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Dubbed by Harry S. Truman as the “Greatest of the greats of our time,” General George C. Marshall remains in the shadow of his more colorful subordinates.

The baritone hum of the four engines invaded the plush cabin of the Douglas C-54 as it soared high over the Tunisian desert. Seated comfortably aboard the gently rocking transport were two of the world’s most powerful men—an aging but still jaunty Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was chatting easily with his top European commander, affable four-star General Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As if to avoid the “elephant in the room,” the president raised minor points of history as they flew over ancient Carthaginian battlefields. The idle chatter was clearly masking the question that preoccupied the minds of everyone in uniform: Who would lead the cross-Channel invasion of France?

Finally, the president turned to the question at hand. “Ike,” he mused, “you and I know who was chief of staff during the last years of the Civil War, but practically no one else knows, although the names of the field generals—Grant, of course, and Lee and Jackson, Sherman, Sheridan and the others—every schoolboy knows them. I hate to think that 50 years from now practically nobody will know who George Marshall was. That is one of the reasons why I want George to have the big command. He is entitled to establish his place in history as a great general.”

George Catlett Marshall began life as an unlikely figure to inspire the admiration of presidents, prime ministers, generals and even dictators. Born in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Uniontown, Pa., in the waning hours of 1880, Marshall’s indifferent academic performance only began to turn around after he persuaded his parents to send him to the Virginia Military Institute. Once in cadet grey Marshall began to shine, and through hard work and the diligence that would become typical of his long career, rose to the coveted rank of captain of cadets by his senior year.

Following his graduation in 1902, Marshall was dispatched to the Philippines, and a year later was accepted to the Army Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kan. He performed so well there that after completing the course he was retained as an instructor. Marshall went on to serve in a variety of peacetime assignments, but it was the United States’ entry into World War I that gave the young officer his chance to truly shine.

In June 1917, Captain Marshall was shipped to Europe as chief operations planner, then chief of staff with the temporary rank of major, for the 1st Infantry Division. When General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), gave Marshall’s division commander a dressing-down over his poorly worded critique of some experimental maneuvers, a hot-blooded Marshall jumped into the fray, answering Pershing’s high-minded criticisms with a torrent of practical— not theoretical—problems facing the division: lack of shoes, inadequate housing for the men, and shortages of motor transportation, to name a few.

With that outburst, Marshall’s career should have ended. Instead, Pershing acquired the young officer for himself, assigning him to AEF headquarters in July 1918. At Pershing’s side, Marshall planned the United States’ push to reduce the German-held St. Mihiel salient, before being transferred to headquarters of the newly organized First Army as its top planning officer.

Marshall’s finest moment of the Great War came in the days leading up to the Meuse-Argonne offensive. After intense planning, he engineered the secret movement of 600,000 men, 900,000 tons of supplies and 3,000 artillery pieces in a superb effort that astonished the United States’ allies, and earned the temporary major the Distinguished Service Medal and, more important, Pershing’s unstinting admiration.

After the Armistice, Marshall became Pershing’s top aide and served in his shadow until 1924, when he was given command of a regiment and dispatched to China. Three years commanding troops came to an end when Marshall was ordered to Fort Benning, Ga., to serve as assistant commandant of the Army’s infantry training school. Presciently, it was at Fort Benning that he reorganized the school’s curriculum and put great emphasis on such state-of-the-art subjects as mobility, air cover and firepower.

Marshall’s work at Fort Benning added luster to his reputation as an organizer par excellence within the War Department. This led to his promotion to colonel and the recognition of Roosevelt, who saw in Marshall the perfect man to lead the Civilian Conservation Corps. The New Deal program took unemployed youngsters from the city, organized them along military lines and put them to work at various outdoor projects—an effort of special import to the president. Unlike many of his contemporaries who turned up their noses at such nonmilitary duties, Marshall threw himself into his new task and in the process gained valuable insight on organizing and training young civilians on a large scale.

In May 1938, Marshall, now a brigadier general, was summoned to Washington to take his place among the nation’s top war planners. As head of the War Plans Division, he was put to work updating contingency plans for an eventual war in Europe and the Far East, and helped lay the groundwork for mass mobilization, should it ever be necessary.

