The Manhattan Project

General Richard H. Groves's Interview

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Richard Groves's Interview

General Richard Groves was a cadet at West Point during World War II, getting ready to ship out for the invasion of Japan. His father, General Leslie R. Groves, directed the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Gen. Richard Groves discusses his father’s competitive drive, the pride he felt in Manhattan Project workers, and how he felt about what the project accomplished. He also recalls receiving letters from his father at West Point and what he learned working with him on his biography.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
December 5, 2007
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC
Transcript: 

Richard Groves: I’m Richard Hulbert Groves, G-R-O-V-E-S.

Paul Williams: What memories do you have of family life, at least when you were at home?

Groves: I came home from Princeton occasionally. But then I went to West Point and we didn’t get out of West Point for a year and a half. I came home at Christmas of ’43 for five days and he [his father, General Leslie Groves] wasn’t here. I came home for Christmas in ’44 and he wasn’t here either, I guess.

I used to see him occasionally at West Point. He’d come up there on business or whatever. I saw very little of him in person. I heard a lot from him in the way of mail, depending on who was writing it. Mrs. [Jean] O’Leary wrote about half of it, so it’s hard to say. Although they were pretty much interchangeable as far as the letters went.

I used to get letters periodically from my father, and they were always typed and signed in ink. And gradually I came to realize that they weren’t all written by him. Probably some of them—in fact, a good many of them, I’m sure, were composed by Jean O’Leary and signed with his name by her. But they were all in the nature of dealing with my shortcomings, and telling me to buck up—the kind of letter that you probably got. If you didn’t, you should have.

Williams: I gather your father was strict and expected a lot of you in terms of academic achievement. Did this help to spur you on? 

Groves: Well, yes, I suppose so. It made you want to stay out of deep trouble. The trouble at West Point is that you do a lot of work all day and you’re tired at night, so you don’t study as much as you probably should. Particularly if you’re playing a sport, which I was. So during the last quarters of study period, I would tend to doze off. During the season, my class standing would drop a hundred files or so, and I would hear from Washington. And I would try to improve.

Williams: It seems in some of the letters that he had a sly sense of humor. 

Groves: Yes, my father had a very good sense of humor. It didn’t always emerge to those that annoyed him, but when he was in the right mood, dealing with proper-behaved people, his humor emerged. He had a sense of practical jokes that sometimes got annoying to those that received them. But he liked a good joke. He liked the Marx Brothers, if you want some kind of a benchmark. He thought the Marx Brothers were the best movies of all. He liked vaudeville. Liked Eddie Cantor on the radio, Joey Pennuck—you don’t remember any of those people. But he enjoyed a good laugh.

Williams: In Stan Norris’s book, it says that Colonel Consodine called you at Fort Belvoir shortly after the Hiroshima bombing and warned you not to speak to journalists. Do you remember that? Were you aware of what the commotion was about? 

Groves: Yes. Well, that was the day that they dropped the bomb and the newspapers’ headlines were six-inch letters and everything on the front page was about the bomb. Colonel [William A.] Consodine was concerned, lest some unethical or whatever reporter got hold of me first. And they didn’t. The [West Point] Post got the word too. And the Post PIO [Public Information Officer] showed up very promptly, and I was called out of class and taken in to be interviewed by the soldier-reporter of the local Post newspaper. The papers weren’t interested in me; they were chasing my mother.

Williams: Until that point, did you have any inkling about what your father was working on? What was your initial reaction? Were you happy?

Groves: No. I guess you’d have to say you were surprised, because it was something you hadn’t ever thought about. I was sort of happy, because we would have gone in—the people that I was with, we were all slated to go into Japan in November, December of that year. And judging by what happened in France, well, it would have not been very pleasant. So to that extent, you’re sort of relieved, but then on the other hand, the war was over and we didn’t get to it. And that’s not good for your career. We knew it even then, we regretted that part of it. But, on the whole, all things considered, it was a great accomplishment and we were very pleased with it.

Williams: In the times you saw your father after the war, did he talk to you and your family about what had happened?

Groves: No. In the period immediately after that, I was in Germany for five years, so when I came back, he was retired.

Williams: You helped your father write his book, Now It Can Be Told, is that right? Is there anything you want to say about that experience?

Groves: Yes. That experience almost destroyed my happy marriage, for one thing. I worked on the book for the better part of three years. His files were then down in the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria. I’d come in one afternoon every week and write drafts of pieces of it, which I’d send up to him. He’d mark them up and send them back. And this thing went back and forth. About once every month or two, he’d come down here and we’d work together on it. This went on up until the day that I climbed on the boat to go to France at that point. And my wife was not pleased, because I was teaching too. I bought a house, and to pay for the house, I had to teach at UVA and Maryland and Catholic U. So all night, every night, I was either teaching or writing that book. It was not pleasant. It was educational, but not pleasant.

Williams: It must have been some of the most contact you had with your father for quite some time.

Groves: I learned a great about him then. I learned even more about him after he died, when I had to straighten out his files. But yes, I got to know my father much better in his older life than I ever knew him as a young boy. I left home at age thirteen. After that, I was a visitor and he wasn’t there a lot of the time. So I had a not a whole lot to do, except there was no doubt in my mind who was directing me and guiding me and who set the standards that I had to meet.

