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date: 29 June 2022

Marshall, George Catlett,

(31 December 1880–16 October 1959)

Marshall, George Catlett,

(31 December 1880–16 October 1959)
  • Mark A. Stoler

George C. Marshall, Jr.

In his Pentagon office, 1943.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-105394).

Marshall, George Catlett, Jr. (31 December 1880–16 October 1959), soldier and statesman, was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of George Catlett Marshall, Sr., a businessman distantly related to Chief Justice John Marshall, and Laura Bradford. Marshall spent an unexceptional childhood in Uniontown. In 1897 he was admitted to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, where he first exhibited his leadership abilities and was selected first corporal, sergeant, and captain of the cadets. Soon after graduation in 1901 he applied for and on 2 February 1902 received a commission in the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant. Nine days later he married Elizabeth Carter Coles. They remained happily married until her death in 1927 but had no children.

From 1902 to 1916 Marshall served in the Philippines twice and on a series of army posts in the continental United States. More important than these standard assignments were those with the volunteer state militia, which developed his ability to work with civilians, and his appointment in 1906 to the Infantry-Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, which was on the cutting edge of the major reforms taking place within the army. He exhibited a talent for staff work, graduated first in his class, qualified for a second year at the Staff College, and in 1908 was appointed an instructor. Because of his abilities as a staff officer, he was also appointed aide-de-camp to Generals J. Franklin Bell and Hunter Liggett between 1913 and 1916 and often assumed responsibilities far beyond those normally associated with his rank. Indeed, his promotion in the small U.S. Army was extremely slow despite his outstanding record; only in 1907 did he become a first lieutenant and only in 1916 a captain.

U.S. entry into World War I the following year provided Marshall with new opportunities, but owing to his unique managerial abilities and reputation, they all involved staff work rather than field command. Assigned to the staff of the First Infantry Division, he was one of the first American soldiers to land in France in 1917. Over the next year he played a major role in training U.S. forces and helped plan the counterattack at Cantigny against the 1918 German spring offensive. He came to the attention of General John J. Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Forces, and in mid-1918 was assigned to the operations staff of Pershing’s general headquarters. Marshall assumed major responsibilities in planning the two great American offensives of the war: St.-Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. By the armistice in November he was chief of operations for the U.S. First Army with the temporary rank of colonel and had become one of Pershing’s most valued tactical and logistical experts. He had also developed an extraordinary ability to organize and operate within Allied commands and had been recommended by Pershing for promotion to brigadier general.

The end of the war precluded that promotion, and in 1920 Marshall reverted to the rank of major. He became one of Pershing’s postwar aides, however, and thereby once again assumed responsibilities far beyond his official rank. This was especially true from 1921 to 1924, when Pershing was army chief of staff and Marshall his virtual executive. Pershing in turn became Marshall’s powerful mentor and supporter, introducing him to politico-military affairs at the highest level and promoting his protégé in whatever ways possible. Those ways were quite limited in the small interwar army, however, and for most of these years Marshall’s talents went largely unused and unrewarded.

In 1923 Marshall was promoted to lieutenant colonel and in the following year was assigned to the Fifteenth Infantry Regiment in Tientsin, China. In July 1927 he returned to Washington, D.C., as instructor at the National War College. The sudden and unexpected death of his wife of a heart condition in September of that year put him into a deep depression, from which he gradually emerged via total absorption in a new and pivotal assignment: head of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. He undertook a revolution in the training of U.S. Army officers, emphasizing simplicity, innovation, and mobility. In the process he created what would become the U.S. high command during World War II: 200 future generals passed through Fort Benning during Marshall’s 1927–1932 tenure, including such luminaries as Omar N. Bradley, J. Lawton Collins, Matthew Ridgway, Walter Bedell Smith, and Joseph W. Stilwell. Midway through this tenure, in 1930, Marshall married Katherine Tupper Brown, a widow with three children.

Between 1932 and 1936 Marshall received promotion to colonel, commanded army posts in Georgia and South Carolina, worked closely with the newly established Civilian Conservation Corps, and was senior instructor to the Illinois National Guard in Chicago. In 1936 he finally received promotion to brigadier general and was given command of the Fifth Infantry Brigade at Vancouver Barracks in the state of Washington. In all of these positions he continued to exhibit exceptional managerial competency and skill with civilians. In 1938 he was recalled to Washington, D.C., to head the War Plans Division of the Army general staff. Within a few months he was promoted to deputy chief of staff, and in April 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt selected him to succeed General Malin Craig as chief of staff. The selection was a surprise to many in light of Marshall’s relative lack of seniority and recent outspokenness with the president. (Marshall believed that Roosevelt’s desire to focus rearmament on aircraft production was an unbalanced and unwise approach, and said so.) In addition, there was the marked contrast between Marshall’s very formal and FDR’s informal manner. However, Marshall had been strongly supported by Pershing and had impressed presidential adviser Harry Hopkins as well as Roosevelt himself.

