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 years as demanding and as full of crisis as his wartime service as Chief of Staff, beginning with his wearying and eventually unsuccessful attempts, as Truman’s special ambassador to China, to negotiate a cease-fire between the Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and their Communist adversaries and to find a basis for a democratic government in that devastated land, continuing with a distinguished term as secretary of state that saw the announcement of the Truman Doctrine, the successful negotiation of the European recovery plan, and the conception of NATO, and ending, after some months in 1950 as president of the American Red Cross, with his service as secretary of defense during the first frantic phase of the Korean War.

George C. Marshall: Statesman, which treats these aspects of the general’s career, is the fourth and concluding volume of Forrest Pogue’s masterful biography, which was launched with the appearance of George C. Marshall: Education of a General in 1963, and its triumphant conclusion has not been unattended by problems. By the time the second volume had appeared (George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope, 1939–1942) in 1966, the stage upon which Mr. Pogue’s subject had to move had broadened to such an extent, and become so crowded with characters, that he was already aware that the biographical mode presented difficulties, and in 1973, in the preface to the third volume (George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory, 1943–1945), he felt compelled to confess:

I have given scant attention to some matters that affected Marshall only peripherally or that show little of his character and leadership. I have been forced to conclude that biography is not the same as history and that one may sometimes better grasp the nature of one’s subject by subordinating the details of historical narrative to the impact of the individual on a given conference or on a precise event.

This is an entirely defensible point of view, but there is no denying that it sometimes deprives the reader of information that would enhance his understanding. In George C. Marshall: Statesman the curtain is apt to be rung down too abruptly as soon as Marshall leaves the stage and to rise again only when he is back in the center of it again. As a result, to take one example, the Communist takeover in China, which occurred when Marshall was busy with other problems, is dealt with so summarily and unemphatically that it is not easy to understand why so much was made of it in the hearings on his confirmation as secretary of defense in 1950. Similarly, the issue of rearming Germany, which had bulked large in the dispute between the Pentagon and the State Department that Marshall was brought in to alleviate in September 1950, is not mentioned at all, and failure to say anything about Marshall’s position on it makes it difficult, from this volume, to draw a balanced judgment of his part in the maintenance of European security at a time when American eyes were focused on the Far East.


Admittedly, the methodological question is a difficult one. Faced with the same problem in his biography of Ernest Bevin, Alan Bullock went so far in his third volume (Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1945–1951) in sacrificing the biographical form to the wider historical approach that his subject sometimes vanished from sight for pages at a time. On the whole, Pogue was well advised to be consistent and to keep his gaze firmly focused on the man with whom he has in a real sense—as director of the Marshall Research Center since its foundation in 1956, as the collector of the Marshall papers, and as interviewer of the general and his associates—been living for the past thirty years.

At the time of Marshall’s nomination as secretary of defense in 1950, The Washington Post wrote that he was a military man with a civilian mind. This was, to say the least, inexact. Marshall’s mind was always, in the best sense, that of a soldier, and this was reflected in the clarity, directness, and economy of his public statements and their freedom from ambiguity; in his habit when analyzing problems to emphasize such factors as salience and concentration, like a commander mobilizing his strength against the Schwerpunkt (fulcrum) of the enemy’s defenses; and in his search for decisions rather than compromises. His impatience with debates among members of his State Department staff, and his admonition, “Gentlemen, don’t fight the problem, decide it!” were the reactions of a military mind. When his under secretary of state, Dean Acheson, tried to convince him that a certain amount of fighting the problem was necessary to clarify all its aspects and that Marshall himself might profit from participation in staff debates, he allowed himself to be persuaded and accepted the suggested procedure, without, however, as Acheson notes in his memoirs, ever getting to like it. His long years as a soldier had accustomed him to orderly methods, in small things as in large, and he found the State Department a highly disorganized place. George F. Kennan, the first head of the policy planning staff that Marshall established in the department, tells of a luncheon at which the secretary asked him to pour the drinks and records that, after observing him, Marshall said, “Kennan, they tell me that you are a good head of a planning staff, and for all I know you are, but who the hell ever taught you to put the ice in before the whiskey?”

On the other hand, Marshall had a shrewd understanding of civilian attitudes. He knew that most Americans, while being proud of their armed forces, were unhappy about large military appropriations; he was aware of their essential lack of understanding of world affairs and the difficulty of sustaining their interest in diplomatic and military enterprises that went on too long; and he had, in the course of his career, developed extraordinary skill in dealing with the doubts of politicians and ordinary citizens, in explaining the facts of international life in terms that they could understand, and in persuading them to go further than they might otherwise have done.

