A Case Study in Principled Leadership: General George C. Marshall’s Core Beliefs
Delivered at the John Jay Institute, Philadelphia, on May 8, 2013, this lecture is a revised and expanded version of the following article: “In War for Peace: General George C. Marshall’s Core Convictions and Ethical Leadership,” Touchstone 26, no. 2 (March/April 2013): 41–48.]
To the extent that George Catlett Marshall Jr. is remembered at all—and almost no American university student will know his name or accomplishments—he is remembered by way of the following two routes: One group of books and articles focuses on Marshall as a major figure in World War II—alongside Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Alan Brooke, and Dwight D. Eisenhower—and as a statesman of influence in the immediate postwar era: the sponsor of the European Recovery Program, for example. Another group of scholars has examined this historical record and distilled from the biography of George Marshall important lessons in principled command: Marshall as an exemplar of ethical leadership.
Controversies and questions remain—and furnish scholars with grist for their mills. Pearl Harbor, racial integration in the armed forces, Operation TORCH, a cross-Channel invasion a year or two earlier, World War II troop training and replacement, battlefield equipment, the atomic bomb, China and Chiang, the recognition of Israel, MacArthur in Korea: these phrases remind us of some of the points where debate about Marshall’s record can still occur. But the Marshall biography is pretty much in place.
Where do we go from here? I suggest we go deeper. What lay beneath Marshall’s actions and even his ethics? What were his core beliefs?
By “belief” I mean a conviction, an acceptance that certain fundamental things are true. More than that: certain things can be trusted and relied upon. Belief does not mean absolute certainty. It includes doubt. But belief knows enough to have confidence in its object of trust: confidence that this object of faith will return authentic meaning and constant value.
Trust is the first side of belief: the passive side, some have called it—confidence that we receive something of real worth from what we believe in. But there’s an active side, as well. Belief means not only trust but also loyalty. If something is worthy of trust—as H. Richard Niebuhr and Josiah Royce made clear—then I will be loyal to its cause. My actions will be guided by my relation to this object of belief. I will act in certain ways because I believe in X. If I believe in my nation, then I will not only love its heritage and believe in its ideals; I will fight for it and, if necessary, die for it. That’s the active side of belief: loyalty expressed in action.
Marshall knew the importance of belief and alluded to its two sides when he assured Trinity College (Hartford) graduates in June 1941 that “the defense of a Christian nation and Christian values” depends first and foremost not on “things of steel,” such as “guns and planes and bomb-sights,” nor on “supreme confidence in our ability to conquer and subdue other peoples.” More than “enthusiasm,” more than “optimism,” only “something … encompassed by the soul” could be relied upon as the source of the morale, the spirit, which sustains a sure defense. “We are building it [morale] on belief for it is what men believe that makes them invincible.”
What were General Marshall’s basic convictions, the tent pegs that anchored his life and career? It is an interesting question but not an easy one to answer. Yes, it offers a way to uncover, organize, and think about fundamental truths concerning Marshall’s character and operating principles that we couldn’t get at in any other way. But it’s a difficult question because this forbiddingly private soldier-statesman was so reticent that these deep beliefs cannot be easily unearthed.
Marshall had good friends of many years’ standing, but few people knew him well, and his published papers do not reveal very much of the inner man. His principal biographer, Forrest C. Pogue, had trouble interviewing the austere general about his personal life; and so we know less than we’d like to about the human being behind the exterior reserve. Consequently, in respect of some of Marshall’s beliefs, we will have to be more tentative in our claims than a historian would prefer; but our venture’s potential gains warrant acceptance of a degree of speculative risk.
First, God. For whatever reason, biographers have completely failed to connect the dots—the bits of historical evidence left behind—of George Marshall’s religious beliefs and practices. Thus, not surprisingly, they have overlooked the significance of what this rough sketch of his faith does reveal. The picture that emerges is of a man who described himself fairly in a February 1, 1944, letter to Miss Nina Anderson Pape, a friend from Savannah, Georgia: “I hope I am a Christian gentleman, and I certainly should be with Mrs. Marshall’s guardianship and influence, but I must confess to occasional outbursts that are secular. You see I am trying to be honest.”
