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Debate It: Meet the Man Who Won World War II

Debate It: Meet the Man Who Won World War II

Winston Churchill called Marshall the "organizer of victory."

Key point: Winston Churchill called Marshall the "organizer of victory."

Shortly after the infamous accord on September 29, the president instituted a series of White House meetings at which he and his military advisers discussed the ominous situation in Europe. One of the early formal sessions was attended by the Assistant Secretary of War, the Solicitor General, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Army and Air Corps Chiefs of Staff, and a tall, blue-eyed, and courtly brigadier general named George C. Marshall, who had recently been appointed the Army Deputy Chief of Staff and head of the War Plans Division.

An Army Smaller Than Portugal’s

FDR unveiled an ambitious program for building 10,000 military aircraft a year with no increase in supporting forces. As the proceedings drew to a close, the president summed up his plan and turned to Marshall, whom he scarcely knew. “Don’t you think so, George?” he asked. Marshall replied, “I am sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with that at all.” The general was painfully aware of the state of America’s defenses and knew that it would require much more than airplanes to rectify the situation. The U.S. Army, numbering only 174,000 men, was ranked 19th in the world, just behind that of tiny Portugal.

Roosevelt gave a startled look, and the outspoken Marshall received expressions of sympathy from the other conferees, who feared that his promising tour of duty in Washington was about to come to a swift end. But they underestimated both the president and the general, and stiff formalities were observed. FDR never again called Marshall “George” in public, and the general always called FDR “Mr. President.” He refused to succumb to the well-known Roosevelt charm and determined never to laugh at his jokes.

On April 23 (St. George’s Day), 1939, FDR made one of the most significant choices of his presidency. Vaulting over 34 names on the senior generals’ rank list, he asked Marshall to succeed retiring General Malin Craig as Army Chief of Staff. In a hasty ceremony at the old Munitions Building in the nation’s capital, Marshall took the oath of office on Friday, September 1, 1939, the day that Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. He was promoted automatically to four-star rank.

Revitalizing the Army: “A Fight for its Very Life”​

With Great Britain and France allied against Germany and the expansionist Japanese rampaging in China and threatening stability throughout the Far East, Marshall faced the possibility of both a global conflict and a mammoth task at home. The U.S. Army was a threat to no one. Its divisions were half under strength and scattered, it had no combat-ready units, and joint two-week maneuvers were conducted only every fourth year. “During the lean years,” he observed, “the Army’s fight for personnel was a fight for its very life.”

Enthusiasm and resources for a large army were lacking. Instead of 800 men, many infantry battalions could muster only 200, including clerks and cooks, and equipment was hopelessly obsolete and inadequate. Marshall was no interventionist, but it was his responsibility to prepare the Army for a modern war. Despite opposition from the Navy, the Air Corps, isolationists, Congress, and even the president, Marshall went to work with decisiveness and often drastic moves. He gave his best effort.

Reorganizing the Military Bureaucracy

Marshall set out early to reorganize the War Department, where the thinking and bureaucracy had advanced little since 1919. He sought to create “some kind of organization that would give the chief of staff time to devote to strategic policy and the strategic aspects and direction of the war.” There were too many people reporting to him, and too many forced to approve too many documents before the War Department shambled into action.

The major change was the elimination of the fiefdoms of the major generals commanding the infantry, cavalry, field artillery, and coast artillery, each of whom jealously guarded his service branch and personal prerogatives. Marshall was intent on creating a unified, efficient army rather than a loose collection of separate services. The reorganization was undertaken by a committee headed by blunt, ruthless Maj. Gen. Joseph T. McNarney, a former Air Corps pilot.

Efficiency was stressed, and the men immediately below Marshall were given increased authority. Instead of 60 officers having access to the chief of staff, the plan reduced the number to six. Nevertheless, Marshall often plumbed the lower ranks to hear from younger men with worthwhile ideas. The new Army was made up of three commands—the Ground Forces, led by the bantam, energetic Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair, Marshall’s longtime friend from World War I; the Services of Supply, under Lt. Gen. Brehon B. Somervell, a hard taskmaster; and the Army Air Forces, commanded by genial Lt. Gen. Henry H. Arnold. For his command post, Marshall reorganized the War Plans Division and renamed it the Operations Division.

