The Manhattan Project

Frank Settle's Interview

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Frank Settle's Interview

Frank Settle is an analytical chemist and professor emeritus at Washington and Lee University. He is the author of "General George C. Marshall and the Atomic Bomb." In this interview, Settle discusses General Marshall’s life before, during, and after World War II. Settle also highlights Marshall’s leadership, his involvement with the Manhattan Project, and his lack of confidence in the atomic bomb. As a chemist, Settle also talks about the importance of chemistry in the Manhattan Project and his latest work on an atomic road map, part of the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
04/27/2017
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, Washington, D.C., and it’s Monday, April 27, 2017. My first question today is to tell us your name and spell it.

Frank Settle: Okay. It’s Frank Settle, S-E-T-T-L-E.

Kelly: We’re here today to talk—at least start off talking, about this wonderful book that Frank has written, called General George C. Marshall and the Atomic Bomb. But first, I want him to tell us a little bit about himself, how he got interested in this, what he does for a living. 

Settle: What I do for a living anymore, I’m retired now, but I taught at Virginia Military Institute for twenty-eight years, then spent a year at the Air Force Academy, another year or so consulting for the Department of Energy out of Los Alamos. Then back to Lexington, Virginia, to teach at Washington & Lee University for about fifteen years.

Toward the end of my career, I developed a series of courses on nuclear issues. One was nuclear history, weapons of mass destruction, and nuclear power. That’s kind of where I am right now. I’m the Director of the Alsos Digital Library for Nuclear Issues, which is a collection of annotated, vetted references on nuclear issues. We have about 4,000 references in the database. That’s what I do to keep myself busy these days.

Kelly: Do you call yourself a historian, or a scientist?

Settle: I was an analytic chemist, who got interested. My original interest came from reading Richard Rhodes’ book, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, back in 1992. That’s when I offered the first interdisciplinary course on science and history. I sort of gravitated into nuclear issues. I know a little bit about physics and chemistry. The people—and you know this, Cindy—the people are really the interesting things in this drama. I think I was drawn to this by the personalities of the people, as well as the science and the history part of it.

Kelly: Tell us about who George C. Marshall was.

Settle: George C. Marshall was the person who really ran World War II from a military point of view. Marshall was involved with the Manhattan Project as Chief of Staff of the Army, because the Army had the ultimate responsibility for the Manhattan Project. That was one of his many duties in World War II. Marshall later became Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense after the war.

He is the one high-level official who was privy to all the decisions on nuclear weapons for the first ten years of the nuclear age. I think most people don’t realize that. Most people think of Marshall as, at best, the Marshall Plan. He is not a combat general. He is not a self-promoter. But he’s the power, in my opinion, the power behind the victory in the Second World War

Marshall’s a graduate of VMI [Virginia Military Institute] and, in writing the book, I had the access to the facilities of the Marshall Library. That’s one reason I sort of gravitated to Marshall.

Marshall is not as colorful as—he’s probably the most bland character in this whole drama, if you will. Trying to tease out how Marshall felt about things was a real challenge in writing the book. He turned down an offer to write a biography or an autobiography. Very self-effacing, but a very powerful person.

Kelly: You mention in the book that he didn’t keep a diary.

Settle: There are no diaries. All you have to work with are official papers, and what other people thought about Marshall, and a few comments that he made at various times. But he was very low-key. 

Kelly:  Tell us about his service in World War I, and how that might have prepared him.

Settle: His first sort of step to leadership, he was First Captain of the Corps of Cadets at VMI. He had some trouble, actually, getting into the Army. But he got into the Army and he became an aide to General [John J.] Pershing in World War I. His strength, I think, was logistics. He managed moving troops, moving material, and he had some interesting victories and participated in some interesting victories in World War I.

After the war, he had a series of commands in the Philippines. He worked with the National Guard in Illinois, and he went to the officer’s school at Fort Leavenworth. He was not a great student at VMI, but he excelled at Leavenworth and became an instructor there. Later moved to Fort Benning, Georgia, where he trained many of the officers who were famous in World War II. That would be [Matthew] Ridgway, [Omar] Bradley, some of these people, and they’re all kind of pupils of Marshall.

Marshall also—as Deputy Chief of Staff in Washington, right before the war—was responsible for organizing the logistics of the Army to get ready for World War II. He was in Washington when [President Franklin] Roosevelt selected him to be Chief of Staff of the Army, I think in April 1939.

