The Manhattan Project

James B. Conant's Interview

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Dr. James B. Conant, a chemist and a President of Harvard, served on various committees overseeing the Manhattan Project. He was a key player in pushing the Manhattan Project forward early on. He discusses the S-1 Committee’s recommendation to President Franklin Roosevelt to pursue all possible methods of enriching uranium. Conant stresses the importance of the AAA priority rating for materials and manpower for the Manhattan Project, and argues that getting the AAA rating was one of the turning points for the project. He also explains his role as a scientific advisor for the project.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 11, 1965
Location of the Interview: 
New York
Collections: 
Transcript: 

Stephane Groueff:  Interview with Dr. James Conant. Dr. James Conant, New York, October 11, 1965. 

Dr. James Conant:  I don’t remember anything about it, frankly. And I’m amazed at what people are writing about it [referring to “The New World, 1939-1946: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission,” Vol. I, by Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson]. Says that I “could see the outcome and he was not pleased,” but they [Hewlett and Anderson] give a reference and I don’t know how they know that. Maybe there’s a piece of paper somewhere that—

Groueff: No, I don’t have it here.

Conant: So you’ll have to look up reference 31 [Hewlett and Anderson p. 69].

Groueff: Now the idea from this book and the other books is that by the spring of ‘42 you had about five different methods which seemed to be feasible. The research on them had reached a stage where you had to decide to take some steps to production. Now the question was, which one had to be chosen? And I understand that you recommended to Dr. [Vannevar] Bush, and he reported to the President, that for the moment all five had to be. 

Conant: I didn’t recommend anything. The question is what this panel recommended, and that’s in writing and I haven’t seen it so I don’t know. We’d have to go to the record here. 

Groueff: the Atomic Energy Commission released this to me.

Conant: Yes.

Groueff: I’m trying to use this kind of firsthand material.

Conant: See it says “Dr. Conant, General Styer not voting”

Groueff: Yeah.

Conant: So it wasn’t my recommendation. 

Groueff: It was also your opinion I believe, no? 

Conant: Well I don’t know. I haven’t any record. 

Groueff: You don’t remember?

Conant: No, This doesn’t seem to be. This seems to be a record of the group.

Groueff: Yes.

Conant: “General Styer not voting.” 

Groueff: Yeah, but you were part of the group. 

Conant: Yeah, but I wasn’t voting. 

Groueff: I see.

Conant: Well I’m afraid I can’t give you anything more that’s here. Because I don’t have any memories of my state of mind, or anything else.

Groueff: Except letters like this. 

Conant: Well, this is a memorandum.

Groueff: Memorandum, yeah. Because the detailed memorandum number on the letters are still classified I can’t see them. 

Conant: That’s too bad, because they might throw some light on it. 

Groueff: Some light, yeah. But you don’t remember this particular meeting?

Conant: No, I don’t remember anything about it. 

Groueff: Now probably you could give stats and details about—

Conant: I don’t even know where it was held. It doesn’t say there. 

Groueff: They say [Hewlett and Anderson p. 69] it was held in a New York office. 

Conant: They do?

Groueff: Yes. 

Conant: Where do they say that? 

Groueff: In the book. 

Conant: I don’t believe it was my office. Wasn’t big enough to hold such a group. I wonder where it was held. But then that’s a minor point, but it shows the difficulty of memory.

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: I don’t know where it could have been held. I had a very small office and couldn’t have held that number of people. Besides which we never would have put that group together in a conspicuous place. Well, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know where it was held. 

Groueff: Well where was the office? 

Conant: I don’t know where it would be. Well, go ahead. 

Groueff: What was your office anyhow? How big was—

Conant: It was one of the small offices in the Carnegie Institution Building in Washington. Dr. Bush turned that all over to the NDRC/OSRD Building. Couldn’t have been my office. Might have been a conference room. 

Groueff: Okay. 

Conant: I can’t visualize it at all. 

Groueff: But your regular office was at the Carnegie?

Conant: Yeah, one of the many little offices that they cut the Carnegie Building up into temporarily.

Groueff: In Washington?

Conant: Yes. 

Groueff: So during this period, all the period of the bomb, you continued to be president of Harvard and at the same time you were a member of different committees?

Conant: Chairman. Well, I was Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee after the reorganization which took place just before Pearl Harbor. That’s all set forth in [James] Baxter’s book on “Scientists Against Time.”