Marshall officially assumed his responsibilities and was promoted to permanent major general and temporary full general on 1 September 1939, the same day Germany invaded Poland to begin World War II. His next two years were dominated by efforts to convince both the president and Congress of the threat this conflict posed to the United States and the subsequent need to create a large and balanced armed force. The efforts with Congress were successful, especially after the German conquest of France in the spring of 1940. Marshall quickly developed a reputation for honesty as well as competence, with numerous congressmen willing to give him what they would not give the president. Their passage of the first peacetime draft and billion-dollar defense bills during the spring and summer of 1940 provided Marshall with the resources he desired, and by late 1941 his army had expanded from its 1939 level of fewer than 175,000 to 1.4 million men. By that time his staff was planning further expansion to more than 8 million for service in Europe should the nation officially enter the war.

Working closely with the chief of naval operations, Admiral Harold R. Stark, Marshall also won presidential approval in 1941 for a “Europe first” strategy in conjunction with Great Britain should the United States find itself at war with Japan as well as Germany; secret staff conversations that year resulted in Anglo-American agreement to concentrate initially on defeating Germany. Throughout 1940–1941, however, Marshall also struggled, often unsuccessfully, to halt Roosevelt’s proclivity to overcommitment. Particularly noteworthy and frustrating were disagreements over how aggressively to oppose Japan in the Pacific and whether scarce supplies should be allocated to the army or to potential allies under lend-lease.

After Pearl Harbor Marshall’s sphere of activity expanded enormously. So did his accomplishments and stature. He reorganized the War Department in early 1942 and soon became the leading figure in the newly formed U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff organizations. He also attended all ten Anglo-American and three Anglo-Soviet-American summit conferences during the war and gradually emerged as Roosevelt’s key military adviser. Marshall played a major role in the critical decision taken soon after Pearl Harbor to apply the principle of unity of command to all British and American ground, naval, and air forces and in developing and promoting the U.S. strategic plan for decisive cross-Channel operations in northern France rather than Mediterranean operations as British Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and his military advisers preferred. Marshall was defeated in this Anglo-American debate in 1942, and as a result Allied forces invaded French North Africa in November of that year and Sicily and Italy in 1943. He did succeed in winning British support for a 1944 cross-Channel assault, however, which culminated in the decisive Normandy campaign of that year.

Although many had assumed Marshall would himself command this operation, by late 1943 he had become irreplaceable to Roosevelt not only as army chief but also as his most effective spokesman with Congress, unofficial leader of the Joint Chiefs, “first among equals” within the Combined Chiefs, and one of the president’s closest and most trusted advisers. Roosevelt was nevertheless willing to give Marshall the command if the chief of staff requested it, but as a matter of principle Marshall refused to do so. Consequently the president selected Marshall’s protégé, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had commanded Anglo-American forces in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, on the grounds that he “could not sleep at ease” with Marshall out of Washington. This exercise in self-denial only added to the Marshall legend, and in 1944 Congress awarded him a fifth star and the title General of the Army. In that same year Time magazine selected him its “Man of the Year” and labeled him “the closest thing to ‘the indispensable man’ ” (3 Jan. 1944, p. 18). To Churchill he was by war’s end the “true ‘organizer of victory,’ ” and to President Harry S. Truman he was “the greatest military man that this country has ever produced.”

Rather than allow him to retire after victory, Truman in November 1945 asked Marshall to become special presidential emissary to China in an attempt to avert civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists. Marshall’s prestige and diplomatic ability led to some success at first, but in late 1946 his mediation effort collapsed. The task was probably impossible under any circumstances, but the U.S. policy of trying to play impartial mediator while simultaneously providing the Nationalists with military supplies only compounded the difficulties.

Marshall’s failure in China did not diminish his prestige. Facing a hostile Republican Congress as postwar relations with the Soviet Union rapidly deteriorated, Truman recalled Marshall from China and nominated him to become secretary of state in early 1947. Marshall was approved by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee with no hearings and no opposition and by the full Senate on the same day. For the next two years he presided over one of the most important, creative, and controversial periods in the history of both the State Department and U.S. foreign policy.

That period witnessed the full emergence of the Cold War and the acceptance by the United States of a major role in international affairs. Marshall’s key responsibilities were to help define the U.S. role, win public support for it, and restructure the State Department to implement it. He managed to accomplish all of these tasks during his two-year tenure while simultaneously attending numerous international conferences, including two long sessions of the Council of Foreign Ministers and one of the United Nations General Assembly in Europe as well as two inter-American conferences in South America, which culminated in the Rio Pact and the Organization of American States in 1947–1948.

Marshall was assisted in the State Department by an extraordinary group of subordinates, most notably Dean G. Acheson, who would succeed him as secretary of state, and George F. Kennan, whom he appointed to head the new Policy Planning Staff. The main problem, they all agreed, was European hunger and despair, not a Soviet Union that would merely take advantage of the situation. Soviet expansion did need to be “contained,” as Kennan would publicly argue, but the main U.S. weapon in this containment should be economic assistance to check the Soviets by alleviating Europe’s deeper problems. At Harvard University on 5 June 1947, Marshall invited the European nations to coordinate their efforts and request such assistance from the United States. That request, eventually amounting to more than $13 billion, passed Congress after an extensive and successful campaign by Marshall to win public and Republican support. Officially entitled the European Recovery Program and commonly known as the Marshall Plan, it succeeded in helping to economically revive and integrate the nations of Western Europe, including the western occupation zones of Germany.