He and Franklin had an interesting start. There was a meeting, I guess, of high-level officials. Roosevelt wanted to build about airplanes, because he thought air power—he was a little bit like our present president, he got fixed on one particular thing—he thought air power was going to do it. He went around the room. Nobody said anything, he went around the room and everybody nodded, except Marshall. Marshall knew that if you built all those planes, you’re going to have to have people to fly them and people to maintain them. And he said, “Don’t you agree with me, George?”

George said, “No, I don’t agree with you at all on that.”

They walked out of the meeting, and the people in the room said, “That’s it. Your career is toast.” But fortunately, Harry Hopkins and General Pershing really promoted Marshall to Roosevelt as his choice for Chief of Staff.

On September 1, 1939, he received a phone call at 3:00 a.m. in the morning. This was the morning before he was to be inducted as Chief of Staff. This said that Poland had invaded Germany. If you look at his induction photos, he’s in civilian clothes as Chief of Staff, because he really didn’t want to project a military image when the U.S. was not actively engaged in the war. So it’s a very interesting photograph. Probably the only time the Chief of Staff has been inducted in civilian clothes, which I think is really interesting.

Roosevelt thought, “Well, he’s the best of a bunch of bad choices.” Marshall thought that Roosevelt was a little too flip, a little too familiar. One time he requested Roosevelt, he said, “Don’t call me George in public. Call me General Marshall.” The only time that Marshall visited Hyde Park was to arrange Roosevelt’s funeral. Eleanor [Roosevelt] asked him to come and arrange the funeral. He didn’t have any kind of social relationship with President Roosevelt.

The relationship really became tight, and resulted in the fact that Marshall did not lead the invasion of Europe. Roosevelt said, “I can’t sleep unless Marshall is in Washington.” Therefore, [Dwight D.] Eisenhower got the nod. But up until shortly before the invasion, it was thought that Marshall would lead the invasion. Had Marshall led the invasion, he would have gotten a whole lot more publicity.

Kelly:  Better book sales for you.

Settle: Right, right. [Laughter] 

Kelly:  Oh, that’s so interesting.

Settle: But they came to respect each other, they really did. They had a very tight working relationship.

The other tight working relationship was Marshall and Henry Stimson, and they were a really tight team. Legend has it, and I think it’s true, that the door between their offices in the Pentagon was always open—the Chief of Staff and Secretary of War, who would be today the Secretary of the Army. Marshall and Stimson really ran World War II and the Manhattan Project, and they were the continuity.

After Roosevelt died, [President Harry] Truman knew nothing of the Manhattan Project, so Stimson had to brief Truman. He asked Marshall to come along and Marshall said, “No. If I go, that’s going to stir up too much curiosity.” So Stimson went in, and General [Leslie R.] Groves came in the back door to brief Truman on the Manhattan Project.

Kelly: Interesting. Tell us about Henry Stimson, who was he and what kind of person was he?

Settle: He was an old man at that time. He had served in government for numerous administrations. He was Secretary of War. As I said, he and Marshall really came to be a working team that was very effective in the war, and very effective with the Manhattan Project. They had a lot of discussions about the use of the bomb, and also the post-war implications of the bomb.

Marshall was much more than a domestic tactician. He was an international thinker. He thought big, as evidenced by the Marshall Plan. But it’s also evidenced in his opinions about nuclear weapons and the use of nuclear weapons. Marshall was an infantry man, who thought wars would be won with boots on the ground. He was really not sold in fancy weapons and all of that.

Vannevar Bush, who was an electrical engineer and had a big hand in the Manhattan Project, thought that Marshall was sort of a toady, as far as modern weaponry. He thought Marshall didn’t really understand modern weaponry.

But the good thing was, I think, Marshall had the ability to assemble competent people, and give them the responsibility and let them run. If they had trouble, if they needed some help or they needed some correction, Marshall would step in. But as evidenced with General Groves, Marshall was not a micromanager, not at all.

The interesting thing about General Groves, who was head of the Manhattan Project—I don’t have to tell you this, Cindy—Groves did not want the assignment. He wanted a combat assignment. Groves had just finished building the Pentagon, or was in the final stages of the Pentagon. Groves had managed millions of dollars’ worth of Army contractors, so he knew what he was doing.

But Groves asked for a combat assignment. His commanding officer said, “I can’t give you the assignment, but what I’m going to give you will win the war if you complete it.” It turns out that Groves got the assignment by sort of default. General [Brehon] Somervell was Marshall’s Chief of Supply, and Bush—Vannevar Bush, who I mentioned before—sort of was trying to pick people to manage the Manhattan Project.