Groueff: Yes. 

Conant: About the time of Pearl Harbor, perhaps somewhat before, the responsibility for the atomic business was taken out from the National Defense Research Committee and given to this special group, of which I was Chairman, reporting to Bush. So the National Defense Research Committee had no jurisdiction and no responsibility for it. So, I was carrying that as sort of an extra at the time. 

Groueff: It wasn’t a full-time job at the beginning?

Conant: It wasn’t a full-time job any of the time, but it was separate. That’s what I’m emphasizing. 

Groueff: I see. 

Conant: The National Defense Research Committee had many, many branches, but one of them was not the atomic energy, which was separated off and which I was chairman of – the S-1 committee, as it was called. Entirely apart from my duties as Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee. The members of the National Defense Research Committee were not cleared for this information. They didn’t know anything about it at all. 

Groueff: So that was completely separate. 

Conant: Separate. The man whose office shared my office towards the end of the project was a man named [Edward L.] Moreland, electrical engineer from Tech [MIT]. He was sort of deputy chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and he didn’t know I was concerned with the atomic bomb at all. So that’s why I doubt that they met in my office. It was all carried out with great secrecy. But it’s just one of the many things that show difficulty. 

Groueff: I have to check, that’s why it’s so difficult to—

Conant: And even saying “my office” wouldn’t prove anything. Some secretary might have put that in without thinking back to where my office was, because we shifted the office around. It could be that I at that particular period had an office large enough to take all those people in. It could be. 

Groueff: But it was always at the Carnegie. 

Conant: It would have been at the Carnegie. There may have been a room there that Bush let us have. There was a conference room that he used. 

So much for the trivial point of where the meeting was. And I can’t remember my attitude or anything about it, and I’m a little amazed that even this has started, to try to make a more interesting book. I don’t see how it could do it. But this is the trouble with all writers [like Hewlett and Anderson].

Groueff: Trying to make it more interesting sometimes.

Conant: Always saying, “In his mind was the question.” Well how in the devil did they know that? The real question that comes to mind was sufficiently important to work as a commitment of this size. I suppose he’s picking that out of the preamble here. If the urgency in producing them justifies the program—but one doesn’t know who insisted on that. That might have been any one of the group. 

Groueff: I think there was some letters from you to Dr. Bush previously. 

Conant: Well, I’m flattered. Those letters would have value. 

Groueff: In which you stated that it would be a mistake to abandon one of the courses, they say here, because it may be the good course. 

Conant: Yeah. This is this reference here, I guess. “Committees assignment from Bush” [Hewlett and Anderson p. 69]. This is reference 32. There’s [inaudible].

Groueff: Yeah, those references, I had them all but they gave me only a few. Most of them are classified because they have some figures and some—

Conant: That’s the trouble of going behind this. You’ve got a tough job. 

Groueff: Yeah.

Conant: Because what you really want to know—

Groueff: Actually, as I said, most of my—

Conant: Now it says, “In the afternoon session…which was drafted on yellow tablet paper”? [Hewlett and Anderson p. 71] How in the devil do you know that? Must be this I thought. If I drafted it, I’d like to know who could’ve read it. 

Groueff: Maybe it’s in your papers.

Conant: Maybe. I don’t know, and unfortunately I haven’t got my copy of this book, I lost it when I was abroad. I must get another copy. What are these? 

Well anyway, let’s go ahead. You may be able to pick up something more useful.

Groueff: Probably you can tell me if you remember about this decision, whether it was made first by you or by all those men?

Conant: Certainly it was made by the men and not by me. 

Groueff: [Harold] Urey, [Ernest] Lawrence and [Arthur] Compton and [Lyman] Briggs and yourself.

Conant: Yeah. 

Groueff: And then the whole group would vote, and the group reported to Dr. Bush?

Conant: Through me, yeah.

Groueff: Through you. And this memo that you sent, who recommended this to the President? Now do you agree with me when I consider this decision as an extraordinary important and also brave and even risky one? A decision with tremendous consequences. 

Conant: Yes, it is.

Groueff: And tremendous courage.

Conant: I agree to the second statement anyway. It was certainly a recommendation. It wasn’t a decision. The only person that could make a decision was the President. 

Groueff: The President. 

