George C. Marshall and The Marshall Center - Interview with Rachel Thompson | HistoryNet MENU

George C. Marshall and The Marshall Center – Interview with Rachel Thompson

By Gerald D. Swick
9/8/2014 • HistoryNet


The Marshall House and George C. Marshall statue. Photo courtesy of The George C. Marshall International Center.

General George Catlett Marshall is remembered as the organizer of the Allied victory in World War II and the architect of the post-war European Recovery Program popularly known as the Marshall Plan. He was the Chief of Staff of the US Army from 1939 to 1945, during which time he oversaw building the army from a peacetime strength of 200,000 to a wartime height of 8 million. In 1947, while serving as secretary of state, he outlined the Marshall Plan for rebuilding a war-devastated Europe. The latter earned him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. A brief biography of him in World War II: A Social, Political and Military History (ABC-CLIO, 2005) states, “If not America’s greatest soldier, General of the Army George Marshall was one of the nation’s most capable military leaders and certainly one of the most influential figures of the twentieth century.”

Rachel Yarnell Thompson is The George C. Marshall International Center’s Special Projects Director. The Center is located near the Marshall House, known locally as Dodona Manor, the general’s former residence in Leesburg, Virginia. She is also the author of a new book, Marshall—A Statesman Shaped in the Crucible of War. On July 16, 2014, HistoryNet spoke with her about the book, The Marshall House and The George C. Marshall International Center.

HistoryNet: How did you first come to work with the Marshall Center? Did you already have an interest in his life or did that come later?

Rachel Yarnell Thompson
Rachel Yarnell Thompson
Rachel Thompson: I began my life at The Marshall Center as a docent at the Marshall House. The George C. Marshall International Center is on the property at that site. After I retired from teaching in the mid-1990s I wanted to get involved in volunteer work that reflected my interest in history, and, after all, as a teacher, I had lost my audience. So I became a docent. After a year or so in that role I was tapped to develop special projects for the Center. We had received a grant from Germany to develop educational materials. With Mary Skutt of Lexington, Virginia, I co-wrote a short biography, America’s Hero to the World: George C. Marshall, and curriculum materials to support it. Promoting those materials within area schools soon led to other educational outreach activities.

HN: Would you tell us a bit about The Marshall House, starting with why it was named Dodona?

RT: The house sits on a 3.88-acre property in Leesburg. It had beautiful oak trees—in fact, it was once known as Oak Hill. Dodona was a shrine in ancient Greece, located on the hillside outside of the city of the same name, where oracles interpreted the rustling of oak leaves in the wind, which were believed to carry messages from Zeus. In importance Dodona was second only to the temple at Delphi. A previous owner of the Leesburg property who knew his Greek mythology named the house Dodona. We know that George and Katherine Marshall used that name because it was on their personal stationary.

Marshall became Army Chief of Staff the very day Hitler invaded Poland, September 1, 1939. Katherine was very interested in finding them a weekend home away from the bustle of Quarters # 1, Fort Myer. She saw this property in the fall of 1940, fell in love with it and put down $10 earnest money on the spot. The next May the Marshalls paid $16,000 for it. Other than a winter home in Pinehurst, North Carolina, it was the only home they owned together and their most important residence. After Marshall died, Katherine moved to a residential hotel in North Carolina and left the property to his stepdaughter, Molly Winn. (Molly Winn was the mother of actress Kitty Winn.—Editor)

In the late 1980s, a developer wanted to tear Dodona down and build a mini-mall on the property, but the people of Leesburg prevailed upon the stepdaughter not to sell it for commercial use when she moved away in 1991. In 1995, the George C. Marshall Preservation Fund raised the down payment for a $2.5 million loan to purchase the home. We have about 95 percent of all the Marshall belongings. They were given to us by the descendants, so we have a very authentic restoration of the home as it would have been in 1950s.

HN: You’ve been special projects director for The George C. Marshall International Center  for a number of years now. What is the Center’s mission, and what are some of the special projects you are involved with?

RT: The Center was an outgrowth of the preservation organization, and dates from about 1995; I began my work there in 1999. Its mission primarily is to preserve the memory of Marshall and advance his legacy through programs which reflect and propagate his relevance to our times. The Center runs a vigorous international exchange program, because Marshall believed this kind of cross-continental outreach was very important.

One way to advance Marshall’s legacy is through school settings. To accomplish that goal, the cornerstone of this program is the Marshall Immersion Workshop held each summer for secondary teachers to educate them about Marshall, with focus on the Marshall Plan—his role in its conceptual development, and its passage through Congress. The fact is George Marshall is all over the history of the 20th century and we want teachers to recognize that.

