The Manhattan Project

General Kenneth Nichols's Interview - Part 1

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General Kenneth David Nichols was a US Army Engineer who served as Manhattan District Engineer in the Manhattan Project, overseeing the uranium and plutonium production at Oak Ridge and Hanford. He worked underneath and alongside General Groves, and collaborated with a number of well-known scientists. He discusses what it was like to work with scientists like Eugene Wigner, Leo Szilard, Arthur Compton, and others, and explains some of the project’s conflicts among scientists. He discusses the complex administration of the Manhattan Project, and why he get along better with scientists than General Leslie Groves did. Nichols was also in charge of ore procurement.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
January 4, 1965
Location of the Interview: 
Washington
Collections: 
Transcript: 

Stephane Groueff: We could start now with your biography and where you were born. I see that you were born in Cleveland.

General Kenneth Nichols: Well, I was born in a little suburb of Cleveland called West Park, Ohio [on November 13, 1907].

Groueff: West Park, Ohio.

Nichols: Later became a part of Cleveland.

Groueff: And I see here that your father was a construction contractor.

Nichols: He was a construction contractor and also a local politician having at one time been mayor of the town, West Park, and I think most other offices in the little town.

Groueff: But Republican or Democrat?

Nichols: Republican.

Groueff: Republican

Nichols: Republican, and when West Park was annexed to Cleveland, that ended his political career, because he took no interest in Cleveland politics or national politics, except as an ardent Republican.

Groueff: And you were the only son?

Nichols: No, I have two brothers and a sister. I was the youngest of four children.

Groueff: What kind of childhood did you have?

Nichols: Well, as my wife said, I did everything right, was raised properly.

Groueff: Well, you went to the right school?

Nichols: No, West Park was a small suburban community. When I was a boy, it was essentially rural, although we did not have a farm. We had several acres of land and we raised about every type of animal that you could think of. So, it was country life rather than city life. 

I attended the public schools in West Park, Ohio. Graduated from the John Marshall High School and then entered West Point, appointed by Theodore E. Burton, who was the Congressman for the 22nd District.

Groueff: But, as a young boy, what type of boy were you? Interested mostly [00:03:00] in books or were you—

Nichols: Well, I was a good student, but also interested in sports and outdoor life, and delivered newspapers from the age of five on up. And main sport was baseball.

Groueff: Baseball.

Nichols: I always belonged to one of the local teams, just boys, but they were a high school team.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: But we were all a little local team. Why, we played baseball every summer.

Groueff: Were you interested in technical things or scientific things as a youngster?

Nichols: Only to the extent of having read every Tom Swift book that was ever published, if you are familiar with those. I was interested in construction as a boy, having spent every summer wandering around with my father on horse and buggy and visiting various jobs.

Groueff: What kind of construction did he do? Houses?

Nichols: He was mainly building houses, private homes, although his biggest job was a chemical plant.

Groueff: But all in the area of—

Nichols: All in the area—

Groueff: All in Ohio?

Nichols: Right in Ohio. He at the time worked by himself as an independent contractor. At one other time he was in a partnership, well, that was for the chemical plant. He went into partnership with another constructor to build a large—they call it the dryer works. I do not know what kind of chemical it made, but it was a plant about five miles from where we lived.

Groueff: So in summertime you used to go on construction with your father.

Nichols: Frequently, yes.

Groueff: So you had some background about—

Nichols: Before entering West Point, I had enrolled at the Case School of Applied Science with the idea of being an engineer. Although before I actually registered, I received my appointment to West Point, so that shaped my career the military way.

Groueff: Why did you want to become a military man? Was it in the family?

Nichols: No, I had never seen anyone in uniform except my uncle during the war. It happened that the age bracket of my family always missed wars, except for my mother’s father. I had no military background whatsoever. The main interest going to West Point was to get a free education, and I also knew that if I graduated near the top of the class I could be an engineer.

Groueff: So, that was your real desire actually, to be an—

Nichols: I desired to be an engineer.

Groueff: —engineer, and not the usual desire of boys who go to West Point is to be military men

Nichols: No, I got my desire to be military after I arrived at West Point. [00:06:00] 

Groueff: I see that in West Point, you were very near the top. You were promoted.

Nichols: I finally ended up five in a class of 99. [Class of 1929]

Groueff: It was a class that they quote some very famous men like James [M.] Gavin and Frank [Dow] Merrill [“Merrill’s Marauders” in Burma] and the others I am not familiar.

Nichols: You could add a lot more now if you take the—

Groueff: After the war.

Nichols: Since the war, like Army Navy General [William Fulton] “Bozo” McKee, who got to be the second man in the Air Force without being able to fly, which was an unusual distinction. He was Deputy Chief of Staff for [Curtis] LeMay [Vice Chief of Staff 1962-1964]. He just retired last summer.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: Paul [Donal] Harkins was commander in Vietnam, until last summer.   

Groueff: So, it was a very brilliant—

Nichols: We had a very unusual group of classmates. They were timed right for World War II and after World War II.

Groueff: And then after, I see that your career was connected after that with engineering. You went to Nicaragua at the—

Nichols: That was my first assignment.

Groueff: Did you meet General Groves there?

Nichols: Casually, yes. I never worked for him. I was a junior officer in Nicaragua, and most junior officers at one time or another were assigned to—he was then Lieutenant Groves, and then 1st Lieutenant. I never was assigned to him, and my duties were with another company, and with the supply group running a supply line. One time, my first contact with General Groves is when I was hauling his supplies to him on the San Juan River. Every now and then we tangled, politely and otherwise.

Groueff: Did he have a reputation of being sort of very efficient or very strict?

Nichols: He had a reputation on being very rough on young officers. In fact, what he would do is start them off with very low efficiency reports and then raise them as he had them for a few months, to show how good he was at training young officers.

