David lilienthal, the atomic energy commission, and the conflict over militarization during early cold war



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Groves Battle

Quite by coincidence, the same day Lilienthal had been calling for atomic openness in Chicago, General Groves was in New York rallying for atomic secrecy. The general was the guest of honor at New York City Hall where outside the building 5000 well-wishers had greeted his arrival. Inside, Mayor LaGuardia and three hundred city dignitaries honored the general for his leadership on the Manhattan Project. After the city hall ceremony, Groves used a luncheon and press conference as public platforms to advocate atomic secrecy. Speaking at the Waldorf Astoria, Groves emphasized that “the War Department is not giving out any more information” until legislation was passed that gave another agency custody over atomic energy.”90 The next day’s headline in the New York Times proclaimed “Keep Bomb Secret, Gen. Groves Urges.”

Exactly when Lilienthal and Groves grew to despise one another is disputed. It was apparent, as Neuse observes, that “both Groves and Lilienthal had outsized egos and they had already developed an adversarial relationship” while working on the Acheson-Lilienthal Report.91 Lawren goes back further, speaking of an incident in 1942 when then TVA chairman Lilienthal refused to meet with Groves outside of TVA office hours. From then on, Lawren claims, Groves always sent a representative to speak with Lilienthal if the MED had to conduct business with the TVA. But this event is not corroborated in either the Neuse or Norris biography and is not listed in Lilienthal’s journal. In fact there are no references to Groves in Lilienthal’s journal accounts from 1939-1945. Lilienthal does later record an incident, told to him by General George C. Marshall, involving Groves, Marshall and the allocation of monies which is similar to Lawren’s account of bruised egos.92 Lilienthal called Marshall’s account a “delightful story.” It is evident that Lilienthal relished the chance to strike Groves down. And the newly appointed chairman’s first strike against the general was literally crippling.

When the military first nominated Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols to become the AEC’s Director of Military Applications, they expected his confirmation to be a foregone conclusion. Nichols already enjoyed a healthy relationship with the AEC during the AEC-military transition period and was the War Department’s only nominee for the position.93 Unfortunately for Nichols, he also enjoyed a close relationship with Groves having been the general’s “right arm on the Manhattan Project.”94 To Lilienthal the men’s friendship was reason alone to block the nomination. But Nichols and Groves’ close association wasn’t adequate justification for Lilienthal to base his case against Nichols to his fellow commissioners. He needed something more substantive, ultimately arguing that Nichols lacked the necessary experience the position required.

In a December 1946 meeting between the AEC commissioners consensus was reached that the new Director of Military Applications “would be expected to concentrate on military planning and policy formulation rather than operating problems,” qualities which precluded Nichols. On December 21, Lilienthal met with Secretary of War Robert Patterson and explained that “The Commission had now concluded that our division heads should essentially be staff officers, planning, developing, and integrating program, evaluating it, rather than operating people...Nichols was an able supervisor of contracts for construction and production, but had no experience in the development of weapons nor in military planning.”95
Patterson pleaded with Lilienthal but to no avail. On January 31, 1947, Colonel James McCormack was named the new Director of Military Applications. Although Lilienthal explained to Patterson that the AEC’s decision was based on Nichols’ inexperience, it probably had more to do with Lilienthal not wanting Nichols, who he probably deemed Groves’ lackey, in such an influential position. The decision backfired.

Announcing McCormack’s new post the New York Times reported that “The Commission [AEC], while extremely complimentary to Colonel Nichols’ accomplishments, apparently felt that for this important post it should exercise a strong degree of independence, so Colonel McCormack was selected.”96 In his journal Lilienthal called his new director “wonderful.”97 Not quite as wonderful for Lilienthal was the same day news he was to receive from Patterson who alerted the AEC chairman that he was pondering appointing Groves to the MLC and sought Lilienthal’s advice. Needless to say, Lilienthal was “flabbergasted.” “This is pretty bad; it will start the whole civilian vs. military issue all over again. Let’s hope something happens to save us somehow,” he wrote in his journal. By blocking Nichols, Lilienthal thought that he had neutralized some of Groves’ atomic influence and had no inklings that his efforts might have the opposite effect and push Groves into an even more active atomic role as MLC member. Lilienthal described Groves’ appointment as happening under “peculiar circumstances,” but there was nothing peculiar about it.98 For Groves, the MLC appointment made sense. If Lilienthal thought his mandate was strong enough to block Nichols, then the general had to get more directly involved in challenging AEC position. Groves had worked too hard and accomplished too much to let Lilienthal’s atomic ideology, which differentiated too much from his own, run amok in Washington. In his AEC fight against militarization perhaps Lilienthal had been a bit too greedy and miscalculated in his opposition to Nichols.

