The Good Soldier

George C. Marshall: Statesman, 1945–1959

by Forrest C. Pogue
Viking, 603 pp., $29.95

George C. Marshall
George C. Marshall; drawing by David Levine

On November 26, 1945, George Catlett Marshall, retiring as Chief of Staff of the Army, received his only American military decoration of the war, a second oak-leaf cluster to the Distinguished Service Medal that had been awarded to him in 1919. After the brief ceremony in the courtyard of the Pentagon, he thanked President Truman, who had read the citation, commended those who had worked with him in the War Department, and then addressed himself to all of those men and women who had served in the armed forces during the war. Most of them, he said, knew how different, and how fortunate, their own country was compared with the rest of the world, a fact not fully appreciated by their countrymen at home:

Today this nation with good faith and sincerity, I am certain, desires to take the lead in the measures necessary to avoid another world catastrophe, such as you have just endured. And the world of suffering people looks to us for such leadership. Their thoughts, however, are not concentrated alone on this problem. They have the more immediate and terribly pressing concerns—where the mouthful of food will come from, where they will find shelter tonight and where they will find warmth from the cold of winter. Along with the great problem of maintaining the peace we must solve [this] problem…. Neither of these problems can be solved alone. They are directly related, one to the other.

These words, in which we can detect a glimpse of the great Harvard speech presenting the European recovery program in 1947, were characteristic of the man who uttered them in their absence of any vaunting of past victories, in their recognition of the critical urgency of new problems, and in their revelation of what Richard Neustadt and Ernest May have called George Marshall’s ability to think in time. Marshall was well aware that Americans, in their historical repugnance for war, were inclined to retreat from the problems and responsibilities that it left in its wake, and as a young officer he had witnessed the consequences of this attitude for world peace and the security of his country. But he also recognized the strong humanitarian instinct of the American people and their eagerness to alleviate hunger and distress, and he hoped that an appeal to this might avoid another withdrawal into an isolationism that would vitiate a victory won at tremendous cost.

When he made those few remarks in Washington in November 1945, Marshall had no idea that he would himself take a major part in his country’s response to the problems he described. Yet in fact the retirement that he and his wife had been looking forward to was of the briefest duration. They had hardly reached their home in Leesburg, Virginia, when the telephone rang to call the general back to duty. What followed was five…

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