7. Centralizing the project

Both men agreed that the project demanded further coordination. The scientists actually building the bomb needed to work in one place so as to preserve security (always Groves’s chief concern), avoid duplication of effort, cooperate across labs and disciplines (always Groves’s worst nightmare, but to Oppenheimer essential), and finally test the bomb. Groves also insisted that the site be isolated yet accessible to transportation, be susceptible to enclosure and have some buildings, and be far enough from the West Coast as to avoid what Groves called ‘the ever-present threat of Japanese interference’. Army Major John H. Dudley had scouted sites in Utah and New Mexico; to the latter state Groves, Oppenheimer, and fellow Berkeley physicist Edward McMillan came, on 16 November, to have a look. Dudley had proposed a canyon some 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe, but Oppenheimer and McMillan found the site dark and thus depressing. But the canyon was shadowed by the Jemez Mountains, not far from where Oppenheimer had first ridden twenty years earlier when he had come upon the Los Alamos Ranch School. Dudley had seen the mesa and now drove the party there, over rutted trails. Groves approved Los Alamos instantly. The place looked ‘beautiful and savage’ to physicist Emilio Segre when he first saw it; Laura Fermi found the mesa ‘covered by the dust that the wind whirls up from the desert below’. ‘Nobody could think straight in a place like that,’ fumed Leo Szilard. Oppenheimer was thrilled. The government took possession of the school, Groves picked Oppie’s home university to serve as contractor, and almost immediately the building began.34

Groves found Oppenheimer at least superficially willing to accept a military-style organization of the scientific effort at Los Alamos and of the scientists themselves. The general wanted the men in uniform, to which Oppenheimer agreed, but at which many of his charges balked. Groves backed down. The general hoped to impose on the Los Alamos scientists the discipline he had found lacking at the Met and Rad Labs. He thought the scientists should learn to salute officers—in this he was denied as well. But, Groves insisted, there would be no backing down on the matter of security. German and Japanese spies were always a possibility, and Russian agents were doubtless everywhere; vigilance was necessary, particularly given Oppenheimer’s political reputation. The scientists, Groves informed a gathering of them, were ‘the greatest collection of crackpots ever seen’, and, if they were not to wear uniforms or salute, they must at least follow the rules of ‘compartmentalization’ he set for them. This meant that the scientists must ‘stick to their knitting’, concentrating on their individual tasks without regard for the whole. Information about the bomb itself was to be shared solely on a ‘need to know’ basis. Groves would always pretend that the Los Alamos scientists had adhered to his compartmentalization rule, and he claimed after the war that the policy had prevented any serious breaches of security. In fact, the scientists routinely defied the system— openly, as in seminars led by Oppenheimer and briefings about the project by physicist Robert Serber (who discomfited even Oppie by referring at first to ‘the bomb’, only later agreeing to call his subject ‘the gadget’); and quietly, as Szilard and others would testify, in order to make the process work better.35

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