Groueff: Even then he was—

Nichols: [Laughter] But most people did not like to work for him.

Groueff: So he was a difficult—

Nichols: Difficult character. Throughout his life, he had been a di

Groueff: Very authoritarian or—

Nichols: Oh, he has a way of getting things done, as he did at that [00:09:00] time. 

Groueff: You think that is why he was chosen for the Manhattan Project?

Nichols: Well, I have a slightly different story of—see, the first man chosen in the Manhattan Project was Colonel J. C. Marshall.

Groueff: Marshall, yes.

Nichols: And the reason I happened to get into it is because at the time he was selected, I was working for him in the Syracuse District.

Groueff: He was also in engineering?

Nichols: He was a classmate of General Groves. [Actually Marshall graduated 24th in the Class of June 12, 1918 and Groves was November 1, 1918] In fact, I think he ranked General Groves at that time. He did, as far as being in the same class was concerned. He was a higher ranking than General Groves, although I believe General Groves was higher ranking during the time—I mean, at the time the Manhattan District was formed, because he had been moved over to Quartermaster General and received a rather early promotion.

But Colonel J. C. Marshall was the original one selected, and he was selected by General [Wilhelm] Styer, who had been following the Manhattan Project, see, for General [Brehon] Somervell and Mr. Stimson. When the decision was made to go ahead, it was Styer’s selection of Colonel Marshall. The only reason I was selected at that time, see, I was working for Colonel Marshall then on the basis that I would spend one year with him on the Rome Air Depot and then go to troops. I was interested in going to troops, because you had got nowhere in this Army just on construction. But he convinced General Styer that he could have me for a year, see, starting the Manhattan District. I was given twenty seconds to volunteer or be drafted on this Sunday morning I first visited—

Groueff: You visited Marshall?

Nichols: Yeah. But it was with the understanding, though, I would only be a year with the project.

Groueff: But he chose you, Marshall, he knew you—

Nichols: I was working for him at the time. He had selected me when I was up at West Point. I then had wrangled a job with the 26th Engineers. I had left West Point, and the reason I had selected that one was because I thought they would get in action earliest, which they did. This was before the war started, but it looked like war was inevitable. I had selected that outfit and had arranged to be assigned to it, and they were in all the major landings.

Groueff: Without you.

Nichols: Without me, but Colonel Marshall had convinced me that I should go to work for him for a year, and he would turn over the Rome Air Depot, Rome, [00:12:00] New York, so that I would be in charge of it.

Groueff: What kind of boss was Marshall?

Nichols: Marshall was an excellent boss. He understood people. That was his strong point, was personnel, as he knew people, people liked him, and he was a good engineer. I have always felt that he did one of the biggest jobs in the Manhattan District of lining of people. All the original organization was—

Groueff: Under him.

Nichols: Was under him, senior in the district. Why, he knew the people and brought them and did an excellent job of it. He left after a year, primarily because he did not get along with General Groves, because he thought some consideration should be given to individuals as personalities rather than just what is their performance. 

Groueff: And, Groves had the opposite—

Nichols: Had the opposite view, and they were always tangling on just how you treated people. That was really one of the biggest sources of dissension between the two. Yet it was Marshall that got the people, I mean, the bulk of the people for the Manhattan Project. Oh, I am talking now the government organization.

Groueff: Yeah. That is in early ’42.

Nichols: ’42, ’43.

Groueff: ’43, and then—

Nichols: He left just one year after the District was formed.

Groueff: Actually, Groves was—

Nichols: Now, Groves came in—

Groueff: —assigned in September—

Nichols: In September—

Groueff: —of ’42.

Nichols: And, the background of that is partly written up in Groves’ book [Now It Can Be Told], partly written up in The New World, and it came about primarily because of Marshall not satisfying [Vannevar] Bush that he was going ahead fast enough.

When we first got into the business, the scientists thought they were all ready to go. We found they were not. We engaged Stone and Webster to make an initial engineering study, to where we have an engineering force to appraise some of these ideas. We soon found there was nothing ready to go. That although the report to the President was we were ready to build plants, we were still some ways away from it.

So Marshall dragged his feet intentionally on acquiring the Oak Ridge site. We started out with the idea, well, “We would get a site to build these plants,” and we had some rather nebulous criteria of what the site should be. We first went down in July of ’42. Consider that my first meeting with [00:15:00] Marshall I think was the 19th of June, or 17th of June.

Groueff: ’42.

Nichols: Of ’42. We were down on 4th of July looking for a site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

Groueff: So actually it was picked out by Marshall and you.

Nichols: We, that is right, and with [August] “Gus” Klein of Stone & Webster. As there were ten with the branch, along or not, I have forgotten just who was down on that particular survey. TVA cooperated with us, Colonel, oh, I forget his name. Do you remember that Colonel’s name, Virginia, who was the chief engineer of TVA? But he appraised his cars.

So we went there because we knew we could get electricity there. We considered whether to get electricity in the New Jersey area or up in the far west, or Tennessee Valley. We started on the Tennessee Valley.

Groueff: But, was it a decision also with Bush and Conant?

Nichols: They had helped outline the criteria that we should be looking for.

Groueff: I see. And you had to find—

Nichols: So, we found a site, and we decided, “Well, when there’s time to acquire a site, this was it.” Marshall was a little reluctant to move on acquiring this site until we knew more about what was required. And that annoyed Bush a little bit, so he went to the President.

The story as I got it was rather interesting. Groves had set up at that time solely as liaison with the Corps of Engineers for anything we wanted. He had been told to help us get it. And so he knew what we were doing, but not any detail. He was supposed to help us on anything that the Corps of Engineers was required to do and facilitate our organization. I remember one day I was in Washington, Marshall was in New York. He had been working primarily in setting up our headquarters there, and that was the name, Manhattan District, came from that, the main office in New York City.

