George C. Marshall: True soldier

The indispensable military man of the last century
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On Sept. 1, 1939, as German troops thundered across the Polish border, Gen. George C. Marshall succeeded Malin Craig as the U.S. Army Chief of Staff. One week later, Marshall returned to his birthplace and childhood home in Uniontown, 46 miles southeast of Pittsburgh for a homecoming celebration.


The man President Harry Truman was to call “the greatest military man this country has ever produced” was a Western Pennsylvanian. His father is buried here in the Allegheny Cemetery and his sister, Marie, spent her adult life in Greensburg.

The last of four children, Marshall was born in 1880. His father, George Sr., was a leading citizen of Uniontown. A collateral relative was the great Chief Justice John Marshall. Young George, bored with his family genealogy, exclaimed: “Continual harping on the name John Marshall was kind of poor business. It was about time for someone else to swim for the family.”

For reasons not entirely transparent, George Marshall fixed upon a military career. His parents were opposed. George Sr. was a prominent Democrat, and Pennsylvania’s two senators, Penrose and Quay, were both Republican — no senatorial appointment, no West Point. Another obstacle was competitive examinations. George Marshall was a poor student; he did get better, but he was never outstanding. The Virginia Military Institute in Stanton, Va., where his older brother Stuart had graduated, offered a reasonable compromise.

Marshall’s four years at VMI clearly stamped him as a military man. At the end of his first year, he was named first corporal, then successively first sergeant and, for his final year, the prestigious rank of first captain. In his words: “What I learned at VMI was self-​control [and] discipline so that it was ground in.”

By comparison, his peer Douglas MacArthur seemed destined for greatness. The son of Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, governor of the Philippines and vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army, the young MacArthur (born 1880) was both first captain and academically first in his class — the first cadet in West Point’s history to attain these twin pinnacles. More intelligent, far better educated and better looking, MacArthur held all the cards. In ambition they were equal, but ultimately Marshall’s character, integrity and powers of judgment would prevail. Early on, though, you couldn’t see it. For Marshall, it was to be a 40-​year slog.

To secure his coveted commission, young Marshall and his father lobbied hard, targeting Secretary of War Elihu Root and Attorney General Philander C. Knox (a Pittsburgher) and Pennsylvania Sens. Quay and Penrose. The capstone of the efforts was George’s attempt to meet with President McKinley. Having no appointment, Marshall walked in the front door of the White House and up the stairs to McKinley’s office. The head usher asked him if he had an appointment and Marshall said, “No.” Then he would not be able to see the president. At that moment, a man and his daughter were admitted to see the president, and Marshall simply attached himself to this little procession and walked in. Their business done, the father and daughter left, leaving Marshall standing before the president. He succinctly stated his case and left. This may or may not have been the turning point, but it certainly cut him out from the herd. He was commissioned a second lieutenant on Feb. 2, 1901. The next year, he married Elizabeth Coles, of Lexington, who was four years older and had social credentials far surpassing his own.

In April 1917, the U.S. entered World War I. After the usual military politicking, Marshall was placed on the general staff of the First Division commanded by Gen. W.L. Sibert. The First Division was slow off the dime and in October of 1917 the commanding general of the Allied Expeditionary Force (AEF), John J. Pershing, took Sibert and his newly appointed chief of staff to task. It was not pleasant. An agitated Marshall, who had been acting chief of staff, defended his superiors and gave Gen. Pershing his unsolicited rendering of the facts. Pershing countered, Marshall countered back. Pershing turned on his heel and left. Though Sibert thought Marshall had just sunk his military career, Pershing on subsequent visits invariably sought out Marshall for his views. Marshall’s courageous and foolish challenge of the AEF commanding general initiated the most important and valuable relationship of his military career. By 1917, he was on Pershing’s staff at GHQ, and he finished the war as chief of the Operations Division of the First Army.

One vignette demonstrates Marshall’s unique relationship as Army Chief of Staff Pershing’s key aide. Determined to overturn a policy of his disliked predecessor, Gen. Peyton March, Pershing sent his position paper to Marshall who penned his strong disapproval. Back and forth it went for two more drafts. Pershing attempted to close the matter with a decisive “No.” Marshall retorted: “General, just because you hate the guts of General March… you’re setting yourself up to do something you damn well know is wrong.” Pershing folded: “Well, have it your way.” Marshall earned Pershing’s unqualified support by his unique ability to strike the keys of power year in and year out with barely a discordant note.