In the second volume of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, edited by Larry I. Bland, there is a revealing note from Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr., to President Roosevelt in May 1940 that reads: “Let General Marshall, and only General Marshall, do all the testifying in connection with the Bill which you are about to send up for additional appropriations for the Army”; and in Pogue’s third volume he gives striking illustrations of Marshall’s persuasive talents in 1943. At that time, there was a growing tendency in the country to regard the war as all but won, which was reflected in resentment against legislation affecting civilian manpower, increased pressure for deferment of armed service, and a threatened strike of the railway brotherhoods. A major part of Marshall’s time was devoted to explaining to Congress and the press, and to business, labor, and private groups the enormities of the tasks that lay ahead and the importance of a truly national effort, and his success in this effort, ironically, by making him indispensable at home, helped defeat his hope that he would command the Allied forces that invaded Normandy. Franklin Roosevelt told him, “Well, I didn’t feel that I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.”


In the postwar period, Marshall was no less effective as a judge of what the American public would or would not support. In 1948, when he asked General Albert Wedemeyer to go to China and discover whether anything might be done to bolster the Nationalist cause, Wedemeyer recommended sending a few thousand military advisers. Testifying before the congressional committees on foreign affairs, Marshall opposed this as something that would bring with it “obligations and responsibilities…which I am convinced the American people would never knowingly accept,” adding, “It would involve this Government in a continuing commitment from which it would practically be impossible to withdraw.”

In the case of the plan for European recovery, on the other hand, Marshall never doubted that Americans would support it if it were properly explained to them, and in Pogue’s treatment of this greatest of his subject’s achievements, he makes it clear that Marshall deserves credit, not only for the initial conception of what history remembers as the Marshall Plan and for writing the speech that announced it to the world in June 1947, but also for defending it, with his incomparable mixture of courtesy and authority, before congressional committees and helping to sell it to various groups and regions of the country by appealing, in Pogue’s words, “for American unity in a movement that served American interests by aiding Western Europe to survive.”

Nothing was more marked in Marshall’s public career than his scrupulous regard for the constitution of his country, and this was nowhere clearer than in his relations with the two presidents whom he served. During the war years he was not infrequently overruled by President Roosevelt on matters within his competence and about which he felt strongly. On these occasions, he never reacted, as General Douglas MacArthur was wont to do in similar circumstances, with outrage, stubborn disobedience, or imputations of conspiracy against him in high places because he never for a moment doubted the President’s authority. Similarly, in May 1948, when President Truman abruptly recognized the state of Israel without prior warning to the United States delegation at the United Nations, which had been lining up support for a trusteeship in Palestine, and when friends urged Marshall to resign in protest against this blow to American credibility, he is said to have replied that one didn’t resign because the President, who had a constitutional right to make a decision, had made one. Somewhat later, forced to leave a meeting of the UN General Assembly in Paris for an operation, he nominated the Republican John Foster Dulles to head the delegation in his place, but only after making Dulles promise to support the President’s line on all issues that were raised. Marshall told Pogue in 1957 that he had told Dulles: “Never use the situation here politically. Don’t be a Democrat or a Republican: You represent the President…. If you break faith in a political way, I will advertise you on every damn radio in the country, and I am in a position to do it.”

The fact that he respected the President’s authority did not mean that Marshall did not fight strongly for his own views. In May 1948, at a White House meeting on Palestine called by President Truman, he was exercised by Clark Clifford’s urging recognition of Israel for what were transparently reasons of domestic politics, and argued heatedly that this would damage the presidential office. If Truman accepted Clifford’s political advice, he added, “and if in the [1948 presidential] election I was to vote, I would vote against the President.” Politics intruded again in October 1948, when Truman’s speech writers thought it would improve the President’s peace image in the electoral campaign if he sent Chief Justice Fred Vinson to Moscow to explain to Stalin the strength of America’s desire for peace. In Paris, where he was seeking to persuade the Soviet UN delegation that the United States would make no concessions in order to win a lifting of the Berlin blockade and was unmoved by Soviet threats, Marshall was furious and debated with his aide Pat Carter whether a cable beginning “Never in the history of diplomatic bungling” was too strong to send to the President. When Under Secretary Robert A. Lovett told Truman what he thought Marshall’s reaction would be, the President canceled the proposed trip.

During the years when Marshall was secretary of state and secretary of defense, his country not only assumed world responsibilities that were without parallel in American history but also entered into its first permanent peacetime alliance. Learning the rules of effective collaboration with allies did not come easily to a nation that was not used to having any allies, and the consciousness of the great discrepancy in power between America and its European associates made the task even harder. All too often the US government tended less to consult its allies than to give them advice that it expected them to take, a habit that has not changed much in the last forty years. The British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin complained, not only that the Americans had never appreciated the difficulties of the British position in Palestine, but that in the evolution of a collaborative response to Marshall’s Harvard speech, the importance of which he had been the first European statesman to recognize, he had to endure immoderate and premature American pressure to end reparations and dismantling in the British zone of Germany, coupled with threats of dire consequences if he did not comply. Bevin was equally resentful of the American campaign to force Britain to become part of a federalized Europe, which, in view of his country’s imperial connections, he did not feel was appropriate, and which he successfully resisted.

