On November 11, 1943, under cover of darkness, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his key aides sailed down the Potomac River to the new battleship USS Iowa, there to meet with three of the four American members of the Combined Chiefs of Staff—Admiral Ernest J. King, General George C. Marshall, and General Henry H. Arnold. Their mission: Sail to North Africa to meet with Allied leaders.
A week before Thanksgiving, the American war leaders arrived at Algeria’s port city of Oran. Their final destination was Cairo, where the president’s party would join with Prime Minister Winston S. Churchill and Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek for a top-secret conference to plan what they hoped would be the victorious stages of the war. At the top of the list was the question of an invasion of Europe.
By November 1943 the war was weighted more heavily on the side of the Allies and discussions revolved around a cross-Channel invasion, although Churchill had long been skeptical. Eventually the prime minister acquiesced under pressure from the Americans, who argued the necessity of a full-frontal assault on European soil. It was finally agreed that “Overlord” would take place in May 1944, but command of the invasion was still up in the air as Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin huddled with their staff officers, translators, and senior advisers in Teheran, to which the Anglo-Americans had journeyed to meet the Russians. Stalin attempted to force a decision. Upon learning that the commander had not yet been picked, he huffed and puffed and intimated that if his Allies could not decide on who was to command Operation Overlord, then how could they possibly consider launching a second European front in France?
The Teheran conference concluded on November 30 with President Roosevelt noting, “We could agree to a unified command in the Mediterranean but not at the same time as we took up the matter of the Supreme Allied Commander.” General Omar Bradley, however, said there was concurrence among the Allied leaders that an American officer, rather than a British general, would assume command. “It was Churchill who raised the point,” noted Bradley, “and when he did, Roosevelt readily agreed. Both men had Marshall in mind for the job and although Marshall was not formally appointed, it was assumed by all that he probably soon would be.”
All President Roosevelt needed to do, in tapping Marshall to command of Overlord, was issue the order. Stalin’s agreement would quickly follow, for he strongly supported Overlord. If FDR wanted it to happen, it would—but it hadn’t yet. Clues as to why had surfaced in the weeks before the Teheran conference was set to open.
Throughout the summer of 1943 the Joint Chiefs had voiced concern that Marshall’s role, as supreme commander, would abrogate his responsibilities as chief of staff—an unaffordable action at any cost. Admiral King, in particular, was vehemently opposed to putting Marshall in charge of Overlord at such a crucial time. “We have the winning combination here in Washington,” King said. “Why break it up?” He argued that Marshall was “indispensable as a member of the Joint and Combined Chiefs of Staff” and “could not be spared, however desirable he might be as supreme commander.” He emphasized that “it seemed a poor idea to swap horses in midstream.” The other members of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Leahy and General Arnold, had each arrived at the same conclusion and told the president, on separate occasions, “Marshall could not be spared from the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
President Roosevelt, however, gave all the impressions of resoluteness on the issue, even when General John J. Pershing wrote him in September 1943 to urge that Marshall be kept in Washington. Transferring him to a “tactical area, no matter how seemingly important, is to deprive ourselves of the benefit of his outstanding strategical ability and experience,” he wrote. “I know of no one at all comparable to replace him as Chief of Staff.”
FDR downplayed Pershing’s concern in his reply on September 20, 1943: “I think it is only a fair thing to give George a chance in the field,” Roosevelt wrote. “The best way I can express it is to tell you that I want George to be the Pershing of the Second World War, and he cannot be that if we keep him here.”
A very strong case could be made for General Marshall’s indispensability at virtually any point in the war. By the summer of 1943 he was into his fifth year as chief, having been sworn in a matter of hours after German panzer forces stormed across the Polish border just before dawn on September 1, 1939. Fifty-eight years of age at the time, Marshall was the only four-star general on active duty in the Army.
Bear in mind that although Marshall inherited an army on the cusp of war it was, nevertheless, a peacetime army led by an officer corps debilitated by “promotion by seniority.” It was not unusual to find captains in their late thirties and early forties, their promotions held in check by the passage of time. The promotion list for brigadier general, as an example, contained the names of 698 full colonels stack-ranked for promotion; in other words, if an opening came up, the colonel at the top of the list would be in line for the star. One of Marshall’s earliest challenges was to replace the antiquated promotion system with one that allowed younger men of merit to rise beyond their mediocre counterparts and seniors. Colonel George S. Patton sat at 525 on that 1939 promotion list. Under the existing policy at that time, 524 colonels more senior to him would have to be promoted, quit, or die before he could be considered for a brigadier general’s star.
Only a week after Marshall was sworn in, President Roosevelt declared a state of national emergency. Suddenly the new chief of staff faced the formidable task of reshaping the officer corps into a cadre of competent, forward-thinking professionals sooner rather than later. Time was of the essence. Noted columnist George Fielding Eliot, in a wide-ranging interview held in the State, War, and Navy Building, asked Marshall how he would avoid the calamity Lincoln faced in the opening months of the Civil War. Marshall was determined that Roosevelt would not be faced, like Lincoln, with the prospect of a long, grueling search for the right field commanders. On the condition that he published the interview at a later date, Marshall spelled out his thoughts to Eliot:
“The present general officers of the line are, for the most part, too old to command troops in battle under the terrific pressures of modern war. Many of them have their minds set in outmoded patterns, and can’t change to meet the new conditions they may face if we become involved in the war that’s started in Europe. I do not propose to send our young citizen-soldiers into action, if they must go into action, under commanders whose minds are no longer adaptable to the making of split-second decisions in the fast-moving war of today, nor whose bodies are no longer capable of standing up under the demands of field service. They’ll have their chance to prove what they can do. But I doubt that many of them will come through satisfactorily. Those that don’t will be eliminated.”
For more than four decades George Marshall’s only life was the U.S. Army. Commissioned in February 1902 from the Virginia Military Institute, he served with the infantry at home and abroad for more than 37 years before becoming chief of staff. From the very beginning of his career, officers crossed his path with whom he was impressed—and Marshall was not easily impressed—or more likely with whom he was unimpressed. Whether at either end of the scale, Marshall made a notation in his “little black book.” Some officers believed it was more in their favor to have made a neutral impression and therefore not appear in the book, rather than risk the 50-50 odds of being notated negatively. Suffice to say that Marshall had a pachyderm’s memory that, bolstered by entries in his book, enabled him to reach down and pick people for high command and great responsibilities, often at very junior levels, with unerring accuracy and astounding success.
Case in point: General Omar N. Bradley, who worked closely with Marshall at the Infantry School in the late 1920s. Given two divisions to train early in the war, Bradley was told that he needed to demonstrate his capabilities before being appointed to greater responsibilities. “I trusted his judgment,” Bradley said, “and my patience was rewarded by rapid advancement to army and army group command. My case typifies Marshall’s rigor in testing his commanders for the critical tasks that lay ahead. He placed us in jobs where he could use our special training and experience. If we did our work well, he quickly entrusted us with a more demanding role. To his subordinates he always gave strong support and great freedom in carrying out their assignments.”