The truthfulness of powerful figures’ religious professions is always open to question, but in George Marshall’s case our suspicions are allayed by the fact that his reticence and his sincerity were two sides of the same coin of character. If he said it, you could believe it; if he did it, he intended it; if he professed it, he meant it. That, at least, all students of Marshall’s life agree upon.
On the subject of Marshall’s Christianity, we learn more from the record of his deeds and decisions than we do from his utterances. Professor David L. Holmes, author of The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, advises readers who want to uncover the religious beliefs of public men and women to examine their physical actions rather than relying solely on the evidence of formalities such as church membership. For example, did George Washington, a baptized member of the Episcopal Church who may have been a Deist, stay for the communion rite, which, four times a year, followed the standard desk-and-pulpit service? And if he did remain, did he arise from his box pew, walk forward, kneel, and receive the consecrated bread and wine at the holy table? Gerald M. Pops, a student of ethical leadership, rightly says that Marshall “was quintessentially a man of action. We must look to his actions rather than his words to discern and flesh out” his convictions. Marshall would have endorsed this procedure. His biographers note that he mistrusted eloquence, did not consider himself a great speaker, and believed that an officer should express himself through his deeds.
Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on the last day of December 1880, George C. Marshall Jr. was baptized six months later in his home parish, St. Peter’s Episcopal Church. He grew up in this church, whose young rector, the Reverend John R. Wightman, made a lasting impression on the future general. Marshall recalled him in a letter he wrote in the midst of war, on August 6, 1943: “Mr. Wightman exercised a profound influence on my character and life. While I was a mere boy in my early teens he honored me with his friendship. We often took walks in the country together and I spent many hours with him at the Parish House which had just been constructed.”
Some elements of a young person’s experience and personality are naturally (and fortunately) forgotten or jettisoned, while other features persist; Marshall’s church tie endured. His denominational affiliation was part of his conscious identity. Although meant to be humorous, the following self-description by the determinedly nonpolitical Marshall is revealing: “my father was a democrat, my mother a republican, and I am an Episcopalian.”
We search in vain for a dramatic, emotional conversion experience at the age of 15 or 16, for Marshall’s specific tradition was Low Church Episcopalianism, which emphasized a different way of being a Protestant Christian from revivalistic evangelicalism. A heart changed over time was the goal, assisted by divine grace, through the ministrations of the church and not without the individual’s own patient striving. What was looked for was slow, gradual transformation, not a climactic conversion experience. The Book of Common Prayer—largely unchanged in Marshall’s day from its 1662 English and 1789 American versions—presented a structure to flawed human beings, a rhythm of contrition and repentance, thanksgiving and renewal. Encouraged by a primarily pastoral ministry, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Episcopalian would have encountered his or her priest—termed a “minister” by conscientious Low Churchmen—as mediator and exemplar: a parson, whose value in large measure depended upon the quality of his person. Confirmed at St. Peter’s, Uniontown, at the age of 16, for the rest of his life George Marshall continued in the way he had been brought up.
Toward the end of his life, Marshall specifically recalled that at VMI he had been greatly influenced by the Lee tradition in Lexington. As Josiah Bunting III has noted, for Marshall and his fellow cadets, in their time and place, Lee and his lieutenants were the Greatest Generation. Especially around 1900, this Lee was the romanticized gentleman of Lost Cause iconography—and, like Marshall, a Low Church Episcopalian. Outside their professional spheres, neither Lee nor Marshall was an original thinker—or had any interest in being a radical innovator. George Marshall was traditional in ethics and religion, a man of consistent habits and conservative temperament: all the more reason to take him at his word—or at his deeds—when it comes to identifying his most important beliefs.
