George Marshall remains, after George Washington, the most respected soldier in American history. Yet he never had command of troops in battle, the customary path to greatness for a military leader. He excelled at many other tasks that a modern officer is asked to perform and then served capably in the civilian roles of diplomat and policy maker as well.
Marshall’s rise to the top in the U.S. Army followed paths opened by reforms of the early twentieth century that emphasized professional military education, a new staff system to prepare for war, and closer coordination of the citizen soldiers of the National Guard with the regular army. As a staff officer in World War I, Marshall was centrally involved in the planning of offensives by the American Expeditionary Force in France. Later, as assistant commandant of the Infantry School, he left a strong imprint on the tactics that the U.S. Army was to use in World War II. Extensive work with National Guard units gave him exposure to the civilian world and experience in dealing with politicians that were unusual for officers of his time.
Though Marshall had never commanded a division, he became chief of staff on the day that World War II began in Europe. The U.S. Army in September 1939 had scarcely any modern weaponry and was roughly the size of the Dutch army that survived less than a week against the German blitzkrieg in 1940. By the time the U.S. Army began fighting the Wehrmacht in 1942, its effective combat strength had increased more than tenfold. Marshall was the architect of this remarkable buildup.
Marshall keenly appreciated that success in a multitheater coalition war required harmonious civil-military, interservice, and interallied relationships. He won the confidence of President Franklin Roosevelt, worked effectively with his naval counterpart, Admiral Ernest King, and ensured coordination of American and British military leadership through the Combined Chiefs of Staff and unity of command in combat theaters.
Marshall proved less sure-footed in his approach to the most important strategic choice facing the United States in World War II: when and where to employ American forces on a large scale. Marshall’s support of a Germany-first strategic priority was on the mark, but his advocacy of an Anglo-American invasion of France in 1943 put him on shaky ground. Until American forces had gained more experience against the Wehrmacht, until command of the Atlantic was achieved in mid-1943, and until command of the air was secured in early 1944, an amphibious assault across the English Channel would have carried great military risk. And given that the British would have supplied the bulk of the troops for a 1943 invasion, military failure would have involved the political risk of undercutting Britain’s commitment to the war effort. Franklin Roosevelt, although overruling the chief of staff on this crucial strategic issue, came to regard him as so indispensable in Washington that, when the cross-Channel assault was finally mounted in 1944, he could not let Marshall assume command of the invasion force. The general was sorely disappointed but characteristically never uttered a word of complaint.
Marshall was set to retire after the war when President Harry Truman sent him to China in late 1945 to avert a civil war between the Kuomintang government and the Communist Party. Even Marshall’s force of character could not bring about a durable compromise between those antagonists, however. His experience in China did prove beneficial when he became Truman’s secretary of state in 1947. For he could make a strong case that American military intervention in the Chinese Civil War would be a costly venture with only a dim prospect of success.
In the Cold War, as in World War II, Marshall saw Europe as the top American strategic priority. The famous plan of foreign aid that bears his name helped protect friendly European countries from Communist subversion. Before he left the State Department in 1949, he also helped erect two other pillars of containment in Europe to stand alongside the Marshall Plan–a West German state and a Western military alliance: NATO.
After the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman brought Marshall out of retirement once again, this time to serve as secretary of defense. The president hoped that Marshall would keep General Douglas MacArthur under control. But Marshall was not well suited for that role: although in principle he deeply believed in civilian control of the military, in practice he had also long believed that theater commanders should have considerable scope to act on their own judgment.
After Truman fired MacArthur, Senator Joseph McCarthy viciously impugned Marshall as a dupe of the Communists. But for almost all of Marshall’s contemporaries, it was precisely his character and his patriotism that made him so worthy of respect.
BRADFORD A. LEE
Ed Cray, General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman (1991); Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall, 4 vols. (1963-1986); Mark A. Stoler, George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century (1989).
The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.