Early in 1938, Marshall was named deputy chief of staff. Nov. 14, 1938 saw the new deputy at a White House meeting with administration heavyweights, including Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and WPA Administrator Harry Hopkins. It was Marshall’s debut. Roosevelt did most of the talking. His position was greeted with universal approbation. Nearing the end, he turned to Marshall and said: “George, don’t you think so?” Marshall shot back: “Mr. President, I don’t agree with that at all.” With a startled look on his face, Roosevelt abruptly adjourned the meeting. Attendees told Marshall they were sorry his career had so abruptly ended.

Marshall later observed: “I remember he called me George… I wasn’t very enthusiastic over his misrepresentation of our intimacy… I don’t think he ever did it again.” He later told the President in a private meeting, “Mr. President, don’t call me George.” Roosevelt, not Marshall, told the story.

Don’t call me George” gets to the heart of Marshall’s famous reserve even as he became Roosevelt’s most important strategic adviser. Marshall kept the President at a calculated distance. He invariably declined invitations to the White House and to Hyde Park. The first time Marshall visited Roosevelt’s birthplace was at his funeral. Marshall allowed that informal conversation with the amiable Roosevelt could be dangerous, and the relationship was strengthened rather than weakened by his frankness. In April 1939, he was offered the job of Army chief of staff.

Effective as he was, Marshall was no workaholic. He maintained a clear dichotomy between his work as chief of staff and his private life with Mrs. Marshall. He enjoyed movies, particularly Westerns, and his reading was limited to novels and magazines. His favorites: The Saturday Evening Post and the Reader’s Digest. He was not an intellectual — the theoretical and academic held little interest. Marshall’s considerable intellect aimed at solving practical problems.

Visitors to his office met a set routine. Enter, sit down without invitation or greeting. When he looks up from his papers, start talking. When Marshall puts his head back down, get up and leave. He simply had an aura of authority. When Marshall entered the drab munitions building as Army chief of staff, he commanded 175,000 personnel in the world’s 17th largest army. He immediately set about building an army that, by 1944, numbered 8.75 million men — a 50-​fold increase. At the beginning, though, the country was not at war and wasn’t immediately threatened; strong isolationist sentiment prevailed. Marshall could move no faster than the president, and the president dared not get too far in front of public opinion.

Marshall needed vast sums of money to place his tiny army on a wartime footing. With Harry Hopkins in the hospital, his chosen helpmate was Secretary of the Treasury and Roosevelt’s longtime Dutchess County neighbor, Henry Morgenthau Jr. With the exception of Hopkins, nobody was closer to the president than Morgenthau. At a pivotal May 13, 1940 meeting with Roosevelt, Morgenthau made the request for a major jump in funding. Roosevelt said no. He then asked the president to listen to Marshall — another no. Whereupon Marshall stood up, his volcanic temper under only marginal control, and launched an impassioned plea. He concluded, “If you don’t do something… and do it right away, I don’t know what’s going to happen to this country.” Marshall got the money.

Marshall was invaluable to Congress. His credibility and character resonated far better than the polarizing Roosevelt’s. As House Speaker Sam Rayburn said, “[Marshall] has the presence of a great man.”

During the 27 months before Pearl Harbor, Marshall’s accomplishments were solid, but only a modest fraction of what was to follow. He put the U.S. Army on a wartime footing and laid the foundation for his reputation and influence. Relatively unknown outside of the army in 1939, he now won widespread respect and even deference from Congress, the administration and the general public.

And not least, he won and never lost the complete confidence of the ringmaster himself: FDR. Marshall was ready for the world stage.

Within two weeks of Pearl Harbor, Churchill and a massive British entourage settled in Washington for three weeks of the Arcadia Conference — the first of nine such conferences held throughout the war. Arcadia set the grand strategy for the prosecution of the war. There was universal agreement on one principle: Germany first.

The most important battle Marshall had to fight (and with mixed success for the next two years) was a core/​periphery strategy. Marshall advocated a cross-​channel invasion in France and a direct strike into the heart of Germany. The British were haunted by the ghosts of World War I and the Somme (60,000 casualties in a day), with nearly a million killed. Churchill favored a peripheral approach: Norway, North Africa, Sardinia, the Balkans — anything to prolong the invasion of France until Germany’s resistance was weakened.

On Dec. 14, 1941, a newly minted brigadier general arrived in Washington at Marshall’s summons. It was a giant step for Dwight Eisenhower. In Marshall’s opening words, he asked Eisenhower how he would deal with the impending disaster in the Philippines and the grave threat to Australia. Two hours later Eisenhower returned with a concise 300 words. Marshall said, “I agree with you… do your best [to implement it].” In February, Marshall named Eisenhower head of the War Plans Division with the job of developing a global strategy. In June, Eisenhower became commander of European Theater Operations.