He had little to work with. Decades of isolationism and interservice rivalries had eroded the U.S. Army to the point of irrelevancy. On the day Marshall reported for work, it was ranked 17th in the world in size, just behind Bulgaria’s. As Marshall wryly observed, the entire U.S. combat force could be seated in Chicago’s Soldier Field. That, however, would soon change.

With war clouds gathering over Europe in 1938 and 1939, the Roosevelt administration had finally begun to give serious thought to reorganizing and strengthening the nation’s defenses. The president, at the insistence of his closest adviser, Harry Hopkins, and with Pershing’s endorsement, tapped Marshall to be the incoming Army chief of staff. The decision came not a moment too soon. Brigadier General Marshall received his temporary rank of four-star general and was hastily sworn in on September 1, 1939, a few hours after Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland.

At first, the transition to administration politics was a challenge for Marshall. The no-nonsense general, aloof to political questions and immune to Roosevelt’s charms, found it difficult to get the president’s full focus on Army matters as war began to consume Europe. In response, the apolitical chief of staff carefully cultivated important allies within the president’s inner circle, including Hopkins, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr.

A turning point came when an exasperated Marshall gave the president a rapid-fire three-minute lecture on the inadequacy of the five-division U.S. Army compared with the 140-division Wehrmacht. Stunned by the general’s forthrightness, Roosevelt asked his chief of staff to return the next day to discuss a large increase in the Army’s appropriations. Perhaps overly accustomed to “yes men” and sycophants, the president was impressed by Marshall’s consistently straightforward apolitical approach to the task at hand. The general’s honesty had quickly earned the chief executive’s respect and confidence.

Feeling more comfortable in this new arena, Marshall was also careful to work closely with an often-skeptical Congress. As with the president, his honesty and directness quickly established him as one of the most trusted voices on Capitol Hill. During his numerous appearances before various congressional bodies, the chief of staff became known for frankly conceding when facts emerged that were contrary to the positions he took, but nevertheless credibly supporting his positions to the representatives of a people who were deeply divided on the subject of how much to involve themselves in another world war. In 1940, for instance, Marshall refused to support a draft bill because he rightly believed that as much as the men would be needed, the Army as it then existed was incapable of absorbing the hundreds of thousands of recruits the bill would have brought into the ranks.

One of his most positive steps was his precedent-setting act to create a legislative and liaison department within the Army to keep Congress informed of the service’s needs. Soon, he had won over the legislative branch in much the same way he had wooed the executive. He could count on the support of influential congressmen such as House Speaker Sam Rayburn and the powerful senator from Missouri, Harry S. Truman. When the time was right, those relationships made it possible for Roosevelt to guarantee passage of the Selective Service Act and its subsequent extension, which resulted in 10 million men and women in uniform over a five-year period.

Marshall was equally as effective with his subordinates. His management style was simple: He would spare no effort in finding the best people for the job and then delegate as much responsibility to them as possible. “Eisenhower, the department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution,” Marshall told the then-colonel when he was brought to the War Plans Division. “I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.” Those who did not meet Marshall’s exacting performance standards were sent to other assignments. Those who did were marked for steady promotion.

Marshall took particular interest in staff members who were not afraid to disagree with him, just as he had done with Pershing and Roosevelt. Soon, the general’s “little black book” was infamous among career soldiers who knew that an entry in Marshall’s journal would make or break a career. Among the men who Marshall plucked from relative obscurity were Eisenhower, George S. Patton Jr., Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, Omar Bradley and Mark Clark.

Recognizing the fundamental differences between land and air forces, Marshall worked with Maj. Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold to provide greater autonomy to the Army Air Corps. Perceiving the nature of future operations in the Pacific, he also placed a genuine emphasis on Army-Navy cooperation, working closely with Admiral Ernest J. King, the irascible yet powerful chief of naval operations.

At lower levels, Marshall reorganized the Army’s land units, creating specialized formations such as paratroop regiments and armored divisions. To better manage the Army’s expansion, he also divided it into separate departments for training, operations and supply. He established a headquarters system for large units such as armies and corps, and made the divisions more manageable by reducing their regiments from four to three. He staged the Army’s largest prewar maneuvers, involving some 400,000 troops, slashed at red tape and established a “plucking committee” of six retired officers to weed out old, inept soldiers in the commissioned ranks, making room on promotion lists for younger, more energetic men.

