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book review -- George Marshall: Defender of the Republic

In an age of political cynicism, name calling, and deep political division (where political opponents are routinely demonized), it's reassuring to read a book about a leader of integrity and basic human decency.  The leader is five-star general George Marshall, the supreme allied commander of World War II, architect of the Marshall Plan that spurred Europe's miraculous post-war economic recovery, and a leading voice in the creation of NATO.  The book is "George Marshall: Defender of the Republic", by Washington lawyer David L. Roll.  At 605 pages, reading it is no stroll in the park, but requires commitment and dedication.  Nonetheless, the experience is richly rewarding, and well-worth the effort.

In his time, Marshall won the trust of Republicans and Democrats alike, unionists and business leaders, isolationists and internationalists, by forthright talk and the assumption that all sides acted in good faith (and in the best interest of their country).

Asked about his party affiliation, Marshall invariably said, "Episcopalian."

George Marshall (1888-1959) lived by a moral code that emphasized self-control, perseverance, truth, honor, duty and a deep desire to serve his country.  On top of that, he was humble man.  The instructions he left for his funeral reflect this: "Bury me simply, like any ordinary officer of the U.S. Army who has served his country honorably.  No fuss. . . . And above all, do it quietly."

Marshall had a gift for spotting talent--including Dwight Eisenhower, Omar Bradley, and George Patton.  He spoke about how improvements in education and the spread of democracy would lead to peace.  He also said that America has a built-in "advantage in the quest for peace."  What was this advantage?  Immigration.

"Immigrants," he said, "now constitutes an organic portion of our population."  As a consequence, he argued, Americans have acquired a "concern for the problems of other peoples," a "deep urge to help the oppressed," and a "readiness to cooperate" with other nations in preserving peace. This cooperative attitude, he declared, "is one of the great and hopeful factors in the world today."

Curiously, Marshall's father did not expect much from his son, whose school grades were mediocre.  When young George expressed interest in attending VMI (Virginia Military Institute), his older brother was strongly against it. "He will embarrass the family," he said.  In fact, the experience brought out the best in young George Marshall, and taught him how to control his explosive temper.  About his VMI experience, Marshall told an interviewer in 1957, it "ground into (me) self-control" and "discipline," and "loyalty," especially to his superior officers.  According to the author: "Marshall (as a cadet leader) willed himself to exercise, or appear to exercise, authority without causing resentment, and he came to know when to confer a compliment, when to discipline with a few carefully chosen words, and when to be silent."

The VMI experience fostered his interest in making military life a career choice.  In 1901, two months before he was to graduate from VMI and eight months shy of his twenty-first birthday, the Pittsburgh-native made a bold move to seize control of his future.  Armed with letters of recommendation from the superintendent of VMI, and a Republican close to the president, Marshall boarded a train to Washington D.C., where he lobbied Attorney General Philander Knox, his father's acquaintance from nearby Brownsville, Pennsylvania, and scored an interview with John A. T. Hull, chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee.  Then, without an appointment, Marshall simply strolled into the White House, joined a procession upstairs, and eventually found himself alone with the president of the United States, William McKinley.

"Mr. McKinley in a very nice manner asked what I wanted," recalled Marshall, "and I stated my case."  Several days later, Marshall's name appeared on the Secretary of War's list, of Pennsylvania candidates selected to sit for a competitive examination that was required in order to receive a commission.

Marshall sat for a three-day examination in late September at Governors Island in New York Harbor.  Despite poor performances in math and grammar, he received one of the highest average scores, including perfect marks for physics, moral character, and "antecedents," (distinguished relatives, notably former Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall).  His commission was delayed until after the age of twenty-one.

Instead of the Artillery Corps--his first choice--he was assigned to the infantry.  Second Lieutenant Marshall shipped out of San Francisco aboard an army transport to join the 30th Infantry in the Philippines.  Marshall's ascent to power and military prominence began about a decade later.  By then he was a thirty-one-year-old First Lieutenant, in charge of nearly five thousand U.S. Army soldiers.  His first task was to prepare his force against a possible invasion of the Philippines by Japan.  The exercise he was assigned was a mock attack designed to test Marshall's ability to maneuver infantry, calvary, field artillery, signal corps, Filipino scouts, field kitchens, surgical tents, wagons and hundreds of pack animals through jungle terrain, and over mountain passes.  Over eight days and nights, Marshall's invading "White Force" outwitted the enemy "Brown Force" and captured successive objectives on the road to Manila.  Marshall proved himself so well, that word began to spread throughout the officer ranks that Marshall was a military genius, one of the most promising future wartime leaders in the army.  One superior officer wrote in Marshall's efficiency report that he was the best leader of large bodies of troops in the entire American army.  His reputation would soon be tested on the killing fields of Belgium and France in what would be known as World War I.


