According to Marshall's civilian superior during World War II, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, Marshall was "one of the most selfless public officials" he had ever known. It is not by chance that his name is given to what Sir Winston Churchill described as "the most unsordid act in history" -- the Marshall Plan -- through which thousands of millions of U.S. dollars were channeled to a war-torn Europe for economic reconstruction.
The son of a coal merchant, Marshall was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on December 31, 1880. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901. Commissioned a lieutenant of the infantry, Marshall was first assigned to serve in the Philippines. There, according to historians and biographers, he developed the self-discipline, study habits, and other attributes of command that would allow him to excel.
During World War I, Marshall served as Chief of Operations of the First Army and gained recognition for his role in preparing the Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918. He later served as Assistant Commandant for Instruction of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. At the school, Marshall made changes in instruction methods and influenced several generals who became prominent in World War II.
Marshall became Chief of the War Department's War Plans Division in 1938. Nominated for Army Chief of Staff by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1939, he served as acting chief for two months and then took full control on September 1, 1939 -- the day that World War II began with Nazi Germany's invasion of Poland.
As head of the army, Marshall directed the American military buildup for World War II. He presided over the raising of new divisions, the training of troops, the procurement of equipment, and the selection of top commanders. Under his leadership, the U.S. Army grew in less than four years from fewer than 200,000 men to a well-trained and well-equipped force of 8.3 million men.
As Chief of Staff and principal U.S. war planner, Marshall strongly advocated an Allied drive on Nazi forces across the English Channel, which evolved into the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, and the campaign to liberate Western Europe.
Marshall's later career has often been discussed in terms of whether it was desirable to have a "military mind" in a high civilian post. U.S. statesman Dean Acheson pointed out that, "Nothing could be more mistaken than to believe that General Marshall's mind was a military mind in the sense that it was dominated by military considerations, that is, considerations relating to the use of force." Acheson wrote in his 1959 book, Sketches From Life, that Marshall not only kept military concerns from ruling his civilian decisions, but also, "when he thought about military problems, nonmilitary factors played a controlling part." Bernard Baruch, an American businessman and statesman, called him "the first global strategist."
Marshall recommended that his protégé, Dwight D. Eisenhower, lead the Allied forces in Europe, after Roosevelt decided that Marshall himself was too indispensable in Washington. In late 1944, Marshall was named General of the Army.
Marshall retired as Chief of Staff in November 1945 at the age of 65. Only days after Marshall left the army, President Harry Truman persuaded him to go to China, as his special representative, to try to mediate the bitter civil war there. Although his efforts were unsuccessful, Truman asked him to accept the post of Secretary of State. The U.S. Senate disregarded precedent and unanimously approved the nomination without a hearing on January 8, 1947, making Marshall the first military leader to become the head of the U.S. Department of State. As secretary, Marshall directed his staff to formulate a program of economic recovery for Europe, which he outlined in a brief but historic address to Harvard University's graduating class on June 5, 1947.
Marshall worked at the United Nations and in other forums for treaties with the defeated powers that would restore them to places of respect and equality in the family of nations. He championed rearming Western Europe to bolster the region against potential Soviet aggression, and he indicated a willingness for the United States to participate in a regional arrangement for collective defense. He also initiated a series of regional alliances for the United States and Latin America, which were designed to promote hemispheric cooperation. Ill health led to his resignation from the State Department in early 1949.
After the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, President Truman asked Marshall to return to government as the head of the Department of Defense. In the year that he served, Marshall increased the size of the army, promoted a plan for universal military training, and helped to develop the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
Marshall was dedicated to building a strong defense, but he also labored to find peaceful solutions to world conflicts. In December 1953, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in recognition of his contributions to the economic rehabilitation of Europe. He was the first soldier to win that honor.
Not long before Marshall's death in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1959, Winston Churchill paid him the following tribute: "During my long and close association with successive American administrations, there are few men whose qualities of mind and character have impressed me so deeply as those of General Marshall. He is a great American, but he is far more than that. In war he was as wise and understanding in counsel as he was resolute in action. In peace he was the architect who planned the restoration of our battered European economy and, at the same time, labored tirelessly to establish a system of Western defense. He has always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement, and disillusion. Succeeding generations must not be allowed to forget his achievements and his example."
-- Jeanne Holden
USIA Senior Staff Writer
The Marshall Plan, Investment in Peace: Contents