He thought Somervell would be a great guy, because he knew he had his hands on the supplies and could make things move. Marshall said, “I can’t spare him, because we’re getting ready to invade North Africa. I need him.”

Somervell’s deputy, Wilhelm Styer, was put up next in line. Styer had been appointed sort of as a liaison to the scientists before the Manhattan Project was actually official. Somervell said, “I can’t spare Styer. He’s my deputy.”

Marshall got a little aggravated and said, “Well, go find somebody.” The somebody that they went to find was General Groves. It’s ironic that Groves didn’t want the assignment, and he was not the first choice for the assignment, which I think is one of the ironies of this whole Manhattan Project.

But once Groves took the assignment, he ran with it. I don’t think Groves would survive in management today. If you read Stan Norris’ book on General Groves [The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man], you get a lot of insight.

Groves’ deputy, General [Kenneth] Nichols, was once asked, “How was it to work for General Groves?”

Nichols said, “He’s the biggest son-of-a-bitch I’ve ever seen.”

They said, “Would you work for him again?”

He said, “Yep.”

Groves knew how to get things done, and really he was responsible for making the atomic bomb. However, Marshall’s role was one of securing the finances for the atomic bomb. Marshall was one of the few people, I think, who could go to Congress and say, “I need millions of dollars for a project that I can’t tell you about.” He had enough trust from Congress that he could get the money that he needed. That says a lot, I think, about Marshall’s character and about the fact that he had the trust of Congress.

Kelly: Later on in your book, when he’s testifying I think as Secretary of State or Defense, you have a little caption, a summary about why Marshall was so effective when he testified before Congress. Can you recall that?

Settle: I think it was when he was testifying—may have been during the war. Sam Rayburn said something to the effect that, “When Marshall testifies, we’re no longer Democrats or Republicans. We’re in the presence of a man who we believe what he says, or we have confidence”—something like that, I forget exactly.

But it’s that confidence that people had in Marshall. Again, that transferred from Roosevelt to Truman. Truman basically had a lot of confidence in Marshall, as reflected in the fact that when he needed a Secretary of State after the war, he chose Marshall. When Korea was really a big problem and he needed to raise troops and do the logistics to get people involved, to get us really involved in the Korean War, he went to Marshall and said, “Will you come back one more time and be Secretary of Defense?” And Marshall did.

This relationship, I think, between Truman and Marshall was really great. Truman says, “He [Marshall] is the great man of the twentieth century.” That’s Truman’s quote, I think.

One of the interesting things is really the run-up to the use of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Marshall basically turned things over to Groves. First, he turned the building of the bomb over to Groves. Then he turned the Alsos Mission, which was the mission to gather intelligence on the German bomb program, over to Groves. Then he turned the targeting of the bomb over to Groves. So Groves not only built the bomb, but Groves was responsible for targeting the bomb.

Marshall just didn’t want to have a whole lot of people involved in this, for one thing. The other thing, he had a lot of confidence in Groves. Groves said basically, “Marshall never interfered with what we were doing. I got to see him when I needed to see him.” He usually took a one-sheet memorandum and gave it to Marshall. Marshall would read it and hand it back to him, and say, usually, “Okay,” or he had some questions, whatever.

One time, Groves went in to see Marshall to get some more appropriations for the Manhattan Project. Marshall was sitting over there writing a check. He said, “Just a minute.” Groves waited and Marshall said, “Do you know what I was doing?”

Groves said, “No.”

He said, “I was writing a check for $2.75 to the Burpee Seed Company for seeds.”

Groves was sort of taken aback. I don’t think Groves had a great sense of humor. But anyway, Marshall had a very dry sense of humor. He tweaked Groves, I think, when he needed to be tweaked.

On the run-up to the invasion, Marshall had—remember, the bomb was not successfully tested until July 16. It was dropped on August 6 and August 9. So really, Marshall didn’t know that he had a bomb. He’s coming off of Okinawa, which casualties were really horrendous. He’s come through the islands, the Pacific Island campaigns. He knows an invasion would be horrendous in casualties.

Truman called a meeting on June 18, I think, of his staff. They talked about casualties. Marshall said, “You know, right now, I can’t give you a real total estimate. I can give you the estimates for Okinawa, for Iwo Jima, and you’d get an idea what it’s going to be.”

Ironically, at that June 18 meeting, there was no discussion of the atomic bomb. None whatsoever. John McCloy comes out right before the end of the meeting and says, “Truman, why didn’t we talk about a bomb? We got a bomb. Why wasn’t that in the discussion?” It’s kind of interesting that the bomb was not discussed in that meeting. But I think, really, Marshall didn’t want to bring that up, because he didn’t have it. He didn’t have that much confidence in the bomb. He felt like he was going to have to run an invasion at that point. 

