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The Journal of Military History 67.3 (2003) 883-920

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Reconsidering the "Atomic General":
Leslie R. Groves

Barton J. Bernstein*

[T]he case was rare indeed where a single individual had the fortune to be as effective as Groves had [been] in the winding up of a great war.

—Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, 12 September 1945 1

I have no qualms of conscience about the making or using of [the atomic bomb]. It has been responsible for saving perhaps thousands of lives. If the bomb had not been used the Japs would have held out for 60 to 90 days longer. We know what that would mean in the sacrifice of human lives. . . . I had staked my reputation and long service in the Army on the successful construction of the bomb, as I believed it would do what it has done—save thousands of lives.

—General Leslie R. Groves, October 1945 2

ROBERT S. Norris, a staff member of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a longtime commentator on nuclear-weapons issues, has written an important study of General Leslie Groves, the U.S. Army [End Page 883] Corps of Engineers officer who headed the construction of the Pentagon and then presided over the Manhattan Project. Helping to rescue Groves from the comparative neglect of most A-bomb historians, Norris took over this useful biography project after the untimely death in 1996 of historian of science Stanley Goldberg, who had set out to write a significant study of Groves. Norris, like Goldberg and only a few earlier writers, generally understood that the A-bomb project, which made Groves famous, was substantially both an engineering project and a scientific project.

The Earlier Scholarship, the Available Sources, and the Challenges

For more than a half-decade, Goldberg had gathered often-unsorted piles of useful archival materials, given many talks on Groves, published a few thoughtful articles on Groves and the A-bomb project, and implied that he had nearly completed a book manuscript, which he had not really started. His published work sometimes expressed a distaste for Groves himself but generally offered admiration—though more than occasionally seeming a bit grudging—for Groves's achievement in producing A-bombs within three years of his appointment. Unfortunately, Goldberg, in discussing Groves and the use of the A-bombs, occasionally erred in his published work by citing key events that apparently never happened, a few documents that did not exist, and some other items that apparently later scholars could not find. 3 [End Page 884]

Goldberg, in a posthumously published essay, building on questionable evidence in at least two of his earlier articles, tried to argue, unsuccessfully, that Groves had cunningly taken control of A-bomb decision making and, as a skillful manipulator, had dropped the A-bomb on Nagasaki without President Harry S. Truman's prior knowledge. Goldberg's argument, stripped of its innuendo, was correct only in a narrow but not important way—Truman did not know in advance the city and date of the second atomic bombing. 4

Goldberg unfairly omitted the important fact that there is no evidence before or after the Nagasaki bombing that Truman cared that he had not received such details in advance. Truman's confidence in the administrative system operating beneath him, and his lack of concern about details, is not surprising. Perhaps Americans, at a great distance from 1945, would wish otherwise, but such wishes, if held, should not [End Page 885] lead to surprise about 1945 organizational arrangements and how Truman comfortably used them.

Goldberg greatly misconstrued matters, and somehow misunderstood the culture of A-bomb decision making. Significantly, he failed to interpret issues fairly and to understand that President Harry S. Truman and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had comfortably delegated authority to the air force to use A-bombs "as made ready" and therefore these top policymakers made no effort, because they had no desire, to control or monitor the specific details of the timing and place of the second bomb's use. 5

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