(George C. Marshall was chosen as TIMES man of the year in 1943)

When one thinks of the great World War II generals the names George S. Patton, Omar Bradley, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Douglas Mac Arthur, and Bernard Montgomery seem to always enter the conversation.  However, one of the most important military figures of the war never seems to be mentioned, that individual is George C. Marshall.  The former Chief of Staff under Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State and Defense under Harry Truman had a tremendous impact during and after the war, and even has his name placed on one of the most important initiatives taken by the United States after 1945 to help rebuild Europe, the Marshall Plan.  Marshall never did command troops on the battlefield but his impact on the military was substantial and his role has been the subject of a great deal of debate among historians.  The latest effort is a new biography written by Debi and Irwin Unger with the assistance of Stanley Hirshson.  The book, GEORGE MARSHALL is a comprehensive examination of Marshall’s career and a detailed analysis of Marshall’s role in history.

In the January 3, 1944 issue of Time magazine, Marshall’s photo adorns the cover as “man of the year.”  The article that accompanied the photo stated that George C. Marshall was the closest person in the United States to being the “indispensable man” for the American war effort.  One must ask the question, was this hyperbole justified?  According to the Unger’s the answer is a qualified no.  After analyzing Marshall’s policies they conclude that his shortcomings outweigh his successes ranging from his poor judgment of the individuals he placed in command positions to his underestimating the number of troops necessary to fight the war, particularly in providing replacements for men killed or wounded in combat.  In addition, they criticize Marshall for his approach to training and preparing American soldiers for combat which was painfully obvious during the North African campaign and other major operations during the war.  The authors argue their case carefully supporting their views with the available documentation, though there is an over reliance on secondary sources.

Everyone who has written about Marshall and came in contact with him all agree that he epitomized the characteristics of a Virginia gentleman.  He presented himself as aloof and honest, and though a rather humorless and direct person no one ever questioned his character.  This persona remained with Marshall throughout his career and emerged during policy decisions, diplomatic negotiations, or his dealings with the divergent personalities that he had to work with.  The narrative points out the importance of Marshall’s association with General John J. Pershing during World War I and the first major example of Marshall losing his temper over policy, and having the target of his tirade take him under their wing.  The story follows Marshall’s career in the post-World I era and his association with men like Douglas Mac Arthur, Dwight Eisenhower and others who he would enter in his notebook as people to watch for in the future.  The majority of the book deals with Marshall’s impact on American military planning.  In the 1930s he worked to train National Guard units, but he also worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps which brought him to the attention of President Roosevelt.  From this point on his career takes off.  By 1938 he becomes Deputy Chief of Staff at the same time the situation in Europe continued to deteriorate.  By 1939, after an overly honest conversation with Roosevelt about the state of US military preparedness, the president impressed with Marshall’s seriousness appointed him Chief of Staff.

The author’s integrate the major events in Europe and the Far East up to and including the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but they do not mine any new ground.  As the book analyzes the major components of Marshall’s career, the authors have a habit of presenting the negative, then produce some positives, and finally concluding their analysis with the mistakes that Marshall supposedly made.  A number of examples come to mind.  Roosevelt haters for years have tried to blame the president for the events of December 7, 1941 and the authors examine Marshall’s culpability for how unprepared the US was for the attack.  The Ungers examine numerous investigations of the attack on Pearl Harbor and seem disappointed that more of the blame did not fall on Marshall.  They seem to conclude as they comment on his appearance at a Congressional hearing that “Marshall’s demeanor may also reveal a degree of self-doubt-indeed pangs of conscience-at his own imperfect performance in the events leading to Pearl Harbor.”   The Congressional investigation criticized Marshall and Admiral Harold Stark for “insufficient vigilance in overseeing their subordinates in Hawaii……[and] deplored Marshall’s failure on the morning of the attack to send a warning to Short on a priority basis.” (367)

(Marshall announced the European Recovery Program that bears his name at a commencement speech at Harvard on June 5, 1947)

It is painfully obvious based on the author’s narrative that the United States was totally unprepared for war.  They credit Marshall for doing his best to lobby Congress to expand the American military and institute a draft and then extend it.  In 1942 Roosevelt wanted to strike at North Africa, but Marshall believed that the American needs in the Pacific and plans to assist the British in Iceland and Northern Ireland would create man power shortages if the strike in North Africa went forward.  The authors criticize Marshall for not presenting his case forcefully enough to Roosevelt which would cause manpower issues later on in the war.  In planning for the war Marshall argued that a force of 8,000,000 men and 90 divisions would be sufficient to win the war.  Throughout the war there were constant worries that certain strategic decisions would not be successful for lack of manpower.   The author’s point to the cross channel invasion of France, having enough troops to take on the Japanese once the Germans were defeated, and the landing at Sicily to make their case.  They do praise Marshall for trying to reform the military command structure by always placing one general in charge in each war theater, be it D-Day, Torch, or other operations.  They also praise Marshall for trying to reform the training of American troops, but at the same time they criticize him for the lack of morale of American soldiers and their supposed lack of commitment to defeat the enemy.   Marshall would partly agree with the authors conclusions as he admitted that the soldiers sent to North Africa “were only partly trained and badly trained.” (168)