Before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Marshall was one of the strongest advocates for a “Germany first” policy, and he stuck firmly to that strategically important but publically unpopular stance even after the strike and the outrage that was directed at Japan. He advised Roosevelt during the 1941 meetings with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that led to the formation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and helped fashion an Anglo-American command structure that would harmonize, as much as possible, the efforts of the two allies.

Despite the close relationship between the Allies’ top two partners, there were substantial differences. Marshall strongly believed the best way to defeat Germany was through one of two planned cross-Channel invasions of France that were to be conducted as soon as possible. He and Eisenhower vehemently advocated that approach within Allied councils, but ran into an iron wall in the form of Britain’s pugnacious prime minister.

Working an end run around the American generals, Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to back his plan for invading North Africa on the grounds that an invasion of France across the English Channel was simply not feasible in 1942. Stung by this setback, but a soldier through and through, Marshall worked tirelessly to ensure the success of the North African landings. He secured Eisenhower’s appointment to overall command of Operation Torch and dispatched Patton, one of his ablest fighters, to command the U.S. landing force.

With the landings in North Africa a success, in January 1943 Marshall accompanied Roosevelt to the Casablanca Conference. There he continued to press Churchill and other senior British commanders for a cross-Channel invasion that year, but again his desires were rebuffed by a well-prepared British team and an unsure Roosevelt. When it became clear that the British had squashed any idea of invading France across the Channel in 1943, Marshall reluctantly agreed to endorse an invasion of Sicily if it were combined with a continued buildup of troops and landing craft in England.

As he had done the previous year, Marshall overcame his disappointment and applied himself thoroughly to the task at hand. He worked with Admiral King, Hap Arnold and other service chiefs to obtain the landing craft, air cover and equipment needed for the invasion to succeed. Operation Husky’s success was followed up—again, at British insistence—by the Operation Avalanche invasions of Italy, although by then Marshall had brought Roosevelt around to the necessity of invading France. At the Trident Conference in Washington in May 1943, Marshall finally wrung from the British chiefs of staff a commitment to launch a cross-Channel invasion by May 1, 1944.

The inter-Allied wrangling was occurring while operations in Asia played themselves out. Marshall entrusted the war against Imperial Japan to two of his most mercurial warriors, Joe Stilwell and Douglas MacArthur. The egotistical MacArthur had been the Army’s chief of staff when Marshall had been a mere colonel, and he had ill-disguised contempt for Washington in general and the service chiefs in particular. Marshall was well aware of all that but did his best to work with MacArthur and to ensure adequate coordination between the two Army commanders, as well as King, the prickly chief of the Navy.

It was well that Marshall maintained his focus on Europe. Despite the agreements reached at the Trident Conference, throughout 1943 the British kept pushing Churchill’s “soft underbelly” strategy of moving through Italy and into the Balkans. At the Cairo Conference in late 1943, matters came to a head. With the argument turning against him, Churchill tried to browbeat Marshall into accepting his plan for an early 1944 assault on the Aegean island of Rhodes. The conversation grew loud and heated, Marshall recalled, culminating in the imperious prime minister grasping Marshall’s lapels, bellowing: “His Majesty’s Government can’t have its troops standing idle. Muskets must flame!” Marshall’s growled reply was less eloquent: “God forbid that I should try to dictate, but not one American is going to die on that goddamned beach.” Churchill let the matter drop.

With the decision finally made to go ahead, the argument became a question of when. Having suffered punishing casualties, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin demanded to know when the Allies would make good on their 1942 promise to open up a second front. Roosevelt, unable to defer the decision further, promised to land troops in France by mid-May 1944. Stalin then asked who would lead the invasion, stating coolly that until a commander was named, he had little confidence in Roosevelt’s proposed timetable. Roosevelt promised to answer that question within a few days.

To Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin and Eisenhower, Marshall was the logical choice. He had fought to win British support for Operation Overlord, and held the respect and confidence of the senior Allied officers. Indeed, Eisenhower’s letters to Marshall during Operation Husky reflected Eisenhower’s firm belief that he would remain Allied commander in the Mediterranean theater, while Marshall would appropriate Ike’s battle-tested divisions for the invasion of France. Equally covetous of the position was Field Marshal Sir Alan Francis Brooke, Marshall’s opposite number in Britain.