Conant: The President made the decision, unless you call deciding to make a recommendation a decision, but I think that confuses the terminology. 

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: After all, the committees could have been overruled by me or by Bush, or by the President. But the only person who would have the adequate information on which to properly throw it out would be the President. Now, I don’t know what the President did. That would really be the important thing. 

Groueff: He made the decision. 

Conant: But you see, this is implied. You see, the committee carefully hedged itself. “If the urgency of producing justifies a program, which is in effect an all-out effort.” Well now that means that the committee didn’t say—it said “if.” This “if” is directed to no one except the President. [Hewlett and Anderson p. 71]

Groueff: The President. But—

Conant: I don’t know what advice he sought. 

Groueff: But the history after that, the history which followed shows that he made the decision following the recommendation given from a letter by Bush and by you, after this meeting.

Conant: Yeah well, but the “if” phrase is very important in that he did it. I don’t know. He may have just made it without weighing.

Groueff: Your recommendation.

Conant: Weighing it against the needs, you see. Let’s see what he says about it here. I don’t believe there’s anything to that. I suppose if Bush took the recommendation directly to him—have you interviewed Bush?

Groueff: No. I talked to him twice and we still couldn’t make it and I intend to go and see him one of these days.  He’s in Boston.

Conant: You’ll find him at least as cautious as I am. All the communications between the atomic business and the president was done by either Bush or later, [Secretary of War Henry] Stimson, or [General George C.] Marshall, or [General Leslie] Groves. I never saw the President on the atomic bomb project at all. So the vital link there I have no memory of. 

Groueff: I see.

Conant: But I’m just pointing out to you that in that thing there’s a very important reservation on the part of the committee. 

Groueff: The “if.”

Conant: Yes. And the only person who could answer that would be the Commander-in-Chief because obviously people could say, “This is going to involve tremendous outlay of money and manpower. War was in progress. Was this justified?” And the only person who would have all the facts available to make that decision would be the President. 

Groueff: The President. 

Conant: Now maybe he didn’t, it could be that he just made the decision off the top of his head. I’m just saying nobody could calculate that, in which case it was much more of a gamble. I don’t know because the President would be in a difficult position to start trying to weigh the advantages of an unknown thing like this against the hindrance or disadvantage that would it give to the rest of the war without consulting what the rest of the project was. I just don’t know what brought him to—

Groueff: I find it very unlikely that the President didn’t at least read or take some advice from the recommendations given by Bush, because after all he appointed Bush and you and this committee to advise him on that. 

Conant: Well as far as the possibility of it was concerned, but this “if” phrase—

Groueff: The “if” phrase

Conant: Goes beyond the confidence of Bush.

Groueff: The way I understand this “if” phrase is that in this period, May ‘42, the whole project was not yet in the production stage. The instructions after Pearl Harbor were to do all-out research on the feasibility and the possibilities. But no green light was given to start production. In other words, I understand that all of you and all the leaders of every program were given instruction to push research and to make an all-out effort to find out whether it’s feasible. And if production was needed then you will be given the go ahead. Which happens later, when the Army came in and Groves took over. 

Conant: No, this is the recommendation here is to go ahead and build the pilot plant. That’s the important thing. There were four. One, two, three, four pilot plants, I guess. No, really only three. There’s a centrifuge and a diffusion. And electromagnetic.

Groueff: Electromagnetic. And the reactors.

Conant: I guess that’s right, I guess that’s D.

Groueff: And if you count—

Conant: Three, four. There were four. These are classified, that’s why—

Groueff: Yes, the figures. The figures are classified. 

Conant: Did you ever check to cross here against what was actually was? I guess it was wrong by a factor of ten. 

Groueff: There is another letter here.

Conant: July 1st, ’44. That was wrong by a year. 

Groueff: But they were amazingly close to the—

Conant: You think so?

Groueff: This is another memo that you sent to Dr. Bush later. 

Conant: Yeah. 

Groueff: This is from October.

Conant: Now who was the executive committee by this time I wonder? Same group?

Groueff: Same group. I have to check. 

Conant: Well this must have been October, about the time that Groves came into the picture. 

Groueff: So that’s after Groves? Groves came in September. So the whole picture is a little bit changed. 

Conant: This is all on the centrifuge. 

