Marshall and the Atomic Bomb

General Leslie R. Grove and J. Robert OppenheimerThe recent death of Theodore VanKirk, the navigator of the Enola Gay, which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, as well as a new television series about the building of the bomb, has put the August 6th and 9th anniversaries of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki back into the spotlight.

Key documents relating to the development and use of the atomic bombs can be found in the Leslie R. Groves Collection, part of the George C. Marshall Foundation’s rich archival holdings.

Lieutenant General Leslie R. Groves, USA, served as commanding general of the Manhattan Engineering District in 1942 and remained in this position for the duration of the war. The collection contains copies of 21 documents that Groves believed were critical to the history of the atomic bomb. The documents highlight key events such as the meeting in which President Truman is informed of the project, the test at Alamogordo Air Base, New Mexico, the preparations for dropping the bombs, and the reports of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, including the statement by President Truman informing the American public.

Of possibly greater value than the documents themselves are the explanatory notes that Groves has prepared for each of the documents. These notes provide additional context from the perspective of an individual who played a central role in the development of the atomic bomb.

Memorandum August 10, 1945In a memorandum dated August 10, 1945, Groves informs Marshall that the delivery date for a third atomic bomb has been moved up from August 24th to August 17th. Marshall’s response, handwritten at the bottom of the memorandum in script large enough to convey its seriousness, reads, “It is not to be released over Japan without express authority from the President.” Groves’s note explains that Marshall agreed to delay shipment of the bomb material to allow the Japanese time to surrender, but when the deadline for shipment arrived, Groves decided not to ship the material until he spoke with Marshall. The conclusion of the note reads, “Some days later General Marshall told me how glad he was that I had taken the action I had.”

As chief of staff of the United States Army during World War II, General George C. Marshall contributed to the development of the atomic bomb by directing “the preliminary operations and the construction of the affair” as well as securing the necessary appropriations for the program. You can learn more about the role that Marshall played in the development of the atomic bomb from Marshall’s interviews with Dr. Forrest C. Pogue, his official biographer. Documents further detailing Marshall’s involvement with the atomic bomb can also be found in volumes 3, 4, and 5 of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall.

Individuals who have an interest in the documents from the Leslie R. Groves Collection or Marshall’s involvement with the atomic bomb should contact the Foundation’s research library staff.