Given the American position of dominance within the coalition, and Brooke’s ill-concealed contempt for U.S. soldiers and their generals, the command would have to fall to an American. Roosevelt, however, needed to direct a two-front war from Washington, and he could not send Marshall to England without a replacement he could trust absolutely. The two obvious candidates, MacArthur, who had worked only in the Pacific, and Eisenhower, who had worked only in Europe, were unpalatable to Roosevelt—MacArthur because of his well-known presidential ambitions, and Eisenhower because of his inexperience in working with, and standing up to, Congress, the press, MacArthur, Hap Arnold and Ernie King.

At a lunch meeting in Cairo on December 5, 1943, just days after the Tehran Conference, Roosevelt met privately with Marshall and asked him to choose his post for the duration of the war. Marshall refused, saying that whatever Roosevelt decided, he would “go along with it wholeheartedly. The issue was simply too great for any personal feeling to be involved.” The president now had to decide between according Marshall the honor he was due— of taking his place among history’s great field generals—and satisfying his belief that the United States could not fight an effective two-front war without Marshall in Washington.

Roosevelt weighed his options that evening and reached a painful decision: Eisenhower would command Overlord. He explained it to Marshall very simply: “I didn’t feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.” Marshall supported the president’s decision, and in his own hand drafted a memorandum from Roosevelt to Stalin appointing Overlord’s new commander, which the president signed. Inside, Marshall was crushed. But as he had done time and again, he suppressed his personal feelings in favor of the larger task at hand. He redoubled his efforts to raise and equip the divisions, stockpile the armor, ammunition and, most of all, precious landing craft that would be necessary to ensure that his protégé had everything he would require before a single Allied soldier set foot on French soil. Somewhere he also found time and energy to campaign for a second invasion on the southern coast of France, while straining American resources to allow MacArthur to retain the initiative in the Pacific.

All of those efforts brought increased attention to Marshall, who now was regarded by Congress, the administration, the press and the public as the central figure in the U.S. war effort. A December 1943 Newsweek magazine poll of 70 prominent Americans credited the austere general more than any other figure— including President Roosevelt—for America’s leadership successes during World War II. Time magazine named Marshall its “Man of the Year” for 1943, summing up his contributions to the war: “The man who, more than any other, could be said to have armed the Republic was George Catlett Marshall.”

The accolades were well placed. Marshall had inherited an army of 188,000 soldiers that was woefully unprepared for modern war, and within five years the Allies had successfully carried out the most complex amphibious assault in military history and some 8.3 million men and women were battling the Axis across the globe. In December 1944, Congress approved a bill creating the nation’s first five-star grades for generals and admirals; Marshall’s name was first on the Army list.

As was typical, Marshall initially opposed the bill, explaining afterward: “I didn’t want to be beholden to Congress for any rank or anything of that kind. I wanted to be able to go in there with my skirts clean and with no personal ambitions concerned in it in any way, and I could get all I wanted with the rank I had.” This time, however, the general was overruled. On December 15, 1944, Marshall became the Army’s first five-star general.

The promotion did little to change Marshall’s method of leadership or pace of activity. He remained at the helm throughout Germany’s downfall. Following Roosevelt’s untimely death in April 1945, Marshall served his successor, Truman, with equal honesty and integrity.

After V-E Day, Marshall supervised the movement of 6 million soldiers to the Pacific as MacArthur, King’s Navy and Arnold’s Boeing B-29 fleet tightened the noose around the Japanese.

Believing his task completed, the “organizer of victory”—to use Churchill’s phrase—looked forward to retiring to his home in Leesburg, Va. Shortly after the final peace with Japan was signed, on November 18, 1945, Marshall left the Pentagon to be succeeded as chief of staff by Eisenhower.

Two days later, his retirement was interrupted by a call from President Truman asking him to serve as a diplomat in war-torn China. Never one to shy away from what he saw as his duty, Marshall accepted and spent a frustrating year unsuccessfully trying to broker a peace between Communist and Nationalist forces. Marshall quickly came to the correct but unpopular decision that the Nationalists were doomed to defeat. Despite his gloomy assessment, he did what he could to bring the civil war to an end until Truman, who had decided that the general was the man to be his next secretary of state, brought him home.

