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George C. Marshall—The Great Mobilizer

"I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country," said Franklin Roosevelt. And with those words General George C. Marshall's lifelong ambition of commanding troops in battle was denied. Dwight Eisenhower, an officer he had developed and promoted, would get the supreme command in Europe. Roosevelt had given the choice to General Marshall himself, but, ever the soldier, Marshall had declined. The decision belonged to the commander in chief. This selfless gesture assured the president that the best man for overall command would remain in Washington.[18] As a result, Eisenhower would become the more famous of the two; after all, as Roosevelt himself once said, "Ike, you and I know who was the Chief of Staff during the last years of the Civil War but practically no one else knows. . . . I hate to think fifty years from now practically no one will know who George Marshall was."[19]

As Roosevelt conjectured, the contribution of General Marshall has faded from memory. True, World War II was won by the blood, sweat, and sacrifice of millions of citizen soldiers who were fighting for the freedom of others against the evils of totalitarianism. Yet although Marshall did not fight in the trenches, his story is equally heroic, for it was through his efforts and will that America and its soldiers received the men, material, and leadership they needed in order to wage war. While Marshall himself never took fire in this war, he sacrificed his lifelong ambition to lead troops so that he could better serve his nation and the army. In Marshall we have an example of a leader as manager for a heroic purpose; his skillful use of communications was essential to his aims and those of our nation.

The Right Man for the Job

In 1939 General Marshall was appointed army chief of staff. It was the fulfillment of a dream for a lifelong soldier who had devoted himself to the service of his country. Marshall had had a slow rise through the ranks from second lieutenant in the Philippines in 1902 through outposts in the American West, service under General "Blackjack" Pershing in World War I in France, and then service in Asia, including China. Now, as chief commander of air and ground forces, it fell to Marshall to mobilize the American military for war should it come.

The challenges that Marshall faced were enormous. While President Franklin Roosevelt was a supporter of intervention, the American people for the most part were not. Fortunately, Marshall had the organizational skills necessary for the task. The army grew from a force of less than 500,000 at the outbreak of war to 12.9 million at the end. Marshall mobilized American men, women, and material. It was he who made certain that troops were equipped for battle and that generals had the troops, supplies, and armaments that they needed in order to wage war.[20]


It is said that the modern army took shape under Marshall's guidance. He served as an instructor at the War College for several years, and he also served as chief instructional officer at Fort Benning, Georgia. Dispensing with textbook planning, Marshall pushed for more realistic exercises, in which commanders would need to make decisions with only partial information, just as on a real battlefield. In doing so, he reinvented the way the military educates its officers.[21]

One of Marshall's chief assets was his ability to pick the right person for the right job. At Fort Benning, Marshall identified future leaders and did what he could to promote them. He created the American general corps of the Second World War. His choice of military commanders was meticulous: Generals Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, Mark Clark, and George Patton were but four of many standouts—all of whom earned a place in his little black book.[22]

The Right Words of Diplomacy

Time and again Marshall proved himself adept at communicating his point of view without creating rancor, and in the process he gained respect for his position as well as for himself. With Congress, Marshall could be charming as well as informative. He was the same with the Allies, especially Britain. Having seen the folly of disunity among the Allies during World War I, he argued forcefully for a unified command during World War II. He wanted an American commander, but he was willing to put British generals into leadership positions, or even to put an American officer in a subordinate position to a British officer as a means of demonstrating a willingness to cooperate.[23]

Marshall drew a distinct line between the military and politics. Throughout the war, by virtue of his position, he was required to testify before Congress. Even though the process was time-consuming and took him away from his military duties, he prepared himself and underwent the rigor of testifying. He also ordered full cooperation with the Truman committee's investigation of military purchasing, rather than stonewalling. The result was twofold: First, Truman's committee uncovered waste and sometimes fraud and in the process ended up saving the nation billions of dollars, and second, he and Truman had the opportunity to assess each other; this paved the way for greater understanding when Truman was thrust into the presidency after Roosevelt's death.[24]

Military versus Political

Marshall also recused himself from the summits among heads of state that took place periodically throughout the war. He did not think it was wise for a military man to influence political outcomes. At the same time, Marshall was not a political neophyte. Although there were suggestions that he run for office, even for the presidency, he always declined. He knew how Washington worked, and he prided himself on his reputation for being honest and without guile.[25] Periodically, he had to undergo what must have been humiliating examinations—for example, in late 1945 during the investigation of the lack of preparedness at Pearl Harbor, and in the early 1950s when he was wrongly accused by the red-baiting McCarthyites of undermining America's resistance to communist forces, particularly in Asia.[26] With this latter charge, scurrilous though it was, Marshall took the high road, refusing to dignify McCarthy's charges with a rebuttal. His reply: "If I have to explain at this point that I am not a traitor to the United States, I hardly think it's worth it."[27]

