George Catlett Marshall was more than the Chief of Staff of the US Army during World War II; his was the guiding hand behind the creation of the Army that entered action in 1941 and the mind that shaped its employment until the victory in 1945. As a staff officer, his name is rarely included when the exploits of great generals are recounted, but few men have exerted as much influence on the postwar state of the world as General Marshall.
Born in 1880, Marshall began his military career at the Virginia Military Institute, where he distinguished himself as first captain upon graduation in 1901. A first-rate service record continued, but it was really in World War I that he had the opportunity to lay the foundations of the service he would give in the next war.
In 1917, he served as chief of operations in the First Infantry Division. In 1918 he played a key role in planning the operations at Saint Mihiel, and just before the end of the war Lt. Col. Marshall served First Army as chief of operations. His work engendered the esteem of the supreme commander, General of the Armies John J. Pershing; between 1919 and 1924, Marshall worked as Pershing’s aide. During the last three years of this period, Pershing was the Army Chief of Staff.
His career path between 1924 and 1936 was rather quiet, but the five years that he spent at Fort Benning offered him the opportunity to revise training techniques substantially. Some of those young officers would go on to play important roles in World War II; because of his work in this period, Marshall knew what he might expect of many of these men. In 1936 he was given his first star.
He took on the role of chief of the War Plans Division in 1938, and in this capacity, he began to wrestle with the issue of American preparedness for a war that many began to expect. There was already a major war in eastern Asia, and political developments in Europe led many to anticipate another one there. President Roosevelt consulted with General Pershing over the appointment of the next Army Chief of Staff. Pershing’s esteem brought Marshall the opportunity, although the final choice depended ultimately on Roosevelt’s own impressions of the man.
Marshall never gave Roosevelt the kind of easy familiarity that Roosevelt favored, but he inspired confidence and presented his views forthrightly, even when disagreeing with the President. Roosevelt made Marshall the acting Chief of Staff in July of 1939, finalizing the appointment on September 1 and making Marshall a four-star general. The level of confidence that Roosevelt had in Marshall can best be expressed by noting that in 1944, Roosevelt had originally wanted to place Marshall in supreme command of D-Day and the subsequent campaign; he then changed his mind, dreading to lose Marshall’s role in Washington.
From September, 1939 until December, 1941, Marshall’s primary function was to prepare the Army for war. This required some deft political work, because measures like instituting a draft during peacetime were unpopular, and it fell to Marshall personally to secure the cooperation of Congress. He also carried out a reorganization of the US Army that ensured that the Army Air Forces enjoyed an appropriate level of autonomy. During this period, the US Army grew from 174,000 men to 1.8 million. It was an impressive expansion, especially during peacetime, but it was still far from sufficient. In 1945, the Army grew to 8.25 million, and even there many believed that this was barely enough men to accomplish the tasks to which they were being put.
In these two years, Marshall also undertook to cultivate solid connections with British military and political leaders. He could already see that, in a future war, the two powers would work closely together, and command issues would need to be resolved. He often disagreed with Churchill, but perhaps because of this, rather than despite it, Churchill came to hold him in very high regard, as well.
When war came to the United States, Marshall consistently advanced the position that Germany needed to be defeated first, and then America could concentrate on Japan. Moreover, in the context of the European war, Marshall never favored the gradual approach employed by the British, beginning with North Africa and then proceeding through an Italian campaign. Marshall wanted to engineer a major invasion of the continent through France at the earliest possible juncture. As it so developed, that juncture did not become available until 1944.
When D-Day was being planned, the relative strengths of British and American forces ensured that overall command would be held by an American general. This resulted in Roosevelt’s aforementioned quandary, in which he had first wanted Marshall to serve in that role, and then he could not bear to see Marshall leave Washington. As it so developed, he left it to Marshall to request the position; Marshall did not make the request, and Roosevelt was free to appoint Eisenhower.
Marshall was promoted to five-star general in December of the same year. Most other armies called the corresponding rank “Marshal” or “Field Marshal,” but this was rejected because it would have sounded absurd with Marshall’s own name. Instead, the rank was instituted as “General of the Army.”
General Marshall retired in November of 1945. President Truman requested his help in trying to mediate the Chinese Civil War; he succeeded in brokering a short-lived cease-fire. He went on to serve as Secretary of State between 1947 and 1949, formulating one of the most important policies of the Cold War era: the Marshall Plan. After his short but eventful stint as Secretary of State, he spent a year as Secretary of Defense in 1950 and 1951. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the results of the Marshall Plan, and died in 1959.
Throughout Marshall’s career, the word “character” stands out as the greatest single secret of his success. In the first instance, it was his own character that told. It inspired the trust and confidence of superiors and subordinates alike; it gave him the tools to win over an uncooperative Congress and foreign leaders. In the second instance, however, it was his judgment of the character of others that made possible the victories of World War II. Many of the greatest American generals of the war were officers that he had known and promoted. The US Army of 1945 was in large measure an army that George C. Marshall had built.
Dear, I.C.B. The Oxford Guide to World War II. Oxford, 1995
Parrish, Thomas. Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne et al. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Bedrick, 1990
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