Williams: What was something you learned after his death, in organizing his files, that surprised you?

Groves: You got a much better picture of a person’s life after you try to arrange it chronologically, which is what I did. I took the better part of a couple of truckloads of papers and sorted them out and put them in order by date, and then read them and tried to make sense out of them. Then you could begin to see what he went through as a cadet, and as a lieutenant, and when I was a boy, and all that.

Williams: A great deal has been written about your father. Is there any idea that you think has been missed or misunderstood or not explained properly?

Groves: Well, there are an awful lot of minor errors. As to what’s right and what’s wrong, it’s in the eyes of the beholder. You walk around a person from 360 degrees and you get 360 different perspectives. So I can’t quarrel with people that said he was this, that, or the other, except when you know it isn’t true. If they said his eyes were brown and you know they’re blue, well, that’s wrong. But if they said he was mean to somebody—I don’t know, he probably had good reason.

A lot of people refer to my father in terms of violent, strong oaths. I’ve got to tell you that he never swore in his life. His father was a Presbyterian minister, chaplain. He was brought up very strictly that was wrong, and he abided by that all his life. So you have to ask yourself, why do people keep saying this? Because it’s prevalent throughout the literature. Every time somebody quotes him—and I don’t know, as we discussed, I don’t know how they are able to quote him, but anyway they do—they always have him swearing. And the reason, I’m sure, is because when he chewed you out, you were chewed out so that your vocabulary couldn’t express what happened to you in any other terms than blasphemy and obscenity. But he never uttered any such words in his life. But on the other hand, he could take you apart like you’ve never been taken apart, if you deserved it.

Williams: Can you just sum him up?

Groves: My father was very competitive. He was aggressive and competitive. He was brought up, particularly by his mother, who died when he was sixteen. You asked me, what did I find going through his files? Well, I found letters from his mother, which I had never been aware of before. She always was after her boys. There were three of them. And General Groves, Dick, was the youngest, but she pushed him to excel, excel at everything you do.

When he got to West Point – under the Thayer System, which doesn’t exist anymore – you had a daily grade in every subject. At the end of the week, they posted your grades. And at the end of the month, they posted the grade and they re-sectioned you. The smartest guys went in the first section and the dumbbells went in the last. And you can look at his book—I’ve got one at home, the Register of Cadets—and you can see where he tracked his class standing down to the fifth decimal place. He was determined to get to be number one, and he was number one at the time he graduated. Except he graduated early, so his overall standing, he came out fourth. But he was coming up very fast, and if they’d been there another six months, well, he would been at the top.

But yes, he was very, very competitive. He played games not to play games, but to win. In football, he played center. You could take him to a football game and he watched the linemen. He wasn’t interested in the backs; he liked the linemen.

He wrestled. He liked to rub people’s nose in the mat, climb on top of them. He always spoke of the Navy as being content to have “moral victories.” He said, “There’s no such thing as a ‘moral victory.’ There’s a victory, or otherwise, you lose.” And he was after winning. You know, he was very strongly endowed with competitive spirit, and he followed it in everything he did. You didn’t want to play a game with him, because you were probably going to lose. If you didn’t, he’d come back until he beat you.

Williams: Did your father speak of the Manhattan Project in the later years? What did he think about the Manhattan Project and what it had achieved?

Groves: Well, my father, number one, he had no regrets. And everybody—politically correct kinds—would tell him that he should regret. Well, he didn’t have any regrets. He had a job, a mission, and he accomplished it. He thought and he spoke repeatedly of the opportunities that this thing opened up. He told my wife when we were first married that the time would come when she could do her cooking with atomic energy. Well, that time never came, not yet; it will in yours, maybe. But he looked forward to the benefits from it. As far as the principal benefit was, it ended the war. There was no doubt about that and that was good.

As far as how he felt at the very end, I think he was content. He had no regrets whatsoever. Was he proud of it? I don’t think he was proud—well you know, proud is a bad word in English. In French, there’s seven words that all translate into “proud,” but vain pride—“orgueil,” if you speak French—no, he never had that.

Was he proud of what he accomplished, in the sense of espirit de corps and all that? Yes, he was intensely proud of the Manhattan Project and proud of the people that worked on it. All 200,000 of them, not just the “fancy dans” that wrote books, but the people that were out there doing the mucking around in the mud.

Williams: Did he ever express anything about [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, particularly the way that he was treated after the war?

Groves: Not to me. In his files, well, he maintained a relationship with Oppenheimer right up until the end. It was a polite relationship. They weren’t chums. I don’t know what Oppenheimer thought of him. I can imagine what he might very well have thought. His outlook on Oppenheimer was: he did the job that he wanted him to do, and leave it at that. He went through Princeton occasionally when my sister was working at Princeton and saw Oppenheimer. I don’t know. He never said anything, pro or con. If he didn’t like you, he’d tell you to your face. And he wouldn’t tell me that he didn’t like you, he’d tell you. So if anybody knows what he thought about Oppenheimer, it would have to be Oppenheimer.