On February 11, 1902, George C. Marshall was married to Elizabeth Carter (“Lily”) Coles at her mother’s house in Lexington; the Episcopal service of holy matrimony was conducted by the Reverend R. J. McBryde, rector of Grace Memorial Church (which the following year was renamed the R. E. Lee Memorial Episcopal Church). On October 15, 1930, following Lily’s death three years before, Marshall married Katherine Tupper in the chapel of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Baltimore; General John J. Pershing—like many Army officers in this period, an Episcopalian—was his best man.
In the mid-1920s, while serving with the 15th Infantry Regiment in Tientsin, China, Marshall became concerned about the spiritual condition of the post and helped Chaplain Luther Miller to improve the chapel. New pews and altar pieces were purchased; men were inspired to paint and fix up the chapel buildings in their spare time; and, when Colonel and Mrs. Marshall attended services every Sunday, attendance picked up smartly. In a memorandum to the secretary of war written on December 12, 1944, Marshall reminisced about this good, productive time with Luther Miller in Tientsin: “Between us we ran the church up from an attendance of eight men to standing room only. I say between us because I took a very active part in the arrangements.”
Marshall’s chief of chaplains for most of the Second World War was Major General William Arnold, who said: “General Marshall was very much interested in the religious welfare of people in the services.” He’d discuss what was needed. “Every time, without a single exception, he’d say, ‘Please pray for me.’ He was a very religious man.”
Marshall regularly attended church services—not just on special occasions or to improve troop morale. In June 1932, for example, following his appointment as commander at Fort Screven, Georgia, he and his wife drove into Savannah on their first Sunday and attended a service at what she recalled was “a quaint and historic old Episcopal church.” Participation is important because in Marshall’s denomination it was through liturgy that a person was nurtured over time: the Anglican tradition stressed will and conscience more than feeling and intellect. This mode of Christianity suited Marshall particularly well. It seems likely that the hand-in-glove fit between Marshall and the Anglican way—rather than mere obligation or social standing or family custom—was the most important reason he persisted with his regular observance. Of course he hadn’t church-shopped for this denomination; it had formed him from an early age.
Although they have gone unremarked, their common religious habits may have helped to solder even more securely the wartime link between General Marshall and British Field Marshal Sir John Dill: a relationship primarily grounded, however, not in religion but in professional recognition and respect. While viewed by Winston Churchill as lacking drive and therefore replaced by him at the end of 1941 as Chief of the Imperial General Staff in favor of Sir Alan Brooke, Dill soon emerged as an essential partner in the Allied enterprise. Appointed to represent the British military service chiefs in Washington, Dill, like Marshall, was a figure of integrity, modesty, and self-discipline. Working together in mutual trust, he and his American counterpart made the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the two key allies a going concern of immense value to the war-making effort.
During their initial meeting at the Atlantic Conference in Argentia, Newfoundland, in August 1941, the two men overcame their natural reserve and formed an immediate and enduring bond. At this meeting, Marshall and Dill shared not only the details of meetings and the enjoyment of meals. They were also together for the high point of the entire conference, the extraordinarily moving church service on the quarterdeck of HMS Prince of Wales, survivor of the fight against the Bismarck and victim, only four months after the Atlantic summit, of a Japanese air attack off the coast of Malaya. A man of deep and sincere Christian piety, Dill, more than anyone else present at the Argentia meeting, impressed Marshall. In her 1946 memoir, Together, Katherine Tupper Marshall commented that the hazards of war “bound my husband and Sir John in a close understanding and comradeship such as seldom comes to men of their age.”
Indeed, the families thereafter became chummy, with the Marshalls inviting the Dills to intimate dinners of family, friends, and neighbors at Dodona Manor, the Marshall home in Leesburg, Virginia. The Marshalls had the Dills over for Thanksgiving. They went on holiday and attended church services together. In 1944 Marshall and Dill toured Antietam and Gettysburg and then drove down to Leesburg to spend Sunday at Dodona. Mrs. Marshall said: “George had told Sir John much about the quaintness of the town and the lovely little Episcopal Church we attended. Each Easter since purchasing Dodona Manor we had driven to Leesburg for our Easter Service.”
