George C. Marshall’s impact on the 20th century is without parallel. What he did and how he did it are considerations that all Americans should know, revere and from which be inspired.
In the popular mind, Marshall is remembered as the man who lent his name to the Marshall Plan—more properly known as the European Recovery Program. This initiative helped stabilize and rebuild the war-shattered economies of Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II and also provided a bulwark against the further incursions of Soviet-style communism.
Marshall’s ability to survey the broad challenges of post-war Europe and devise an effective and all-encompassing strategy to deal with its multi-faceted challenges was unsurpassed. What is likely less well known today is that the same breadth and depth of vision Marshall brought to bear when approaching the situation he faced in post-war Europe was apparent throughout his long career, within the Army and without.
Marshall is one of very few leaders who made the transition from war to peace, from military leadership to civilian, in seamless fashion. Fewer still are those leaders whose achievements in war and in peace compete for primacy. As Army chief of staff under President Franklin Roosevelt, Marshall accomplished the astonishing feat of building, within just a few years, a military force of some 11 million men and women from an initial base of just 200,000. It would be these armed forces that would play a decisive role in the defeat of both Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany.
As secretary of state, a post he stepped into soon after he left a long and productive Army career, Marshall’s efforts to conceive and then to realize the Marshall Plan led to the victory in wartime being translated into the long-lasting victory in peace. Few indeed are the leaders who manage to move so effortlessly between those disparate realms and fewer still are those whose achievements are so substantial in both.
At the George C. Marshall Foundation, we spend a lot of time thinking about Marshall. Our latest endeavor is the Marshall Legacy Series, which explores the distinct and discreet aspects of Marshall’s long career to reveal those salient characteristics that served him so well. Its tagline sums up his genius and his achievements: Visionary in War and in Peace.
We define these characteristics in five words:
Marshall was known for his willingness to speak honestly and responsibly. As an officer in the Army’s First Division in France in World War I, Marshall reminded General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing forcefully and repeatedly of the challenges his unit faced in preparation for combat. Marshall’s bluntness, far from earning him a rebuke, resulted in promotion to Pershing’s own staff. In WWII, Marshall challenged Roosevelt about his intention to build 10,000 airplanes, calling the idea a waste of resources and a strategic folly. Roosevelt, too, responded by repaying Marshall with his trust, naming him Army chief of staff and, in effect, making him a leader of the military buildup and the strategy for leading the war to follow.
Marshall’s adherence to what he believed to be right was unwavering. He remained true to his commanding officers, whether civilian or military, and to his men. As secretary of state, Marshall was committed to rebuilding Europe—an unpopular idea, following a long and costly war for America, but necessary. He testified before Congressional committees and subcommittees nearly 100 times in order to gain passage of the European Recovery Act that enabled execution of the Marshall Plan.
Marshall’s courage was amply demonstrated across the world on countless occasions. From leading his men as a platoon commander in the Philippines to standing firm in negotiations with the Soviet foreign minister, his courage was unflinching. Marshall knew also of the need to be bold in speech and deed. His famous 11-minute address at Harvard introduced the idea for the Marshall Plan as what HAD to be done, not what COULD be done. He demonstrated the courage of his conviction to pursue not the popular path, but the right one.
Marshall was known for his integrity. His frequent testimony to Congress during WWII helped calm the fears of the legislators and helped the American people believe victory would come. A former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives said of Marshall, “He would speak the truth even if it hurt his own cause.” Marshall famously claimed never to have voted, believing that his calling—and that of any officer—must be beyond the reach and influence of partisan politics.
For all his modesty, Marshall also was an ambitious man and earnestly wished to be named the supreme allied commander overseeing Operation Overlord, the code name given to the D-Day invasion of Normandy in June 1945. He did not, however, lobby President Roosevelt for the role, instead asking only that the president make his decision based on what was best for the nation. Roosevelt selected General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Had Marshall been selfish in seeking the appointment to command, I would be writing from the George C. Marshall Presidential Library. That’s not the case, however; because of all the many strong leadership traits Marshall possessed, it was his selfless service that grounded him as the consummate servant leader.
About the Author
Rob Havers is president of the George C. Marshall Foundation.