Groueff: With the diffusion. So there is no doubt I think that the recommendation was to go with all five, and later they became four. That is because the heavy water reactor was discovered.

Conant: Leads to the conclusion, not yields to the conclusion. Trouble is, they’ve censored this so heavily that it’s very hard to make sense of it. 

Groueff: All the figures. 

Conant: Yeah. I’ve been curious. I’ve never seen these documents, since I wrote them. Without the figures they don’t tell you much. 

Groueff: They give me a general idea of the decisions and I check also what I find in “The New World.”

Conant: See, this was the big problem, the AAA priority. I don’t know if that was brought out or not, but that’s what the thing really all turned on. And I’m not sure that’s brought out in the book, and that much I do remember and you can record it. The thing could’ve never have been built unless Groves had been able to get such top priority, manpower, and materials as to put into a lower category priority a great many important things for the immediate war effort. The result was a tremendous struggle, which he must have told you about. 

Groueff: Part of it.

Conant: To get the priorities, and it’s indicated here that at that time, with limits imposed, General Styer warned against some issues. I think that Groves had to go back and go over the head of somebody and get to the top. He may have gone to the President; I don’t know. But this he probably remembers. 

Groueff: That was one of your main concerns.

Conant: One of my main concerns? It was Groves’ concern.

Groueff: Groves, yeah. 

Conant: It wasn’t my concern. But it should be pointed out that, to be sure it was a marvelous undertaking, but it was possible only because it was possible to convince somebody who had control of the priorities, and at last analysis that was the President. But I know in fighting there was the different levels. 

Groueff: Yeah, that’s a very good idea that I should go into.

Conant: You should go into that. Because it could’ve been blocked and right to the end. Could ask Groves about this. Right to the end there were people very close to the top of the war effort concerned with material and people who thought that this was just terrible, that we were just throwing away our resources, which were needed for everything. Everything wanted priority. In those days just traveling on an airplane, I never did, but a lot of people—you’d have to get, it was a priority to get a seat on an airplane. If you came to a stop and you didn’t have good priority and somebody had a better one, you got off the plane. 

Groueff: Off the plane. 

Conant: Yeah. So you might be spending a couple of days traveling across the United States, matter of fact that’s why I always went by train. But that’s only an illustration of the tremendous importance of priority. Everybody who had a project requires money or manpower said, “This should come first!” And eventually they tried to get it, if necessary appeal to Secretary [Robert P.] Patterson, Undersecretary of War, in charge of resources, material and personnel. He must have been an important figure in this and I guess that he must have had a great many doubts about this project, which he wasn’t told much about. So you might run that down. 

Groueff: That’s a very—

Conant: It ought to be somewhere in “The New World,” but it may not be. 

Groueff: I did, but it’s not.

Conant: But that sentence right there is your taking-off point from that. 

Groueff: From your letter to Bush?

Conant: Yeah. See this is, “It is clear the priority is not as sweet as we had imagined.” See? “But I think General Groves will do the best he can with the limits”—I mean, “within the limits imposed by [Ferdinand] Eberstadt, who warned him against the misuse of AAA priority which he had been granted.” But what constitutes misuse?

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: See. That’s a very important point that I think is now forgotten. That I do remember. But only that it wasn’t my worry, it was General Groves’s worry. Yeah, and you see by this time, the whole question had been taken out of the old [S-1] Executive Committee, which wrote this thing here. 

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: Put in the hand of the Army and Navy committee. Army and Navy, General Styer, Admiral Purnell, Bush and I was his alternate. That was supposed to be the committee that was running things. 

Groueff: Now how did this committee work or function later. Didn’t it become a kind of a watchdog committee? And Groves had the—

Conant: Yeah, Groves reported to that committee in his office. Those meeting were held in Groves’s office. That I remember very well. And met very rarely.

Groueff: So actually the business was run by Groves. 

Conant: By Groves, yes. 

Groueff: And three of you or four of you had the power to sanction it, or if Groves did something wrong, you had the power to relieve him?

Conant: To recommend his relief. This committee would have reported it to Stimson. Or directly to the President. From about this time on the important decision had been made and somehow, somewhere there’s a letter from FDR, which was the approval of the expenditure of money. Large amounts, Groves would know about that. I don’t know they must have mentioned it somewhere in this book.

Groueff: But from this moment, the major decisions were taken by Groves?

Conant: That’s right. 

