General George C. Marshall was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during WWII, the highest ranking U.S. Army officer. He had known of the atomic bomb project at least as far back as Oct. 1941, when he was appointed to the small group which would oversee the project, the Top Policy Group.
In 1942 the a-bomb project was turned over to the Army and became the Manhattan Project. It now fell under Marshall's chain of command as Army Chief of Staff. But his role in the atomic bomb project and the atomic bombing of Japan was largely indirect. He delegated most of the work to the general in charge of the Manhattan Project, Leslie Groves, and he deferred to civilians on decision-making.
For his part Marshall, along with Sec. of War Henry Stimson, obtained the enormous amounts of money necessary for the secret project. This was no easy task, since Congress could be told little about where the money was going.
Marshall's main task in 1945 was to prepare for a possible invasion of mainland Japan, scheduled to begin that year on Nov. 1st. He felt the decision to use the atomic bomb - to introduce a new and more dangerous level of warfare to the world - was a political rather than military decision. Assistant Sec. of War John McCloy recalled:
McCloy said Marshall told him, "Don't ask me to make the decision." (Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Statesman 1945-1959, pg. 550, note 30).
But Marshall had been thinking about the atomic bomb. He didn't press his ideas, probably because he felt this was more of a political matter than a military matter. Here are some of Marshall's ideas, documented at the time:
Arthur Compton later wrote, "At this meeting... Marshall was careful to avoid any statement that might prejudice the thinking of the civilian committee." (Compton, Atomic Quest, pg. 238). Marshall went along with the Interim Committee's recommendation to use the atomic bomb on Japan.
There is no evidence from this point on that Marshall objected to the use of the atomic bomb on Japan. After WWII, Marshall was a staunch defender of the atomic bombings (Larry I. Bland, editor, George C. Marshall: Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue).
But Marshall probably did not think the atomic bombs would end the war. After a talk with Marshall about the atomic bomb on June 12, 1947, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman David Lilienthal quoted Marshall in his diary as saying:
Though the a-bomb might not end the war quickly, Marshall felt the atomic bomb could be useful in his primary area of responsibility, the proposed invasion of the Japanese mainland.
On Aug. 13, after two a-bombings had failed to bring surrender from Japan, one of Marshall's assistants, Lt. Gen. John Hull, telephoned one of Gen. Groves' assistants, Col. L.E. Seeman. Hull said Marshall felt we should consider holding off on further atomic bombings so as to save the a-bombs for tactical use as part of the November invasion. (Marc Gallicchio, After Nagasaki: General Marshall's Plan for Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Japan, Prologue, Winter 1991).
In 1957, Marshall gave some details of his invasion plans for the atomic bomb:
It was characteristic of Marshall that while others were celebrating the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Gen. Groves recalled that "General Marshall expressed his feeling that we should guard against too much gratification over our success, because it undoubtedly involved a large number of Japanese casualties." (Leslie Groves, Now It Can Be Told, pg. 324).
- Doug Long
For further information:
Gar Alperovitz, The Decision To Use the Atomic Bomb
Ed Cray, General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman
Marc Gallicchio, After Nagasaki: General Marshall's Plan for Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Japan, Prologue, Winter 1991
David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume Two: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950
Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Statesman 1945-1959
The George C. Marshall Foundation's chronology of Marshall's life
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