A Brief History
On September 1, 1939, US Army General George C. Marshall, Jr. was appointed as the Chief of Staff of the United States Army. Marshall would go on to lead the American military effort through World War II and later be appointed General of the Army, a 5 star rank created so that the United States military would have general officers equivalent to the European Allies’ Field Marshal rank. (It would not do to have a lesser rank American in charge of Allied Field Marshals.)
George Marshall was a highly competent officer and not one prone to self-aggrandizement along the lines of Douglas MacArthur (also appointed to 5 star rank) or British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery. In fact, he begged the civilian government not to appoint him as a Field Marshal, as he did not want to be “Marshal Marshall!” (Is this tale apocryphal or was it real?)
Unlike most of America’s highest ranking Army officers, Marshal was not a product of West Point, but a graduate (1901) of the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). He started out as an infantry officer in 1902, one of the 2 major fields of ground combat at that time. (Infantry and artillery, called the “Queen” and “King” of Battle, respectively, as there was not yet an armored, mechanized, or airmobile force. Apologies to the cavalry.) Marshall got war experience during the Philippine American War (officially 1899-1902, but in reality lasting several more years) and during World War I gained valuable experience as a staff officer and operations planner, showing great aptitude for military planning. As early as 1913, Marshall was described by his commanding officer as “a military genius” in a fitness report.
During World War II Marshall led the US Army from Washington, D.C., a gigantic effort that combined the US Navy and Marine Corps, the Coast Guard, the National Guard and Reserves as well as the Army Air Force, all while balancing the delicate egos of his own high ranking officers and civilian bosses against the similar touchy feelings of Allied military and civilian leaders. Marshall demonstrated enormous talent for achieving success despite raw nerves, differences of opinion and conflicting agendas. Marshall was named by Time Magazine as their “Man of the Year” in 1943, an acknowledgment of the job he was tasked with. Although he “retired” in 1945 following the end of World War II, he technically had to stay on “active duty,” as his 5 star rank required a lifetime commitment to service. In 1947, Marshall was again named as Time Magazine’s “Man of the Year.”
After the War, Marshall was appointed as a special envoy to China during the tumultuous time when the Chinese communists led by Mao Zedong fought the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek for control of the most populous country in the world. Marshall was unable to gain an accord between the 2 competing Chinese sides, probably an impossible mission anyway, and so Marshall made his mark on history above and beyond his great military career as a diplomat of extraordinary magnitude while serving as US Secretary of State from 1947 to 1949. It was then that he authored the plan that bears his name (the Marshall Plan), a way to rebuild Europe from the ashes of World War II into a strong and vibrant land of economic and social success in the face of the communist threat from the Soviet Union. Europe as a free and democratic land of modern economic success owes its current status largely to the brilliant plan authored by George Marshall. In fact, Marshall is one of if not the most influential person in history for shaping the Western World into what it is today. Starting in 1948, the Marshall Plan was a 4 year program that cost $15 billion, then a massive sum, that rebuilt European cities, infrastructure, and economies. Modern Europe is a fantastic legacy of this great man.
Marshall did not stop serving the public once he stepped down as Secretary of State. He also served as President of the Red Cross from October of 1949 until December of 1950, overlapping his tenure (1950-1951) as the appointed US Secretary of Defense, a post that required a special waiver from Congress as the position was not supposed to go to a military officer. As Secretary of Defense during the Korean War, Marshall was part of the group of advisers to President Truman that reluctantly recommended the firing of General Douglas MacArthur for insubordination. A few months later, in September of 1951, Marshall finally retired from government service.
In 1953, the world recognized the enormous contribution Marshall had made to mankind by honoring him with the 1953 Nobel Prize for Peace, the only career US military officer ever to earn such an award. Around six years later, Marshall died at the age of 78 in 1959, humble even in death, as he had refused an “Official Funeral” and opted instead for the less ostentatious “Special Military Funeral” instead. National flags were flown at half mast, and Marshall was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
George C. Marshall remains an American and World hero and should always be remembered for his incredible contributions to the welfare of people across the globe. We salute you, General Marshall, or should we say, Secretary Marshall? Question for students (and subscribers): Who do you believe was the greatest US general or admiral of World War II? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Gray, Ed. General of the Army: George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman. Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Mosely, Leonard. Marshall: Hero for Our Times. Hearst Books, 1982.
Roll, David. George Marshall: Defender of the Republic. Dutton Caliber, 2019.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Berlin-George of a medallion issued in 1982 to honor George Marshall’s post-war work for Europe, is in the public domain, because it was published in the United States between 1978 and March 1, 1989 without a copyright notice, and its copyright was not subsequently registered with the U.S. Copyright Office within 5 years.