Groueff: Now you had another function, I understand, as a scientific advisor. Dr. Tolman and you had also a closer relationship with General Groves as scientific advisors. 

Conant: Yes. That’s right. 

Groueff: So that was beyond your function as a member. 

Conant: Well, it’s hard to say. As far as Tolman, that’s true because Tolman wasn’t a member here. 

Groueff: Yes. 

Conant: But I suppose you could put it this way: Bush delegated to me his responsibility on this committee because I was a member of this committee as his alternate, and expected me as member of this committee to keep in close touch with the project for myself and for himself. So I was acting really for Bush. Then I think Groves wanted another alleged scientist on the project, and so he brought in Tolman. 

Conant: So but he brought in Tolman to keep track of a number of separate projects, which were responsible to him. 

Tolman went from Chicago to Los Alamos. Bush and I did the same. All the other scientists from this point on, since this committee was essentially dissolved, none of them had any right to look at any part of the construction or operation, except the one they were responsible for themselves. 

Groueff: Like Urey, and Lawrence and Glenn Seaborg

Conant: They each stayed in their own bailiwick fairly well. The only scientists, or people who might have claimed to be scientists, namely Tolman and myself, who could visit all the sites, we were the only two. Now any of these people, I guess, could have gotten permission to go, but I don’t—

Groueff: Didn’t ask.

Conant: I doubt if they asked it. The whole thing was run quite promptly, I think, on the basis of need to know. Nobody was supposed to ask any questions unless he needed to use the information for his own particular work. 

Groueff: Yeah, that’s exactly the way General Groves described the function of this committee. So I understand that of those four men – Bush, yourself, [Admiral William R.] Purnell and Styer – you were the closest to the picture. The others acted as a kind of—

Conant: Purnell and Styer. Styer was very active for a short time before Groves was brought in, you see. 

Groueff: Yes. 

Conant: Styer was the man representing Secretary Stimson at this intermediate period. 

Groueff: The selection of Colonel [James C.] Marshall and then General Groves. 

Conant: Yeah, I think the trouble that Colonel Marshall got into was that he couldn’t get the priorities. The project was going to bog down because we couldn’t get the priorities to build the plants. And that’s when I think Styer decided to bring Groves in. You better ask Groves about that. 

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: He’ll know. 

Groueff: In the book here [“The New World”], they said that also the delay of the selection of the Oak Ridge site was too long, and Dr. Bush and yourself began to be a little bit impatient with the delays and the indecision of Marshall, who had good reasons of course not to make a quick decision. But it was considered by Styer and General Somervell that they needed a man with more drive, a more decisive man like Groves. 

Conant: Yeah, well the priorities had a lot to do with it. But I don’t think it shows here how. 

Groueff: It’s in different parts of the book, I think. The Colonel Marshall story. 

Conant: But here’s the personal pronoun “I,” when he first told us he was writing it. 

Groueff: That must be General Groves’s book.  

Conant: That’s General Groves’s book. 

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: This is the really important decision, not the one here. The June ‘42.

Groueff: And not in May?

Conant: No. 

Groueff: June ‘42. 

Conant: See how very tricky this is. I don’t think this was the important recommendation. 

Groueff: The May?

Conant: I think it was this June one. 

Groueff: June, to proceed. I see the magnificent gamble. 

Conant: I don’t think that’s this. It’s based on this, but I don’t think this is it. Actually I don’t know. There must be another piece of the paper somewhere. You notice this is very much of a hedge. Committee says, “If it’s necessary because of lack of manpower and materials or money.” See, that’s this question of priority. 

Groueff: Yeah, I better see into the priority and also this June ‘42 decision. 

Conant: Yeah. 

Groueff: But actually this decision is based on several recommendations and one of the important ones, I think, is this May recommendation. 

Conant: Yes, that’s true. 

Groueff: In fact, things are never clear-cut like that. Cannot pin it down to one day. 

Conant: Right.

Groueff: That’s why I wanted to see you, and even what you call your “skepticism” is very useful. 

Conant: Yeah. 

Groueff: It is very useful to me. 

Conant: Now this may give you a lead. It’s very hard to run that down; there’s very little in writing about it. Must have been a lot of verbal discussions, a great deal of argument and so on.  But this much I do remember and this is the thing that gave me the lead. And I point out also this “if” business, which is tied into the priority, because people tend to write about this as though there was no problem except for the scientific or construction one. The problem was the competition for men—

Groueff: Between different projects. 