Kelly:  So the meeting was June 18? 

Settle: June 18th.

Kelly:  Right. A month before they knew.

Settle: Right. Marshall said, “Okay. I’ll okay this. I’ll get the money, but I just don’t know. I can’t put my confidence in something that we don’t have, and I’m not a big fan of super weapons anyway. I’m a fan of putting boots on the ground.” I don’t think Marshall wanted to run an invasion, but I think on the June 18, he thinks he’s going to have to have it.

The Navy says they can blockade. By the way, Marshall now is in command of the Pacific theater. Admiral [William] Leahy is the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Leahy’s a figurehead, he’s a messenger boy between the Joint Chiefs and Truman. He doesn’t have a whole lot. Marshall’s the driving force. The Air Force thinks they can bomb Japan into submission. 80,000 casualties by firebombing Tokyo in one night. They’re doing a pretty good job. The Russians have agreed to come in six weeks after V-E Day, the victory in Europe. And you have the atomic bomb.

Marshall’s well aware of casualties, and it hit home because John Tupper [misspoke: Allen Tupper Brown], his stepson, was killed by sniper fire in Italy. Marshall was very close to his stepson. He’s not removed from all these casualties. He says, “The stream of casualties that come across my desk, nobody realizes it more than me.” He doesn’t want to do that invasion. 

Marshall is in Potsdam with Truman on July 16 when the bomb is successfully tested—the plutonium bomb is successfully tested. So now they have that option, it’s an option on the table. Marshall okays the orders to drop the bomb.

People asked, “Was Marshall responsible for dropping the bomb?” Marshall told Truman, “This is a political decision, not a military decision.” Marshall was looking at the big picture, rather than the tactical picture. Did Truman ever issue an order to drop the bomb? I don’t think so, but neither did Truman stop the dropping of the atomic bomb. Truman couldn’t stop the dropping of the atomic bomb.

I’ll have to go back a little bit—there was a meeting, there was a committee. After Truman assumed the presidency, after his meeting with Stimson, or in his meeting with Stimson, Stimson said, “We have this weapon. It’s very powerful. It’s going to have big implications, not only to end the war, but also in the post-war world. I think you should have a committee to look into the total picture here.” So there was a committee appointed called the Interim Committee. Stimson was the chairman. Marshall was not an official member, but he was a visitor, so he was there for all the discussions. Marshall basically recommended that the bomb be dropped on a factory, and that the Japanese be given a warning.

That suggestion was overruled by Jimmy Byrnes, who’s another interesting character. He was a senator, a friend of Mr. Truman. I don’t think he was a senator at that time, he was in the government. Anyway, Stimson recommended that Byrnes be Truman’s representative on that committee. Byrnes wanted to drop the bomb without a warning. The recommendation of the Interim Committee was that the bomb be dropped on the Japanese, on an industrial town without warning, and this was contrary to what Marshall had suggested.

On July 25, the orders came out of Washington to the 501 [misspoke: 509th] Composite Bomb Group, which was the group that had trained to drop atomic bombs, to drop as many bombs as we had starting on August 3. The orders were signed by General Thomas Handy, which is interesting. Handy was Marshall’s deputy back in Washington. Marshall was in Berlin, at Potsdam. So those orders are signed. On July 26, the Potsdam Declaration goes to the Japanese. It mentions nothing about an atomic bomb, but it does mention “prompt and utter destruction.”

I think Marshall went through two periods of anxiety. One is after the Potsdam Declaration was issued. He hoped the Japanese would accept the terms of the Potsdam Declaration. One of the hang-ups was, the Japanese wanted to keep the Emperor [Hirohito] on the throne. The military had suggested to Truman and the diplomatic corps that this might not be a bad idea. If the Emperor stayed on the throne, he could tell everybody to surrender, and they would surrender. We wouldn’t have to go get them all over all the outlying areas. That was rejected, probably by a group led by Jimmy Byrnes. I blame Jimmy Byrnes for a lot. He may not be the villain that I think he is. But anyway, that was not in the Potsdam Declaration. This was on July 26.

Maybe several days after that, the Japanese responded by saying, “We ignore this.” There’s a Japanese term for that, but it says, “We ignore this. There’s nothing different here,” et cetera. Well, that triggered Hiroshima on August 6. Then on August 8, the Russians invaded. August 9, we dropped the bomb on Nagasaki. On August 10, the Japanese sent a message, I think it was through the Swiss Embassy, saying, “We’ll surrender if you’ll let us keep the Emperor.”

