Epilogue: An Atomic Legacy
The advent of the atomic age – and its concomitant legacy of not only great benefits but also great risks – emanated from the Manhattan Project. In the history of technological development in the Western world, America’s atomic energy program constituted a unique episode: Through an integrated synergy of science, industry, and the military, the men of Manhattan created a revolutionary new device, the atomic bomb, unleashing for the first time the power within the atom.
Ever intrigued by the phenomenon of the atom, particularly its vast stores of energy, men in past centuries had frequently endeavored to discover means to release this power. These efforts consistently failed, however, and the potential of the atom remained a matter of theory, a hypothesis graphically realized only in the imaginative world of science fiction. Ongoing research by a small group of European physicists in the early years of the twentieth century finally culminated in the late 1930’s with Hahn and Strassmann’s demonstration of the feasibility of fissioning the atom, the key to tapping its enormous energy. But repressive political and ideological conditions abroad occasioned many of these physicists to forego their scientific investigations and to seek refuge in America. There, World War II provided them the opportunity to apply their research – to transform atomic theory into a material reality – as they collaborated with American scientists, engineers, and industrialists under the direction of the United States Army on the project to produce the world’s first atomic weapon.
During the course of this unprecedented undertaking, the Army had a significant role in orchestrating almost every aspect of atomic development – from the design, construction, and operation of large-scale production plants to strategic planning for the employment of the atomic bomb. Until 1942, its participation in the atomic energy research carried on largely by the refugee and American scientists at various government and university laboratories under the auspices of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and its predecessors was sporadic and peripheral. Yet the scientific leaders of the OSRD program, having full cognizance of the military potentialities of atomic energy, had anticipated that the Army, or an equivalent agency, eventually would have to assume a leading
part in its development. The juxtaposition of a number of factors in the winter of 1941–42, including the sudden entrance of the United States into World War II, the prevailing belief that the Germans were moving ahead with their own atomic investigations, and the rapid approach of the American program to the pilot plant stage, convinced them that this time had come. Hence, in early 1942, they advised the President to take the measures necessary to bring the Army into the program on a major scale.
As a first step, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall selected Brig. Gen. Wilhelm D. Styer of the Services of Supply to establish liaison between the Army and the atomic program. General Styer, working with the OSRD leaders, particularly Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant, drew up plans for bringing the Army more fully into the program. Approval of these plans in June 1942 by the Top Policy Group – the President, Vice President, the Secretary of War, Marshall, Bush, and Conant – marked the start of the Army’s managerial role in the most revolutionary enterprise of its time.1
The program approved in June turned over to the Army three important tasks: design, construction and operation of plants to produce fissionable materials; organization of a special laboratory to design, manufacture, and test atomic weapons; and responsibility for security for the entire project. Under the provisions of the program the Army was to work in close coordination with the OSRD, which would continue to administer the research and development aspects, and to use the funds and the facilities of its Corps of Engineers in carrying out its new assignment.
To discharge these tasks, the Army selected Col. James C. Marshall, an engineer officer with broad construction experience and a reputation for high professional competence, as manager of the atomic energy program. During the summer of 1942, Marshall, drawing chiefly upon Corps personnel, facilities, and practices for administering large-scale construction projects, laid the groundwork for the Army’s . atomic infrastructure. He formed a new engineer district, with headquarters temporarily in New York City, and appropriately named it the Manhattan District. But by September, the project’s military and civilian leaders had come to realize that development of an atomic weapon was going to require an enterprise of far greater scope and complexity than they earlier had anticipated. Consequently, they agreed to the appointment of an Army officer who would be assigned overall responsibility for not only the District but also all other aspects of the wartime atomic program. To fill this key position, the Army designated Col. Leslie R. Groves, a career engineer officer who, while serving in the Corps’ Construction Branch, had consistently demonstrated an exceptional ability to complete difficult large-scale construction projects. At the same time, the project leaders also created a Military Policy Committee, comprised of Bush, Conant, Styer, and Rear Adm. William R. Purnell, representing the Navy, to broadly control and oversee
the Army’s management of the program.
The assignment of Groves had an immediate and significant influence on the subsequent development of the atomic energy program. As a professional manager, Groves, newly promoted to brigadier general, was energetic, hard-working, and aggressive to a fault, single-minded yet adaptable when flexibility was necessary, and well equipped both by education and experience to oversee and direct a highly technical and complex construction project under the often difficult conditions existing in wartime. Skillfully using his dual position as, in effect, the executive secretary of the Military Policy Committee and chief administrative officer of what came to be known as the Manhattan Project, Groves quickly established dominant control over the rapidly expanding program. In late 1942 and early 1943, making maximum use of the authority granted from the War Department to use existing facilities of the Corps of Engineers (such as the Real Estate Branch), of other branches of the Army (such as the Medical Corps and Military Intelligence Division), of other government agencies (such as the United States Employment Service and Tennessee Valley Authority), Groves succeeded – despite severe shortages and competition from other wartime programs – in securing the priorities, land, materials, tools, manpower, and other requirements essential to the Manhattan Project’s continued development. The Manhattan commander’s adoption and implementation of this management practice of securing, whenever feasible, assistance from other military and civilian agencies made it possible for him to organize and direct effectively the multifarious activities of the project, aided only by a headquarters staff that was extremely small by wartime standards.
