George C. Marshall, Jr. would graduate from the Virginia Military Institute in two months and he had decided that he wanted to be an officer in the U.S. Army. So in April of 1901, Marshall took it upon himself to travel to Washington, D.C. and meet with the U.S. Attorney General who was an acquaintance of his father. This gentleman was impressed by the interview and arranged for Marshall to meet that same day with the Chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee who received him favorably. However, Marshall wanted to be certain that he would achieve his goal. That same day he walked into the White House and joined a procession going upstairs and eventually found himself alone with the president of the United States. As Marshall later explained, “Mr. McKinley in a very nice manner asked me what I wanted and I made my case.” Days later Marshall was selected to sit for a competitive examination that was required to earn his commission as a second lieutenant. Marshall attributed his selection for that exam to be a direct result of that day’s work. This initial anecdote in the biography illustrates the research and detail that David L. Roll brings to his new biography of George Marshall published by Penguin Random House in 2019.
From that early series of successful interviews George Marshall earned his start in the U.S. Army. He served in key leadership positions through his service with troops as a company grade and field grade officer. Although he never commanded troops in combat, he served as the senior planner and one of the principal staff officers to General John J. Pershing the Commander of the American Expeditionary Force in France during World War I. It was there that he learned the importance of developing sound and fair relationships with allied forces and leaders. He led soldiers in China in what we would now call peacekeeping operations. He was a consummate trainer and judge of soldiers and leaders. He formed many professional relationships with officers who would work for him during World War II. Eventually, having earned the respect of both the civilian and military leadership he was appointed to be Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army on September 1, 1939, the day that Adolf Hitler’s armed forces invaded Poland initiating World War II. Though he may have wished for command, to serve as Pershing served, he never sought for or politically engaged in efforts to leave his post throughout the war. Though Marshall was considered to be the most likely officer to command the Allied invasion of France in 1944, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave the position to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a protégé of Marshall’s, saying, “I didn’t feel that I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.” Though not the true reason, the President saw Marshall’s service in Washington and his work with Allied Leaders, Congress, and his relationship with the American people as indispensable to the war effort. Marshall had FDR’s complete trust. During the war, the Army, and the U.S. Army Air Corps as a part of it, grew from a force of 188,000 officers and soldiers to over seven million men and women. This summary usually ends the story of Marshall as most readers know it, but Roll is only half through with the story.
America and history were not yet done with George Marshall. The same day he retired from the U.S. Army he was selected by President Harry Truman to be his personal envoy to China to try to secure a peaceful future between the forces and followers of Nationalist China and the Chinese Communists. Within two years Marshall was confirmed and sworn into office as Secretary of State. From that position he led the development of the European Recovery Plan (soon to be called the Marshall Plan) and the European Cooperation Act of 1948 with Senator Arthur Vandenberg, persuading Congress and the American people of its humanitarian necessity and it national defense utility. He oversaw and attempted to develop fair arrangements for a lasting settlement with Arabs and Jews seeking control of Palestine. He rallied support for the Berlin Airlift when the Soviet Union cut all forms of transport and resupply for civilians resident in the American, British, and French sectors of West Berlin.
He later briefly served as President of the American Red Cross where he led a reorientation of Red Cross services and organization but in the waning days of 1950, Marshall was recalled to Government Service to become the Secretary of Defense during a critical and politically challenging phase of the Korean War when Communist China entered the war and General Douglas MacArthur requested the use of American nuclear weapons against Chinese forces that could have resulted in a third world war. On the other side of the world, Marshall further assisted with the foundational growth of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization that he helped to establish during his time as Secretary of State.
At every step in his fifty year career of public service to the nation Marshall earned his place. Marshall was not perfect; his decisions, or failure to seek decisions, on American civil rights, support to militarily terminate the Holocaust in some manner, and Palestine’s status vis a vis the State of Israel, all were addressed in some fashion, for Marshall was a man of his times and saw his priorities as he saw them unless directed otherwise. Never the less, at every step Marshall earned the respect of his soldiers, his fellow officers, his commanders, and the Presidents he served; he went on to earn the respect and appreciation of both the leaders and the peoples of the victorious nations of World War II, and of the peoples of the vanquished nations that he materially assisted and for which he ensured stability and successful recovery. In short, he may have been the most indispensable American of the twentieth century not to serve as president, an office he never desired or sought, though his peers urged him to try. If you want to understand who modern heroes and what serious public servants can achieve, then this biography, George Marshall Defender of the Republic by David L. Roll, is a great place to start.