Well, again, Marshall had anxiety. His second period of anxiety, I think, was after the bombs were dropped. He was hoping that they would just surrender. Again, he’s worried about this invasion, rightly so. There was much debate about this in both Japan and Washington. There was a militant factor in Japan led by General [Korechika] Anami who said, “If we continue to fight, we could get better terms.” Jimmy Byrnes was saying, “If we don’t accept unconditional surrender from the Japanese, Truman, politically, you’re dead.” Because the unconditional surrender goes back to Roosevelt. That was our policy, unconditional surrender, and leaving the Emperor on the throne would be a condition. 

Anyway, these debates go on. Finally, the U.S. responds. They come to an agreement between Byrnes and Stimson, really, who wants to accept this. The idea is, yes, the Emperor can stay on as the titular head, but General [Douglas] MacArthur will be the Supreme Allied Commander. There’s a very interesting picture of MacArthur and the Emperor standing by each other. That was the solution.

Marshall, I think, realized the impact. Marshall had probably three reactions. One, he had to be relieved that he didn’t have an invasion. Two, he was very surprised of the effect of the bomb on the Japanese. He said, “We didn’t dream that it would have that impact.” And three is, General Groves was very excited about the [inaudible]. And Marshall said, “Just calm down. Revenge is no motivation for dropping these bombs.” 

He was very tempered in his response to the bomb. Groves said, “You know, these people killed people. The Japanese killed people on the Bataan Death March, they bombed Pearl Harbor.” Marshall’s saying, “Revenge is not the motive for this.”

Marshall retires as Chief of Staff of the Army in November 1945. But before then, he’s a great proponent of several things. One, he realizes the impact that nuclear weapons could have on the post-war world. Secondly, he realizes that nuclear weapons are not a substitute for having a strong conventional armed force. But he doesn’t win that battle. The Armed Forces are pared down. I could go on, but it’s not quite as interesting after this.

After his retirement, Truman says, “Would you come back and help me?” Truman’s always asking Marshall to help. “Would you go to China and resolve this issue between the Chinese Communists and the Chinese Nationalists?” Well, that’s mission impossible. Marshall spent a year, almost a year, over there, and was not able to resolve that crisis.

He’s still in China, and Truman says, “Will you be my Secretary of State?” Jimmy Byrnes had been Secretary of State, so Marshall replaces Jimmy Byrnes as Secretary of State. Stimson warns him that being Secretary of State, you have a whole lot less control of things than you do when you were Chief of Staff of the Army. He said, “You’re going to get surprises every time you turn around.”

The first surprise, I guess, Marshall got was the negotiations in the United Nations to arms control. Bernard Baruch is our representative. I won’t go into the whole scenario, but it doesn’t work very well. Marshall’s trying to manage that.

The next thing that comes up probably of significance is the Berlin blockade. Marshall keeps a cool head. He has an associate that comes, one of his deputies in the State Department says—well, interestingly enough, there was a ruse that the U.S. used. We moved a number of B-29s to England right during the middle of the Berlin crisis. These B-29s were the planes that had dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The ruse was, that these B-29s were not capable of handling an atomic bomb at that time. But the Russians didn’t know that. So we were sort of jockeying, if you will, in this situation.

This aide comes up to Marshall and says, “I think we really ought to use the atomic bomb on Russia.”

Marshall said, “Would you bomb Leningrad with the Hermitage?”

And the guy, “Well, I don’t know.”

Marshall says, “Go home and think about it.” He’s keeping his head in a really tight situation.

Then in the Korean War, nuclear weapons were considered, but not seriously. We tried the same ruse by moving B-29s to Guam. They had casings of bombs, but they didn’t have the nuclear component. The military said—this is really interesting in today’s situation—the military said, “Nuclear weapons just are not going to work in Korea. It’s too mountainous. We don’t really have a target, and so we’re not going to use that.” There was some thought given, particularly after the Chinese entered the Korean War.

The last thing probably I would say about Marshall is that he was on a committee, I think, with Hoyt Vandenberg to talk about who controls the atomic bomb. What had happened after the war, the Manhattan Project warped into the Atomic Energy Commission, which was a civilian energy commission. But it had a military advisory committee, and the military advisory committee had a lot of power.

