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15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century

 By Stanley Weintraub. 400 pp. Free Press, 2007. $30.

George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower spent most of their early careers in an army so small that they knew each other personally as well as by reputation. In the pint-sized British army, this situation usually helped smooth out individual eccentricities as officers rose in rank. (During World War II most British general officers were virtually indistinguishable to outsiders—except, of course, Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, who was widely regarded as a nasty little public relations artist.) With these big alpha American bullfrogs, however, being in the same small pond only seemed to encourage them to cultivate their distinguishing characteristics. So about all they had in common was reaching the highest level of their service: the five-star rank, General of the Army.

Social scientists such as Sam Sarkesian, most recently in The US Military into the 21st Century: War, Peace and Politics, have described the American way of developing generals as a systemic tension between a military culture built on collectives and a national culture stressing competitive individualism. By contrast Weintraub, professor emeritus of arts and humanities at Penn State University who has written widely and empathetically on the world wars (A Stillness Heard Round the World; Long Day’s Journey Into War; The Last Great Victory), focuses on personalities and personal experiences against the backdrop of “high history,” emphasizing individual choice and agency in the context of expectations and opportunities.

Weintraub makes a powerful and convincing case that none of his three protagonists was an “inevitable general,” brought to the top by status or talent. Instead they each succeeded by applying their abilities to contingencies: they excelled at taking advantage of situations and exploiting chances. Demonstrating that hypothesis in turn requires Weintraub to emphasize their differences.

MacArthur, always at center stage of his own life’s drama, kept a court of admirers and valued loyalty above all qualities—even professional competence, as his senior staff officers and field commanders demonstrated repeatedly during World War II and Korea. Marshall, self-effacing and unpretentious, projected an ironclad integrity reflecting a fundamentally rigid personality that overrode both opportunity and celebrity. Command of the D-Day invasion and the presidency of the United States alike were within his grasp—but exceeded his reach. Eisenhower knew how to seize and develop opportunities, but needed companions and confidants more than either of his counterparts. He found them among his military and political subordinates as well as his personal associates–a pattern shaping his performance as general and president.

Most fascinating, however, is how Weintraub’s narrative pinpoints his protagonists’ underlying similarities. Take ambition: MacArthur emerged from the Great War as the army’s golden boy, eventually rising to chief of staff. Rather than accept retirement, he sought a new field to conquer in the emerging Philippine Republic—and ironically thereby laid the groundwork for even greater fame. Marshall’s career also soared during World War I, only to be cut off by the armistice. For twenty years he sought both the general’s rank denied him by the peace, and the post of chief of staff he believed himself qualified to fill even in a national emergency. Dwight Eisenhower, the youngest of the three, was denied the opportunity to prove himself on the Western Front and struggled to emerge from the shadow cast over him by his two senior mentors, who appreciated his talent but failed to recognize its scope.

Presented with opportunity, each of them grabbed it and grew. MacArthur rallied from initial disasters in the Philippines and Korea to plan and implement a brilliant economy of force campaign in the southwest Pacific, and a virtuoso operational performance at Inchon. Aided by impressive public relations skills, he made himself America’s most famous soldier despite being nowhere near America for fifteen years. Eisenhower, thrust into high command with no command experience, painfully learned the lessons taught by the German army and became an effective general in the face of constant criticism from his own subordinates. At the same time he rose to master the tangled military and political dynamics of an Anglo-American coalition waging total war in history’s most intimate alliance. Marshall transcended the intellectual and personal limitations imposed by a minuscule peacetime army where everything was theoretical in order to organize and control a global war effort with a grip so sure that President Roosevelt declared himself unable to sleep nights when Marshall was absent.

Ultimately, each man grew beyond his military matrix. MacArthur became viceroy of Japan, laying the ground for its internal development and its reintegration into the world community. Eisenhower served two terms as president, and his sophisticated management of the cold war has been recognized only recently. George Marshall’s postwar service as secretary of state and secretary of defense set standards for both offices seldom matched and never surpassed. His plan for Europe’s reconstruction earned him a Nobel Peace Prize.

Too alike to be friends, too different to endorse each others’ abilities, this high-powered trio succeeded in combining to shape the destiny of America and the world. In hindsight, they can be seen as the transitional generation between the military governors of the post–Civil War Reconstruction era and modern America’s global proconsuls. Here is the final irony highlighting Weintraub’s thesis: that his three protagonists were more than men of war. They were men who served their country in the broadest of contexts.


Originally published in the December 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here