Contributing also to Groves’ success as the top manager of the Manhattan Project was the skill and dedication of his team of middle managers – including District Engineer Marshall and, following the relocation of the Manhattan District headquarters to Oak Ridge, his replacement, Col. Kenneth D. Nichols; Lt. Col. Franklin T. Matthias, in charge of the Hanford Area Engineers Office; and the four key scientific directors: J. Robert Oppenheimer of the Los Alamos Laboratory, Arthur Compton of the Metallurgical Project, Ernest Lawrence of the Radiation Laboratory, and Harold Urey of the SAM Laboratories. Faced with the vast scope and complexity of the atomic program, the task of each project manager was to keep the diverse activities of his installation focused on Manhattan’s primary goal: production of an atomic weapon. Working in close coordination with Groves in Washington, each manager established specific project objectives, organized operational functions, measured performance and compliance with schedules, and motivated and developed personnel resources to administer the far-flung research, construction, and production aspects of an enterprise which, at its height of activity, employed a work force of nearly 129,000.
A relatively small proportion of this work force, some thirty-six hundred military and civilian personnel assigned directly to Manhattan or its
university contractors, comprised the project’s administrative core element. Members of this group found themselves with responsibilities for carrying out a great variety of activities. Many assignments were quite similar to those they had experienced as employees of the Corps of Engineers or other government agencies. These included monitoring the negotiations and implementation of contracts and subcontracts; expediting procurement of materials and manpower; assisting in site selection and acquisition; enforcing security, health, and safety regulations; and overseeing the construction and administration of the atomic communities in Tennessee, New Mexico, and Washington State. Other assignments, however, were new and unlike anything hitherto undertaken by uniformed or civilian employees of the Army. These included overseeing the worldwide search and exploration for deposits of uranium, thorium, nickel, and other vital raw materials required by the project; working as scientists and technicians in research laboratories; serving as diplomatic agents in treaty negotiations with foreign governments; and making significant contributions to planning for the peacetime control and use of atomic energy at home and abroad.
Participation in the atomic energy program was by no means limited to personnel assigned only to the Manhattan District or the Corps of Engineers. Many of the Army’s key officials, staff components, and subordinate elements became involved in the program and contributed to its ultimate success. For example, the Secretary of War himself assisted in maintaining essential liaison between the Manhattan Project and the President and Congress and played an important role in planning for the tactical employment of the bomb and the postwar control of atomic energy. The staff of the Under Secretary of War proved indispensable to Manhattan in solving numerous manpower procurement and labor problems. The Ordnance Department made available existing munitions plants that facilitated development of heavy water production works. The Signal Corps installed vital communications systems that ensured adequate coordination of complex activities at the widely separated and isolated installations. Military Police and Military Intelligence units performed key security functions. The Medical Corps furnished the personnel for the health and medical facilities. And when the atomic bombs were ready for combat employment, the Army Air Forces provided the B-29 aircraft and crews for delivering them on enemy targets.
There are few who would question that the development of atomic energy and atomic bombs under the Army’s direction was one of mankind’s greatest technical and military achievements – one that the Army shares, of course, with American science and American industry. The nation’s political leaders in the early months of America’s participation in World War II had concluded that the Army was the organization best suited, and perhaps the only one able, to undertake the responsibility for administering a program of the magnitude and difficulty of the Manhattan Project. The events of the summer of 1945 proved the soundness of their choice, for the Army carried out its
unenviable mission with success that certainly matched its achievements on the battlefields of World War II. General Groves succinctly summarized the breadth and significance of this accomplishment in his farewell message to the men of Manhattan:–
Five years ago, the idea of Atomic Power was only a dream. You have made that dream a reality. You have seized upon the most nebulous of ideas and translated them into actualities. You have built cities where none were known before. You have constructed industrial plants of a magnitude and to a precision heretofore deemed impossible. You built the weapon which ended the War and thereby saved countless American lives. With regard to peacetime applications, you have raised the curtain on vistas of a new world.2
Undeniably, in the history of technology, the Manhattan Project stands as a spectacularly successful venture, having demonstrated to the world the kind of technical miracles possible when, through skillfully applied management techniques, the resources of science and industry are brought to bear single-mindedly on the resolution of extremely complex technological problems. But there are those who have suggested that the Army’s participation in the project was not necessary at all – that science alone, with civilian industry’s help, would have been able to build the fissionable materials production plants and to perfect the bomb. Some have even indicated that the Army’s entry into the atomic program brought a bureaucratization, perhaps most dramatically exemplified in the policy of compartmentalization, that unnecessarily restricted and slowed the development of the bomb. These Army policies left an aftermath of resentment and suspicion, which found expression after the war in a long and bitter controversy over enactment of legislation for peacetime control of atomic energy. And the American public’s ultimate solution was to give a civilian agency, the United States Atomic Energy Commission, the dominant control over the new source of energy.
In compliance with the people’s mandate – a decision that represented probably not so much a criticism of the Army’s role in the Manhattan Project, as it did a continuing adherence to the traditional American belief in subordinating the role of the military in peacetime – the Army on 31 December 1946 passed on to the Atomic Energy Commission primary responsibility for the future development and control of atomic energy. And even as the Army completed its final act, some of the correlative benefits and risks of the atomic legacy that it had done so much to create were already discernible. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had revealed the power, and the horror, of an atomic bombing, forecasting the urgent need for an international alliance to control nuclear weapons that, if left uncontrolled, threatened the existence of civilized society. But the fissioning process that had made possible the release of the enormous energy within the atom also gave promise of providing vast amounts of heat for generating electricity and useful radioactive isotopes for industrial and medical application. In the years
ahead, while having a lesser role in atomic matters as a member of the commission’s Military Liaison Committee and, subsequently, the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, the Army – as an integral institution of American society – would continue to share in the atomic legacy.