Still, Groves was deeply despondent over the Nichols’ decision. Only two days after Lilienthal informed Patterson that Nichol’s nomination was dead, Groves was admitted to the Army’s Pratt General Hospital in Miami on January 23. Particulars of the hospitalization were sketchy. A one paragraph story in the New York Times noted, “Hospital attaches said they knew only that he was at the hospital ‘for rest and treatment.’”99 And the Norris biography adds no further details of the hospitalization. During the hospitalization period, Groves’ confidant Robert Lapp noted that the general and Lilienthal “were not on friendly terms—to put it mildly…This is was most unfortunate since General Groves was by this time a most unhappy and rather lonely figure in Washington.”100 Groves’ despondence is best evidenced in a letter he wrote to Bernard Baruch in which the general expresses pessimism over the MLC’s impotency, frustration over Nichols’ failed nomination and serious thoughts of resigning from the military:

I would be at the mercy of a commission, which has already pointedly avoided using the men who are most experienced in the field of atomic energy. This has been particularly emphasized by the appointment [to the AEC] of a young officer from the General Staff as the Director of Military Applications, instead of Col. Nichols...As I told you, I will not make any definite decision as to my future until my return from Florida some time next month, but I can see no alternative except to retire from the army.101


The letter written from Groves to Baruch was composed in the Miami hospital where the general remained for six weeks. Even after returning to Washington, he took an additional four weeks of sick leave. Certainly having to cede his atomic control to Lilienthal and Nichols’ failed nomination didn’t make for a healthy disposition.102

When Groves joined the MLC in March of 1947, Lilienthal’s worries that the general could pose a significant threat to the civilian AEC were somewhat abated by his discovery of a new ally in General Eisenhower, who, now as the Army’s Chief of Staff, was well versed on the complaints which enveloped Groves. In June of 1946, Eisenhower received a letter from Iowa Republican Senator Bourke Hickenlooper advising the general not to be swayed by mounting pressure against Groves: “I shall feel strongly critical if, either because of expedience or pressure, General Groves is rewarded for his service by replacement or removal.”103 In his response to Hickenlooper, Eisenhower asserted, “Actually I am delighted not only that you wrote me on a matter of such importance, but because your idea of General Groves’ abilities coincides exactly with my own.”104 But Eisenhower grew increasingly tired of Groves’ antics as did others in the Pentagon. Speaking on Groves’ alienation from other high ranking officers, Lapp remarks, “the General managed to irritate many of his fellow-star bearing officers. At least six generals in the military disliked Groves so much that they went to considerable lengths to prepare a sharp bed of thorns for him there.”105 Not only was Eisenhower to be an ally against Groves, Lilienthal had sympathy from others inside the Pentagon.

Lilienthal first met Eisenhower after a speech the AEC chairman delivered on April 19, 1947, to the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE). When Lilienthal finished speaking, as he describes in his journal, Eisenhower pushed his way toward him.106 Conversing in what Lilienthal characterized as a “low” and “intent” voice, Eisenhower told the AEC chairman “I want you to know I am on your team—I mean I am on your team. You can count on me.” And Eisenhower’s words seemed to be insincere. Only a week later, McCormack reported to Lilienthal that in a speech delivered to the Secretary’s of War and Navy, the Joint Chiefs and their planning staffs, with Groves in attendance, Eisenhower “went out of his way to comment enthusiastically about my ASNE speech.”107 Lilienthal welcomed the McCormack’s news: “Choosing that particular place and with General Groves there seems rather significant. I hope to have a long talk with Eisenhower about this business before long.”108

The long talk came at a July 5 luncheon. Lilienthal’s journal describes the talk as covering a broad array of topics but the most “interesting” was Groves, who Eisenhower had much to say about:

After you spoke to the newspaper editors last April I told you at the head table you could count on me. I mean just that. I understand Groves, and I know what a problem he is. He is a problem for us over here, too. He was czar during the war, and everything is a comedown for a man of his type. Yes, it is true he has a lot of enemies over here, because of the way he rode on everyone during the war. There are ways of getting things done that don’t require humiliating people and making enemies of them. Say, I know what I am talking about; I worked with Montgomery! And Patton was much the same. But we got the good out of them without hitting them over the head. I had the authority to run them over rough-shod. Groves will never understand about these two things, he was that way before he was put in charge of this atomic project. Let me make this clear: we put him on that Military Liaison Board for two reasons. That it didn’t seem wise to antagonize those people who think he is the last word; and in the second place we ought to use him as long as he has anything to contribute; ought to pump him dry. But if at any time he causes you trouble, let me know, or just say a word to General Brereton and we will take him off. Hope that is clear.109
Besides Eisenhower, others inside the Pentagon were interested in the Groves matter as well. Also taking notice was Forrestal who seemed to be more partial to Groves than Eisenhower. Just two days after the Lilienthal-Eisenhower luncheon, “Forrestal,” as Walter Millis, editor of Forrestal’s diary, paraphrases a July 7th entry, “indicated that he thought it ‘most regrettable’ that the abilities of Major General Leslie Groves…were no longer being employed in this field.”110 Although the general had his share of enemies, civilian and military alike, there were still also a number of people who endorsed or at least empathized with his plight. Instead of showing empathy to Groves, Lilienthal showed scorn.

