By Frank Settle
Settle, professor emeritus of chemistry, Washington and Lee University and director of the ALSOS Digital Library for Nuclear Issues, was professor of chemistry at the Virginia Military Institute from 1964 to 1992. Before coming to W&L in 1998, he was a visiting professor at the U.S. Air Force Academy, a consultant at Los Alamos National Laboratory, and a program officer at the National Science Foundation.
When asked on this 70th anniversary of the dropping of the first atomic bomb who was instrumental in the development of nuclear weapons in the United States during World War II, most of us might answer Robert Oppenheimer or Leslie Groves. These men have become the faces of the scientific community and the military apparatus behind the now well-known Manhattan Project.
Few would answer General George C. Marshall, the Army chief of staff, who along with Secretary of War Henry Stimson, led the largest scientific project in history. They did it quietly and secretly, reporting only to Presidents Roosevelt and Truman. This is typical Marshall — operating effectively behind the scenes.
Marshall is well-known as the architect of the plan for Europe’s recovery after World War II — the Marshall Plan. As Army chief of staff he mobilized and equipped the Army and Air Force; he served as the primary conduit for information between the Army and the Air Force and the president and secretary of war; he worked with Congress and leaders of industry on funding and producing resources for the war; and he developed and implemented the successful strategy the Allies pursued in fighting the war. Last but not least of his responsibilities was the production of the atomic bomb.
Marshall’s involvement with nuclear weapons began in 1941 when Roosevelt appointed him to the Top Policy Group established to provide advice on atomic energy. Little did Marshall realize then that the atomic bomb would hasten the end of the war, dramatically alter the future of warfare and profoundly influence the post-war world.
As a member of this group, General Marshall was privy to the reports and plans for developing an atomic bomb. In 1942, when the Army assumed control of the of the mammoth undertaking, known as the Manhattan Project, Marshall facilitated the management of personnel and budget required for its successful completion. His oversight of the Army’s budget allowed him to divert some of the funds necessary to initiate the project. Later his reputation and influence were instrumental in securing approval for additional funding from congressmen who were told only that the project was important for winning the war.
In one key move, Marshall assigned Colonel Leslie Groves to manage the project and then provided him with the required resources to carry it through. The cooperation between the dynamic Groves and the reserved Marshall was critical in producing the atomic bomb in less than three years. Groves was given freedom to create the organizational structure and lines of command for the project.
Marshall’s leadership genius included the ability to foster collaboration among groups with disparate interests. As Army chief of staff, he worked with Allied military leaders and heads of state to implement strategies for defeating the Axis. This talent was critical to the success of the Manhattan Project. Marshall insured cooperation between the Army and the scientists, obtained funds from Congress while keeping their intended use a secret, and supported Groves’ forceful management style. Marshall and Stimson provided continuity during the transition of presidential leadership from Roosevelt to Truman.
Marshall’s influence on decisions leading to the use of the atomic bomb on Japan was as important as that of President Truman’s two top advisors, Stimson and Secretary of State James Byrnes. Marshall advised on military issues including the continuing air and naval operations, the impact of the Soviet Union’s entry into the Pacific war, an invasion of the Japanese homeland, and modifying the conditions for a Japanese surrender. When the Japanese rejected the allies terms of surrender, Marshall approved the orders for the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. Its use, along with the Soviet incursion, shortened the war and avoided the invasion Marshall had dreaded.
In a September 1945 report Marshall wrote, “Certainly the implications of atomic explosions will spur men of judgment as they have never before been pressed to seek a method whereby people of the earth can live in peace and justice.”
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was vintage Marshall in a recent congressional hearing on the Iranian nuclear agreement. Responding to a senator’s accusation that he had damned the pact with “faint praise,” Dempsey’s response was brief and to the point. “First Senator, I would ask you not to characterize my statement as tepid, nor enthusiastic, but rather pragmatic. Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran with diplomacy is superior than trying to do that militarily.”
Settle will discuss his soon-to-be-published book, General George C. Marshall and the Atomic Bomb, today at 5:30 p.m. at the George C. Marshall Foundation in Lexington.