George Marshall Defined American Leadership
If you wonder how far the United States has slipped, then you need only look back sixty years to June 5, 1947. On that date, Harvard University’s commencement speaker, George C. Marshall, outlined the European Recovery Program.
Whenever I ask people under the age of sixty, “Who was George Marshall?”, I almost always get a blank stare. Rare is the young person who can identify him; rarer still is the person who knows any details of his life.
George C. Marshall was a humble man born in Uniontown, PA. He later became General of the Army and commanded our armed forces in the first true world war, that being World War 2.
After the war, President Truman appointed him Secretary of State. The European Recovery Program is known as the Marshall Plan.
Europe went to war on September 1, 1939—the same day Marshall was sworn in as Army Chief of Staff. By the end of May, 1940, the German army had routed Allied forces. British and French forces were in retreat but managed to escape annihilation in the famous Dunkirk boatlift.
The United States aided Allied forces with shipments of arms and supplies during the period 1939-1941. But our nation just did not see itself getting involved in combat.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed the Selective Training and Service Act in 1940, and Congress approved the first peacetime draft. The draft came up for renewal in the summer of 1941. The U. S. House of Representatives did extend the draft, but only by a single vote.
When Marshall became Chief of Staff, the U. S. Army consisted of 200,000 poorly-trained soldiers. The draft authorized an army of 900,000 soldiers. However, the draftees were anything but willing soldiers given the isolationist mood of the country.
Then the die was cast on December 7, 1941. Japan declared war, and Germany followed suit the next day.
Winston Churchill, England’s Prime Minister, was perhaps the only man on Earth who believed that Gen. Marshall could defeat the Axis powers. Indeed, Churchill tried at every juncture to drag the United States into the war. He knew that England would eventually be defeated if we did not come to their aid.
As for the rest of the world, I doubt that anyone believed that Gen. Marshall could build a fighting army from scratch, replace the sunken Pearl Harbor fleet, and wage a global war, let alone win it. You can bet that Germany and Japan didn’t think that he could (or would).
George C. Marshall was the greatest military commander in all of history. Churchill called him the “organizer of victory” which is the kind of fitting understatement that the Brits are famous for.
In our times, Colin Powell held the titles of Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State. I like Colin Powell. But somehow, victories against Iraq’s Republican Guards and Panama’s police force don’t quite measure up to defeating Japan and Germany.
As Secretary of State, George C. Marshall sold the world a bold new idea—the Marshall Plan. For his efforts, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace.
As Secretary of State, Colin Powell sold the world a bill of goods—Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction.
FDR was a mediocre president happily turning America toward Socialism until a great war ended his agenda. “W” is a mediocre president without a plan of any kind. His war hasn’t been big enough to give him an agenda.
Congress today is just as inept as it was in 1941. Whereas the 1941 bunch loved isolationism, the 2007 bunch cannot muster the votes needed to close the borders.
Our modern generals don’t seem to be mad at the enemy. Given the sneak attack on the Pentagon, you would expect them to at least act indignant. No. Today’s generals focused more on turning Jessica Lynch into “G.I. Jane” than they have on leading decisive victories.
When I took the public school version of American History in 1966, my teacher never made it to the chapter on World War 2. I suspect that your history teacher was just as derelict. And that is probably why so few people know of George C. Marshall.
Going forward, maybe we should start our American history classes with World War 2 and the role of George C. Marshall. Compared to Marshall, most historical figures are footnotes at best.
Sixty years is not a long time. It is, unfortunately, long enough for Americans to forget a great man.
David G. Allen
"George Marshall Defined American Leadership" originally appeared in the June 22, 2007 issue of the West Virginia State Journal.
Copyright 1990-2007 David G. Allen