MANHATTAN: The Army and the Atomic Bomb; United States Army in World War II: Special Studies. By Vincent C. Jones. Center of Military History, United States Army. Government Printing Office. 660 pp. $21.

JUST AFTER the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Americans feared that the "secret" of how to make the bomb might be betrayed to other powers, denying us the immense military and diplomatic advantages that a monopoly of atomic weapons supposedly conferred.

This notion of the existence of a key "secret" was mistaken. In the 1940s creating an atomic bomb was less a matter of discovering some particular scientific secret -- the theory of atomic weapons was widely known among world scientists -- than of mastering a multitude of engineering and production problems that would be overwhelming to any nation except an economic and technological superpower or near-superpower.

To be sure, betrayals of information did in time ease the Soviet Union's way toward producing its own bomb, permitting the Soviets to find shortcuts through certain of the production and engineering difficulties by avoiding our trial-and-error mistakes. But they could not have created the bomb anyway had they not possessed large engineering and industrial capacities more prosaic than, but at least as essential as, any esoteric scientific "secret."

How much the American creation of a workable bomb depended on such relatively prosaic capacities is demonstrated in almost staggering detail by Vincent C. Jones' history of the Manhattan Project. This book contains occasional and necessary passages about the theory of achieving atomic fission in ways that would release explosive energy and the atomic scientists' struggle to transform theory into the reality of a weapon. There is a suspensefully dramatic narrative of the achievement of the first chain reaction on the squash court under the west stands of Stagg Field at the University of Chicago on December 2, 1942. But much more of the book is about how to create the production capacity to turn out fissionable materials in large quantities and the still more prosaic business of constructing buildings to shelter the production and houses to shelter the workers and of organizing and governing the resulting new factories and towns.

The United States Army in fact received control of the program to develop atomic weapons -- and thus this Army history eventually came to be written -- because the Army's Corps of Engineers had plenty of experience in large-scale construction projects. As of early 1942, the Navy possessed considerably more experience than the Army in beginning to grapple with the scientific puzzles of applying atomic theory to weapons, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt assigned development of the atomic bomb to the Army instead because he understood that the main tasks would be of a kind with which the Corps of Engineers dealt habitually.

Thus the project went to the Engineers, and because the administration of Corps projects was customarily given to geographic districts that took their names from their headquarters cities, the project could readily shroud itself under the name of the newly- created Manhattan District of the Corps, though the geography of the Manhattan District in fact encompassed the entire United States. The organizational pattern of the Corps of Engineers consequently lent itself to another of the purposes for which the president assigned atomic weapons development to the Army, to take advantage of the Army's experience in assuring secrecy. (Yet another consideration was that the Army's airplanes would presumably deliver any weapons developed by the Manhattan Project, which they did.)

Just as the production and engineering capacities required to produce an atomic bomb during World War II were immense, so also the story of the Manhattan Project is too vast for any individual persons to stand out from Jones' narrative in bold relief. This is an institutional and largely an impersonal history. The one figure who is a partial exception to this rule is, predictably, Major General Leslie R. Groves, for whom Jones displays an unconcealed and well-founded admiration. From September 23, 1942, when Groves was promoted to brigadier general and officially took command of the Manhattan District, a project whose objectives and timetable had hitherto been disturbingly vague took on specific goals and a controlled energy without which the theoretical possibilities of September 1942 could not have been translated into the use of atomic bombs within less than three years. While Groves was an efficient administrator with appropriate engineering experience and the ability to drive multitudes of other people forward, however, he was also a good deal more, a man of breadth of vision all too rare among soldiers. Notably, his breadth and particularly his tolerance for dissent and eccentricity displayed themselves in his insistence that J. Robert Oppenheimer be scientific director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in spite of Groves' awareness that Oppenheimer's communist connections made him a security risk in the eyes of many.

AMONG General Groves' other more controversial activities was his major role in a episode more fully explored in Jones' book than in any previous account, the short-circuiting of what Prime Minister Churchill had hoped would be a full and equal partnership between Great Britain and the United States in atomic knowledge and applications. While British science made valuable contributions toward early atomic weapons development, Groves believed a continuing effort toward full partnership would only slow the pace of American weapons development. With the help of Secretary of War Heny L. Stimson and others, he relegated the British to the status of decidedly junior partners.

Jones' account of the decline of Anglo- American atomic collaboration will be among the most interesting parts of the book for readers not specialists in science or engineering. President Roosevelt played a curious and devious -- some would say characteristically devious -- part in the affair, reassuring Churchill when reassurance was not warranted, then finally trying to overrule Groves and reestablish a semblance of full partnership only to have his crucial directive to that effect go astray; but since he did not follow through after the mishap, how earnest had the president ever been?

Jones follows the atomic story all the way to the Army's relinquishment of its supervision of atomic projects on December 31, 1946. Along the route he deals with the obligatory topics of Soviet espionage, the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan, the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs, and early planning for possible postwar sharing of atomic energy. His coverage of such topics is consistently painstaking and satisfactory but also cautious in the manner to be expected of an official historian, even an official historian working under auspices as generous to critical views as the Army's Center of Military History and its predecessors have customarily been. On the wisdom of dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities, Jones dismisses a small army of revisionist historians by ignoring the idea that the main purpose was to strengthen American diplomacy vis-accepting the proposition that the shock of atomic destruction was probably necessary to jar the Japanese into a prompt surrender.

This reviewer believes that such old-fashioned judgments remain essentially sound, but nevertheless the salient strengths of this book lie elsewhere, not in reviewing the long-familiar debates about atomic diplomacy or Soviet atic spies but in offering the fullest account we have had or are likely to need of the nuts-and-bolts aspects of creating the bomb. For its encyclopedic telling of the details of that story, Jones' book will stand as an indispensable contribution to the history of the atomic age.