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Gen. George C. Marshall
Gen. George C. Marshall
Photograph courtesy U.S. National Archives, photo no. NLT-AVC-PHT-73


Few other military leaders proved to be as central to their nation’s conduct of a major war as did George Marshall. He combined in an incomparable way his ambition for high command with a respect for the U.S. emphasis on the military’s obedience to civilian control. Only George Washington rivalled him in his ability to implement military strategy within a civilian democracy.

During the years between World War I and World War II, Marshall served in near obscurity. But he used his peacetime assignments to develop good doctrines and good people. While in command of the U.S. Army’s Infantry School, he built a file of promising officers, many of whom he would later appoint to high command.

A brigadier general and a deputy chief of Army staff in 1938, Marshall attended a meeting at which President Roosevelt held forth on favoring bombers over ground forces in the buildup of the Army. “Don’t you think so, George?” Roosevelt asked. “Mr. President, I’m sorry but I don’t agree with you on that,” Marshall replied, shocking others at the meeting. He was told that he had finished his career with that remark.

But when Roosevelt decided on a new Army chief of staff in September 1939, he chose Marshall, beginning a partnership that would continue through Roosevelt’s lifetime.

When World War II began in Europe in September 1939, Marshall saw the United States’ potential involvement. In a confrontation with the president in May 1940, the month Germany invaded France, Marshall convinced a reluctant Roosevelt of the need to increase the Army’s budget significantly.

Marshall, like his Navy counterpart, Adm. Harold R. Stark, had a “war warning” message sent on November 27, 1941, to the Army commander at Pearl Harbor, Lt. Gen. Walter C. Short. The Marshall message, slightly different from Stark’s, said that “hostile action [is] possible at any moment. If hostility cannot, repeat cannot, be avoided the United States desires that Japan commit the first overt act.”

Marshall, who strongly backed the Anglo-American Germany First strategy, believed that the United States had to strike back soon because a democracy would not long support an indecisive war. Soon after the U.S. entry into the war, he began pushing for a cross-Channel landing in Europe. In each succeeding Allied strategic conference Marshall advocated a landing in northern France, gaining only grudging British consent in late 1943. By that time Marshall’s 1939-1941 program to expand the Army was in high gear, giving the United States a predominance in land power.

To the initial surprise of many, Marshall was not chosen to lead the campaign in France; it would have been the crowning event of his career. But Roosevelt believed he could not do without Marshall in Washington, and by that time no other man could have fulfilled Marshall’s unique position as defender of the Army and counselor to the President.

By the end of the war Marshall, with the rank of general of the Army, had earned a reputation as the father of the modern U.S. Army. He was also regarded as almost superhuman in his judiciousness, his talent for noticing and promoting qualified officers, and his ability to support U.S. goals without wrecking overall Anglo-American accord.

Marshall told President Truman that he desired no more government positions after he retired in November 1945. But Marshall’s postwar career as secretary of state (1947-1949) and secretary of defense (1950-1951) would add to the luster of the man Winston Churchill called “the noblest Roman of them all.”

In his two years as secretary of state Marshall developed still another monument to his genius, the European Recovery Program, a restoration of a continent that became known as the Marshall Plan. For it he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.


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