As mentioned before, Marshall maintained a list of men he though would be invaluable in leading American troops during the war.  The authors have difficulty with some of his choices and argue that he was a poor judge of character in others.  “On the one hand we note the names of fighting generals George S. Patton, Robert Eichelberger, Courtney Hodges, J. Lawton Collins, and Lucian Truscott,” and administrators like Dwight Eisenhower and Brehon Somervell, but on the other hand we find the likes of Lloyd Fredendall and Mark Clark, which provoked a respected military correspondent like Hanson Baldwin of the New York Times to have written “the greatest American military problem was leadership, the army he concluded, had thus far failed to produce a fraction of the adequate officer leadership needed.” (208)

(Marshall in conversation with General Dwight D. Eisenhower)

Many of the criticisms that the authors offer have some basis, but their critique goes a bit too far by suggesting that Marshall was indirectly responsible for the death of his step son, Allen at Anzio as he had placed him in range of peril because he facilitated his transfer to North Africa after he completed Armored Force School at Fort Knox.  The most effective historical writing is one of balance and objectivity, but at times the Ungers become too polemical as they try to downgrade Marshall’s reputation.  Granted Marshall had never led troops in combat, but as a logistician, administrator, and diplomat he deserves to be praised.  Marshall’s ability to deal with British generals and their egos was very important to the allied effort.  His ability to work with Winston Churchill and argue against the English Prime Minister’s goals of a Mediterranean strategy and movement in the Balkans as part of retaining the British Empire merits commendation.  His ability to navigate American politics and strong personalities was also a key to victory.

Once the authors have completed their discussion of the war they turn to Marshall’s role as Secretary of State.  They correctly point out that it took Marshall some time to realize that Stalin could not be trusted and had designs on Eastern Europe.  They are also correct in pointing out that the European Recovery Program that bears his name was not developed by the Secretary of State but by a talented staff that included the likes of George Kennan, Chip Bohlen, Dean Acheson, Dean Rusk, and Robert Lovett.  Marshall’s importance was lobbying Congress to gain funding for the program.  The authors also give Marshall credit for trying to work out a rapprochement between the Kuomintang and the Chinese Communists after the war, a task that was almost impossible. The authors describe the heated debate over the creation of the state of Israel that Marshall vehemently opposed based on the national security needs of the United States and dismissed the political and humanitarian calculations of Clark Clifford and President Truman. A position the authors feel that when looked upon from today’s perspective was quite accurate.   Finally, the authors give Marshall a significant amount of credit for the creation of NATO.

(Marshall greets President Truman at the conclusion of World War II)

f Marshall’s term as Secretary of State is deemed successful by the authors his one year stint as Secretary of Defense is seen as flawed.  The main criticism of Marshall deals with Douglas MacArthur and the Korean War.  After taking the reader through the North Korean attack on South Korea and the successful Inchon landing the authors describe in detail the dilemma of how far to pursue North Korean troops.  The question was should United Nations forces cross the 38th parallel into the north and how close should American bombing come to the Yalu River that bordered on Communist China.  According to the authors when the Communist Chinese troops entered the war it was not totally the fault of MacArthur because of the unclear orders that Marshall gave.  According to the authors Marshall’s orders were “tentative and ambiguous,” thus confusing the American commander.(464)  The limits on what the President allowed were very clear and when General Matthew Ridgeway, who replaced MacArthur as American commander was asked “why the chiefs did not give MacArthur categorical directions the general responded “what good would that do?  He wouldn’t obey the orders.” (467)   It appears the authors can never pass on an opportunity of presenting Marshall in a negative light.

Overall, the book is well written and covers all the major components of the Second World War.  It does less with Marshall’s role as Secretary of State and Defense, but if one is looking for a different approach to Marshall’s career this book can meet your needs as long as you realize that there are segments that are not very balanced.  Even in the book’s last paragraph they feel the need to make one last negative comment, “all told, the performance of George Marshall in many of his roles was less than awe-inspiring.” (490)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s