I was still located in Washington, living in Alexandria. One morning I called General Styer for an appointment, because anything I wanted from the Armed Forces—what did they call it in those days, the ASF, Army Service Forces. My contact was General Styer, so I called him for an appointment and he said, “Bring Groves with you.” 

So I went to see General Groves, told him I was going to see General Styer and that he wanted Groves to come along. He said, “What for?”

I said, “Well, I didn’t ask him.”

He said, “Why not?”

I said, “I’m not accustomed to asking a Lt. General why he wants to see a Colonel.” I says, “Do you want me to call [00:18:00] him up and ask him?”

He said, “No.”

Of course, that was the only way you could ever handle Groves anyway.

But he went along and we went in to see General Styer and he outlined the problem that Bush had had, not getting a site fast enough. He said that Bush had gone to see the President, and that Bush said he wanted a higher ranking officer than Colonel Marshall and someone more familiar with Washington. He said he had asked for Somervell. He said that he thought Somervell should be relieved from the Army Service Forces and put in charge of this project. Of course, that is typically Bush. He said, of course, Somervell was not going to be relieved and he said, so, next, the President said he could not have him, so then he said he asked for Styer, who is Somervell’s chief of staff. Styer said, “Of course, I talked my way out of it. I’m not going to take on this job.” He said, “So, Somervell and I decided on you.” [Laugh]

Groueff: Groves.

Nichols: Groves, to satisfy Bush. Of course, Groves started to protest, and giving Styer all the reasons why he should not go, that he had wrangled a job to go overseas and I think at one point he more or less said he was not going to take it. At that, Styer waved me out.

Groueff: I see, out of the room.

Nichols: He says, “Disappear for a minute, Nichols.” So I left. About five minutes later, I came back in and was sent for by Styer. Groves looked a little bit crestfallen and chastised. Styer told me, he said, “Well, Groves will take on this assignment,” and he said, “Here are the four things I want done very promptly.” He listed them. One was to acquire the site immediately. I forget what the other three are, they are in The New World. Another amusing thing, he said, “Well, one thing that I’d like to find out: what is the Navy doing?”

I said, “Well, I’ve got a date with the Navy to go out there tomorrow morning.”

He said, “Well, take Groves with you.” This was [Ross] Gunn’s business on the thermal diffusion, which was a separate project at that time. He had tangled with the S-1 committee and was kicked off of it. Bush knew it was going on, but they had not maintained close liaison with it. It was amusing, because he said, “Well, take Groves with you.”

So on the way, why, Groves [00:21:00] sputtered all the way about this new assignment. When we were out there, we were listening to this briefing, I got a call from Styer. He did not call Groves, he called me. He said, “I just returned from the White House,” and he said, “Tell Groves that maybe this will make him feel better, that the President has approved his temporary promotion to a Brigadier General.”

Groueff: And he was pleased, huh?

Nichols: Well, of course, he did not call Groves, he told me. He said, “You tell him.” Anyway, that was the way Groves got into the business.

Groueff: Was Marshall unhappy about that, or he wanted to go overseas?

Nichols: Well, at first, it did not make Marshall too happy to have someone put over him. But he continued to perform, I mean, there was no question that Marshall performed. When Marshall finally was relieved, he was relieved on the basis that he could be promoted if he went on over to the Pacific. He was assigned a job in the south that led immediately to his promotion to Brigadier General. It all handled very nicely.

Groueff: Except Groves says in his book that Bush was not informed by Styer when Groves went to see Bush, and Bush was rather surprised and not very pleased, because he did not like what he knew about Groves.

Nichols: Well, that was another one where Styer just said, “Introduce Groves to Bush.”

Groueff: To you.

Nichols: To me. Because Styer knew Bush would not be pleased with it, because Bush wanted Styer.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: So I was the go between on several of these little things.

Groueff: How was the meeting between Bush and Groves?

Nichols: Well, it was a little cool, because Bush did not know what his status was.

Groueff: Did not know how much he could—

Nichols: Well, he did not know whether he was accepting it at that time.

Groueff: I see. And he did not like Groves in the beginning?

Nichols: Right. Well, Groves did not satisfy him in the beginning, because as I say, he wanted Styer.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: Styer at the time had three stars and Somervell four, and Groves had none. Of course, here was another Colonel being appointed. That was the main argument that Bush had against Marshall, was he was only a Colonel.

Groueff: I see, and was Styer humanly more—I mean, easier man, more acceptable?

Nichols: Styer is just as rough. Styer is just as rough in getting things done as Groves, except he has an understanding of the human element far superior to Groves.

Groueff: I see. But why did Groves [00:24:00] select you?

Nichols: He did not select me. 

Groueff: Oh, yeah, he—

Nichols: Had nothing to do with selecting me.

Groueff: He just inherited you.

Nichols: Marshall. He inherited me.

Groueff: I see. But, later you were promoted to—

Nichols: At the time Marshall left, I was supposed to leave at end of the first year, because Styer’s view was you did not need many regular officers on this. Initially, he agreed to my assignment with Marshall for one year. So I thought I was leaving in ’43. And Groves knew that, so Groves decided that Marshall would leave and I would stay.

Now, rather than you get the idea that I do not have respect for General Groves, I think I should tell you the story which happened at the War College, which is rather interesting. The first year after the war, I mean, right, I do not know whether it was ’45 or ’46, but it could have been either. First lecture I gave at the War College, I followed General Groves on the second day as he gave a talk on the Manhattan Project. The second day I gave a talk on, it was ’46, or it could have even been ’47. Anyway, it pertained to organization. Groves covered all the highlights and then I covered the organization.