The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was one that Marshall did not want to make. He fully endorsed the development of the bomb and in fact was the chief overseer of the project: General Lesley Groves reported to him. Marshall understood that the decision to drop it was one that would have profound moral consequences, and for that reason he deemed its use not a military decision, but one for the government to make. However, Marshall endorsed the use of the atomic bomb as a means of shortening the war and ultimately saving the lives of both the American soldiers and the Japanese civilians and soldiers who would be killed if Japan were invaded.[28]

The Statesman

Truman so admired Marshall that he twice called him into his cabinet, first as secretary of state and later as secretary of defense. It was in the former role that Marshall gained recognition as a humanitarian. In a speech at Harvard when he was given an honorary degree, Marshall spoke of Europe's suffering and slow recovery and its need for assistance in the wake of the war.

The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle and restoring confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole. . . . It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace. Our policy is not directed against any country or any doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation, and chaos. Its purpose should be the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.[29]

Direct and to the point, Marshall made the case for providing political stability by ensuring economic viability. This speech introduced the European Recovery Act, soon known as the Marshall Plan. This plan fostered cooperation among nations, staved off communist expansionism, and laid the foundation for a more united Europe. Years later, after he had retired, Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in part for his efforts at helping to rebuild Europe. Acknowledging the irony, even modest dissent, of giving a soldier an award for peace, Marshall said in his Nobel address:

The cost of war is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am greatly moved to find some means or method of avoiding another calamity of war.[30]

Compassionate Aloofness

Very few people called him George; he was always the General. He had an aloofness to him that terrified junior officers, but to Marshall it was a way of getting to the point: A commander's time is limited, and he must maximize his effectiveness.[31] Yet Marshall, like all good commanders, viewed his soldiers as people; the genesis of the USO show was Marshall's requesting entertainment for his troops stateside before the war. During the prewar mobilization, Marshall directed his staff to prepare a summary of messages that newly enlisted men were sending home; many of these messages were complaints.

Forrest Pogue, Marshall's biographer, estimates that Marshall spent "twenty minutes a day" reviewing these summaries and personally answering some of the complaints himself. Marshall also visited with the troops as well as keeping in frequent contact with those he had promoted and developed. He understood that he was mobilizing an army of civilians; the military would mold them into soldiers, but they were nonetheless civilians and wanted nothing more than to return home and resume their lives. Their sacrifice and their service were "the essence of democracy" and "what the fighting was all about."[32]

Saying No to Yes

Another of Marshall's traits was a willingness to listen. General Omar Bradley tells of being called into Marshall's office in 1939, a week after the outbreak of the war in Europe. Marshall expressed his disappointment in Bradley and his fellow officers: "You haven't disagreed with a single thing I have done all week." The next day the officers returned with a recommendation that in Bradley's recollection seemed "questionable." To which Marshall replied, "Now that is what I want. Unless I hear all of the arguments against something I am not sure whether I have made the right decision or not."[33]

After Pearl Harbor, Marshall called Ike to his office and told him to draft a plan to save the Philippines. Ike took a few hours, then reported that it was not possible but suggested alternatives. Marshall said, "Eisenhower, the department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done."[34] To General Marshall, leadership was not about pleasing the boss or saying the right words; leadership was doing the right thing. This was the creed by which he lived.

"Greatest Living American"

Anyone who came into contact with George Marshall respected him. His sense of virtue was palpable. Throughout his long years in the military, often doing jobs he did not particularly want, he did his duty. His greatest disappointment was failing to obtain divisional command. He was a lifelong staff officer, who served the army and the nation well, and he was worthy of Harry Truman's appellation: "the greatest living American."

[18]Ed Cary, George C. Marshall: Soldier and Statesman, pp. 4-13 (Roosevelt quote, p. 13).

[19]Ibid., pp. 9-13 (Roosevelt quote, p. 9).


[21]Robert D. Kaplan, Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos, pp. 13-14, citing Barbara Tuchman, Stillwell and the American Experience in China. Also Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General (1880-1939) , pp. 247-262.

[22]Pogue, George C. Marshall: Education of a General, pp. 247-262.

[23]Cary, George C. Marshall, p. 274.

[24]Ibid., pp. 185-187.

[25]Ibid., pp. 402-403.

[26]Ibid., p. 559.

[27]Ibid., pp. 721-725.

[28]Ibid., pp. 537-550.

[29]George C. Marshall, "Text of the Marshall Plan Speech," June 5, 1947.

[30]Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Statesman 1945-1959, pp. 506-507.

[31]Cary, George C. Marshall, pp. 6-7.

[32]Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope (1939-1942), with a foreword by General Omar N. Bradley, pp. 114-119.

[33]Omar N. Bradley, foreword to George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope (1939-1942), by Forrest C. Pogue, p. ix.

[34]Cary, George C. Marshall, pp. 265-266.

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