly prowling around construction sites and inspecting virtually every element of a project. He proved to be successful. In November 1940, Groves was promoted to colonel and ordered to take command of the Fixed Fee Branch of the Construction Division.

Groves earned respect as well as enmity for his “take charge” approach. General Kenneth D. Nichols, a civil engineer assigned to the Manhattan Project, recalled that “General Groves is the biggest SOB I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. He disregards all normal organizational channels.” Yet Nichols recognized that an SOB was needed to ensure that the project advanced. For all of Groves’ deficiencies, he was the right man for the job. “During the war and since I have had the opportunity to meet many of our most outstanding leaders in the Army, Navy and Air Force as well as many of our outstanding scientific, engineering and industrial leaders,” Nichols explained. “And in summary, if I had to do my part of the atomic bomb project over again and had the privilege of picking my boss, I would pick General Groves.”

In August 1941, Groves learned that he was assigned to an enormous construction project, his largest task to date. The War Department had resolved to construct an office building to house 40,000 employees. The design called for a five-story structure containing five sides. Because a structure with five sides is a pentagon, the office building eventually became known as the Pentagon, a building with more than five million square feet, making it the largest office building in the world. Owing to the desperate need for space, Groves’ superiors insisted that one million square feet must be ready for occupancy within nine months, even as construction continued.

Groves threw himself into the project with his usual zeal. He labored six days a week, and occasionally arrived on Sundays. As the project dragged on for months, Groves confronted numerous problems, including labor strikes, a shortage of men and materiel, and engineering failures. Through it all, Groves found ways to continue construction unabated. He later mused that he was “hoping to get to a war theater so I could find a little peace.”

As important as the Pentagon project was in Groves’ career, his work on the Manhattan Project became his legacy. The engineering project was named for the city where the headquarters office was located, although it was not confined to a specific geographic area. The Manhattan Engineering District (MED) had one singular purpose, an unprecedented engineering marvel: It was dedicated to developing an atomic bomb.

Dr. Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), was dissatisfied with the initial pace of the MED’s work. He urged the appointment of an aggressive official who would be relentless in overseeing the effort. In this instance, Groves’ reputation preceded him. Informed that he would head up this new engineering project, Groves was disappointed. He had hoped for a combat command.

From its inception, the Manhattan Project operated in secrecy. Consequently, Groves continued his work at the Pentagon as a cover. He also was promoted to brigadier general. As the project expanded, he established project headquarters on the fifth floor of the War Department building in Washington, D.C. In August 1943, MED headquarters moved again, this time to Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Groves eventually met with a prominent University of California-Berkely physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, about creating a laboratory where the bomb could be designed and tested. The general was impressed with Oppenheimer’s understanding of theoretical issues as well as his grasp of the logistical problems inherent in building an unprecedented weapon in complete secrecy. Oppenheimer joined Groves on an inspection tour of potential sites in New Mexico where a new laboratory could be constructed in a remote area to avoid arousing suspicion. The site they selected eventually became the Los Alamos Laboratory.

Despite his obvious intellectual gifts, Oppenheimer was a controversial choice for the lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. He possessed little administrative experience, and he was known to associate with left-leaning figures. His brother Frank, his wife Kitty, and other friends were self-avowed communists. For these reasons, Oppenheimer was deemed to be a security risk.

General Groves was unconcerned. He believed that the Berkeley physicist was exactly the right man for the job. He personally issued a security clearance for Oppenheimer on July 20, 1943. It was an inspired choice. Groves recognized talent when he saw it. As Isidor Rabin, another physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project later remarked, Groves’ choice of Oppenheimer was “a real stroke of genius on the part of General Groves, who was not generally considered to be a genius….”

Although Groves was not a trained scientist, he understood how to organize and coordinate an engineering project. When he was unable to procure the necessary supplies and equipment, Groves approached Donald M. Nelson, chairman of the War Production Board, to complain and threaten to take the issue directly to President Roosevelt. The threats worked. The Manhattan Project continued to enjoy access to resources denied to many programs and projects.

The Manhattan District sought to monitor scientific advances among the axis powers. To assist in this effort, Groves established the Alsos Mission, a joint effort by a team of British and American military, scientific, and intelligence personnel tasked with tracking enemy scientific developments. As work progressed and the number of employees increased, Groves also worried about security. In retrospect, the successful Soviet espionage efforts that stole secrets of the Manhattan Project provided to be one of Groves’ largest failures.

In its earliest stages, the project was by no means assured of success. By 1944, however, Groves was reasonably certain that the scientists would develop a workable bomb. He shifted his attention to logistics. Delivering the bomb and dropping it on its intended target occupied much of his attention in 1944 and 1945.