The system they have there is a lecturer talks for forty-five minutes and then he answers questions for about forty-five and then meets with various committees. The first question was a young naval officer that got up and said— I do not know if I was Colonel or a General at that time, I guess it was a General. But, he said, no, I guess it was Colonel, he said, “Colonel Nichols, yesterday we listened to General Groves, today we’re listening to you. You’re probably the only man that could really give a firsthand answer to this question, but what do you think of General Groves, an individual?”

And, immediately, the commandant of the war college stood up and says, “You don’t need to answer that. It’s an improper question.”

And, I said, “I don’t mind answering it.” And said, “Be glad to answer it.” I said, “Well, I’ve known General Groves since I was 2nd lieutenant, worked for him all during the war.” I said, “To start off with, I would say he is the biggest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever met, bar none.” [00:27:00] Of course, that got quite a laugh. I said, “Also, he’s one of the most intelligent people I’ve ever met, the intellect that compares favorably with the type of people who we’re dealing with in the Manhattan Project, the best of them. He had more energy than anybody I knew, and he had the biggest ego of any individual I’d ever met. But coupled with the ego, he had guts, that when he made a decision, he stuck with it, he was willing to make a decision, because he was so egotistical he always thought he was right.” I said, “He had more drive, he could drive himself and drive people.” 

I said, moreover, that “I had met most of the Army, Navy and Air officers, the high-ranking ones in World War II at that time, and had met most of the industrial leaders of the USA. I thought I had a pretty good cross-section of various people, and if I had my job to do over again in the Manhattan District, I would select General Groves as a boss.” 

Gene Vidal [Classmate of Groves, father of Gore Vidal] told that story one time to Groves and he was quite amazed, because Gene embellished it a lot. He was a neighbor of Groves up in Darien, [CT], and I told that to Gene one time. Because he asked the same question. Most people usually ask me, because he is a controversial character. He said, “You should’ve seen Groves face when I started off with your answer. He said, ‘Nichols said that?’” He said, “I really made it better than you ever made it.” He says, “I made a good story out of it.” He said, “When I finally got to the final statement, and then his face beamed and that made him happy.”

But there is no question that he was rough.

Groueff: Rough in what way?

Nichols: He was rough and almost ruthless in getting, particularly when it might pertain to people in uniform, or civilians. He was rough with the scientists. When they had served their usefulness, well, he would be as nice as could be when they were useful, his tendency was then to drop them. A lot of the difficulties he had after the war were due to that characteristic. He has mellowed.

Groueff: When you say that he was rough—

Nichols: But you take that. You need that type of guy to get a thing like this done.

Groueff: Was he rough in his manner also, I mean shouting?

Nichols: No, no, no, always very soft-spoken.

Groueff: I see. He is not the [00:30:00] kind of angry general who shouts and gives hell?

Nichols: Oh, no, no, I do not think you would ever hear him shout

Groueff: Soft-spoken.

Nichols: He was very cutting in his remarks, and in his treatment of people.

Groueff: Driving everybody to the limits?

Nichols: Oh, he would try to make them mad. Whether he did it intentionally or not, I do not know.

Groueff: You were his number one assistant and his deputy.

Nichols: No, I never was exactly that status. The status was a rather unusual one. The District was the organization set up to accomplish this. Initially we were told to report to the Chief of Engineers, which was Colonel Marshall, was told to report to him. Then when General Groves was set up, he was never put in the Manhattan District as such. At that time, he was Assistant Chief of Engineers. All we were told was, “Here is General Groves.”

I had worked for him on construction, Rome Air Depot. Colonel Marshall then came under him, as a construction chief. We were told slowly that General Groves was now the boss man as far as the Army was concerned, and we knew what his chain of command was, which was pointed out very well at Policy Committee and whatnot, where that was all set up. He was part of this change, where before it was Styer was the contact.

Groueff: But the head of the District was you?

Nichols: Yes. Originally, it was Colonel Marshall.

Groueff: Marshall and then—

Nichols: And then I succeeded him, but you never set General Groves up as an official title within the Manhattan District. He was set up as Assistant Chief of Engineers, and then the Policy Committee was set up, formalized by the President. So there was no question about to whom we were reporting.

Groueff: Yeah, it was Groves.

Nichols: It was Groves, and we were told then—I was in on all these things. We were told to keep the Chief of Engineers informed. Once a month I would write a report to Groves, but before I delivered it to him, I would stop in to see General [Thomas M.] Robins or General [Eugene] Reybold and let them read the report and answer any questions they wanted to ask. But they knew they were not in the chain of command.

Groueff: I see. You did not have to report to Bush or Conant?

Nichols: No, Bush and Conant were on the Policy Committee. That was the way this thing was formalized after this first summer.

Groueff: ’42.

Nichols: After ’42. [00:33:00] Well, actually, Conant was a substitute for Bush, so it was really Bush. Bush, and Styer, and [William] Purnell, and who was the other one?

Groueff: Styer, Bush and Conant and Groves.

Nichols: Groves was really secretary of it.

Groueff: Yeah, and so manager of the project, okay.

Nichols: So, for our authorizations, for example, whenever we would write a report to the President, which was about every six months, I would assist Groves in writing that. He would take that report, get it approved by this Policy Committee and then it would go to the President. Come back, “Okay, FDR,” and I would keep a Photostat of that with certain figures cut out as my authorization. We never had anything in writing between Groves and myself.

Groueff: All your reports were—

Nichols: Well, I mean authorizations. I would make this monthly report.

Groueff: Uh-huh, but not to Groves, but to—

Nichols: To Groves.

Groueff: To Groves, I see.

Nichols: He would make a report every six months to the President, and would have frequent meetings with the Policy Committee for various other authorities that he needed. Then to pass to me, like when a plant was approved, was done verbally at a meeting and I would issue the necessary—

Groueff: Because of the secrecy?