Under Marshall, the State Department was not free of the behavior that annoyed Bevin, but the secretary was at least always aware of Bevin’s stature as the one European leader who could carry his country with him and as the one best suited to act as a mediator between American and European opinion. This last consideration was particularly important in charting the course from the Brussels Treaty to NATO, where Marshall and Bevin were effective collaborators, and also in the difficult question of the rehabilitation of Germany. In his book of memoirs, Present at the Creation, Dean Acheson, who was secretary of state during Marshall’s brief term at the Defense Department, describes how Marshall put an end to the Pentagon’s attempts to bully the Europeans into line on the question of German rearmament. Together with Acheson, he followed a policy that was more deliberate, and took into account the sensibilities of the French and other allies.

With respect to the Soviet Union and communism in general, Marshall was never as alarmist as some of his countrymen or as inclined to allow the communist threat to become the principal determinant of American foreign policy. Pogue’s third volume makes it clear that, as early as the Quebec Conference of August 1943, Marshall was aware that the Soviets were growing in selfconfidence and in criticism of the capitalist West, but he believed that a continuation of the alliance was clearly in the interests of both parties, and it was probably not until the fruitless foreign ministers’ conference in Moscow in 1947 that he gave up the hope that the Soviet Union would play a useful role in the postwar rebuilding of Europe. When the Truman Doctrine was proclaimed in March 1947, he was worried both by the scope of the document, which appeared to invite all countries that felt threatened by the Soviet Union to call upon the United States for aid, and by the sharpness of the attendant rhetoric, but he was told that the administration could not get congressional support without a strong statement and did not press for changes. That the matter continued to worry him was shown in his testimony before the congressional committees on foreign affairs when they met in executive session in February 1948 to discuss the question of aid to the Nationalists in China. “There is a tendency to feel,” he observed on that occasion, “that wherever the Communist influence is brought to bear, we should immediately meet it, head on as it were.” To base a policy upon this premise, he added, would simply place the initiative in the hands of the Communists, while spreading “our forces so thin that they could be of no particular effectiveness at any one point.”

That this signified no softness toward communism on matters of vital interest to the United States was made abundantly clear on numerous occasions, most notably perhaps in the tense period before and during the first phase of the Soviet blockade of Berlin. In his account of these dangerous months, Pogue makes it clear that Marshall laid the basis for the eventual Soviet lifting of its siege by a combination of great firmness and restraint, never grasping at dangerous compromises, never indulging in idle threats, insisting always that the US would not be forced out of Berlin, and holding on until the success of the airlift and the courage of the Berliners demonstrated to the Soviets that they could not have their way.

It is worth noting that many prominent Americans did not possess his steadiness of nerve. In September 1948, Secretary of Defense James Forrestal told Marshall that, in view of the tenseness of the situation, he thought there should be a resolution, presumably by Congress, on whether we should use the atomic bomb in time of war. When Philip Graham of The Washington Post convened the publishers of nineteen major newspapers to discuss the Berlin crisis with representatives of the government, several of them expressed the view that the country was ahead of the administration and that there was a groundswell of feeling against the Soviet actions. Marshall told Forrestal that John Foster Dulles had said to him that “the American people would crucify you if you did not use the bomb.”

Marshall’s term at the Pentagon from September 1950 to September 1951 was certainly the unhappiest period in his long years in his country’s service, dominated by the hectic effort to contain the Communist invasion of South Korea without weakening the defenses of Europe, complicated by the exasperating debate with General MacArthur, which ended with the Far Eastern commander’s recall, and accompanied by a shrill and mounting chorus of attacks upon Marshall’s loyalty to his country. Baseless charges were made that he had persuaded President Roosevelt to make unwarranted and dangerous concessions to the Russians at the Yalta Conference, that he had failed to exploit the momentum of the Allied drive in 1945 by beating the Russian forces to Berlin and Prague, and that he had “lost” China.

Today, when we read such things as Senator William Jenner’s speech of September 16, 1950, in which he called Marshall “a living lie,” or Senator Joseph McCarthy’s speech of June 14, 1951, in which he accused the general of having made common cause with Stalin since 1943, we experience the same disgust that we felt at the time of their delivery, but hardly the same incredulity. We have over the years become too accustomed to the paranoiac strain in American politics for that. There is some comfort perhaps in believing that, long after Jenner and McCarthy are forgotten, George Marshall will be remembered for what Theo Sommer, in the pages of the Hamburg weekly Die Zeit, recently called “the noblest charitable action in world history,” which sent roughly thirteen billion dollars to fifteen European countries, 88 percent as a gift—about seventy billion reckoned in 1985 dollars. “With the Marshall blessing, cities were rebuilt, harbors and factories, highways and canals. The Americans sent tractors, fishing nets, coal, grain. But above all things, they sent what was in shortest supply, and that was hope.”

This Issue

August 13, 1987