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Reviewed by David Fitzpatrick
Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens, Editors
The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, Md., 2003

At their best, edited editions of letters and diaries read like a narrative and are of interest to both scholar and general reader alike. At their worst, such works can be dry, boring and lack context for the documents they reproduce, and as a result may be of interest only to scholars with a specific research interest in the volume’s subject matter. Readers are fortunate that Larry Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens’ most recent addition to The Papers of George Catlett Marshall falls into the first category. In fact, it would be difficult to find a more accessible volume of edited papers.

Marshall’s correspondence provides an appreciation of the wide variety and complexity of issues with which he dealt on a daily basis. Should professional athletes be subject to the draft? Answer: Yes. How to reorganize command of the Pacific theater preparatory to the invasion of Japan while keeping both Douglas MacArthur and Chester Nimitz happy? Answer: Nimitz commands all Navy forces and MacArthur commands all land and Army Air forces. How to respond to British Field Marshal Bernard L. Montgomery’s continued insistence on a single thrust across north Germany? Answer: Ignore. How soon should draftees under the age of 19 be placed in frontline units? Answer: Marshall tried to assure Congress that such soldiers would receive six months’ training and then would be placed in units whose soldiers were combat veterans, but he opposed legislation that would impose such a requirement. Should the United States employ chemical weapons against Japanese forces? Answer: Marshall was willing to consider their use as a way to disable without killing Japanese soldiers who would not surrender.

As the war wound down, two issues came to the forefront of Marshall’s many concerns: the use of the atomic bomb and the shape of the postwar American military. Regarding the former, the general’s correspondence makes it clear that he believed employing the atomic bomb had one purpose: to shorten the war. He apparently was unconcerned about the impact its use might have on postwar Soviet–American relations (a staple of revisionist analyses of the subject), and he believed that using the bomb would not prevent a Soviet move into Manchuria.

Regarding the postwar military, Marshall told the Academy of Political Science, “I find myself profoundly depressed over the evident prospect of another repetition in our history of an impractical idealism or a submission to ulterior motives or a frank avoidance of burdensome taxes, in the statements which are now appearing regarding the military posture to be adopted by this country in the post-war period.” “The struggles for existence,” he told another audience, “that we had in Africa and New Guinea, were the direct responsibility of the people of the United States in the years from 1920 to 1939.” To avoid similar experiences in the future, General Marshall very publicly urged the adoption of universal military training supplemented by historically high peacetime defense appropriations.

The second half of the volume deals with Marshall’s efforts from late 1945 until early 1947 to end the civil war in China and to create a coalition government there. His early sense of accomplishment is noteworthy. On February 4, 1946, Marshall wired President Harry Truman: “Affairs are progressing rather favorably….[We have] a fairly definite basis for a democratic coalition government.” Yet within months Marshall’s efforts had collapsed, due largely to Chiang Kai-shek’s intransigence. On May 31, 1946, through an intermediary Marshall told Chiang that “under the circumstances of the continued advance of the Government troops in Manchuria my services in mediation are becoming not only increasingly difficult, but a point is being reached where the integrity of my position is open to serious question.” A few days later he reported to Truman that “we have reached an impasse.” And so they had. Yet, even as it became readily apparent that it would be impossible to negotiate a modus vivendi, Marshall refused to abandon his mediation efforts. The general’s correspondence from China is both compelling and dispiriting, and it causes one to wonder how it was that many of the United States’ politicians subsequently came to believe that their nation could influence either party, much less “win” in China.

These papers confirm George Marshall’s well-deserved place as one of the most important figures of the 20th century. They also testify to the marvelous work Bland and Stevens have done preparing them for publication.