Nichols: Because of secrecy, we had nothing between Oak Ridge and Washington flowing in the line of letters.

Groueff: During the war you were mostly at Oak Ridge?

Nichols: Well, I was living there, but I was there about two days a week and traveling the rest of the time.

Groueff: And, Hanford was also under your—

Nichols: That is right.

Groueff: Under Colonel Matthias?

Nichols: Yes, there was Matthias, but it was part of the District. 

Groueff: It was under you, and Los Alamos was under Groves.

Nichols: The way we arranged it was that Los Alamos was under me administratively. In other words, I or somebody in my outfit— I guess I signed the contract to the University of California. But the understanding that I had with Groves was that he would direct them for all their technical operations—

Groueff: Via Oppenheimer.

Nichols: Via Oppenheimer, and the reason it came about that way was the initial idea that the scientists would be in uniform.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: That was the recommendation of the scientists. We set up Los Alamos with the thought that they would be acting in their own right, not as a contractor.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: Oppenheimer, we were going to commission, I think, as a Colonel. We were worried about whether he would pass a physical exam. Conant and Compton and several other of the scientist had recommended that.

Groueff: Why wasn’t that implemented?

Nichols: It wasn’t done, because – you can get a better story on this from General Groves – I recall one meeting up in the Biltmore Hotel [00:36:00] where [Isador I.] Rabi was a primary instigator of bucking that move. He did not want the scientists in uniform.

Groueff: Rabi.

Nichols: Rabi was really, at least at that particular meeting, he was the one representing that group of scientists that did not want to be commissioned. The decision was made at a later date, in fact, some time in ’43, that the scientists would not be commissioned at Los Alamos.

That left us then with a bastard organization, because we had set up a major as contracting officer and sort of area representative with the thought that he was not going to have any authority, he was just a housekeeper. The result was they tangled out there all during the war, because we had started with the idea that Oppenheimer would be acting in his own name as a Colonel in the Corps of Engineers. So we had a little difficulty keeping the thing straight administratively.

Groueff: But Oak Ridge was entirely your responsibility?

Nichols: The rest of the District was entirely my responsibility. Of course, Groves interferes in everything as his normal way of practice. I have the same habit of—

Groueff: You interfere, too. But was it unpleasant? I mean, your contacts with Groves?

Nichols: My contacts with Groves, personally, were generally pleasant.

Groueff: But under sort of reserved business service?

Nichols: I would meet him generally once a week somewhere, wherever there was a trouble spot. The rest of the time we went on each our own little orbits.

Groueff: He would call on telephone?

Nichols: I visited New York every week and usually one or two other points in the District. I would make a round trip every week.

Groueff: But, here, the Dodge Building [Pupin Hall] and at Columbia, all this works, or which was your responsibility then?

Nichols: Well, of course, there were four big fields, you might say. One, Oak Ridge, which was the biggest of all. The New York office, we had five offices there. But the biggest one pertained to all raw material up to and including uranium.

Groueff: Ah, procurement of—

Nichols: And the manufacture of uranium for Hanford and uranium hexafluoride for Oak Ridge. That was under Colonel [John R.] Ruhoff. I visited there once a week to check on that. Groves paid very little attention to it, because it was never in any trouble until when we finally were explaining where all the money went to, and certain people wanted to cancel the project in ’45. He discovered I spent $100 million and wanted to know how come I had not let him know more about it. There was never any trouble, it was always on time. 

So you had Hanford, Oak Ridge, this New York office, [00:39:00] and the other big deal was the various universities, California and Chicago.

Groueff: The electromagnetic was under you also, the Lawrence—

Nichols: Yeah, San Francisco, Berkeley.

Groueff: And the Chicago group?

Nichols: Same way.

Groueff: Same way.

Nichols: Now, that did not mean that Groves was not circulating at the same time, and wherever there was trouble, we would both get together the same week.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: And otherwise he would go on his own little orbit, but include Los Alamos. I went to Los Alamos about once every three months, whereas he would probably go once about every two weeks.

I had very little to do with the delivery of the weapon or the training of the Air Force [00:39:49] or overseas intelligence.

Groueff: So your job was limited to the manufacturing—

Nichols: Making U-235 and plutonium.

Groueff: Yeah, and delivering to Los Alamos, and then your responsibility is finished.

Nichols: Except for certain administrative responsibilities.

Groueff: Yes, for Los Alamos.

Nichols: Administering the contracts and buying stuff for Los Alamos, that type of stuff.

Groueff: But Groves also had to cover the preparation of the weapon.

Nichols: My job almost ended at the point where plutonium and U-235 delivered to Los Alamos, but the deal was I would keep informed of what was happening so that I could administer the contractual end of it.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: But I was not to issue instructions of what size the bomb should be or that type of thing, so I kept out of that. But I was fully informed at any time I wanted to go out there, which I did abut once every three months.

Groueff: But the decisions, for instance, day-by-day and decisions at Oak Ridge, when you had all the difficulties there with K-25 and all, they were—

Nichols: Groves would come down to Oak Ridge probably once every two or three weeks, and I would meet him at the train and we would spend the day together and put him on the train at night.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: We always joined once a week somewhere, and usually where it was hot. We would get the right people in a room and we would sit there until we got the decision. Groves would make it and I would see that it was carried out.

Now, on my own little gyrations, why, I would do the same thing. For example, on Hanford, I spent more time at Wilmington than I did out at Hanford, because that is where the engineering decisions were being made. But [00:42:00] if we got to a point where—well, a typical one is we originally signed up DuPont to build four reactors, and one day they told me they thought they could do it with three. Well, they wanted to know, “Do we raise the amount of material, or do we build three plants instead of four?"

I said, “Get all the dope together and I’ll have Groves here next week. I might as well get him in on it.”

