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George Marshall, Defender of the Republic

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George Marshall


Although I have studied historical figures for nearly six decades, there are few people about whom I would say, “He or she is one of my heroes.”  On that very short list, George Marshall is prominent. It was with definite anticipation, then, that I began reading Roll’s George Marshall. His is the fourth major biography of Marshall written since his death in 1959.  In the same time period, about sixty years, a dozen biographies and many monographs have been written about Douglas MacArthur, born in the same year as Marshall.

Although the two were both five-star generals of the Army and commanding leaders, the comparisons dwindle beyond these dimensions.  MacArthur was brilliant, egotistical, controversial, ambitious, and a vainglorious self-promoter who ran for president three times, Marshall was understated, consciously a-political, austere, and while he was ambitious, his ambition was carefully circumscribed by his sense of duty to the Army and to the United States.  And while MacArthur hungered for a world stage, Marshall was thrust upon it first by being Chief of Staff of the Army and chief U.S. strategist during World War II and then by President Truman appointing him after the war as Secretary of State and then Secretary of Defense. He cast a large and long shadow on world events in the dozen years from 1939 to 1951. The shadow has faded, but his impact, integrity, and rarified sense of duty remain. If only more of our leaders followed his example rather than MacArthur’s.

Roll covers the major events of Marshall’s career with insight and clarity, occasionally adding a detail or expanding the narrative in some important way.  Overall, Roll’s attitude towards George Marshall, while not adorational, is mostly laudatory.  He acknowledges Marshall’s occasional failures, such as his ineffectual efforts to save Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist cause in China during the crucial period of 1945-47. Roll also analyzes the limitations of Marshall’s strategic judgment and suspicions about British motives but acknowledges that Marshall, FDR and Churchill had boundless mutual respect for one another.

Roll adroitly summarizes and presents the evidence for one of Marshall’s key strategic decisions of World War II.  That was the decision to limit the size of the American Army to 90 infantry divisions (not counting the five Marine divisions).  For purposes of comparison, that made the U.S. the fourth largest contributor of Army divisions during World War II, following the Soviet Union, Germany, and Japan respectively. Even though the U.S. population was about the same as the Soviet Union and much larger than either Germany or Japan, Marshall and others recognized that the U.S.’s principal contribution towards winning the war had to be producing guns, planes, tanks, clothing, aviation fuel and the other necessities of war for all of our allies.  Every Army division represented about 15,000-foot soldiers and 100,000 others in supporting roles.  Every additional Army division meant a reduction in the U.S. manufacturing capacity.  As Army Chief of Staff, Marshall fought successfully to hold the line at 90 divisions so that American industrial productivity would not be further restricted.

Was he a member of the Greatest Generation?  No, because there is no such thing as the Greatest Generation.  That’s a marketing jingle, a bumper sticker, a sound bite.  In any case, he turned 61 the year that the U.S. entered the war.  Most of the soldiers who fought in WWII were 40 years his junior, not of his generation, great or otherwise.  This quibble aside, If you want to understand what the wise, gray-haired old guys contributed to WWII, this biography is a good place to begin. It is also insightful about what made Marshall tick.   –  Neal Ferguson

Also available by David L. Roll: The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler; Louis Johnson and the Arming of America: The Roosevelt and Truman Years (with Keith D. McFarland).


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George Marshall

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