Cindy probably knows this better than I do. I think what happened was, it warped into the fact that the AEC and DOE controlled the stockpile. But they had to hand the weapons over to the military to use. Somebody had to give the command to release those weapons to the military. But there was always this sort of tug-of-war between the military and the civilian control of weapons. 

Probably one of Marshall’s last acts was to recommend that the President, Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the AEC would be the group that would decide to use nuclear weapons. He had one senator to deal with, and this was Brien McMahon from Connecticut. 

McMahon after the war said that the atomic bomb was the greatest thing since Jesus Christ. He was the senator who basically crafted the legislation that formed the Atomic Energy Commission. He wasn’t happy with that. He kept pestering Marshall as Secretary of Defense, “We need more nuclear weapons, we need more weapons, we need thousands of weapons,” he said.

Marshall’s interesting—and this sort of closes it out, I think—Marshall knows that NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, founded in 1949], or what would be NATO, Western Europe, really need a deterrent against huge Soviet forces. We didn’t have the manpower to confront the Soviets. I think Marshall felt like, as a stopgap measure, we could have tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe. It sort of contrasts his view against, you know—I think he would rather not have nuclear weapons, but he realized the reality of the situation was as a stopgap method. We needed to have these nuclear weapons.

That’s pretty much it.

Kelly:  In his ten years of stewardship, he showed that he was a big thinker and a rather pragmatic person.

Settle: Right. And respected by all sides. He gained tremendous respect from the executive branch, from Congress, from the military people. Really and truly. They said he didn’t say a lot, but when he said something, when he came in the room, you knew he was there. He was a presence. But his hand is all over the nuclear policy, so to speak. But he was a believer in the fact that civilians had ultimate control over nuclear weapons, the civilian part should have the ultimate control.

Kelly: What would Marshall think about putting $54 billion into defense these days, and ramping up nuclear weapons?

Settle: It was interesting, because in the run-up to the Marshall Plan, some people thought we ought to ramp up defense spending. Marshall and Truman, along with George Kennan—who is another player in all of this, one of Marshall’s appointees who shaped Cold War strategy a lot.

They thought that the best way to confront the Russians would be economic recovery for Western Europe. Because if you don’t have economic recovery, you would have a fertile bed for communism to come in. It turns out the Marshall Plan is probably one of the most effective defenses against communism or the Soviets or whatever you want to say, as opposed to spending billions of dollars on more tanks and cannons and things.

I doubt Marshall would think that spending that much money would be—I would love to know what Marshall would do in this Korean situation. If you look at Berlin, Marshall would keep a cool head. I can only hope that General [James] Mattis is a protégé, if you will, of Marshall. Of course, he didn’t know Marshall, but I hope that he can be our Marshall and keep a cool head.

Of course, you’re dealing with an entirely different situation, but you do need to keep a cool head. Marshall was very cool, was very measured in his responses, very forceful in his responses. He let the Russians know that we were not going to be pushed down from that.

But ultimately, the Berlin crisis was resolved through diplomacy. Having the B-29s in England helped, and the fact that we had a nuclear weapon and the Russians didn’t at that time. The Russians didn’t explode their bomb until 1949. This helped solve the Berlin crisis, but it also speeded up the arms race. Because [Joseph] Stalin realized if he had had a bomb, he’d have been in a much better negotiating position on Berlin. 

Kelly: What was the end of Marshall’s government career?

Settle:  Secretary of Defense. It’s interesting, when he was Secretary of State, he was Secretary of State for about two years. Right before the election, he had a serious kidney problem and needed an operation. He postponed his operation until after the election, because he said, “I don’t want to do anything that’s going to hurt your chances”—hurt Truman’s chances, this was in 1948—“that would hurt your chances for election.”

And then, afterward—I’ve got the video—Marshall says—he and Mrs. Marshall were there—and he said he’s really retired from government service and everything. And then, you know, two years later, less than two years later, Truman calls him and said, “I need you as Secretary of Defense.” So again, he steps in and really helps Truman a lot.

Kelly: How old was he in this second term?

Settle: He’s got to have been—I’m thinking he’s probably in his late sixties, or maybe early seventies, when he was Secretary of Defense.

Kelly: And that was in the Korean War?

Settle: Right.

Kelly: Of course, that war went on, so he must have been changed out. 

Settle: Yeah. He came as Secretary of Defense in September 1950, and I think he left about a year later as Secretary of Defense.

The other little problem he had was to help Truman deal with [General Douglas] MacArthur. MacArthur was a problem in Korea. Marshall and MacArthur were entirely different personalities. MacArthur couldn’t get enough PR, and Marshall didn’t want any PR. Marshall basically hung with MacArthur as long as he could in this Korean thing.