That was the way that we would make that kind of decision. If it was something that I did not think we needed him, why, I would make the decision. We never had any clear-cut—

Groueff: Limitation of responsibility.

Nichols: The whole idea was that, as I used to tell people in the District, that if Groves came into an outfit, if he told them to do something—

Groueff: They had to do it.

Nichols: No, not necessarily. If I had issued contrary instructions, they should call me. If they did it, they would do it on their own, just the same as they did everything else on their own. If they felt that I disagreed, why, to call me, I would tell them what to do. And if I did not like it, I would tell them not to and call Groves and tell him why. Sometimes, he would reverse me, but very seldom. The whole outfit was freewheeling.

Groueff: Freewheeling.

Nichols: To where both of us kept informed at all times of what was going on.

Groueff: So in that respect the contact between you and Groves was very good.

Nichols: Yeah, generally speaking. The main points of dissension I had with him, the same was Marshall, was occasionally I am tangling with individuals.

Groueff: Mostly scientists or the military?

Nichols: A combination.

Groueff: Combination. In what way? Not considering their personal feelings?

Nichols: Well, that was mainly it. How rough do you get on a guy, or who should be responsible for something? Who do you take whose word for what?

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: But we did not tangle too much on that. Say, that was one of the things that used to irritate me, was why he was so ornery when you do not have to be. Of course, some people think I am a good SOB, too. All depends on your viewpoint.

Groueff: How were your contacts with the scientists? Good?

Nichols: I think they were probably better than Groves.

Groueff: Than Groves. Because he had some difficulties with the Chicago group?

Nichols: I got along beautifully with Arthur Compton. I think if you read Atomic Quest you will see that. I think generally speaking, I got along with most of the scientists a little bit better than Groves. For one reason, they all admit very little. Scientists are strange creatures in that they felt I had a higher degree than Groves. I had a doctor’s degree.

Groueff: And that counts for them?

Nichols: That counts with them, yeah. [00:45:00] No, the way they looked upon me as more understanding of the scientific problems.

Groueff: As a kind of colleague?

Nichols: As a kind of colleague. Like I can always remember one of them coming in when I was trying to set up an organization chart. He was a doctor, professor. I wanted him to take over an exchange of information, where you disseminate information where it needed to go. I put him under Harry Wensel, who we had inherited from the OSRD, who was a PhD. Harry came in and says, “The guy won’t work for me.”

I said, “Bring him in.” I asked him what was the problem, and finally got out, he did not like the organization chart. He felt that this particular function should be under me, that he should be reporting to me. I said, “Well, I don’t have the time to run all these things.” I said, “I’ll know what you’re doing. If I had everybody reporting to me, how would you get decisions? I mean, everybody can’t see me.” I said, “You get in trouble, you’ll see enough of me.”

It finally came out that why he worried about the organization chart was that Harry Wensel was only a PhD, and he was a professor in addition to being a PhD. So it was a case of inverting ranks. But I said, “Well, why would you report to me?"

He said, “Well, you’re a PhD.”

I said, “Yeah, but I’m not a professor.”

He said, “Yes, but you’re a Colonel and you’re in charge of the project.”

I said, “Well, actually the PhD has nothing to do with this field.” I said, “So really I’m inferior to Wensel. He’s a PhD in physics. I’m a PhD in engineering. The field of engineering had nothing to do with this particular effort.”

Well, he said, “But you’re an Army officer and you show on the chart at the top.”

I said, “Well, okay, well will it make you happy if it shows on the chart you’re reporting to me, but you’re taking orders from Wensel?”

He says, “Yeah.”

But he did not want any chart, see. So I found that many of the scientists more—

Groueff: They are very touchy.

Nichols: —very. More rank conscious than the Army.

Groueff:  They couldn’t admit that their general, like Groves—

Nichols: Well, certain ones did. Ernest Lawrence always got along beautifully with Groves.

Groueff: But Szilard had difficulty, I think.

Nichols: Oh, with me, too.

Groueff: He was a difficult man, no?

Nichols: He was a troublemaker.

Groueff: What, a prima donna type?

Nichols: No, Szilard was a promoter. You know, if you really study his history very carefully, you will find he was essentially a promoter.

Groueff: More [00:48:00] than a scientist?

Nichols: More than a scientist. He happened to get in the early days and help promote this thing, which you have to give him credit for. But in Chicago, he spent most of his time wandering around taking notes rather than working. He was really a troublemaker. If Groves has given you a dim view of Szilard, I could give you a worse one. Because I was a little closer to the workings in Chicago, I think, than Groves was.

Groueff: Wigner was better?

Nichols: Wigner, he really made an all-out effort. To my mind, Eugene is tops.

Groueff: Tops.

Nichols: But Eugene was hard to handle. Wigner was difficult to handle, because he was a prima donna, but I never minded handling a prima donna if they were working.

Groueff: And he had some genius?

Nichols: No question about it. He was a go-between, so you had Crawford Greenewalt representing—

Groueff: DuPont.

Nichols: DuPont with [John] Wheeler. They hired to get somebody on their payroll that would really give them firsthand information and loyalty to them. Wigner was really the main contact with DuPont, trying to make the decisions.

You are going to have recognize, you had physicists who had never worked with engineers and did not have the faintest concept of engineering. Wigner claimed he was part engineer. He had some engineering training in addition to being an outstanding physicist. I do not know which he really should be titled, physicist or engineer, but he was a darn good in-between, where he embraced both engineering. And of course, Fermi was—

Groueff: How was Fermi? Easy or trouble?

Nichols: Fermi was one of the most delightful persons anyone ever met. But you could also have trouble with Fermi. I always remember one time going out, which during the early days of the war, ’42, I went to Chicago every week. I can always remember one particular time we had after we had lined up DuPont, and Fermi was in protesting to Arthur Compton when I arrived. “DuPont was too conservative, too slow, and they would never get this thing done. They wanted everything justified,” which, logically, an engineering outfit should. They were not going to build something that did not work.