Conant: And material. We had to get the Los Alamos thing going, we had to get scientists out of all kinds of other laboratories because it was towards the end of the war, relatively, so the urgency was serious. We had a lot of problems, and I do frankly remember getting people pulled out from one project or another to go to the mysterious project. And so many people, up to the time the bomb went off, were either concerned with material, the construction people, and people from Secretary Patterson’s office. So there was a good deal of grumbling, to put it mildly, among a lot of people who only knew vaguely that there was something going on that they didn’t like, which is interfering with the things they thought of most importance.

Groueff: And also competition for some of the materials, like nickel or copper. 

Conant: That’s right. I don’t know of whom you could talk that would see the impact of that. I saw it somewhat from the point of view of manpower. 

Groueff: General Nichols is good about materials. Silver and the copper. 

Conant: That’s right. 

Groueff: And probably some of the office of Patterson. 

Conant: Yeah, but they’re all distributed, some of them are dead. I don’t know where you would find those people. 

Groueff: General Groves also has— Yeah, Groves would know about it. 

Groueff: But this is a very good lead. 

Conant: Yes, that would be a contribution if you put that in. There is probably something written up about the shortage of material. Somebody written the life of General Patterson?

Groueff: Not that I know of. 

Conant: Well Patterson’s dead of course, he was killed in an accident. I don’t know where his papers are, but he would know a lot about the whole shortage. 

Groueff: So between him and General Groves?

Conant: Yeah. I think, I don’t know if it’s a conflict exactly. But in case of that, Groves, as far as materials. 

Groueff: And also a part of the forming of the laboratory.

Conant: He was just in a position of wanting men, but he didn’t know about the resistance to it. 

Groueff: I see. 

Conant: You get that from the people you had to rob in order to send people there, and I don’t know if they remember it. 

Groueff: So Washington was actually the center of that?

Conant: But we’ve really said almost about all you can get out of it. I don’t believe there are any quotes on it. Might be some, but I don’t know. First of all you’d have to see how much this is covered—

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: In Groves’s book and in the other—

Groueff: And that will give me some names and leads.

Conant: Yeah. 

Groueff: I wanted to ask you also another thing, do you remember some details about this big battle on the barrier? It’s pretty well covered in this “The New World” book. 

Conant: No. 

Groueff: And I understand—

Conant: I just remember it was a tremendous headache. Very technical headache, which I wasn’t competent at the time to have any judgment on. 

Groueff: I have a lot of good material because I saw a lot of that Kellex people and Columbia people. But there was a meeting around in January ‘44 with the British—

Conant: Yes.

Groueff: In the Woolworth building.

Conant: I remember the meeting, that’s all. 

Groueff: Now I understand that the British delegation was rather skeptical and critical to the approach that the Americans wanted to take. The way it’s described to me by the interviews in the books is that the old barrier was prepared by Columbia people, but was not good. Suddenly it was to be replaced by a nickel powder barrier developed by Kellex and Carbide. So it was quite a tremendous decision a few months before the deadline to switch, and the British thought that it was reckless and wouldn’t work. Do you remember anything about this meeting?

Conant: Nothing, except there was a meeting. It was a big argument with a great many technical points, which I didn’t feel competent to have any judgment on. So no.

Groueff: Do you remember the skepticism of the British?

Conant: I think so. I thought their skepticism went beyond that. It also tuned on the ability to get the plant built in time. They were very skeptical about a time schedule. On the details, I don’t remember anything about that. 

Groueff: But did you ever write anything about your memoirs?

Conant: No I haven’t, because everything is all locked up. Can’t write anything if you don’t have any piece of paper. 

Groueff: They wouldn’t let you work on your own?

Conant: Well if they did I know what they’d say. They’d say “Yes,” and then, “We’ll have to look at everything you write.”

Groueff: Pretty much has now been told by—

Conant: So much written with these books anyway. 

Groueff: No secrets. 

Conant: Left to be done. 

Groueff: Except specifically.

Conant: Yeah, the question referencing about dropping the bomb. The piece of paper just don’t seem to be available. There was some meetings, and records are different. Some say I was present; some don’t. No, you can’t write your memories twenty-five years later. Except romance, you can write a romance. I could go through “The New World” and make a few notes, but you have to be careful about that because as far as I know they might pull a memorandum, just as you have.