Although battling severe anemia, Dill refused to return to the United Kingdom and finally succumbed to the disease in Washington, D.C., on November 4, 1944. Grief-stricken, George Marshall fulfilled Lady Dill’s request and read the lesson at his colleague’s burial service in the Washington National Cathedral.
When Marshall died on October 16, 1959, the rituals that followed were in accord with his wishes: no lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda (as had been done for Pershing and would be done for MacArthur), a brief service at the Fort Myer (Arlington, Virginia) chapel using the Order for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer, no eulogy. Marshall had specifically requested no grand funeral in the Washington Cathedral. His old friend Luther Miller, chief of chaplains at the end of the war and now a canon of the Cathedral, read the burial service at Fort Myer. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were present. As in life, so also in death: the ritual marked the man.
In recent years, historians of the Second World War have helped us toward a more mature view of the ethical ambiguities and moral disasters of the Allied cause in the so-called Good War. In their work, institutional Christianity rarely appears except in a predictably negative light. But in their eagerness to detect the ethical blind spots, the sins of commission and omission, and the Manichaean language of righteous armies marching to war against evil foes, revisionists may overcorrect and neglect to appreciate the virtues of the Christian witness and of men who were shaped by Christian institutions. Even George Orwell, no friend of the institutional church, recognized as much when he wrote movingly in Time and Tide (December 21, 1940): “We live in a period in which democracy is almost everywhere in retreat, supermen in control of three-quarters of the world, liberty explained away by sleek professors, Jew-baiting defended by pacifists. And yet everywhere, under the surface, the common man”—and Orwell believed in the common man—“sticks obstinately to the beliefs that he derives from the Christian culture. The common man is wiser than the intellectuals….”
Throughout his career, George Marshall—to the consternation of Senator Joseph McCarthy—totally avoided dualistic language; but he may be forgiven if he thought that World War II offered a choice, as Churchill and Roosevelt averred, between two religions—and that the religion of Nazi racialism was a devilish option. And he had nothing to apologize for after participating in the aforementioned service on HMS Prince of Wales, in which a Royal Navy chaplain led a prayer that God might, “in the day of battle, … strengthen our resolve, that we fight not in enmity against men but against the powers of darkness enslaving the souls of men, till all enmity and oppression be done away and the peoples of the world be set free from fear to serve one another as children of one Father….”
Nor could Marshall, who for as long as he could remember had been reciting the words of the General Confession in the service of Morning Prayer (“We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts…. And there is no health in us”), have been greatly surprised by the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, for the Book of Common Prayer was simply Christian realism avant la lettre. Nor would Marshall have been tempted by the product of twentieth-century secularization: a diffused spirituality in which almost everything was a little bit divine but nothing in particular was. It’s fair to say that his beliefs incorporated a serious grasp of both human sinfulness and divine transcendence—and therefore, although he would not have tried to phrase the matter this way, his faith kept him clear about what was truly ultimate and what was only relative. His trust in God may have been most directly reflected in a distinctive manner that people commented upon: his absence of fear, his calm in a crisis—although this demeanor was also the mask of command that every military leader attempts to keep in place.
Second, virtue. While students of Marshall’s life and career always mention his positive character traits—his selfless devotion to duty, for example—they have been slow to recognize that these attractive characteristics were embedded in a commitment to virtue itself. Although he did not speak of an order of natural or divine law—as C. S. Lewis did when he wrote in The Abolition of Man about the universal Tao—Marshall was a Victorian who gives every indication of having viewed the virtues in just this way.
Influenced not only by the southern tradition of the gentleman but also by the American military’s stress on Washington as the model officer, Marshall believed in honor and self-mastery. This belief meant loyalty to virtue’s cause: honesty at all costs, duty and service, and kindness toward those who could do you no good. It repudiated self-seeking, unbridled emotion, cynicism, and any excuse to do other than your best. Eisenhower observed that Marshall was “quick, tough, tireless, and decisive. He accepts responsibility automatically….”
