The Road to Trinity

road-to-trinityThis book, which had the subtitle, “A Personal Account of How America’s Nuclear Policies Were Made, was written by Major General Kenneth D. Nichols, (Retired). Nichols was a Lieutenant Colonel when he began an assignment as deputy district engineer of the Manhattan Engineer District. He was deputy to Leslie Groves. There have been many books written on the subject, but I would recommend this and the Groves account “Now it Can be Told,” as the best two to read if you are just beginning to want to understand what happened in the Manhattan Project and beyond. I was shocked that there hasn’t been a single review of the Nichols book on Amazon. You can buy a used copy of the book for about a dollar plus shipping. It would be worth your investment, although interlibrary loan was even less expensive.

The book begins in November 1952 when Nichols is directed to write his “…personal views on the political and military implications of the hydrogen bomb and given three hours to write it.” He wrote that the hydrogen bomb “…has equal or greater political than strictly military implications.” He warned that to achieve deterrence the U.S. must convince the Soviet Union we will utilize nuclear weapons ruthlessly. He believed we should have used tactical nuclear weapons in Korea “…proving to the world we really mean to use every potential weapon available to us to preserve peace and thereby deter war. He recognized that might or probably would  have precipitated a major war “…at a time when we have the greatest potential for winning it with minimum damage to the U.S.A.”

People who are “anti-nuclear” and favor disarmament will gasp at some of the things Nichols writes. I was comfortable with his advice and opinions, and judge that he had, because of the roles he filled, an informed understanding of the real world situation that should be carefully and respectfully considered despite which side of the argument you might stand on.

There are a series of charts beginning with one titled “1945 Manhattan Project Organization,” and it is a tribute to Groves and Nichols that the project succeeded at accomplishing the assigned objective despite the bureaucratic complexity of the organization. Nichols performed several crucial tasks for the newly formed Manhattan Engineering District. He arranged for 14,700 tons of silver to be transferred to Oak Ridge to be used for electromagnetic separation of uranium 235 from uranium 238. He met with Edgar Sengier, head of a Belgian company, to arrange for shipment of high-grade uranium ore to Oak Ridge. Oak Ridge would have had little uranium to enrich without those supplies of ore.

There are details of the Manhattan Project, and the book presents them in an interesting fashion. I found it particularly interesting that in negotiating with the government to manage the Hanford operations, du Pont included their concern about future health risks to workers. Du Pont “…insisted that a trust fund of $20 million be set up in a bank to cover this future liability.” Du Pont later disagreed with the scientists and installed five hundred extra tubes on the Hanford reactors. They were able to overcome the poisoning of the reactors by xenon 135 by bringing addition tubes into operation; disaster was averted because of du Pont’s conservative design despite objections from numerous scientists.

There are interesting discussions about Groves, and Chapter 6 is titled “Getting Along with Groves.” There is no doubt Groves valued Nichols’ work, because when Colonel Marshall, the District Engineer, was selected for overseas assignment Nichols was promoted to that position. Marshall and Groves had disagreed on methods of personnel management. Marshall, Groves, and Nichols had spent a day observing construction at the Clinton Engineering Works. Groves was abrasive, often very critical, aloof, and seldom engaged in casual conversation. People considered him unfriendly. At the end of the day Marshall had remarked, “Didn’t you find anything on the project that pleased you? I heard only criticism of every aspect of the work. Don’t you ever praise anyone for a job well done, or a good idea for improving things? Groves only commented, I don’t believe in it. No matter how well something is being done, it can always be done better and faster.”

There are interesting insights about how Oppenheimer’s communist associations began to be a recurring problem. A new clearance was issued, but when Nichols told Oppenheimer he commented, “That must have been difficult.” Nichols said, “In the future, please avoid seeing your questionable friends, and remember, whenever you leave Los Alamos, we will be trailing you.

There were discussions “…early in the program that a fission bomb might ignite the atmosphere. But that fear was soon put to rest.” Concerns such as that and the uncertainty of technical successes of producing the atomic bombs weighed heavily on the people in the Manhattan Project. “Faint hearts and pessimists had no place in the Manhattan Project. I always had a gut feeling that we would succeed.”

Orders came for Nichols to be reassigned with a promotion to brigadier general and Groves resisted it. Groves surprised Nichols by admitting he might have committed an error. “That startled me, since I had never before heard him admit any error.” Nichols went to the Pentagon to see Major General Clinton Robinson to discuss the situation. Robinson advised that there was a chance the Manhattan Project would fail, and that “Goo Goo Groves (should) take all the blame by himself.”

The book describes how Truman told Stalin at the Potsdam Conference of “…a new weapon of unusual destructive force, and Stalin concurred in use of such a weapons against Japan…in view of our later discoveries about Russian espionage at Los Alamos, I feel certain that Stalin understood exactly what Truman was describing.”

Eisenhower became head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1949 and the Soviets tested their first atomic bomb, which we designated as “Joe-1.” Nichols had the opportunity to brief Ike on weapons production requirements. Nichols expressed his opinion that nuclear weapons would deter war at a lower cost than conventional forces. “I specially recommended that a comprehensive study be made to determine the number of weapons to be stockpiled. I recommended that we should be thinking in thousands of weapons rather than hundreds. I hoped I would gain his (Ike’s) future support for an expansion program.”

Nichols proved he was a strong advocate of nuclear weapons during the Korean War. “When the Chinese entered the Korean War in November, forcing MacArthur to fall back, I advocated use of atomic weapons and personally discussed the matter with the three chiefs, but all of them were lukewarm to the idea.” The crisis did result in greater support for expansion of fissionable material production, continental testing of atomic weapons, and the military budget was greatly expanded.

Nichols went into private life and became a sought-after consultant for nuclear power issues. He mentions that, “As a result of the anti-nuke efforts, overregulation, and in some cases poor management, we now find it takes almost twice as long to build an atomic power plant in the United States as in France, Japan, Taiwan, or South Korea.” Nichols was particularly disappointed the U.S. ended development of Fast Breeder reactors. The book closes with discussions of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Nichols discusses his opinion that the accidents taught us how to do things more safely and that the nation needs nuclear power.   My final comment is that this a book well worth your time if you are interested in the history of nuclear weapons and/or the value of nuclear power.

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