I was always amused by this particular little thing, because it was one of the few times I saw Arthur Compton sort of explode. They all talked very straightforward to me and he says, “You know,” he said, “I think Fermi may be right.” [00:51:00] He said, “DuPont is too slow.”

Fermi said, “If you’ll hire the labor and buy the bricks, I’ll tell people where to lay them.”

Arthur Compton said, “Well,” he said, “You know, if I had somebody to design the roads and the waterworks,” he said, “You know, I think I’d back Fermi on that.”

I said, “Well, Arthur, we’re all set.” I said, “This is the one field I could do.”

Groueff: Who said that, you?

Nichols: Yeah, I said, “I can build roads, I know how to build a road and I’m an expert in hydraulics. I could design the waterworks, I could design the roads, so now we’re all set.”

But, of course, Arthur realized that the way I was saying it, and he started to laugh. And, he said, “Yeah, I guess we could, couldn’t we, but maybe we’d better stick with DuPont.”

But that was typical, though, of the type of little fussing you would have. Yet Fermi was a delight to work with.

Groueff: I see.

Nichols: I always was very much interested in watching him operate. I would usually join him in what they called “the round table.” My deal with Compton was, if you want support to get these things done, you have to educate me. I said, “I know nothing about this, but you have to educate me so I will understand what my job is.” We would sit around a round table and where they would have these problems, Fermi would always sit on Compton’s right. They would start around the table, discussing these problems and what were the solutions. I always felt Fermi was a master at listening to everybody, all the various views, and then when it would come to him, he would sum up in about three sentences what was the right answer.

Groueff: He had genius, no?

Nichols: In my mind, I would class Fermi as the outstanding mind in the project.

Groueff: In the project, really?

Nichols: Then he coupled it with a rare personality, which was 99% of the time—

Groueff: Quite a thing, the rest were all such great minds.

Nichols: But, Fermi was—see, his concept was what we built at Hanford.

Groueff: And the design of Wigner and DuPont.

Nichols: The rest were adding, but Fermi was the one that was really the concept of what could be done in this particular field. Now, of course, he, like all scientists, felt, once you get plutonium—he was a physicist—it should be separated as chemistry, so therefore, it is no problem.

Groueff: Yeah, I understand, even Glenn Seaborg made a statement like that, that “If I have plutonium, in few months we can build the bomb.”

Nichols: That [00:54:00] is right. They forgot that, just because theoretically you can separate it, that it might take—

Groueff: And they had no experience.

Nichols: $200 million worth of plant to—

Groueff: How was [Harold] Urey? Because, he was causing difficulties?

Nichols: Urey was nuts. Urey, I think, went off balance during the war. Urey is a hell of a nice guy, I mean, personally. We would call him Prince Hal.

Groueff: What, Prince?

Nichols: Prince Hal.

Groueff: Prince Hal.

Nichols: H-a-l. That is from Shakespeare.

Groueff: Oh, Prince Hal, yeah.

Nichols: I always liked Urey as an individual. But your trouble with Urey stemmed from John Dunning. See, Urey was interested in heavy water. He was interested in reactors. In the makeup of the S-1 committee, where they were trying to set up the representatives under Bush and Conant, you had Compton, for reactors, Ernest Lawrence for electromagnetic, [Eger] Murphree for the centrifuge, and then you had the gaseous diffusion plant and you had heavy water for the reactor. Urey had heavy water. John Dunning had the diffusion plant, that was his baby. Well, they only wanted one from Columbia, but Dean Pegram was also on the committee. So, they already had one. They selected between Urey and Dunning, and so that started a good clash of personalities.

Groueff: And Urey was a well-established Nobel Prize. 

Nichols: That is right, and he was interested in protecting his reputation. In fact, he made a statement to me one day. He said, “I think John Dunning just backs the gaseous diffusion plant because he is out to ruin my reputation. He wants me to be the leader of a failure.” We finally sent him to Europe to get rid of him. Well, we got rid of him, demoted him, in effect. But he wrote letters, you know, after we had $100 million in the gaseous diffusion plant, which— 

Groueff: And he lost his nerve.

Nichols: He lost his nerve.

Groueff: He thought it was absolutely impossible to do it.

Nichols: That is right, and he put it in writing that we should abandon the project.

Groueff: Up to the highest—

Nichols: Well, he wrote the letters to the Bush.

Groueff: To Bush, I see.

Nichols: And to Groves. So at that point, we decided to relieve him of the responsibilities. That was arranged with Bush and Conant and Pegram. He was sent to England to check up on them while we moved Lauchlin Currie in from National Graphite. Carbide [00:57:00] and Carbon had the operation of gaseous diffusion plants, so we moved in Lauchlin Currie into the SAM labs.

When Urey came back, Pegram just told him, “Now, you can either be relieved of your responsibilities or you can sit in that office and issue no orders.” That is what he selected. I saw Urey on the way on to Chicago in the 20th Century [Limited train] right after that and he said, “You know, Nichols,” he says, “I’m starting to sleep again.” He said, “I’m glad this has taken place.”

Groueff: It was such a violent feud between Dunning and Urey.

Nichols: Yeah, plus he is out of his field. He was really off his rocker there for a while, so emotional.

Groueff: But, getting to crisis and—

Nichols: So we solved that one by just taking him out of the chain of command and saving his face for him. That I think explains in part Urey’s terrific feud with Groves after the war, because he knew those letters were in existence. Groves did not release them for a long time. He probably should have right after the war. I advised him not to. It was probably bum advice.

Groueff: What, the letters in which Urey said it was impossible?