Circumstances conspired to dampen Marshall’s hopes for a cross-​channel invasion in late 1942 or even in 1943. The arms, troops, and most important, the shipping and landing craft were not there. Roosevelt had one imperative: to bring American troops against the Germans in 1944, an election year.

From this came Operation Torch, the three-​pronged invasion of North Africa at Casablanca, Oran and Algiers. To neutralize the French, Eisenhower cut a deal with the smarmy Admiral Darlan of the Vichy French government. This created a firestorm of protest in the British and American press, with Eisenhower the obvious scapegoat. Without Marshall’s unstinting support the incident might have ended Eisenhower’s career.

The Trident Conference in May 1943 charted the Allied course after North Africa and Sicily. For Marshall, a crosschannel invasion in the spring of 1944 was the obvious choice. Churchill favored a grab bag in the Mediterranean, including an all-​out assault on Italy, Rhodes, Greece and Yugoslavia, which he mistakenly called “the soft underbelly of Europe.” Marshall agreed to a limited Italian campaign in exchange for a firm May 1, 1944 date for Roundup — the cross-​channel invasion.

In Algiers, Marshall gave a rare press conference that became part of his legend. He began by asking each of the 30 correspondents to pose their questions. Marshall remained silent until the last question was asked. He then spoke for 40 minutes, answering each question, looking directly at its author and weaving it all into his global portrait.

While still pledged to Roundup (now Overlord), Churchill resurrected his Eastern Mediterranean strategy. He called attention to the deficiencies of the American fighting man by suggesting that it would take 2 12 U.S. divisions to fight one German division. Marshall exploded, “I never want to hear this again.” Churchill backpedaled but after a good night’s sleep returned to his favorite subject, the invasion of Rhodes. Beginning with “muskets must flame” and more vintage rhetoric, he made his case. Marshall fixed Churchill, perhaps the greatest man of the century, straight in the eye and stated flatly, “Not one American boy is going to die on that God-​damned beach.”

At the Tehran Conference in 1943, Stalin asked who was to command Overlord. Roosevelt and Churchill sheepishly said it was undecided. Stalin, pressed the issue. Until the Supreme Commander was announced, he doubted the operation would come off. An answer was promised in two weeks. It was universally assumed that it would be Marshall. In the end it was Eisenhower.

Two weeks prior to that conference, Roosevelt told Eisenhower, “Ike, you and I know who was chief of staff during the last years of the Civil War (Henry Halleck — “Old Brains”) but practically no one else knows… I hate to think that 50 years from now practically nobody will know who George Marshall was.”

Roosevelt asked the ubiquitous Hopkins to find out from Marshall what he wanted to do. Marshall said, “I will serve at the pleasure of the President.” Roosevelt then posed the question directly to Marshall — same answer. Ironically, in the end it was Marshall’s staggering accomplishments and Eisenhower’s relative inexperience that denied Marshall the job he wanted most.

Had Eisenhower gone back as acting chief of staff, he would have had problems with the imperious MacArthur, under whom he worked as a major. He would have lacked Marshall’s sure touch with Congress. Marshall had become the indispensable man. Roosevelt made the right decision, denying Marshall the job he wanted most and accelerating Eisenhower’s trajectory toward the White House.

After D-​Day, Marshall’s principal concern in Europe was to back up Eisenhower’s unceasing efforts to counter the prickly Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. During the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower’s confidence had been shaken and the British argued for the appointment of an overall armed forces commander, obviously British. While disappointed with certain of Eisenhower’s actions, Marshall knew Eisenhower, and the Americans would lose control of the theater with a British commander. Marshall wouldn’t let it happen. When Churchill appealed directly to Roosevelt, it was Marshall who drafted the president’s reply.

President Roosevelt died April 12, 1945. Marshall made the funeral arrangements. From the start, his relationship with Truman was exceptional. As an artillery captain in the first World War, Truman was proud of his military service and looked with awe upon the man he regarded as preeminent in U.S. military history. For his part, Marshall felt far more comfortable with the plain-​talking Truman than the mercurial Dutchess County squire.

When Marshall retired from the army on Nov. 26, 1945, Truman appointed him on the next day as special ambassador to China. His job was to reconcile Chiang Kai-​shek and the Kuomintang with Mao Tse-​tung and the Communists. Marshall was accustomed to success. However, the China conundrum was militarily and politically impossible, and his mission failed. Communist victory was in the cards from the start.

