One of Marshall’s earliest entries in his little book was Walter Krueger, who would lead the Sixth Army in the Pacific during World War II. They met in the Philippines in 1902 when both were green lieutenants. It turned out that Marshall was a bit greener than Krueger, however, but that didn’t prevent Marshall from making a positive entry on him. By nature fastidious, facile, and exceptionally straightforward, Marshall admired those qualities in others. Krueger, a Prussian immigrant who worked his way up from private, was not easily impressed by anyone, but he found Marshall to be “just about the most self-contained lieutenant I ever met in the U.S. Army.” He said, “He had a sagacity and thoughtfulness far beyond his years. Or at least I think he had. When you really tried to find out what he was like, he clammed up and you never discovered what he was really thinking.”
Self-contained was certainly a more accurate description than introverted because Marshall didn’t have a problem expressing himself publicly. He simply was an intensely private person.
Not long after America’s entry into World War I, Captain Marshall was sent to Europe with the 1st Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. William L. Sibert. One of the first officers to arrive in France, Marshall took on an exceptional load of responsibility, including acting chief of staff of the division. Training was severely hampered by foul weather and the piecemeal arrival of troops and headquarters staff, including General Sibert, but Marshall nevertheless gave it top priority. Early in September 1918 Sibert was severely criticized for a somewhat lackluster review of his division although circumstances were well beyond his control; he hadn’t been in France long enough to personally impact the training of his division. Later, on October 3, Sibert witnessed for the first time the demonstration of a new technique for attacking entrenched troops and when asked by General Pershing for a critique, he faltered. Pershing was furious and berated Sibert in front of his men for his lack of preparation. Reacting instinctively to the injustice of Pershing’s remarks, Marshall stepped forward and began speaking, but Pershing was in no mood to listen and began walking away.
Throwing caution aside, he put his hand on the general’s arm and said, “General Pershing, there’s something to be said here and I think I should say it because I’ve been here longest.”
No one, not even Marshall, remembered exactly what was said but Pershing listened without interruption. When Marshall had finished, Pershing said, “You must appreciate the troubles we have,” and turned to walk away.
“Yes, General,” Marshall answered, “but we have them every day and they have to be solved before night.”
Everyone who witnessed that brief incident, including Marshall himself, believed it was the death knell to a young officer’s career. Quite the contrary, it set the stage for a relationship that endured for nearly 30 years, up to the day Pershing died, at the age of 88 in July 1948. In subsequent visits Pershing always took Marshall aside to ask his opinion, knowing his response would be unfettered. After the war, reverting to the rank of captain, Marshall served as Pershing’s aide. Their relationship was greater than general and aide; it was more like father and son. The general was best man at Marshall’s second wedding in Baltimore and they kept in touch no matter where the Army sent Marshall for duty.
It was no accident that under General Marshall, once he engineered the unshackling of the promotion system’s time-honored reliance on seniority, much younger officers began rising rapidly in rank virtually overnight. Many of those first promotions went to officers in whom Marshall had absolute trust and faith, officers who would form the foundation for the war’s leadership pyramid. Again, it was no accident that a great number of those early promotions went to “Marshall’s Men” from his Fort Benning days.
In the autumn of 1927 Marshall had been rescued from an interminable assignment at the War College and made assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning. It came at a time when Marshall was recovering from the untimely death of his wife, Lily, that August and a desk job for which “I thought I would explode.” A teaching job, together with the responsibility and authority to make substantive changes in the way the Army taught its best officers was, in Marshall’s words, “magical.” Moreover, Benning provided the stage upon which the officers who would comprise the Army high command of World War II performed and learned from a master teacher, whether as members of the staff, instructors, or students.
Although he wasn’t an alumnus of Benning, one individual in particular stood out as a sterling example of Marshall’s uncanny ability to take the measure of a man and visualize his potential: Dwight D. Eisenhower. Marshall had met Eisenhower only twice before he brought him to Washington early in the war. The first time was in 1930 when, as a major, Ike was assigned to the Battle Monuments Commission. The 40-year-old officer made a distinctly favorable impression on Marshall and, thanks to an entry in the “little black book,” Marshall’s memory was refreshed when they met briefly a second time 11 years later. By then a lieutenant colonel, Eisenhower was chief of staff of Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger’s Third Army. Marshall was invited to witness maneuvers in the spring of 1941 as Third Army was pitted against Second Army. Eisenhower’s performance caught his attention.
Brought to Washington by Marshall, Eisenhower jumped from lieutenant colonel to brigadier general on September 9, 1941. From there he enjoyed the most meteoric rise in rank of any general in World War II. By November 1943 he was a four-star general and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, living at the time in a villa near the ruins of Carthage.
Having arrived at Mers-el-Kebir, near Oran, early on the morning of November 21, the president’s entourage continued on by plane to Tunis, where General Eisenhower met them. Ike turned the villa over to the president and invited King and Marshall to stay at his small cottage at La Mersa. That evening Eisenhower had dinner with FDR, then the following morning accompanied him on a tour of the nearby ruins. The president quickly got around to the subject of Overlord: “Ike, you and I know who was chief of staff during the last years of the Civil War but practically no one else knows, although the names of the field generals—Grant, of course, and Lee, and Jackson, Sherman, Sheridan and the others—every schoolboy knows them,” Roosevelt said as they walked slowly. “I hate to think that 50 years from now practically nobody will know who George Marshall was. That is one of the reasons why I want George to have the big command—he is entitled to establish his place in history as a great general.” Eisenhower nodded but said nothing, his face masking any emotion he felt at that moment.
Roosevelt and his entourage returned to Cairo the first week of December. Apparently Stalin’s brief speech a week earlier in Teheran tugged at the president as he thought about appointment of Marshall as supreme Allied commander. FDR finally decided to let Marshall make the decision. He invited the general to lunch on December 5. Marshall recalled that Roosevelt, “after a great deal of beating about the bush,” asked me “just what I wanted to do. Evidently it was left up to me.” Marshall told the president he wanted to avoid at all costs what had happened time and again in past wars, “the consideration of the feelings of the individual rather than the good of the country.” Roosevelt paused for a moment, then said, “Well, I didn’t feel I could sleep at ease if you were out of Washington.”
That’s how Roosevelt broke the news that Marshall would not go to Europe as supreme commander of Overlord. Then FDR asked Marshall to decide who should be appointed but Marshall declined to name anyone, deferring the decision back to the president. “Then it will be Eisenhower,” Roosevelt said. Marshall, who had been entrusted to draft high-level correspondence between Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin, went into his room and wrote a brief note to the Soviet leader for Roosevelt’s signature. It read: “From the President to Marshal Stalin. The immediate appointment of General Eisenhower to command of Overlord operation has been decided upon.” The president signed “Roosevelt” directly below. Later, Marshall sent the historic piece of paper to Eisenhower with a brief note written on the bottom: “Cairo, Dec. 7, 43. Dear Eisenhower, I thought you might like to have this as a memento. It was written hurriedly by me as the final meeting broke up yesterday, the President signing it immediately. G.C.M.”
Marshall returned to Washington and continued as chief of staff. Who cannot but say that Marshall did not serve his country well then. Or thereafter. There was much more to come.
This article first appeared at the Warfare History Network.