The Manhattan Project’s Odd Couple

Groves (left) and Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. (Getty Images)
A hard-bitten military man and a free-spirited physicist combined to build the world’s first nuclear weapon.

How often in our relationship-obsessed era do we hear the term “but it works”? This is usually applied to couples who are polar opposites but somehow stick together. There is an occupational dimension to this as well, and one of the best examples occurred during World War II, when there was a perception that Nazi Germany might be developing an atomic bomb.

As recounted in James Kunetka’s The General and the Genius: Groves and Oppenheimer — The Unlikely Partnership that Built the Atom Bomb, opposites attracted under these emergency conditions. With the Nazis believed capable of producing an atomic bomb, fears for national survival made an ultraconservative military leader — bull-headed, blunt, and demanding, from a poor background — work well with a pampered physicist who had murky associations with the American Communist party. Their efforts produced the first atomic bomb, which is now “celebrating” its 70th anniversary.

After President Franklin Roosevelt gave the go-ahead for developing a nuclear bomb (which was not called by that name at the time), the man he appointed as military leader of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves, grew weary of brilliant scientists’ “sitting on their brains” and giving him evasive answers. He found his dream scientist in the person of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who answered his questions directly and without ambiguity. Both had an appetite for centralization, and it was from this that the ultra-secret (but Soviet-penetrated) Los Alamos laboratory was built in the remote New Mexico desert.

Here their relationship blossomed. There was even a hint of platonic romance built into the relationship: Upon meeting Oppenheimer, Groves stated of the scientist: “He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen. He looks right through you. I feel like he can read my mind.” Oppenheimer said he was “courting Groves like a lover.” This unlikely partnership paved the way for the world’s first nuclear bomb.

SLIDESHOW: Trinity and the Dawn of the Atomic Age

Although Groves was belligerently anti-Communist, he did not let Oppenheimer’s Communist ties get him bounced off the project. During the 1930s, the scientist gave money to aid the beleaguered leftist government during the Spanish Civil War. But even though his wife and brother were members of the party — along with Jean Tatlock, with whom he continued an affair — he never joined. And by the time of the 1939 Nazi–Soviet pact and the Russian invasion of Poland and Finland, he was losing whatever illusions he had had about Stalin. This continued into his recruitment of scientists with ties to the Communist party. He told them to sever such ties, because there was “always a question of divided loyalty” and the discipline of the party was “very severe and not compatible with complete loyalty to the project.”

Although Groves was belligerently anti-Communist, he did not let Oppenheimer’s Communist ties get him bounced off the project.

Despite being under 24-hour surveillance by the FBI and Army intelligence, which monitored Oppenheimer spending the night with Tatlock, Groves refused to believe that Oppenheimer was anything less than a hero. He was rewarded for this trust when Oppenheimer reported that he had been approached by a party member named Haakon Chevalier to leak secrets to the Soviets.

What ultimately bound the two men together was their overwhelming ambition. Both took on the project for a career boost as much as for any patriotism. Both were pragmatists who would do anything to get credit for winning the war.

In this excellent book, Kunetka never gets overly technical in recounting the birth of the atom bomb. He stays on task, showing the human dimension in a sturdy partnership that neither could have predicted but that nevertheless “worked.”

— Ron Capshaw is a writer in Midlothian, Va.

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