EVERY MINUTE COUNTS.
Just ask General George C. Marshall, the chief of staff of the U.S. Army. On May 13, 1940, he is sitting through a very trying and unproductive meeting with his commander in chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and treasury secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr. At issue is the army budget. War is raging in Europe—indeed, Hitler’s panzers are in the midst of their great drive to the English Channel. The French are done, the British reeling back to Dunkirk. A world hangs in the balance.
Still, not everyone is feeling the urgency. The House Appropriations Committee wants to cut spending for the army. Roosevelt disagrees, but must be careful about coming on too strong: most Americans fear another overseas war, and he doesn’t want to look like a warmonger. He is inclined to go along with Congress—this time—and reduce the army’s budget.
Morgenthau and Marshall have come to the Oval Office to argue the point and request that the threatened military funds be restored. But they, too, must be careful: few officials leave an argument with FDR unscathed.
Morgenthau begins. The cuts are wrong. The international situation is too grave. The president listens politely at first, then less politely. Finally, he’s had enough and tells Morgenthau to stop: “I am not asking you, I am telling you.”
“I still think you’re wrong,” Morgenthau counters.
“Well, you filed your protest,” the president answers, coldly.
Now it’s Marshall’s turn. The chief of staff has gravitas. He’s a no-nonsense, plain speaker, and he’s spent a career proving it. But even he can’t get any traction. Roosevelt just isn’t listening. “I know exactly what he will say,” the president says to Morgenthau.
The meeting is over, and in Washington, when the meeting is over, you go. They rise to leave, when Marshall turns, as if on sudden impulse, and asks a simple question: “Mr. President, may I have three minutes?”
Those next three minutes are sure to be fateful. They may decide the state of American readiness in the event of war, they may decide the fate of the Republic, but they will almost certainly decide the fate of General George C. Marshall.
Roosevelt seems surprised. He’s already made his intentions clear. But Marshall holds the floor. France is collapsing; the Western world is in peril; Hitler is on the verge of victory. He cites facts and figures. All that stands between the U.S. and Hitler are a handful of weak divisions, a few hundred aircraft, and artillery units whose guns are still on the drawing board. Marshall can field only 15,000 men at a time—hopelessly inferior to Germany’s two million men and 140 divisions. “If you don’t do something, and do it right away, I don’t know what is going to happen to this country,” he concludes.
Some historians describe a tirade. They have Marshall “seething,” the words pouring out of him in a “rush of frustrations,” a “machine-gun burst of facts.” Such phrases may be dramatic license, but Marshall’s little speech succeeds in hitting its target—reaching the one man who matters.
Roosevelt listens in silence, then invites Marshall back the next day to discuss the army’s needs. Furthermore, Roosevelt himself will go to Congress with an appropriations bill that will eventually top out at $657 million—an extraordinary sum for a country not yet at war—with a de-mand to build 50,000 airplanes, a fantastic number. The arsenal of democracy is open for business.
The United States was still more than 18 months from entering the war, and the fight itself would last four long years. But the pendulum might already have been swinging toward victory back in May 1940, when George Marshall made every minute count.✯
This column was originally published in the October 2017 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.