In early 1918, Marshall was promoted to lieutenant colonel and placed in charge of the 1st Infantry Division (a.k.a. "The Big Red One").  American forces had just arrived in Europe, and Marshall's 1st Infantry Division was scheduled to become one of the first U.S. Army divisions to be engaged in battle. Up to this point, French and British forces had suffered heavy casualties in a losing cause.  Marshall's commanding officer (and soon to be mentor) was Army Chief of Staff General John Joseph Pershing, who advised him the world was watching and that he better not fail.  In order to study the battlefield up close, Marshall risked being captured by venturing out alone at night.  Having achieved mastery of the terrain, he led his first command into battle.  After several days of intense fighting "The Big Red One" prevailed in what was the Battle of Cantigny.

Marshall's next assignment involved several army divisions and far more planning and coordinating on his part.  This was the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, that stretched along the entire Western Front and involved 1.2 million American soldiers.  It was destined to be the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I with an outcome so decisive that it brought the war to an end.

Having served with distinction under General Pershing, Marshall was now recognized as a great military leader in waiting, should another war break out. Marshall learned a great deal from serving under Pershing. He never forgot how under pressure the great General always "radiated determination and the will to win."  It wasn't so much what General Pershing said that impressed Marshall, but rather how his manner and expression fired up officers and the infantry.  He also learned that the qualities to look for in promoting officers were common sense, physical strength, marked energy, determination, and cheerful optimism.  Marshall also learned to value character over intellect, conservatism over flamboyance, and the loyal team player over the adventurous individualist.  He avoided yes-men and conformists, preferring those who, like Pershing and himself, were unafraid to express dissent and were open to criticism without taking offense.

Marshall's military education continued with a three-year stint in China.  The experience would prove helpful later.  In China, he saw enough to gain an understanding of the complex problems posed by the sheer enormity of the country, and the bitter hatred that seethed in the hearts of the people.  There was no way, he believed, that Western military power, or diplomatic efforts for that matter, could control the deep divisions and murderous politics of the parties vying for Chinese dominance.


Having returned from China, he sought and was granted a teaching position at Fort Benning, Georgia.  Marshall's four-and-a-half years of running the Infantry School at Benning proved remarkably advantageous to the future of the U.S. Army: 50 of his instructors and 150 of his students were destined to become generals in World War II.  Marshall regarded his hand-picked instructors as "the most brilliant, interesting and thoroughly competent collection of men I have ever been associated with."  Among them were: Major Omar Bradley, in charge of weapons instruction.  Bradley was soon to be revered as the "GI's General" and would go on to command an army corps in France after the Normandy invasion; Lieutenant Colonel "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell whom Marshall met in China, and brought back to head tactical instructors, and who would command troops in the China-Burma-India theater; Captain "Lightning Joe" J. Lawton Collins, who would earn his nickname at Guadalcanal, and become a corps commander in Europe; and Walter Bedell "Beetle" Smith, who would serve as Eisenhower's chief of staff and eventually as ambassador to the Soviet Union, and be number two to Allen Dulles at the CIA.  Marshall's students included future combat generals such as Matthew Ridgeway, Norman Cota, James Van Fleet, Courtney Hodges, Jacob Devers, and Terry de la Mesa Allen.  These strong-willed soldiers, as well as dozens of others, were all products of the so-called "Benning Revolution," and would become known as "Marshall's men," the backbone of the U.S. Army in World War II.

By 1938, Marshal was himself a brigadier (one star) general, monitoring the winds of war then gathering in Europe, and in constant touch with the White House, warning the president (and Congress) of the woeful state of the depleted U.S. military forces, and recommending that the best defense was to begin building fighter planes and bombers--lots of them--and to lend, lease, or sell them to U.S. allies who were in desperate need of them: Great Britain and Russia were the neediest; both nations were caught out in battles with attacking Germany forces and fighting for their very existence.


The problem was not with getting Congress to foot the bill, but rather with their constituents back home, who were hopeless isolationists.  Convincing them was the Army's biggest hurdle, which Marshall did with a series of radio addresses.  However, Japan's surprise attack on Pearl Harbor went a long way in changing that attitude.  Not long after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler declared war on the United States.  Ready or not, World War II had begun.  The nation needed time to gear up, but at least the country had a leader primed to direct operations. On the morning Hitler's panzers crossed the Polish frontier, Marshall replaced his mentor as Army Chief-of-Staff, and was made a two-star general.  His first task: turning raw recruits into well-trained soldiers, and to equip an army for combat on three fronts--in Europe, in the Pacific, and in the Mediterranean.

Over much of 1940, while the nation switched gears from a peace-time economy to war-time economy, the question was debated among the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff, as to which invasion should come first--Europe or the Mediterranean?  General Douglas MacArthur was already assigned to the Pacific Theater where, since Pearl Harbor, the need was immediately felt.  Marshall strongly advocated invading Europe first, thus making Hitler fight a war on two fronts--the Russian Army in the East, and the U.S. Army in the West.  However, England favored sending the U.S. Army first to the Mediterranean, where British forces had their hands full up against Rommel's tanks.  Their idea was to defeat Rommel first, then to invade Europe from Italy, and proceed north into France.  For his part, Marshall wanted to begin with an invasion of France.  Besides, American forces were already in North Africa assisting Montgomery in their tank warfare with the Germans, while an invading force in England was massed and awaiting orders to cross the English Chanel.  However, getting Winston Churchill to stick with Marshall's plan wasn't easy.  Every time Churchill would give the green light and a date would be set, a month or two later, he would change his mind.  Part of the problem was the close friendship that had developed between Roosevelt and Churchill. Churchill had Roosevelt's ear, and without FDR's total support, planning an invasion was proving futile.  Finally, after two years of inaction, a date was set and adhered to--June 4, 1944.