When hearing that Groves might be scheduled to testify in late July before a Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) hearing investigating security breeches at the AEC, Lilienthal spiritedly asserted, “If he [Groves] appears, there will be fireworks and a busy weekend—perhaps. For he will, for once, have some things to explain. They will have him on the defensive. After sniping at us, sneering at us and running us down, he may find this will be a somewhat different role. We have taken all the kicking around we intend to take.”111 But to Lilienthal’s amazement, less than two months after uttering these strong words, there seemed the distinct possibility that Groves’ “sniping” and “sneering” were to permanently cease. In mid-September, Brereton informed Lilienthal that Eisenhower planned to relieve Groves of his AFSWP command. Additionally, Eisenhower wanted to know whether leaving Groves on the MLC was “workable” and “agreeable.”112 Brereton recommended that Groves stay on the MLC but Lilienthal naturally disagreed.

However, Lilienthal’s brief reason for optimism was quickly extinguished by the news he received in an October 15 meeting with Army Secretary Royall. Lilienthal described the AEC as “being bowled over” after learning from Royall that Groves was to remain on the MLC.113 Lilienthal immediately phoned Eisenhower to voice his displeasure at the decision. Eisenhower told Lilienthal that it would be “an indefensible position if we didn’t use him [on the MLC], as he is the best equipped man in the Armed Forces, and we couldn’t stand before the public, etc., etc.”114 Lilienthal was unsympathetic to Eisenhower’s reasoning and at one point interrupted the general to say that the AEC and military “were building toward an impossible operating situation.”115

Greatly perturbed by the turn of events, Lilienthal notified Royall that a presidential intervention might soon be necessary to rectify the AEC and military’s deepening chasm. Royall then insinuated to Lilienthal that perhaps the AEC chairman’s qualms with Groves were prompted by Lilienthal’s personal disdain for the general. It seemed Royall had struck a chord with the accusation. Riled, Lilienthal issued this rebuttal:

I said that any implication that this was merely a personal disharmony was quite erroneous; that the situation as we had pointed out as a Commission to Secretary Patterson months ago was this: that the country had decided on a civilian Commission and the President had selected five men to administer the law; that the Commission was entitled to have everyone in the Government proceed on the assumption that a civilian Commission was responsible, and that this particular five-man Commission was responsible and that therefore everything should be done by the Armed Forces and others to facilitate atomic energy development on those assumptions; that General Groves had not accepted those assumptions-that is, he disagreed with the law, and he had no confidence in the men named to administer the law, and furthermore conducted himself in a way that carried out his fundamental disagreement and opposition to the Commission.116
In the midst of dramatically heightened tensions between the civilian agency and the military, Groves was left on the MLC. But Lilienthal’s sustained campaign to oust Groves had another effect: it prompted one of Groves’ former war associates and fellow Acheson committee members to intervene in the matter.

Eventually it was the efforts of James Conant which were to doom Groves. Conant’s “admiration of Groves’ brusque, assertive leadership of the Manhattan Project, did not extend to the general’s tactics or to his views on atomic weapons in peacetime, particularly his insistence on military custody,” noted Conant biographer James Hershberg.117 To fortify his position against Groves, Conant enlisted the support of McCormack, Vannevar Bush and Oppenheimer. In a letter written by Conant to Oppenheimer appealing for backing, Conant was direct in his analysis of the situation, simply advocating that Groves “should be eliminated by all means from this picture.”118 On January 17, 1948, he, Oppenheimer and Bush met with Forrestal. The official topic of the men’s discussion concerned the bettering of relations between the AEC and military.119 Forrestal told the threesome that his staff had been giving him the same advice that the three were offering, namely, to get rid of the general. At the end of the meeting even Royall, one of Groves’ most avid supporters, was persuaded that the general needed to leave. Of Conant’s success in the matter Hershberg observes, “Conant knew how to cut a backroom deal behind an associate’s back when the need arose.”120