It’s not that Marshall simply was any of these good character traits; they were not inborn. What it means to believe in virtue is to believe that there is—as my mother put it—“only one way to be.” It means to embrace the old-fashioned view that we are formed not just by nature or culture but by will and conscience, by the cultivation of good habits, by rightly ordered thoughts, by being grounded in a hierarchy of beliefs and principles, by choosing to participate in communities that are schools of courage and compassion. It’s not that Marshall was preternaturally selfless; it’s that he learned to see himself objectively, to channel his clamant ego, to direct his ambition, and to bend his will to public service—because he believed that course of conduct to be true and right. Hence his manner of dealing with the opportunity to take command of the D-Day invasion.
His explosive temper—a character flaw from early on—Marshall struggled to master. In this instance, virtue was not merely its own reward. If angry eruptions undermined his chances for promotion or reduced his effectiveness as a commander, then he had to control them: rule or be ruled. If Marshall never gained complete dominance over these cloudbursts, then he at least succeeded in limiting both their frequency and their duration.
Third, the United States Constitution. Marshall’s commitment to virtue underlay his trust in and loyalty to the Constitution. He believed in the civilian-military division of duties. And so—sometimes counter to his own deep disagreement and strong reservations—he suppressed personal ambition, always told the truth (“even,” Sam Rayburn said, when “it hurt his cause”), respected the role of Congress, strived to leave geopolitical questions to the politicians, and loyally obeyed the president as commander-in-chief. FDR told Speaker Rayburn: “When I disapprove his recommendations, I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see which way he’s going, whether he’s going to the Capitol, to lobby against me, or whether he’s going back to the War Department. I know he’s going back to the War Department, to give me the most loyal support as Chief of Staff that any President could wish.” In naming Marshall Man of the Year, Time magazine declared that “American democracy is the stuff Marshall is made of.”
Fourth, power. In June 1942, General Marshall ended his graduation speech at West Point with this pronouncement: “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming power on the other.” As a tool of a free nation, power, Marshall believed, was a dangerous but necessary, indeed inescapable, reality. He knew its uses: from the persuasive power of negotiation and argument to the physical might of deadly force. In Inferno, Max Hastings argues that World War II, as a total war, demanded that Marshall be an adroit administrator, an effective strategist, and a supreme recruiter of talent—and by these very means a great warlord, whose contribution to victory was second to none. As secretary of state from 1947 to 1949, Marshall was involved with the Truman Doctrine, the policy of containment, and the planning of NATO. As secretary of defense, he played a role in large-scale rearmament as the United States took on increasing global responsibilities in the postwar period.
Indeed, Marshall biographer Mark A. Stoler believes that Marshall’s key belief concerned power. “Throughout his career he was forced to deal with the different aspects, complexities, ironies, nuances, and contradictions of power as the United States continued to amass it. While the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was attempting to explain these to an American people unprepared for global responsibilities, Marshall, by his actions and beliefs, became the incarnation of the leader who learned to understand them and to act accordingly.” In an imperfect world, power—military, economic, and political—could not be renounced but had to be used rationally and ethically to serve “the most cherished values of American society.”
Fifth, peace. Marshall believed in peace as only a soldier can. Testifying on May 1, 1940, before a Senate military appropriations subcommittee, he asked for more funds for the military— especially to build up the Army—in order to forestall American entry into another European war. “I am more of a pacifist than you think,” Marshall told the legislators. “I went through one war, and I do not want to see another. My idea, however, as to the sound basis for peace may differ from others’.” But Senator Harry Truman, another veteran of the Great War, knew just what the Army Chief of Staff was talking about. Marshall continued: “I saw it from the start, and I do not want to see it again.… I say this in all sincerity. I do not believe there is a group of people in the United States who are more unanimous in their earnest desire to avoid involvement in this ghastly war than the officers of the War Department.”
