American Heroes - George C Marshall

American Heroes

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Because of our national pride and spirit, we are introducing our new series of blogs entitled “American Heroes.” Each month we will feature an American hero that has impacted either the foundations of our country, society or American culture.

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George C. Marshall

This month features American hero, George Catlett Marshall. George C. Marshall was a man held in high esteem for his military service and incredible organizational and problem-solving skills in military command. Called the post-WWII “organizer of victory,” Marshall served in WWI, and was instrumental in the Allied victory of WWII. He served as Chief of Staff for FDR, and Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense under Truman. Marshall received a Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his 1948 “Marshall Plan,” which called for aid and assistance to Europe to help recover their economies after WWII.

Early Career and Background
Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, George C. Marshall came from a family whose roots were well-established in the area. He had two older siblings, and throughout his childhood, never matched them academically. Frequently, George engaged in mischief and poor performance, but he did do well in history.

After high school, George was set to apply for Virginia Military Institute, where his older brother Stuart had graduated. Fearing that George’s track record of poor performance would continue, and thus shame the family, Stuart discouraged George’s application to VMI. Their mother disregarded Stuart’s concerns, and George, knowing of his brother’s misgivings, used this to launch him into success. Since George realized academics were not his strong suit, he focused more on his military efforts. At the end of his first year, he was top of his military class, and at the end of his fourth year, he ranked as First Captain, the highest cadet on campus.

Military Career
VMI proved to effectively shape George’s abilities to lead and command, and from there he enlisted in the military. In 1902, he passed the Army Officer’s examination and was enlisted as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Infantry.

Marshall was deployed to the Philippines to oversee the troops just after the Spanish-American War, and served as an infantry platoon leader and company commander during the Philippine-American War. There, he further developed his leadership and command skills, even over those with more experience than he.

Prior to his Philippine deployment, Marshall had married Lily Carter Coles, whom he’d met in his last year at VMI. The two had married in 1902, but Lily’s poor health prevented her from accompanying Marshall to the Philippines.

After his time in the Philippines, Marshall knew that the way to improve his military career and prospects was by furthering his education. He enrolled at Fort Leavenworth’s Officer’s Training School in 1906. Proving to be more challenging than VMI, Marshall got an academic wake-up call during his first year of studies at Fort Leavenworth, which threatened his continued enrollment. As a result, he buried himself in his studies and was able to rank first and the end of year one, and was even invited to teach at Fort Leavenworth at the end of his term.

In 1913, he returned to the Philippines to lead training exercises for American troops still stationed overseas. In all of these practice missions, he refined his leadership abilities further, continuing to demonstrate his exceptional problem-solving abilities.

Marshall returned stateside in 1916, just in time for the initial throes of WWI. He departed for France in 1917, as the 1st Division Head of Operations, joining the first boat load of soldiers to cross the Atlantic for the conflict. During this time, Marshall’s candid personality became evident as he severely criticized his superior, General John J. Pershing, for his failings that he felt undermined the performance of their division. Many thought Marshall’s candor against his superior would lead to his dismissal, but because his criticisms were so honest and well-articulated, it actually worked in his favor. Eventually, he was appointed to the Operations Staff of the General Headquarters. Under his direction, American troops and efforts were redirected, seeing the success of the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Marshall’s strategy and orders were considered brilliant, and perhaps positioned him for the later role as Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army.

Post WWI, Marshall’s work at the General Headquarters proved to serve well in repairing his relationship with General John J. Pershing, who was then Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Marshall was even selected to be his Aide-de-Camp, and together they toured Europe’s Allied capitals, consequently acquainting themselves with people who would figure prominently in WWII. As General Pershing was Chief of Staff, Marshall became intimately familiar with the relationship and dealings among the U.S. Army, the administration, and Congress as well. In 1924, when Pershing stepped down as Chief of Staff, Marshall was assigned to the 15th Infantry as deputy commander in Tientsin, China.

Since his stay in Washington, D.C, and even on this assignment in China, Marshall was actually able to enjoy time with his wife, Lily. After his three year service, he was reassigned to Washington, D.C. Sadly, it was after this tour that his wife suddenly passed away in 1927. Recognizing Marshall’s grief, the Army gave the choice among three assignments, for a change of pace and scenery. He opted for the Assistant Commandment position at Fort Benning Infantry School in Georgia, the army’s largest training facility.

It was at Fort Benning where Marshall made a lasting, impressive influence in military reform, still known today as the Benning Revolution. Marshall took into account the high casualties from WWI, and sought to remedy that through better training and preparedness. Marshall’s strategies differed from the traditional mass attacks and instead focused on smaller unit attacks and movement. He also streamlined much of the troops’ training, and promoted more field exercises and less lecture. These changes ultimately saved many American lives in WWII, as the tactics and strategy were not the same stationary model as seen in much of WWI. Marshall served five years at Fort Benning, which proudly saw the passage of 150 future WWII generals.

It was also at Fort Benning where Marshall met his second wife, Katherine Boyce Tupper Brown. They married in October 1930; Marshall was nearly 50 years old.

In the mid-1930s, Marshall was assigned as Senior Instructor to the Illinois National Guard. This was not seen as a favorable assignment, as morale and performance were low and Marshall was expected to revitalize these units. Marshall, in fact, proved successful, implementing beneficial changes to the command staff and training procedures. Marshall was promoted to brigadier general in 1936.