One thing I came to understand very early on was that teachers couldn’t teach much about Marshall because they didn’t know a great deal about him themselves. Although they recognized the Marshall Plan, they really had little knowledge of how it differed from other aid programs in the post-war.

We realized if the teachers learn about Marshall they will integrate his story into their lessons. After an enriching week of learning, the teachers return to their respective schools with all of the materials from the workshop on a flash drive. Although we know that they can’t spend two weeks of content time on him, with these materials at their disposal, they can bring Marshall into these settings as suits their particular curriculum. Teachers must have at least five years of teaching left before retirement to participate in the workshop, so the multiplier effect of their summer workshop experience can have the best long-range impact. Through thirteen years of the program, we have reached at least 180 schools in the US and Europe.

The Center also has many special exhibits. I had the opportunity in 2009 to curate an exhibit of letters exchanged between Marshall and (Britain’s Prime Minister) Winston Churchill. Titled “With Affection and Admiration,” it revealed a fascinating relationship shaped in the crucible of World War II. Also, as Special Projects Director, I’m often called upon to lecture about Marshall. I really enjoy that; I am, after all, a retired teacher!

HN: You authored a recently published book Marshall—A Statesman Shaped in the Crucible of War. What prompted you to start work on this project?

RT: You mean my three-year journey? My life with George C. Marshall? Every writer has a particular image of a historical figure to present. I hope I have told the story from a different angle.

First, having worked at Marshall’s home for 15 years, I feel that I know his life “up close and personal.” In fact, my husband has teased about a honey-do list for the Marshall House—my asking him occasionally to make a small repair or two here and there. Once when I was giving a tour, a man opined that perhaps I had an intellectual crush on Marshall. I haven’t Photoshopped him into family pictures yet, but it seems clear that I have studied a great deal about him over these years, and hold him in high esteem.

In writing the book, I wanted to go beyond the man in the uniform. In addition to his impressive accomplishments, he was also a loving father, stepfather, and trusted friend. Even perusing the books in his personal library provides a perspective people don’t get from reading only about his military and diplomatic careers.

I hope I get across to people how hard Marshall worked, so often behind the scenes, shaping global situations whose positive outcomes were usually credited to others. I wanted to make him something more than a pale shadow of the presidents he served. In the First World War, Marshall served under (Gen. John J.) Pershing. At the highest levels of power, he learned how the military interfaced with the civilian government. In the inner-war years, he worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps, developing strong methods for leading the young men who would eventually become the soldiers of World War II. All along he was acquiring skills that would be sharpened by that war. Out of those experiences, especially as he helped develop the Anglo-American Alliance with Roosevelt and Churchill, he became a man of vision. Although he always had the discipline of a soldier, he broke out of that limited role to bring an enlightened program of reconstruction to war-torn Europe.

I wanted to tell about Marshall through storytelling. There are lots and lots of anecdotes included in the book. He was a man who held great power but was never tempted to abuse it; a man who could be five-star general without losing connection with the lowest-ranking soldier; he could be in the political fray and yet remain principled. I wanted to reveal Marshall’s traits through specific and compelling examples, and as often as possible, using his own words.

Marshall wasn’t perfect. He worked hard all his life to control his temper, for example. But his integrity stands the test of close examination, and I say that from 15 years of digging deep into his life. Often, digging deep into a historical figure makes a writer realize, “Whoa, this person wasn’t who I thought.” But with Marshall, his integrity holds up to scrutiny.

I certainly told the story of professional soldier—there’s plenty of war in this book—but I told it from the perspective of someone who does not have a military background. That made the book hard to write for me in some instances because I had to break down battles, codenames, and other aspects of that profession that were not familiar to me. However, I hope that my perspective will make the book more readable to a non-military person. Part of that need for “readability” comes from my background as a teacher. I had honor students who wanted to learn and did learn, but that doesn’t mean they enjoyed tackling a thick, dry book. This biography has 195 archival photos interspersed throughout; a photo appears near its relevant text. These images, along with bold-faced sub-titles, breaks up the content for the reader. It is for the person who likes to read nonfiction, enjoys learning, but isn’t necessary a scholar in that field. Most of us are not like John Adams, who read five chapters of the Bible in Greek before breakfast—sometimes we need a little help along the way.

HN: Given your depth of knowledge about George C. Marshall, what do you think he might have done to address today’s problems in the Mideast?