The only question remaining was who would lead the invasion?  Marshall was the obvious first choice.  At the last moment, FDR surprised everyone by selecting Dwight Eisenhower instead.  As FDR saw it, Marshall's talents were too valuable to limit to one theater of war.  "I didn't feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington," he confided to Marshall.

Eisenhower was more than up for the task.  The invasion was risky, and required several months of planning, and ultimately was costly in lives lost, but with ample air support the invasion succeeded.  At long last the allies had established a foothold in France, and from the west could begin their assault on Hitler's army.

Six months later, with victory by no means assured, the Allies were faced with a battle that would decide the war.  It began on December 16, 1944--the very day Marshall was made a five-star general.  That day Hitler gave the order for a quarter-million men, and more than a thousand tanks and assault guns, to attack the Americans along their eighty-mile front in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium.  The engagement became known as the Battle of the Bulge.  Eisenhower, Patton and Bradley had been caught by surprise, and Marshall, with no choice but to endure a nerve-splitting two weeks, had to resist the temptation to interfere.  With poor weather precluding air support, and the outcome of the Battle of the Bulge in grave doubt, Marshall broke his silence just once to assure Eisenhower that he had complete confidence in his handling of his forces, and to offer further ground forces should they be needed. By Christmas Day, the weather cleared and the Allies were finally able to provide air support to troops on the ground.  General Patton commanded a formidable mass of tanks and guns, but didn't gain the upper hand until, inexplicably, Hitler's mechanized force ran out of gasoline.  After that it was on to Berlin and nothing held back.  With Russian forces approaching from the East, the war in Europe soon ended, with Germany's surrender.

That left the fighting in the Pacific.  By 1944, Japan had all but lost the war, but refused to surrender.  What to do next was debated by Marshall and the Joint Chiefs.  Invade, or drop the newly-developed atomic bomb?  When FDR died unexpectedly, the decision fell to his successor--Harry Truman. Marshall and the Joint Chiefs considered several options, and then advised the president.  American troops would pay a heavy price if ordered to invade the island-nation, an estimated 193,500 casualties was the estimated number; but in the end, there was no guarantee Japan would surrender. That information pretty much helped Truman make up his mind to drop the bomb.

It was thought that two bombs would convince the Japanese that their situation was hopeless, and they would surrender: the first to demonstrate the bomb's awesome destructive power, the second to prove that there was more than one, and at least to suggest the U.S. had produced and could explode many more.  The strategy was as destructive as it was deadly, but it worked.  On August 15, 1945 Japan surrendered unconditionally, thus putting an end to World War II.

War-weary George Marshall resigned as Army Chief-of-Staff, two weeks before General MacArthur formally accepted the Japanese surrender aboard the battleship Missouri in Tokyo Bay.   Eisenhower would replace Marshall as Army Chief-of-Staff.

Marshall barely had time to rest.  Within two weeks he was sent back to China, this time as ambassador, in the hope he could mediate a truce between Mao Zedong's Chinese Communist Army, and Chiang Kai-Shek's Chinese Nationalists forces.  He failed and after one year returned home.  The political divisions were too deep, and the influence of Stalin in nearby Russia too great, for even a man of Marshall's legendary persuasive powers to overcome.


He returned home to find Stalin's influence now dominated Europe, where the Russian leader had erected what Churchill called an "Iron Curtain," a non-physical barrier that divided Europe and, in the form of a brick wall, divided the city of Berlin.  Soon after his return Marshall, was appointed as Truman's Secretary of State.  As Secretary of State, he championed the European Recovery Plan (which he refused to refer to by its popular name, the Marshall Plan), and weathered the Berlin Blockade, with an airlift that ensured West Berliners had enough food and gasoline to survive.


Meanwhile trouble was brewing on the Korean Peninsula, where the communists were battling the nationalists for supremacy.  Marshall supported MacArthur's bold plan to retake the Peninsula, and, in turn, supported Truman when it came time to fire the popular general for insubordination.

  Marshall's final effort was to put his support behind the decades-old plan to create an Israeli homeland for European Jews.

In the epilogue, the author concludes:  "Few individuals have thrown a larger shadow over world events than George Marshall.  Yet, as his shadow wanes, the depth of his moral character endures.  It has been said that 'If you want to test a man's character, give him power.'  By quieting his shortcomings George Marshall surely passed the test."

Finally, this: Harvard president James Conant once proclaimed that George Marshall was the only soldier-statesman in American history, who was worthy of being compared favorably with George Washington.

- END -

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