But when the Joint Chiefs said, “We have a rogue general that we can’t control,” then Marshall came down as Secretary of Defense and recommended that Truman ditch him, or relieve him of his command. So that’s another little sidelight.

But Marshall had to deal with that indirectly, probably. If Marshall said, “Get rid of MacArthur,” I think Truman—[Marshall] would probably not be the deciding factor, but helped in the decision. Because MacArthur had toyed with—I don’t think he actually requested nuclear weapons being used in the Korean War, but he had made some statements like, “We would drop radioactive material along the Yalu River, to keep the Chinese from coming over.” You know, just some sort of crazy stuff.

Kelly: MacArthur did?

Settle: Yeah. So anyway, I think most people don’t recognize Marshall’s contribution in general to World War II, and they certainly don’t recognize his contributions to the Manhattan Project.

You know the figures, but I guess the total number of people employed in the Manhattan Project was somewhere over 600,000, from the beginning to when it was turned over to AEC [Atomic Energy Commission]. $32 billion in 1996 dollars—I think I have a slide, something like that, a substantial sum of money. And again, sort of the beginning of the nuclear complex.

As we were talking earlier, most people think of your national parks—Oak Ridge, Hanford, Los Alamos—as being the primary points. Everything happened there. But if you do a little research, you find out that there were hundreds of mines, mills, laboratories, chemical plants, metallurgical operations that fed these materials into these places where they were assembled. So the chemists, the metallurgists, and the engineers gave the physicists the materials that they needed.

Actually, as a chemist, I think the physicists had the easy job. The hard job was coming up with the materials to make a bomb.

Kelly: Is that all top secret? Or can you give us some examples of the chemistry involved?

Settle: There very little fluorine chemistry, certainly not on an industrial scale. In order to produce the uranium isotope 235 for the atomic bomb, well, there was a process where you had to separate isotopes, 238 and 235. The only way you could do it was really to put uranium in a gaseous form. In order to do that, you had uranium hexafluoride, uranium atom with six fluorine atoms around it. You had to have the fluorine, you had to make the uranium hexafluoride. It turns out uranium hexafluoride is very corrosive, so you had to have materials surrounding this gas in these processes that would resist corrosion. This is where Teflon came from. Teflon was a product which would resist corrosion. It is a carbon fluorine chemical. We all use lots of Teflon today. That’s one example.

Uranium and plutonium are metals that—there are tremendous amount of metallurgy involved in shaping, forming, et cetera, of that. Getting the material for the plutonium bomb, you have to put uranium rods in a reactor, and then separate a little bit of plutonium out of a hell of a lot of spent fuel that comes out of the reactor. That involved a tremendous amount of chemistry.

The Nobel Prize winner Glenn Seaborg discovered plutonium, but he also developed the processes for separating plutonium from spent reactor fuel. This was done at Hanford. You got the reactors, which probably get all the press, the B Reactor that you have. But the plutonium recovery facilities, the chemical facilities, they don’t get as much press, do they? Do you give them any press at Hanford?

Kelly: This is wonderful for you to say that, because we are now trying to work on saving the T-Plant.

Settle: Right.

Kelly: Which was the chemical separation process plant. And you were absolutely right, people think the B Reactor was all they needed.

Settle: Right. Just push the plutonium out, no problem. That is so typical of the physics myth that surrounds this project.

The last thing I would say is that I’m here as a chemist trying to show Cindy that chemistry and metallurgy and engineering were really, really, really important in the Manhattan Project. Don’t get carried away with the physics of it.

Kelly: This is great. But going back to the Smyth Report, the reason that the physics was what people think the Manhattan Project was all about—

Settle: [Henry DeWolf] Smyth was a physicist. And really and truly, if you read it, it’s more exciting, I’ll give you that. It’s the last step before the big explosion, so it’s got to be more exciting. The other steps that lead up—a machine shop, a forge, a mine—how do you make these exciting? It’s a challenge.

Kelly: You had mentioned earlier about boron. Some have told stories about how the Germans, whose physicists wouldn’t deign to talk to the chemists and learn and about impurities. Maybe you want to tell something about that?

Settle: The Germans took a route using heavy water in their moderators in their reactor. The reason they did that was, they tried graphite. They were using graphite as a moderator to slow neutrons down so that you could—you have to slow neutrons down so that you get the reaction that you want.