RT: I want to just comment on that by providing an example from his work. The situation makes me think of his mission to China after World War II to bring about a ceasefire between Nationalist and Chinese Communist forces there. The larger goal of the United States was to help establish a constitutional government where the Nationalists would prevail as the dominant party, but the Chinese Communists would have a legitimate seat at the table.

The situation was very complex. Upon landing in Shanghai in December 1945, Marshall first met with US Army Major General Albert Wedemeyer. Marshall had retired as chief of staff in November, and here he was on the ground in China (as President Harry Truman’s special envoy) before Christmas. In the initial meeting, Marshall laid out the mission outlined by Truman. Wedemeyer told him straight away that what the United States wanted to accomplish was out of touch with reality. He had already told the State Department the situation was approaching chaos; there was no chance of getting these two factions to work together. Marshall got angry, which was out of character for him in dealing with subordinate officers, telling Wedemeyer sharply, “It can be done, and you’re going to help me get it done.”

It was not in Marshall’s nature to admit defeat before the battle began. Ultimately, the mission didn’t work out, but he wouldn’t accept failure without a full-out effort. Even in the last a moments before he left China he was still striving to bring the two factions together.

George C. Marshall with Dwight D. Eisenhower
George C. Marshall with Dwight D. Eisenhower
As to what he might do about the Mideast today, we know that as secretary of state in 1947-48, he had strong opinions about that region. Marshall vehemently opposed immediate recognition of Israel in 1948. This issue led to one of his most difficult meetings with Truman, who described his intense debate with Marshall over this as “rough as a cob.” Marshall was very sympathetic to what happened to the Jews at the hands of the Germans, but he also acknowledged the problems inherent in such a major Mideast shift. He recognized that both sides had to get something out of any settlement, and such an outcome was not likely when tempers were high during a time of great change. He wanted time for the United Nations to develop a peace treaty between Israelis and Palestinians. Further, part of Marshall’s anger was fueled by his sense that Truman’s opinions were being shaped by the political considerations of the upcoming presidential election. That sort of motivation—putting politics above the good of the country—was anathema to Marshall.

It is difficult to say what Marshall would do about the Mideast today. He certainly would recognize that the problem was huge, but I think he would call in the best minds to work on it and break it down. His approach would be to say, “What are we going to do about it?” instead of hand-wringing. Marshall was always willing to do the hard thing, and I always admired that about him.

HN: Thank you for taking time out of a very busy schedule to talk with us. Is there anything you’d like to add in closing?

RT: Sometimes folks like to say Marshall’s life doesn’t make for an interesting read because he wasn’t a field commander like Patton. Certainly, Roosevelt wanted to make him the Supreme Allied Commander of the Normandy Invasion. He believed Marshall deserved that field duty, and it bothered him that as chief of staff his impressive service might be forgotten. In discussing this with Eisenhower, he asked him, as if to prove his point, “Who remembers the chief of staff in the Civil War?” However, it became clear through myriad government and media channels that Marshall was needed in Washington to handle the many issues required of this complicated over-arching role. Still, Roosevelt was willing to make Marshall the Allied commander, leaving the decision to him by asking him what he preferred. Marshall would not say, making it clear to the president that he wanted to serve where his skills would be most valuable in winning the war. So it was that Roosevelt kept him in Washington as chief of staff. Despite that, I don’t think it is true that his life was uninteresting. The strategic debates that Marshall faced throughout the war make for a brisk and exciting narrative.

Dodona, June 2011. Courtesy of The Marshall Center.
Dodona, June 2011. Courtesy of The Marshall Center.
Marshall was not the least bit given to self-aggrandizement. He wouldn’t even keep a journal because he said you couldn’t do that without thinking about how it will be judged later, thereby automatically prejudicing the account. He certainly wasn’t going to write his own memoir. Although he had kept a journal in World War I, he would not publish it, although his stepdaughter did years after his death.

Marshall had two great loves. He lost his first wife, Elizabeth Coles, after 25 years of marriage, and (three years) later married Katherine Tupper Brown. He lost a stepson who was killed in the Italian Campaign, just six days before the Normandy invasion. In addition to the drama of two world wars, his professional life covered many dramatic events of mid-twentieth century history. He suffered the slings and arrows of the McCarthy era, and was deeply involved in the decision to remove (General Douglas) MacArthur during the Korean War. I find the story of his life to be rich, complex, engaging, and inspirational. I hope people who read the book will feel the same way.

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