In May 1946, Truman sent Eisenhower (now Army chief of staff) to sound out Marshall about taking over as secretary of state from Jimmy Byrnes. Marshall said, “Great goodness, Eisenhower, I’d take any job in the world to get out of this one.” With inflation, labor problems and the Russian menace, Truman was in deep trouble in 1946; much of the public thought he wasn’t up to the job. They knew, however, that Marshall was up to his job. And when he was sworn in in January 1947, the appointment provided the turning point of the Truman presidency.

Marshall’s first move was asking Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson to stay on. The sophisticated Acheson, with his bristling guardsman’s mustache, was awed by few men. Marshall was the exception. Marshall then named George Frost Kennan¸ the former chargé d’affaires at the Moscow Embassy, as head of the Policy Planning Staff. Kennan was catapulted to prominence with his authorship of the famous “long telegram” in February 1946. In it he identified the expansionist sources of Soviet conduct and defined the policy of containment which undergirded the U.S. response to Communism for the duration of the Cold War.

In early 1947, Western Europe was sliding into political and economic chaos; Communist strength at the polls was growing. After a series of foreign ministerial meetings in Moscow, Marshall returned totally disabused of the notion that he could reach any accommodation with the Russians. In June, he delivered a commencement speech at Harvard. It was the most important speech he ever gave and one of the most important speeches of the 20th century. He announced the European Recovery Plan (ERP). Truman named it the Marshall Plan, believing that, regardless of its merits, the “Truman Plan” would not make it through the Republican-​controlled 80th Congress. Marshall never called it anything other than ERP.

Acheson, Kennan and Under Secretary for Economic Affairs Will Clayton hammered out the policy. Marshall presented the plan as one of the most selfless acts in American history: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.” Truman supported it, but it was Marshall’s towering reputation that made it a reality.

In the face of persistent Russian intransigence, Marshall proposed that the U.S., France and Britain unify their German occupation zones. On June 7, 1948, the Allies called for a constituent assembly to draft a constitution for an independent and unoccupied West Germany. The Russians responded with the Berlin blockade. Contemporaneously, Marshall worked toward a U.S. European military pact. In an uncharacteristic burst of immodesty, Marshall told his biographer, Forrest Pogue, “I started NATO. I got every living soul one after the other to talk to me personally on the thing to get them stirred up to do this business.”

The final act of George Marshall’s life was his appointment in 1950 as the nation’s third secretary of defense. The one positive effect of the outbreak of the Korean War was a heightened responsiveness in the Congress and the American public to communist aggression. Marshall’s prestige strengthened Acheson’s negotiations with the French over the NATO pact. More important was his support of the National Security Council Document 68. Drafted by Paul Nitze, NSC-​68 was the seminal U.S. policy of the Cold War, calling for a vast expansion of American military power throughout the world. It put the teeth into containment.

Marshall had to deal with a firestorm in the aftermath of Truman’s firing of Douglas MacArthur. After some deliberation, Marshall supported the decision. The man Truman privately called a “play actor and bunco man” had clearly overstepped his bounds. Marshall and Acheson suffered through interminable Congressional hearings, but in the end the furor just “faded away.” Marshall closed his public career in September 1951, four months short of 50 years.

In 1953, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. As the nation’s longest serving chief of staff, this native of western Pennsylvania set the strategy that won World War II. He was, in the words of Winston Churchill, “the organizer of victory.”

As Truman’s secretary of state and secretary of defense, Marshall set the policies that won the Cold War. And as the greatest American of the 20th century, he has but one peer, the ringmaster of Hyde Park. Marshall spent his remaining years in contented retirement with his second wife Katherine. He died Oct. 16, 1959. The man who had planned elaborate funerals for Presidents Harding and Roosevelt and General Pershing gave instructions for a simple service.


William S. Dietrich II

Dietrich was a native of Pittsburgh, who wrote about Pittsburgh history and its greatest industrial leaders and historic philanthrophists. Bill joined that group shortly before his death in 2011, leaving more than $500 million to a variety of Pittsburgh institutions. He received his undergraduate education at Princeton, and earned a doctorate in political science from the University of Pittsburgh in 1984. He spent his entire business career with Dietrich Industries from 1961 to 2003, eventually serving as president and CEO, and then as non-​executive chairman. He is the author of “In the Shadow of the Rising Sun: The Political Roots of American Economic Decline.”

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