Arnold had the authority to mold the Army Air Forces into an effective bombardment and pursuit force capable of challenging the powerful Luftwaffe, while Somervell was responsible for procurement, supply, support services, morale, and military justice. McNair had the job of turning loosely disciplined, unmotivated ground troops into a fighting army. Regarded by Marshall as “the brains of the Army,” McNair recognized the primacy of the foot soldier. “Our Army is no better than its infantry,” he pointed out, “and victory will come only when and as our infantry gains it. The price will be predominantly what the infantry pays.”

Working with the Executive Branch

While undertaking the massive reorganization, Marshall also found time to institute another reform in America’s military command structure. His plan to reorganize the Joint Chiefs of Staff proved to be one of his most enduring achievements.

Marshall worked closely with his immediate civilian superior, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and managed to cultivate a good relationship with Admiral Ernest J. King, the irascible Chief of Naval Operations, despite fierce Army-Navy rivalries. Marshall gained the cooperation of Congress and worked harmoniously with President Roosevelt, though in temperaments and habits they were oddly matched. After harboring doubts about him until the Pearl Harbor attack, the austere general came to trust and respect FDR for his intelligent, decisive leadership. “It took me a long time to get to him,” Marshall noted.

A Young Lieutenant George Calett Marshall

George Catlett Marshall was born in Uniontown, southeast of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on Friday, December 31, 1880, the youngest son of a stern, prosperous coalfield owner, Democrat, and Episcopal vestryman. Nicknamed “Flicker,” the gangling, red-haired boy became fascinated with local history, but his progress in school was indifferent. Sensitive and shy, he floundered in grammar, spelling, and mathematics and was an average student in everything but history. Benjamin Franklin and General Robert E. Lee were his early heroes.

Young George decided on a military career, and the Virginia Military Institute was the first choice because several Marshalls had attended the school. His grades remained unimpressive, but the young man mastered drill regulations and enjoyed exercising command. He grew into a model cadet and advanced from first sergeant to first captain. Meanwhile, he courted a 26-year-old woman who would become his wife—auburn-haired, shapely Elizabeth “Lily” Carter Coles of Lexington, Virginia. Graduating from VMI in late 1901, Marshall received his commission as a second lieutenant in January 1902 and was assigned to the 30th Infantry Regiment stationed in the Philippines. After a hasty marriage and brief honeymoon with Lily that February, George kissed her goodbye and headed for a remote, dismal Army post on Mindoro Island.

At the end of 1902, Lieutenant Marshall and his company were transferred to bustling Manila, where he borrowed cavalry mounts and took up riding, which would become his lifelong recreation.

Marshall was posted back to the United States in November 1903, and served at Fort Reno in the Oklahoma Territory. He was promoted to first lieutenant in 1907 and graduated that year from the Infantry and Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He graduated from the staff college there in 1908, and remained as an instructor until 1910.

America’s Premier Soldier

Flicker Marshall’s career got into gear when America entered World War I in April 1917. That July, he went to France as a staff and operations officer with Maj. Gen. William L. Sibert’s 1st Infantry Division. Marshall quickly showed a flair for staff work and leadership, and the experience prepared him for his considerable role in the later world war.

Promoted to temporary colonel in August 1918, Marshall moved up to the staff of the U.S. First Army. The following month, he accomplished a brilliant feat of staff work by overseeing the rapid night movement of 500,000 troops, 2,700 guns, and 40,000 tons of ammunition from St.-Mihiel to the Argonne Forest for the big Meuse-Argonne offensive. Marshall continued to move upward in the Army hierarchy, gaining recognition as a first-rate staff officer and trainer. He was appointed operations chief of the First Army in October 1918, chief of staff in the Eighth Corps the following month, and served as an aide to Pershing in 1919-1924. Pershing championed Marshall’s career and later directly petitioned President Roosevelt to consider him for Army Chief of Staff.

After having reverted to the rank of captain, Marshall was promoted to major in 1920 and lieutenant colonel in 1923. He served with the 15th Infantry Regiment in China in 1924-1927, and then was named assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he left a strong imprint on the tactics the Army would use in World War II. Promoted to colonel in 1933, Marshall commanded the 8th Infantry Regiment at Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, served as senior instructor of the Illinois National Guard, and was promoted to brigadier general in 1936. Two years later, he was attached to the Army General Staff.