George C. Marshall: Education of a General, 1880-1939
War has become the great profession of the twentieth century. Yet there is no professional whom we know less well than the military man. Politicians, businessmen, intellectuals, gangsters, prostitutes, paupers—we have studied them all, interviewed them, classified them, exhausted them. But generals and admirals, who from time to time hold in their hands the power of life and death, remain blanks. If first in war, they tend to be last in peace and infrequently in the hearts of their countrymen.
This is generally true in democratic countries, and it is perhaps especially true in the United States. From the days of the Society of the Cincinnati this nation has mistrusted the professional soldier. Nor, until very recently, was the regular Army redeemed by its moments of glory from its reputation of mediocrity. The years after the Civil War were a particularly dreary time for the military establishment. By the 1890’s, the United States had an Army of 25,000 men—an Army which, as Messrs. Pogue and Harrison tell us, “was no longer needed to fight Indians and seemed to face only a penurious future as a dubious sort of constabulary.” In 1911 Congress actually had to pass a sort of public-accommodations statuts ordering inns, restaurants, and other public places not to discriminate against soldiers.
The mystery is why anyone of ability should have entered the regular Army in these years. And yet, as the nation discovered during the Second World War, the military establishment contained generals and admirals of considerable talent, in whom, even in retrospect, it seems not irrational (assuming the war itself to have been rational, as I do) to have confided the power of life and death. Most of these men made their professional commitment before the First World War. Why did they do it? How could they have stood military life so long? How, after years of isolation and years of ritual, did their instinct and initiative survive when the crisis finally came? This excellent first volume in the biography of the supreme American professional soldier of this country throws useful light on these questions.
No one can doubt that George C. Marshall was a man of exceptional ability and personal force. He was also, as his biographers candidly report, a man of intense and disciplined ambition. When he finished the Virginia Military Institute, he was so determined to obtain appointment as an officer in the Army that he went to Washington, invaded the White House and carried his case personally to President McKinley. Yet this man, who was not only deeply ambitious but who obviously could have succeeded in another career, remained nine years in grade as a first lieutenant, did not become a captain until 1916, fifteen years after his graduation from VMI, or a colonel until 1933, when he was fifty two years old, or a brigadier general until 1936. It is no wonder that, only a first lieutenant at the age of thirty-five, he contemplated resigning (“the prospects for advancement in the Army are so restricted by law and by the accumulation of large numbers of men nearly the same age all in a single grade, that I do not feel it right to waste all my best years in the vain struggle against insurmountable difficulties”), or that in 1934 he could write his patron, General Pershing, almost in despair: “Two or three vacancies now exist. I want one of them as I will soon be fifty-four. I must get started if I am going to get anywhere in this Army.”
Still, he stayed, as did others like him who later led the country’s armies and navies to victory in the Second World War. The reasons they stayed—the mixture of professional and patriotic ideals—are implicit rather than explicit in Education of a General. But Pogue and Harrison show admirably how Marshall’s early life prepared him for his later responsibilities—his beginning as a second lieutenant in the Philippines, his service on Pershing’s staff in the First World War, three years in China in the Twenties, his exceptionally influential term at the Infantry Training School at Fort Benning, a period organizing CCC camps (“the greatest social experiment outside Russia”), a time in exile when MacArthur sent him to the Illinois National Guard, thereby, as Marshall thought, ending his career, until Pershing’s insistent pressure brought him back to Washington and Harry Hopkins, impressed by his cool efficiency, urged him on Roosevelt.
Education of a General is carefully researched, well composed and judiciously written. The portrait of Marshall is sympathetic but by no means worshipful. The assessment of Marshall’s intelligence is particularly interesting. Marshall was not much concerned with grand theories of war or strategy but rather with methods and principles of command. He was a great teacher at Benning, surrounding himself with unorthodox figures like Joe Stilwell, and inviting new ideas so assiduously that conservative officers, Pogue and Harrison tell us, criticized him for “a predisposion to admire novelty even when not sound and to prefer for advancement officers whose chief distinction was a willingness to experiment.” Obviously this was no attitude for the regular Army.
Education of a General suffers a little from an excessive urbanity which systematically smooths out the rougher edges of Marshall’s personality and of his life. While admitting Marshall’s ambition, it does not do full justice to his skill as a politician nor to the political context in which he had to operate. Thus the top levels of the regular Army after the First World War were divided to a considerable degree between the Pershing men and the MacArthur men. Marshall, as Pershing’s special protégé, was MacArthur’s potential rival. Pogne and Harrison handle the MacArthurMarshall relation in a bland and gingerly way. They dismiss the story that MacArthur held up Marshall’s promotion “because of differences between them dating back to World War I” and argue instead that MacArthur kept Marshall back out of loyalty to the seniority system—a rather belated loyalty on MacArthur’s part, it must be said, since he himself had been freely jumped over the heads of officers senior to him. And they refuse to read anything except benign concern for Marshall’s career in MacArthur’s decision to dispatch Marshall to the Illinois National Guard. Katharine Tupper Marshall, in Together, a memoir of her husband, suggests that the Marshalls themselves viewed it quite differently.
Marshall, of course, had his own resources for fighting back. He disdained the crude forms of pressure employed by his main contender for appointment as Chief of Staff, General Hugh Drum, but he managed things with great skill in his more subtle way. He used Pershing for all he was worth, which was a good deal. And he maneuvered with great tact to become Chief. Listen to his own account:
Johnson [the Assistant Secretary of War] wanted me…but I didn’t want Woodring [the Secretary, with whom Johnson was feuding] to know he was for me. Craig [the Chief of Staff] was for me, but I wanted it kept from the President. Woodring was for me, but I didn’t want the others to know.
Marshall was similarly skilled in his handling of Roosevelt, whom he kept, Pogue and Harrison say, “at a calculated distance in order to keep his own freedom of action.” He always declined, for example, to see Roosevelt privately at Warm Springs or Hyde Park:
I found informal conversations with the President would get you into trouble. He would talk over something informally at the dinner table, and you had trouble disagreeing without creating embarrassment. So I never went. I was in Hyde Park for the first time at his funeral.
And he shrewdly resisted Roosevelt’s attempts to embrace him by familiarity. The President typically called him “George” at their first conference; but, as Marshall recalled it, “I don’t think he ever did it again…. I wasn’t very enthusiastic over such a misrepresentation of our intimacy.” No one except his wife called Marshall “George.”
At this meeting, Marshall invited attention to himself by flatly disagreeing with the President. Afterward, his associates assured him that his Washington career was over. However, as Marshall later said, it “didn’t antagonize him at all. Maybe he thought I would tell him the truth so far as I personally was concerned, which I certainly tried to do.” In the end, this remained the basic source of Marshall’s power—not the sponsorship of Pershing, not his adroitness as a politician, but his unusual strength of intelligence and character.
My chief regret about Education of a General is that it somewhat underplays the politics of the military establishment, forgetting that politics in a non-political framework, like a college faculty, a utopian community, or a totalitarian party, is likely to be more savage than politics when it has normal and approved outlets. It does not detract from Marshall’s very considerable stature to acknowledge not only that he had the cards but that he played them brilliantly and purposefully—and such acknowledgment would help take generals out of their niches, whether of admiration or of condemnation, and restore them to ordinary humanity.