A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, April 2, 2010

Mark Perry on George C. Marshall and Israel; Me on George C. Marshall and Everything

Mark Perry, who raised some hackles with his earlier comments on General Petraeus' comments about Israel, reminds us of George Marshall's controversial positions in 1947-48. I commend it to you. Those familiar with the story of Israeli independence will already be aware of the role of Marshall, and also of the fact that, when his friends suggested he should resign since he'd been overruled by Harry Truman on recognizing Israel, responded to the effect that the Secretary of State (as he then was) was a member of the Cabinet and, just because the President he was appointed to advise and who was Constitutionally authorized to make decisions made one, was no reason for resignation. Read Perry, and then tolerate my ranting a moment about George C. Marshall, who deserves more fame than he currently enjoys. (On Marshall's approach to controversial decisions, I recall reading somewhere — which I can't just now document — that Marshall's basic attitude towards making decisions was that he didn't worry about what others (including FDR) thought about his decisions because he was immune to criticism from anyone except Mrs. Marshall. Good advice for all leaders I think (and, of course, all married men and women).

George C. Marshall was probably more responsible for the American victory in World War II than any other man. Everyone who knew him or worked with him — read the memoirs of Truman, Eisenhower, Churchill (who, despite fundamental disagreements over strategy, called him "the noblest Roman of them all") and many recorded remarks of FDR — saw him as an enormous figure (I can add that even de Gaulle said nice things about him); and sadly, he is hardly known today, except for the Marshall Plan, and probably not that many Americans-in-the-street could even define that, or tell you who it's named for. Yet some have compared him to George Washington for his quiet leadership in peace and war (he was both Secretary of Defense and Secretary of State, and is the only American general to win the Nobel Peace Prize: perhaps the only General who wasn't in UN peacekeeping service). His five-star rank was conferred before any others, though MacArthur and Eisenhower received theirs a few days later in 1944.

He's got a few memorials here and there: at West Point, where he's buried; at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), where there is a museum and institute and his papers; and his retirement farm in Leesburg, VA is now open to the public. But when I went there a few months ago, there were few people on the tour younger than 60, though my daughter was there and I made sure to try to help her understand who he was.

Why is Marshall so anonymous today, when half the people in World War II (the half on the winning side) gave him full credit for organizing the victory (to paraphrase the title of a volume of Forrest Pogue's authorized biography: "Organizer of Victory")? (It's often said by military men that "Amateurs talk about strategy; professionals talk about logistics." George Marshall spoke both languages fluently, and that was part of his genius.)

When FDR was headed to the Cairo Conference he met with Eisenhower in North Africa. At the time the general plan was for Ike to return to the US to replace Marshall as Chief of Staff, and Marshall to go to Europe to lead the great invasion of the continent on D-Day. Roosevelt famously told Ike: "Ike, you and I know who was Chief of Staff during the last years of the Civil War [Henry Halleck] but practically no one else knows [anyone but Grant and Sherman] … I hate to think that fifty years from now practically nobody will know who George Marshall was. That is one of the reasons I want George to have the big command — he is entitled to establish his place in history as a great general." But in the end, FDR could not face losing Marshall in Washington. Marshall, always the quintessential soldier, saluted, and Eisenhower led D-Day and got to be President for eight years.

After World War II was won, Marshall stepped down as Chief of Staff. He had barely returned to his farm when the phone rang, his wife answered, and Harry Truman was on the line. She said something like "you're going to take him from me again" or words to that effect. Truman sent Marshall to China. Marshall presided over the collapse of the Nationalist Chinese, and as a result this quiet patriot was accused of having "lost" China, which was never his to lose. He became Secretary of State. The McCarthyites attacked Marshall viciously, and his long patronage of his protege Eisenhower soured a bit when Ike, running for President in 1952, did not denounce the attacks on his mentor, who at the beginning of the war had promoted Ike over many senior officers. Eisenhower defended him profusely in private, but his reticence in public still rankles some who served in that generation.