Groueff: Yeah. 

Conant: No, you can’t do anything without—

Groueff: But I think you would be given reasonably access to your own. 

Conant: Yeah. But only if you then promise to—

Groueff: Show them. 

Yeah. Then what’s the use? Then you’re writing under censorship. It wouldn’t be worth the trouble. 

Groueff: But it’s fitting in a way because you—

Conant: Yes, I know. And is shown by the fact that they’re still here on the piece of paper, and this is perhaps the one thing I’ve learned this morning is that they won’t release the critical numbers. 

Groueff: Those documents have to be studied by people like me. 

Conant: One of the crucial things, which I’m sure if they put numbers in there they’ll never release, was the so-called “critical size.” You really can’t talk sense about this whole problem without going into this question of critical size. 

I could try to remember it, but if I did they probably be down on me for having given away a military secret. Then it’s unfortunately, you see, unlike all the other war things you can write about. You can write about chemical warfare, you can write about radar apparently and anything you want. Nobody cares. This is still a very sensitive area, and yes, it is a pity because the story, if it could be told more frankly by documents, might be an interesting one. 

But I don’t think it would be very much different. I think what you’re doing is an interesting variation. You’re looking at it from the point of view of the engineers, scientists, and above all construction material and above all tremendous manpower used. I don’t know whether Groves told you or whether it’s in the book, but the number of workers was fantastic. But this all involved releasing them from other war work. So what I’ve interested you in is the struggle for priorities. 

Groueff: That’s true. 

Conant: Which is an aspect of this that has never been picked up by anybody. There you can use your imagination, but I don’t think there are any facts except a few. 

Groueff: But there are a lot of examples, but I have to dig them out one by one, going, let’s say, to Carbide or to Kellex. 

Conant: People who suffered the difficulties to make this story convincing, you ought to have some of the pieces of paper from somebody who protested against this. 

Groueff: I have a few things, for instance, protesting about, let’s say, you have some assistants and he’s mobilized

Conant: Yeah

Groueff: And you have to fight. 

Conant: Yeah, this is beyond me, but everybody was doing that. That isn’t important. I wouldn’t play that out. Every project had that problem. Chemical warfare. No, this is a struggle for priorities. 

Groueff: Priorities.

Conant: And I just don’t know. I’m surprised somebody hasn’t written up the work of Somervell’s office, which was under Patterson. I don’t know. 

Groueff: I’m sure General Groves can give me some names. 

Conant: He might be able to give you something. It would be very interesting if you could get one or two pieces of paper showing that somebody was kicking against the high priority that was being used by Groves for material. That would be interesting. 

I haven’t any papers at all. They might be in the OSRD files, but I’ve never even seen the files. Must be an enormous amount of correspondence. Probably worth looking through them, and in that there might be letters. 

Groueff: I think I should go straight to the central offices, which were involved in priority. 

Conant: Yes. I guess you could try to find it that way. 

Groueff: But you agree with my general conclusion that this is one of the most major and most spectacular achievements.

Conant: Yes. That’s right. 

Groueff: People talk about building the pyramids or the China Wall, etcetera, but it’s an enormous spectacular performance, which I don’t think had an equal. 

Conant: Well I don’t know, because you’d have to match it against, if you’re going to talk purely in terms of known technologies, probably the record of building submarines or record of building ships, record of building the airplanes. All these things were incredible. So I’d be a little cautious about this. 

Groueff: It wasn’t so condensed in time. They did it in three years. 

Conant: No, I’m not so sure. You’d have to be pretty careful. 

Groueff: I mean the submarine existed fifty years ago, and then—

Conant: The thing that’s perhaps extraordinary is that it involved an expenditure of time, money, and material comparable to building the battleships. And did involve priorities that had to be given by people almost entirely on faith. See, there were battles on priorities all through the war. But mostly they could argue that this is cannon against ships, ships against airplanes, and so on. 

Groueff: But it is unprecedented because you didn’t have any power plants. 

Conant: We built the power plant. 

Groueff: At the same time simultaneously the research, and production and even theory were going at the same time. 

Conant: That’s right. Well I think it was sound to put the emphasis on the industrial production side and you make a story.