It turns out that an impurity in graphite is boron. If you look at the chemistry of it, carbon and boron are close together, so, et cetera. Basically, their graphite reactors failed because they had boron impurities. And again, as you say, the physicists really didn’t pay enough attention to the chemists in analyzing the graphite.

I think our reactors, in the Hanford reactors, were graphite reactors. This is probably part of the problem with the whole German bomb project. People didn’t talk to each other. There were competing laboratories. They never really got their act together. They had all the pieces, but they really didn’t get their act together. Part of it was their leadership at the top, but part of it was a lot of rivalry. I think in the U.S., we had General Groves, we had Marshall, we had Stimson, and basically we got our act together.

Szilard realized—Leo Szilard, one of our physicists—realized that boron was going to be a problem. So he went after pure boron. Again, as an analytical chemist, analytical chemistry played a big part, because every component of a nuclear weapon has to be bomb certified. You’ve got to know the specs. The specs were really, really tight. In order to do that, you have to do the analysis of all these pieces.

That’s one place where chemists—the funny part in this was, [Enrico] Fermi in Italy was bombarding uranium with neutrons, and actually, in 1934, actually caused fission, but he didn’t recognize it because he didn’t do the chemistry. He said, “When I bombard uranium with neutrons, I’m going to get some element right around uranium.” He missed it. If you stop and think about it, suppose that he had recognized it in 1934 in Italy, under a fascist government. The fascists would have had a leg up on nuclear research, and the story might have been very different.

There was a chemist named Ida Noddack who told Fermi—she was really the first person to recognize fission. She said, “You haven’t done your chemistry. It is possible that when you bombard uranium, it could break up into two smaller atoms.”

That was too much for the physics community. A woman chemist giving them some wild theory? No. And she never really followed up on that. She and her husband had discovered an element, I forget which one it was [Ida Noddack and her husband Walter Noddack discovered rhenium]. But she had credibility. I mean, it wasn’t like she was coming out of left field. She was a credible scientist. But the physics community just couldn’t say—“No, that’s impossible.”

When the Germans under [Otto] Hahn and [Fritz] Strassmann, two German chemists, and the brains of the outfit, Lise Meitner, Hahn and Strassmann saw that this had happened, that uranium had split into two smaller atoms. They said, “   it. What’s going on?”

Hahn wrote to Meitner, who was in Sweden at the time. Meitner, a physicist, figured out that they had fission. So the chemists are a big part of this whole operation.

Again, you come up with Glenn Seaborg, who discovers plutonium and a way to separate plutonium out of spent reactor fuel. Now here’s your plutonium, physicists. As Oppenheimer said, “We solved the sweet problem.” I say, yeah, and the chemists solved the sour problem.

Kelly: Maybe you want to talk about your work on the atomic road map. That would be really fun.

Settle: Several years ago, I purchased a CD-ROM, I think it’s called the Atomic Traveler.

This was a CD-ROM that had probably, I would say, a couple hundred sites that had to do with the Manhattan Project. These two authors had done a great job of assembling a lot of material. Have you looked at any of that in detail? They’ve done a really nice job, particularly in these sites outside of Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford. I’ve always liked maps and things, and they basically had a nice description of what went on at the site. Then they had a map of the site with street maps exactly where the site was located.

So I said, “Well, this would be kind of fun to put pins in a Google map with a little description and a reference to the page in their guide.” That’s what I’ve been doing. They’ve added a few new sites, and I’ve added some sites. They don’t want links to their material directly, just page references, because they want people to buy their CD, I guess. But I’ve added some links to these various sites. Places like Paducah, Kentucky; St. Louis, the Mallinckrodt chemical plant in St. Louis.

General Electric had a plant, which is very interesting. These were the first people in the United States to make pure uranium. The reason they were doing it was, they wanted a material to use for filaments for light bulbs. They thought maybe they could find something better than tungsten. It turned out it didn’t work. But in the late 1930s, there were only two places in the United States that could make pure uranium, and they were one of them. There are a lot of interesting stories like that.

They had a visit I think from [Arthur] Compton or [Vannevar] Bush, asking if they could scale this up. They said, “You know, we’ve been making a few ounces.”

The Manhattan Project people said, “We need a couple of tons.” It’s interesting how they tried to scale all this stuff up in a hurry.

I’ve been kind of working on that. The Atomic Heritage Foundation has—I put some links to some of your material, because you have some good material on sites as well as people. You and I were kind of discussing the fact that, maybe we could put people in places on the map, which might be another way to publicize your material. You’re always looking for ways to, particularly in this crazy media world that we live in. So that’s basically what I’ve been working on.