A small Associated Press blurb appeared in the New York Times on February 3, 1948, announcing that General Leslie R. Groves was “voluntarily” retiring from the Army to take a civilian position with Remington-Rand.121 Like he had on September 21, 1945, Groves used the retirement announcement as occasion to continue his public opposition to the international sharing of atomic secrets. He also expressed little concern over Russia’s atomic program, quipping, “I don’t expect to live in a cave in the Ozarks just yet.”122 Subsequent to the resignation, Royall named Nichols to head the AFSWP while Forrestal appointed Donald F. Carpenter to succeed Groves on the MLC. Most importantly, Groves’ resignation improved the building crescendo of resentment which threatened to severely hamper AEC and military relations. In an April 14, 1948, meeting at the White House with new Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, Lilienthal finished the discussion with the president by stating, “I concluded by saying that our relations with the military had been good...I said I had no reason whatever to believe that the good relations between the Commission and the military would not continue.” Johnson agreed with Lilienthal’s assessment, adding, “I agree with that, except that it is a lot better than he has said; they have done a hell of a job.”123

The Groves’ controversy did not simply end with the general’s resignation, there were residual effects. One of the more significant changes implemented was Forrestal’s reorganization of the MLC. Not only was the civilian Carpenter slated to be Groves’ replacement on the MLC, he was also to assume the committee’s chairmanship from Brereton. Forrestal hoped that by replacing Brereton with a civilian, “Carpenter could end the crippling hostilities between the Commission and the military and at long last weld the organization into an effective team for building the nuclear stockpile which each day was becoming more critical to national security.”124

Making sure all parties were using the same game plan, when asked by the military to officially promote Nichols to head the AFSWP, the president promptly summoned Nichols, Royall and Lilienthal to the White House. Lilienthal’s March 11, 1948, journal entry portrays the meeting as agitated father—Truman—verbally rebuking his quarreling sons—AEC-military:

The President said he had before him the recommendation of the promotion of Col. Nichols as head of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project, that he wanted to have a talk with us before acting on it. “I don’t want another General Groves incident.” Royall injected to say that he saw after his trip West that that situation was as I had said it was, quite impossible.

The President said, “I want it clearly understood before I act on this appointment that this is a civilian-run agency and I thought I ought to say this to you directly. It requires cooperation between the civilian and the military, of course.” Nichols said, “You can count on 100 percent cooperation.” I said, ‘You have a team, Mr. President.”125
After hearing word that Groves was to resign, Lilienthal was not as overjoyed as one may expect. Angered by another of Groves’ exploits, Lilienthal was incredulous about the resignation:

Saturday I was boiling and steaming. General Groves again. This time he objected to inclusion of some things in our report to Congress…The objections were an almost perfect caricature of what is known as the “military mind.” Then, this morning about 10 A.M., came word: General Groves has announced that he has requested retirement, to enter private business. This indicates that the confident expectation he and his crowd had that we would be out in six months, as John O’Donnell and the Hearst press predicted when I was confirmed, those hopes have gone flat. This business of not having Napoleon sitting on Elba while his crew waited for ‘the Day’-that at least will no longer be our trouble.126


Others allegiant to Groves were alarmed at the announcement. When initially hearing about Groves’ resignation, Hickenlooper rushed to the Pentagon to meet with the Secretary of Defense. Forrestal writes that Hickenlooper was troubled by “The indispensability and therefore the perpetuation of Mr. Lilienthal in power...He was disturbed by the fact that there had been practically no advances made in the art since the dissolution of the Manhattan District and he was further concerned that the one man who had brought the Manhattan District to a successful completion was no longer in this field of work.”127 Hickenlooper’s worries proved lasting.

A little over a year later on May 22, 1949, he demanded that the president ask for Lilienthal’s resignation charging the AEC chairman with “incredible mismanagement.” “Our atomic program is suffering from equivocation, misplaced emphasis and waste. There are a number of important problems, the solution of which requires administration, through the chairman of the AEC, which is competent, realistic and courageous,” insisted the senator from Iowa.128 Formal hearings over the charges began May 26 with the outcome being mixed: “In the public view Hickenlooper had lost the verdict. But Lilienthal was exhausted and wounded, the Commission confused and cautions.”129 Hickenlooper’s charges were testament to Lilienthal’s battles against militarization. As a Groves’ apologist, Hickenlooper would not have gone to the immense trouble of holding hearings if he did not consider Lilienthal a grave threat to everything he and the general stood for regarding the atom. But by far, the most enduring consequence of the hearings was the mental anguish felt by Lilienthal.





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