The Marshall Plan also helped to solidify the growing East-West split on the European continent, however, and to bring the Soviet-American confrontation to the brink of war—most notably after the 1948 Communist coup in Czechoslovakia and Soviet blockade of the western sections of Berlin. The American responses included not only the successful Berlin airlift but also U.S. membership in a formal alliance with Canada and Western Europe—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Plans also proceeded for the creation of a Federal Republic in the western zones of Germany. Marshall played major roles in the initiation, congressional approval, and implementation of all these dramatic policies for Europe, even though many did not reach fruition until after he left office.

Marshall and his subordinates were less successful in other parts of the world, particularly in the Middle East, where they opposed the creation of Israel as counterproductive to U.S. interests, and in China, where they opposed continued aid to the corrupt and ineffective Nationalists. Domestic politics precluded presidential agreement to such policy recommendations, however. Marshall was thus overruled by the president on Israel and forced to support continued funding of the Nationalist Chinese in order to win Republican support for the European Recovery Program. He managed to keep such financial support limited, however, and to continue to focus on a Europe-first policy in the Cold War.

In late 1948 and early 1949 Marshall underwent major surgery to remove a kidney and resigned as secretary of state. After his recovery he agreed to head the American Red Cross, but the outbreak of war in Korea in 1950 led Truman to call him out of his semiretirement and nominate him to be secretary of defense. By this time the anticommunist hysteria known as McCarthyism had already begun, and although Marshall was confirmed in September, he was clearly a target because of his ties to the Roosevelt and Truman administrations as well as his policies throughout the 1940s, particularly his opposition to continued funding of the Nationalist Chinese. The hysterical charges against him increased substantially when in late 1950 the Communist Chinese successfully counterattacked against the advancing U.S. forces in Korea, and the administration decided to pursue a limited war strategy focused only on returning to the thirty-eighth parallel. In 1951 Marshall recommended and publicly defended before Congress the removal of Far Eastern commander General Douglas MacArthur for the insubordination of refusing to accept this policy. After the storm of controversy had receded, he announced his resignation in September 1951. The first professional soldier to be so honored, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his European Recovery Program. He spent his remaining years in long-desired retirement at his homes in Leesburg, Virginia, and Pinehurst, North Carolina, until a series of strokes required his hospitalization in 1959 at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, where he died. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

Despite the political attacks during the McCarthy era, Marshall’s reputation has both survived and grown in the years since his death. He is considered the architect and organizer of the Allied victory during World War II and of U.S. policies during the early years of the Cold War. In addition to his accomplishments as World War II army chief of staff, Cold War secretary of state, and Korean War secretary of defense, Marshall was recognized as one of the foremost defenders of civilian control of the military and a key definer of the proper role for the military in a democratic society. Throughout his career he also exhibited extraordinary personal integrity. As a result he became the model of the selfless public servant, the greatest soldier-statesman since George Washington.


The voluminous papers and taped reminiscences of Marshall and many of his associates are housed in the George C. Marshall Research Library and Museum adjoining the Virginia Military Institute campus in Lexington, Va. Three volumes of these papers have been published under the editorship of Larry I. Bland as The Papers of George Catlett Marshall (1981–1991). Many of Marshall’s official papers can also be found in the regular chronological and the World War II special conference volumes of the State Department’s Foreign Relations series. The full China mission report has been published as Marshall’s Mission to China (2 vols., 1976).

Despite numerous lucrative offers, Marshall refused to publish any memoirs after his retirement and even attempted to destroy all copies of a manuscript he had written after World War I. Those efforts were unsuccessful, however, and a copy of the manuscript was found and published many years after his death as Memoirs of My Services in the World War, 1917–1918 (1976). Marshall is also the focal point of memoirs by his second wife, Katherine Tupper Marshall, Together: Annals of an Army Wife (1946), and by his goddaughter, Rose Page Wilson, General Marshall Remembered (1968). In 1956–1957 Marshall did agree to a series of oral history interviews with his official biographer. Twenty-five years later these were published as Bland, ed., George C. Marshall: Interviews and Reminiscences for Forrest C. Pogue (1991).

Marshall’s papers and tapes provided much of the raw material for Forrest C. Pogue’s authorized biography, George C. Marshall (4 vols., 1963–1987). This is clearly the best and most comprehensive study available, and it supersedes all earlier biographies—most of which dealt only with portions of Marshall’s life and only superficially. Two brief but complete biographies have been published since the appearance of Pogue’s final volume: Edward Cray, General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman (1990), and Mark A. Stoler, George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century (1989). See also the dual biography by Thomas Parrish, Roosevelt and Marshall: Partners in Politics and War (1989). An obituary is in the New York Times, 17 Oct. 1959.