Groves believed that the Boeing B-29 Superfortress aircraft could carry the payload. In March 1944, he huddled with the chief of the U.S. army, General Henry H. “Hap” Arnold, to plan the operation. In December of that year, the army activated the 509th Composite Group at Wendover Army Airfield in Utah under the command of Colonel Paul W. Tibbets.

After a joint committee of the Manhattan District and the U.S. air force identified several Japanese cities as targets—Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata, and Kyoto—U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson informed the group that he would approve the final selection. Stimson rejected Kyoto as a target owing to its cultural and historical significance. The city of Nagasaki took its place.

Colonel Tibbets piloted the aircraft that dropped the first bomb (nicknamed "Little Boy") over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Major Charles W. Sweeney flew the aircraft that dropped a second bomb (“Fat Man”), on Nagasaki, Japan, three days later. (The original target, Kokura, was obscured by clouds on August 9, requiring Sweeney to divert to his secondary target, Nagasaki). The destructive power of the two atomic bombs accomplished the objective, hastening Japan's surrender.

For his work in overseeing the project, Leslie Groves won a promotion to brevet major general. He later earned the Distinguished Service Medal for accomplishing “his task with such outstanding success that in an amazingly short time the Manhattan Engineer District solved this problem of staggering complexity, defeating the Axis powers in the race to produce an instrument whose peacetime potentialities are no less marvelous than its wartime application is awesome.”

After the war ended, the question of managing nuclear weapons became crucial. On New Year’s Day 1947, responsibility shifted from the Manhattan District to a new agency, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Later in January 1947, a joint directive of the army and navy created the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project (AFSWP) to oversee military uses of nuclear weapons. General Groves became the head of the AFSWP in February 1947.

For all his accomplishments as an efficient engineer who seldom failed to fulfill his assigned tasks, Groves remained a controversial figure. Many subordinates found him arrogant, rude, condescending, and almost impossible to work for. Early in 1948, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, told Groves that the general would never advance in rank. He had reached the effective end of his career. Moreover, the military ranks were thinning in the postwar era, and Groves understood that he would never again handle an important assignment. He retired on February 29, 1948, with the rank of lieutenant general. A special act of Congress backdated his promotion to July 16, 1945, the date that the Trinity nuclear test in New Mexico demonstrated that the atomic bomb worked.

In civilian life, Groves worked as a vice president a Sperry Rand, a prominent equipment and electronics firm. He also served as president of the West Point Alumni Association. In 1962, he published an account of the Manhattan Project, Now It Can Be Told. He died following a heart attack on July 13, 1970.

He left a complicated legacy. An indefatigable workhorse, Groves was driven to succeed, brushing aside all obstacles in his quest to accomplish his goals. He believed that developing the atomic bomb before the nation’s enemies could perfect such a weapon trumped all other considerations, including the feelings and opinions of his peers and underlings. Whether he could have accomplished his goals with a less confrontational, antagonistic style remains an open question.

His personal legacy is further complicated by evolving opinions on the development of the atomic bomb. At the time he worked on the Manhattan Project, Groves and his co-workers feared that failing to achieve the goal represented an existential threat to the United States. President Harry Truman learned that the war effort in the Pacific Theater might require hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to invade mainland Japan, lengthening the war for at least another year or two. Dropping one or more atomic bombs on Japan potentially could convince Japan to surrender or face nuclear annihilation. The calculus seemed clear: nuclear weapons could shorten the war, saving American (and Japanese) lives.

In the years since 1945, political and military leaders, historians, and the public have questioned the desirability of developing atomic weapons. With the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that the development of the atomic bomb altered human history. Aside from the horrific injuries and deaths of Japanese civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the bomb ushered in an arms race during the ensuing Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union as well as the People’s Republic of China. The possibility of fallible human beings employing weapons of mass destruction that could wipe out most of the life on earth seems a large price to pay to end a war that has receded into the pages of history.

Owing to the complex assessment of the events surrounding the development of the atomic bomb, assessing Leslie Groves as an historical figure is difficult. He cajoled and bullied numerous workers in a morally dubious effort to gain an advantage for the United States. The fact that he was not a decision-maker about whether to employ the bomb does not completely relieve him of responsibility for the role he played in realizing the design and construction of the weapon.

Setting aside from the tricky moral questions regarding the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, Leslie Groves emerged from the war with a reputation as a hard-driving, relentless taskmaster, a leader singularly focused on accomplished his goals. He deserves a place in a book on effective public administrators because he successfully led the Manhattan Project to overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles in achieving an unprecedented objective—developing a powerful weapon that turned the tide of war. He possessed many deficiencies as a leader, but he still succeeded in a monumental feat of engineering.

35 views0 comments


bottom of page