George C. Marshall, Dec. 31, 1880-Oct. 16, 1959.

“I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country.”
—FDR, explaining why Marshall would not command Operation Overlord.

“The Organizer of Victory.”
—Sir Winston Churchill.

“Congress will never accept anything less than the ‘Marshall Plan.'”
—Harry Truman

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New Year’s Eve, 2007, is the 127th anniversary of George C. Marshall‘s birth. There’s nothing special about a 127th anniversary, of course, but we here at 12AMB—history buffs that we are—occasionally salute people who have been forgotten, or at least not remembered as thoroughly as they should. Having read several books recently in which Marshall was a main player, I came to the feeling that Marshall was, in all likelihood, the greatest American never to be president and thus deserved what little bit of remembering I could provide. While people of my grandparents’ generation (aka the “greatest” generation) would know his name, they probably would remember more colorful, if less consequential, figures of the day. Unfortunately, Marshall’s lack of pretension and avoidance of vainglory have led us to forget him, which is, in my view, a deep shame. FDR predicted this, but Marshall was motivated primarily by results, not self-promotion, unlike far too many people in the high position then and now, and he made choices that were in the best interests of the country, not his personal or partisan ambitions.

Marshall only had a brief battlefield command in World War I, and cut his teeth as one of the officers running the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, before proving to be one of the greatest staff officers of all time, “the organizer of victory” in Winston Churchill’s words. After the war, rather than retire to his beloved compost pile (Marshall was an avid gardener), he was sent to China to try to mediate between the Nationalists and Communists (unsuccessfully), and a bit later became the organizer of victory again when he was Secretary of State between 1947 and 1949. Finally, before retiring, he helped pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire of the Korean War as Secretary of Defense. The plan that carries his name came when he was Secretary of State. The economic prosperity it brought, probably more than anything, prevented a rerun of a general European war, something which nobody in their right mind could have wanted. So sure that the aid was desperately needed and so sure of Marshall’s reputation, President Truman had the plan named after Marshall, not himself.

The Marshall Plan is important but I think the ultimate proof of George Marshall lay in his work as Chief of Staff of the Army from 1939 to 1945. We don’t really understand just how amazingly difficult the Allied victory of World War II was. Hindsight bias leads us to think that what happened was “inevitable” or “easy.” But Allied victory—something that truly staved off a new Dark Age—was far from inevitable. First, it was a coalition war, and coalitions are inherently weak. Marshall was able to ride herd over a fractious bunch and keep things focused on the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, in that order. Second, it is a long, long way from the US to Europe and the Pacific, and Marshall’s guidance was essential in making sure the right stuff got to the right places at the right times, in quantity.

He wasn’t always perfect in his decisions, of course. Most critically, if it had been left to him, Overlord would have failed for going too early and running into the sausage grinder that was the Wehrmacht of 1942 or 1943. FDR was correct to overrule him on this. After the war he opposed the recognition of Israel, saying privately to Harry Truman “If you [recognize the state of Israel] and if I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you.” But, to paraphrase the ancient Greeks, “Perfection is for the works of God, not man.”

By the early 1950s, he was worn out and he finally did retire to his compost pile. He did pause collect the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, but not before getting slagged by Senator (from Soviet Wisconsin) Joe McCarthy’s “hates America” barrages during the 1952 Presidential campaign. In what is unarguably not one of his finest moments, Eisenhower failed to defend his old boss while on the campaign trail. Marshall died in 1959. Bill Mauldin’s famous Pulitzer-prize winning cartoon eulogy probably said it best:


Alas, due to the poor resolution of the image, you probably can’t read it but the name on the helmet is, of course, “Marshall.” Usually loquacious Willie and Joe always had something to say before, but not this time.

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ObFascism Tag: Duh.