I've wandered a long way from Mark Perry's point, but it's given me a platform to remind people who George Catlett Marshall was. He was one of our greatest soldiers, but also one of our greatest statesmen. The Marshall Plan was one of the most beneficent acts of any major power. You will often see a quote attributed to Churchill about the Marshall Plan: that it "must be regarded without question as the most unsordid act in the whole of recorded history." Powerful words, and due praise no doubt, but unfortunately Churchill, who did praise the Marshall Plan, actually used that phrase some years earlier about Lend-Lease. But "unsordid," if it is a word (and if Churchill used it, how can it not be?) is a good descriptor of George C. Marshall as well.

We can discuss some other time who the greatest American generals have been. (And how you count them: do Confederates count? Robert E. Lee? Stonewall Jackson? Does Tecumseh? Does Crazy Horse?) But that's an argument for another day and, perhaps, a separate blog. Marshall's role at the time of the creation of Israel is worth remembering, however. But his real importance remains the often neglected fact that we probably could not have won World War II without him. He had his critics (Joe McCarthy and his allies) and his fans who called him the greatest of the great (Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Charles de Gaulle). You figure out which fan club you'd prefer if you were he.


Mark said...

A fine, fine column on George Marshall. The anecdote that the writer seeks came during a meeting that Marshall had with Roosevelt when Marshall was Vice Chief of Staff. Roosevelt made a point and asked Marshall, suddenly and by surprise, whether he agreed. Marshall said: "No Mr. President, I do not." After the meeting people came to Marshall to express their view that he would soon be out of a job. Roosevelt thought otherwise: "he's just the man we need," he told an aide.

I think of the great Generals -- or military officers -- and rank them thus (it's an interesting exercise):

Ulysses S. Grant
George Washington
George Marshall
Dwight Eisenhower
Chester Nimitz
Douglas MacArthur (study Operation Cartwheel and you'll see why)
Curtis LeMay
Robert E. Lee (Gettysburg was an embarrassing hash)
John Pershing
James Longstreet

Grant was the best -- he invented the American way of war.

Michael Collins Dunn said...


Well, I figured I wouldn't go down that road since it wasn't Mideast related, but since you've posted your list ...

From the Civil War, I'd add Stonewall Jackson (mostly for the Valley Campaign and Chancellorsville)and possibly Sherman and/or Sheridan. From the Revolution I'd add Nathanael Greene, and at least raise an argument for Benedict Arnold if you ignore his subsequent treason.

Since the US is a maritime power it seems odd you have only one admiral, Nimitz, but I can't confidently suggest anybody else. John Paul Jones never had flag rank, and since my Dad was in the first wave ashore on Leyte, I have some problems with Halsey at Leyte Gulf.

For the same reason it seems there should be some AF generals other than LeMay, but Hap Arnold wasn't a combat general, and I can't really propose anybody else as making the short list. (I know some people would argue with LeMay because of his politics, but his generalship is indisputable. And you're right about MacArthur and Cartwheel, though my Dad, were he still around, would disagree: he was no fan of his onetime commander. I'd also say that Inchon was utterly brilliant, even though the whole thing went sour pretty quickly.)

If any other commenters want to pile on, fine.

Anonymous said...

Mark Perry is a bald faced liar. I'm amazed that you take him seriously at all.

Michael Collins Dunn said...

Anonymous, if that IS your real name:

If you're going to call names, I wish you'd tell us yours. Though I've met Mark Perry, this post isn't about him, or even his views, it's about George Catlett Marshall. We've been very lucky to avoid a lot of flame wars in the comments here. I'd really hate to have to start censoring them. (The only comments I delete are spam irrelevant to the blog, but if the conversation gets too rough, I reserve the right to do so.

Let's keep it clean, here, everybody. Or I'll have to step in.

Anonymous said...

Sorry I didn't make myself clear.
I was refering to Mark Perry's article about Petreus. The article was refuted by Petreus himself.

One should take anything he writes with a grain of salt.
that's all.