Nichols: That it should be abandoned. It was a failure and we already put $100 million down the drain. I think there is reference to them in The New World.

Groueff: In The New World, yes.

Nichols: That is the first that’s really come out.

Groueff: Of course at that time, when the barrier did not work, the situation looked quite delicate, no?

Nichols: It looked bad, like on this little business of [Clarence] Johnson. He came in with his method of making a barrier. I can remember Dobie [Percival Keith] saying, “Well, you get Urey to test it, he won’t test it for me.”

I told Urey, “How about testing this barrier that Dobie had?” 

He said, “It won’t work, it can’t be made. You can’t make it the way they claim they can make it.” 

I said, “Well, will you just take it without regard to whether it can be made or not and just test it?”

Groueff: And when it was made, he took it as a personal assault.

Nichols: He took it and tested and he said, “Yes, it works,” but he said, “It can’t be made that way."

And, I said, “Well, that’s not your job.”

Groueff: He also did not know about industry, no?

Nichols: No, he had not the faintest concept of what industry could do.

Groueff: Dunning knew more?

Nichols: Dunning knew more. Dunning was more of an engineer.

Groueff: And [Herbert] Anderson was very enthusiastic.

Nichols: Dunning worked with Dobie Keith very well, and he worked with George Felbeck. Of course, we had an equal tangle between George Felbeck and Dobie Keith. That project was all over the map.

Groueff: How were your contacts with Keith?

Nichols: Always very good.

Groueff: Very good. Did he have a free hand to, in his field, to [01:00:00] develop all the K-25—

Nichols: I have always felt that Dobie Keith contributed more to the K-25 project than any other one individual. Dunning was the spark plug for the initial technical end of it. But K-25 was an engineering project, and that is why it is still secret, because it was done by engineering and what you call industrial know-how. That stuff has remained in the hands of a few industries that saw no need to write it up.

Groueff: Do you consider it as one of the greatest engineering achievements in history?

Nichols: It is one of the greatest engineering achievements in history, and I think you have to give Dobie Keith the basic credit.

Groueff: The basic credit, yeah.

Nichols: Now, he had a hell of a lot of support. A line of constructive, destructive criticism and loyal lot of support. But it took the whole business to go together to make the plans.

Groueff: He is also a man who takes responsibilities and a driving man, very driving.

Nichols: Very much so.

Groueff: He was driving them crazy, too. He is an engineer, they all tell me.

Nichols: Of course he had an organization of what we call vice presidents. We brought in from various parts of industry to work with him. They were all outstanding in their own field. Ludwig Skog [01:01:23] is one.

Groueff: Skog, yes. But they all tell me that he [Keith] was calling them day and night, and all their wives in the evening were furious after months and months. He would call and wake up anyone, passing over the head of the hierarchy. He was so enthusiastic about some development that he would not wait to go through the channels, but would call every—

Nichols: None of us would. When you talk about organization, none of us worried too much about channels. If we found there was trouble, we would converge on it.

Groueff: I found him very colorful.

Nichols: At the same time, the whole setup was such that anybody doing a job and doing it, he got very little interference. It was when it got in trouble, and most of these things got in trouble, because it was hard.

Groueff: Now, Keith tells me that you never interfered, Groves or you, in the decisions he was making.

Nichols: Well, I always thought Dobie very reasonable. There is another way sometime decisions were made. We planned at one time, actually dug the hole at the end of the K-25 plant, what we called the top of the plant. Because the original gaseous diffusion plant we filled was only supposed to produce material enough for a certain percentage of U-235 and then we were going to—

Groueff: To feed the electromagnetic.

Nichols: And [01:03:00] then feed the electromagnetic. Dobie was designing the top of that plant. We dug the hole and we had the excavating equipment there, and I had my brother-in-law, [Arthur] A. V. Peterson, coordinating the plants we had at Oak Ridge. The thermal diffusion, the gaseous diffusion, and the electromagnetic Alpha stages and Beta stages. Each week, he would bring in to me the curves which showed the present status of the plant. They are being built, but running, and each week there would be a different combination of plants that we had, because you put out new units. He would put down on paper his thoughts of how they should run for the next two weeks, what material you would take out of the thermal enrichment, what you would take out of the gaseous diffusion plant, whether it would go to the Alpha or to Beta.

He was doing that, and one time he brought in some curves that I looked at. I said, “Pete, those can’t be right.”

And he says, “Why not?"

And I said, “You are showing that with the Beta plants you can do a better job of enriching this material than you could if we built the top of the gaseous diffusion plant. You have more coming out the spout than what the design calls for if we completed the gaseous diffusion plant.”

He says, “I’m sure their right, we’ll go back and check them.”

So he came back and he checked them, and I said, “Well, am I not right on that?"

 He said, “Yeah, I looked up the design and we will get more this way.”

I said, “Well, it wasn’t intended to be that way. This is supposed to be stopgap until we build the gaseous diffusion plant.”

So I went up to see Dobie Keith, just took the charts, just to show how Dobie operated. I told him, I said, “Dobie, you know Pete.”

He said, “Yeah, he’s doing a good job on coordinating.”

I said, “Well, look at these curves.” I said, “This curve is right. You don’t need a top of your plant.”

He says, “Oh, the hell we don’t."

I said, “I think so, too,” but, I said, “Look at the curves and tell me what’s wrong with them. Because I had Peterson check them and he can’t find anything wrong with them. This is his work.”

He said, “I’ll get [Manson] Benedict on it.”

So he called me about a day later and he says, “Nick, you’re right.” He said, “We missed the boat.” He said, “That’s the way to operate.” He said, “Build more Beta plants.”

Groueff: Rather than finish the— 

Nichols: Rather than finish the K-25.

Then, of course, Felbeck was another prima donna. He took them to Felbeck the same way and presented the same way.