At the State Department, the lifelong soldier honed his skills in diplomacy. The greatest legacy of his time as America’s senior diplomat was his revolutionary plan to spend American tax dollars to help rebuild a devastated Europe. In a commencement speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947, Marshall outlined his European Recovery Plan, which envisioned the victors giving generously to various European governments regardless of which side they had fought on during the war.

To lend assistance to the United States’ former allies was easy; to apply the same largess to former enemies took some convincing. Marshall saw this as the best way to ensure peace and prevent the spread of communism. It took months, but he succeeded in selling the $18 billion initiative to Congress and the public. With characteristic modesty, though, he never referred to the European Recovery Plan by the name it is known to history—the Marshall Plan.

The soldier who had begun his service during the waning days of America’s Pacific empire remained at the helm of U.S. diplomacy during the early stormy years of the Cold War, guiding his nation through the Berlin Airlift, the hydrogen bomb race, the growing impasse in Korea, the formative period of the United Nations and the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He did so despite weathering criticism at home from Senator Joseph McCarthy that he was “soft on communism” and that he was to blame for “losing China to the Reds.” It is evidence of his standing with the public that even the demagoguery of McCarthy and his red-baiting cohorts could not diminish Marshall’s stature in the public’s eye. In 1948, Time once again named him its Man of the Year.

Having shepherded the country through the opening days of the Cold War, in January 1949 Marshall stepped down as secretary of state, accepting an offer from Truman to serve as chairman of the American Red Cross. His last call to duty came in September 1950 when, to answer the threat from Communist North Korea, the president asked his old general to rebuild the United States’ demobilized military as secretary of defense. At the Defense Department, Marshall’s talent for organizational reforms, enforcing interservice cooperation and building on the command structure he created helped him formidably restore American arms. In September 1951, after rebuilding a force that would adequately defend American interests along the 38th Parallel, he retired to Leesburg, this time for good.

Although Marshall would never again serve in a senior governmental capacity, he returned to the spotlight in 1953 by becoming the only professional soldier to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Marshall’s acceptance speech emphasized the importance of democracy, military strength and economic development to overcoming the conflicts that had so recently cost the world millions of lives: “A very strong military posture is vitally necessary today. By our actions we should make it clear that a democracy is a means to a better way of life, together with a better understanding among nations. Tyranny inevitably must retire before the tremendous moral strength and the gospel of freedom and self-respect for the individual, but we have to recognize that these democratic principles do not flourish on empty stomachs.”

Returning home, Marshall enjoyed the slow pace of life in Leesburg, yet suffered a series of strokes that left him debilitated. Former President Truman came to see him at Walter Reed Hospital, and President Eisenhower visited him three times, once bringing the 84-year-old Churchill. On October 16, 1959, Marshall, commander of the largest army the United States ever fielded, in the greatest war it ever waged, slipped away peacefully.

Despite his fame during the war years, Roosevelt’s fear that Marshall would be overshadowed by his subordinates was not entirely misplaced. Lacking MacArthur’s famous corncob pipe, Ike’s endearing grin or Patton’s bulldog swagger, Marshall has not remained a figure in the public consciousness. The chief of staff’s reputation suffered, perhaps because he represented a new breed of military commander—the uniformed bureaucrat who won wars by logistics and alliance-building rather than panache and battlefield prowess. But it was those very qualities that ensures Marshall’s important place in history.

Long after the glamour of Patton’s armored thrusts have passed into history and MacArthur’s swagger is forgotten, the importance of Marshall’s role in shaping the military, and its place in a democracy, will live on through students and practitioners of military and diplomatic arts. War College officers today study his reorganization of the Army’s command structure, his approach to interservice relations and his methods of executing global strategy.

Nearly a half-century after the general’s death, Colin Powell, another general turned secretary of state, explained why his State Department office boasted two portraits of his personal hero: “George Marshall recognized that the Western democracies were in uncharted waters after World War II, with both dangers and opportunities ahead. He had a vision that was built to scale for the challenges of that moment in history. He wasn’t afraid to think boldly. He was afraid of what would happen if we didn’t think boldly.”


Jonathan W. Jordan writes from Marietta, Ga. For further reading, see: General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman, by Ed Cray; and Dear General: Eisenhower’s Wartime Letters to Marshall, edited by Joseph P. Hobbs.

Originally published in the October 2006 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here