It wouldn’t be wrong to call Leslie Richards Groves Jr. the Eminence Grise, because though he didn’t conduct the experiment happening in the Los Alamos laboratory, he made sure that he selected the right people, gave them what they needed, made them aware of what was expected of them, and till the very end, ensured saw that the American atomic dream became a reality. Matt Damon plays the character of Leslie Groves in Oppenheimer, and through his nuanced performance, we come to know the significance of the role played by the man during the Manhattan Project.
Before going on the field and winning the day, one has to make sure that they have the right players who have the capability to achieve the unfathomable. Leslie Groves had an eye for talent, and his intuition was quite strong when it came to finding the right candidate for the job. It was no less than a miracle that Robert Oppenheimer was chosen as the physicist who would lead the Manhattan Project. Each and every scientist had told Leslie Groves that Oppenheimer was a poor administrator, and to expect that he would be able to run a facility was asking too much of the guy. The stakes were high, and the government believed that their future depended upon the creation of atomic weapons. That’s why they needed someone who would have the potential to defy the odds and deliver at all costs.
Leslie Groves did not have any expectations when he went to meet Oppenheimer, and he told him on the spot the kind of things he had heard about him. He told him that he had heard that his name was never among the shortlisted candidates, but still, there was something about his aura that intrigued him. Here was a man who had strong links to the communist party and was considered to be an extremely unpredictable and egotistical guy, yet Leslie knew that he was the one who had introduced quantum physics to the United States of America.
What surprised Leslie was that Oppenheimer had already done his homework and knew what Germany’s plan of action could be. He told them that Germany had the resources and the brains to make the atomic bomb before them. He said that the only hope that the Americans had was that Hitler’s arrogance and his false sense of invincibility came in between and impeded his sense of judgment, and he didn’t give his scientist enough resources to make the bomb. Oppenheimer was not afraid to spit out the nasty facts, and Leslie probably felt awed by his pragmatic thinking. Robert looked into the eyes of Leslie Groves and told him that he might not be able to run a hamburger stand, but he was capable of running the Manhattan Project and changing the shape of the world.
Leslie Groves knew what he was doing, and he had his own ways of checking the waters and getting a grasp of the capabilities of a man. Leslie pretended to know nothing about science, but he had himself studied engineering at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Oppenheimer knew about this, but he still let Leslie play the ignorant guy, as he knew what he was trying to do. Leslie and Oppenheimer not only trusted and respected each other, but they also became friends over a period of time, and that probably helped the cause of the country in an extraordinary manner.
We have a tendency to undermine how much the working environment impacts the productivity of a person. It is not always the talent and the knowledge; when you are undertaking a task where the stakes are so high, and the pressure is omnipresent, you need people around you who remove roadblocks and make sure that you can focus on things that matter. There were people like Kenneth Nichols who didn’t trust Oppenheimer as they were suspicious about his intentions, and believed him to be a Soviet spy. Nichols didn’t like the fact that Oppenheimer’s scientific innovation came before patriotism, and though he couldn’t say it explicitly, he hated the fact that a communist had been given charge. Had Leslie not been in the picture, we believe Nicholas would have made sure that Oppenheimer was removed from the project altogether, or at least had his powers curtailed.
Oppenheimer knew that he couldn’t waste his time fighting for clearances and asking for permission to call scientists on board and do things a certain way, and that’s where Leslie’s role became even more important. The lieutenant general vouched for his friend and took a stand for him wherever he could. He made sure Robert got all that he wanted and even obliged his weirdest demands.
When Leslie Groves was called in to testify during the AEC hearing, the general wanted to make sure that the commission knew that his friend was not a traitor and that whatever he had done up until then was for the benefit of his nation. Leslie Groves did say that according to the AEC guidelines, he wouldn’t have given Oppenheimer the security clearance as of today, but he also added that the times were different back then and probably no other scientist would have qualified. Leslie wanted to assert the fact that Communism was seen very differently in 1942 and was not against the principles of the nation. The cold war hadn’t started, and the state did not promulgate anti-communism policies so strictly back then.
Leslie Groves didn’t come to that hearing as an officer of the United States government; he came solely as a friend. He didn’t want one of his own stranded on the battlefield. Leslie wanted to see it through, but at that moment, things were not in his hands. Leslie always regretted what Oppenheimer had to go through after doing so much for his country. Leslie knew the man up close, and there was a reason why, even after knowing his affiliations, he put him in charge of the Manhattan Project. They remained friends till the very end, and their camaraderie was one of the catalysts that helped make the Trinity Test a success and paved the way for making the United States of America a superpower.