In 1938, Marshall’s career was moving swiftly. Also moving swiftly was Hitler’s machine, arousing the musings of war, and Japan, too started to spread its wings. America was gearing up for its involvement in the war and in the same year, the White House held a conference in November with the nation’s top military personnel, including George Marshall. Here, his blunt, unfailingly honest personality would throw a wrench into President Roosevelt’s plan to delay actual involvement in the war. Roosevelt proposed to provide European allies with 10,000 aircraft. This made no logistical sense to Marshall. Marshall favored intensive training and resources, both of which Roosevelt’s plan neglected to outline; Marshall even saw this plan as diverting critical resources from the U.S. to adequately prepare for the war. What further astounded Marshall was the fact that the rest of the military personnel present consented to Roosevelt’s plan, even though he knew they disagreed. When Roosevelt asked Marshall’s opinion, he flat-out disagreed with the President. Like Marshall’s previous confrontation with Pershing, many had thought he had just ended his career.

However, in 1939, Marshall was summoned to the White House to accept the position as Chief of Staff. Marshall politely reminded Roosevelt his habit of candid honesty, and Roosevelt politely accepted the risk. Thus, Marshall was promoted from a one-star general to a four-star general. The same day Marshall received his promotion, Hitler invaded Poland.

Marshall proved crucial to the success in the European Theater. His knack for organization, strategy, and leadership led to the expansion of the U.S. Army from 172,000 to over a million by the U.S. entrance into the war, 1941, and it would grow to over eight million by early 1945.
In 1942, Marshall pushed for consolidating Allied forces to defeat the German army, and wanted to position the offensive for an invasion through France. Marshall met resistance nearly 100 times over, but in June 1944, Operation Overlord, later known as the Battle of Normandy, was underway. Many had assumed Marshall would lead this invasion, as he had demonstrated exemplary performance as Chief of Staff thus far. However, General Dwight D. Eisenhower took the reigns for this battle. This highly orchestrated event was a concerted effort of strategy, precision, practice, technology and force and ultimately gained the upper hand for the Allied Forces to proceed to victory. In Spring, 1945, Germany finally surrendered to the Allied Forces.

Marshall resigned from Chief of Staff shortly after the war, but less than a week later, he was commissioned for public service. President Harry Truman sent Marshall overseas to China in 1945, hoping his influence would bring resolve against a looming civil war between the Nationalist and Communist parties, led by Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong, respectively. Though Marshall’s influence was ineffective against the Communists, he threatened to pull American aid from the Nationalists. Both parties refused his proposals and the country escalated into civil war. Unsuccessful, Marshall returned to the U.S. in 1947. Eventually, in 1949, the Communist Party of China defeated the Nationalist efforts.

Upon Marshall’s return to the U.S. in 1947, Truman appointed him as Secretary of State. Falling short on the Asian front, Marshall set his focus on rebuilding Europe. Truman made him the spokesperson of the plan and Marshall delivered the address outlining the plan at Harvard University in June 1947. Also known as the European Recovery Plan, the Marshall Plan was strategically intended to provide aid to war-ravaged Europe and other countries. In addition to helping these countries regain their footing, the U.S. had hoped that this would counter any effect or influences that Communists may have in these vulnerable nations. While the plan was developed primarily by State Department officials with bipartisan support, President Truman saw it wise to position Marshall behind the plan. By that time, Marshall was a hugely popular figure, liked and widely admired by Republicans, Democrats, and the public. He was even named Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year” twice; once in 1943 and again in 1947.

The Marshall Plan rolled out in Europe in April 1948. Aide not only went to the Allied countries, but former enemies such as Germany and Italy as well. The Soviet Union was offered aide, but refused any help and also blocked any benefits to the Eastern Bloc. The plan was hugely successful and in fact helped stabilize Europe, who had faced incredible devastation to their economies, industry, and infrastructure. In 1953, George Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the efforts in rebuilding Europe.

Due to poor health, Marshall resigned from the State Department in early 1949. In September of that year, he became the president of the American National Red Cross. However, in 1950, President Truman called on him to serve as Secretary of Defense at the outbreak of the Korean War. He only served one year, retiring in September 1951.

Despite Marshall’s numerous accolades, promotions, and army decorations, he did not escape harsh criticism. His brutal honesty and extreme candor were well-known, but ultimately appreciated by many. During WWII, he was criticized for the “individual replacement system,” a system which rotated soldiers in and out of combat. Marshall had initially called for more manpower, but was pressured to use much fewer numbers. The smaller rotations proved disastrous as the soldiers were hastily trained and ill-prepared to fight proficiently.

His failure to resolve China’s opposing forces, plus his somewhat conservative military approach in dealing with the Korean War garnered attention from Senator Joe McCarthy, who targeted Marshall as sympathetic and even supportive of Communist agendas. Eisenhower, whom Marshall had previously aided in promotions, campaigned and sided with McCarthy, and refused to defend Marshall. Although eventually many recognized McCarthy’s accusations as ridiculous, people did become divided in their opinion of Marshall.

Ultimately, George C. Marshall is remembered by many as a great American hero. “The greatest military man America ever produced,” by Truman; “the finest soldier I have ever known,” by Secretary of War Henry Stimson; “the noblest Roman,” by Churchill; a “tremendous gentleman,” by Orson Welles -- Marshall earned the respect and admiration of many people holding a variety of positions or rank.

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