Following Pearl Harbor and U.S. entry, Marshall wrote letters to the parents and wives of all the soldiers who were killed. He had to stop doing that—the combat deaths were too many—and he resorted instead to an engraved card. The signed letters he did promptly write—in cases where two or three members of the same family were killed—make hard reading even today. Marshall made sure that President Roosevelt received detailed weekly reports on casualties.
The human cost of the war was brought home to his own family when he received a radio message on May 30, 1944, from General Mark Clark, commander of the Italian campaign. It informed Marshall that his stepson, Allen Brown, the 27-year-old son of his wife, Katherine, had been killed in action the previous day near Compoleone, as his tank unit advanced north toward Rome. A devoted stepfather, Marshall was devastated. It was a week before D-Day in Normandy. Later Marshall visited Allen’s grave at Anzio, talked with members of his stepson’s crew, studied the terrain, and worked to reconstruct the action surrounding Allen’s death.
The historian Don Higginbotham has observed that Marshall never loved war. “If conflict had possessed a glamorous appeal in previous ages, asserted Marshall, it was no longer so in the twentieth century….” Speaking before the assembled scholars of the American Historical Association, Marshall asked them to investigate the awful disease of war and to try to discover its cure. As World War II dragged on, his abhorrence of bloody violence only increased. He increasingly turned his attention to institution-building. As secretary of state, he helped to formulate and gain acceptance for the European Recovery Program, which, at a moment of crisis in history, famously combined American self-interest and generosity. Marshall saw both it and NATO as strategic instruments for deterring war.
For his sponsorship of the European Recovery Program—he never called it the Marshall Plan—George Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. In his acceptance address he mentioned the fact that he was a soldier: “There has been considerable comment over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier. I am afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others…. The cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means … of avoiding another calamity of war.” But he observed that the means to peace included the matériel of war. “A very strong military posture is vitally necessary today. How long it must continue I am not prepared to estimate….” There was also a need for education and international understanding, for a response to the aspirations of people living in dreadful conditions, for both democracy and food. Millions, he said, seek “a fair share of the God-given rights of human beings.”
Sixth, himself. Marshall’s wife, Katherine, wrote perceptively about her husband: “In many of the articles and interviews I have read about General Marshall the writers speak of his retiring nature and his modesty…. No, I do not think I would call my husband retiring or overly modest. I think he is well aware of his powers, but I also think this knowledge is tempered by a sense of humility and selflessness such as I have seen in few strong men.” Biographers confirm this characterization—for example, Thomas Parrish: “Essentially Marshall, like Roosevelt, possessed a high degree of self-confidence”—but they do not say much about the apparent paradox of humility and ego.
C. S. Lewis provides the answer, via Screwtape: “The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another.” There’s no mental bias in one’s own favor. Marshall was not only very smart; he was also strong-willed. He had to be to contend with Churchill and Alan Brooke, who doubted Marshall’s strategic judgment. Observes Andrew Roberts, in Masters and Commanders: “Good-natured, charming, with fine manners, Marshall was nonetheless a tough man, and knew it.” And yet he retained the kind of humility that Lewis describes. Edgar F. Puryear Jr., in 19 Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership, provides an excellent example: “Marshall’s air of confidence was accompanied by an attitude of humility, not arrogance. He never considered himself a great leader. When men asked his opinion, listened, and accepted his advice, he considered that they listened because they believed he was better informed on the subject than they were.”
Seventh, education. George C. Marshall was devoted to the Virginia Military Institute. It accomplished its primary objective: building leadership and character through military discipline, at which Marshall excelled, proving to be a model cadet and becoming First Captain in his final year. But he did not respect VMI as an academic institution. Uninspired by his instructors, he was a poor student, graduating in only the top 45% of his class. The academic approach of the Institute—learning by way of rote memorization—did not suit Marshall at all. But VMI’s pedagogical failure turned out to be a tremendous educational goad: Marshall would do better, both as a student and as a teacher. In his essay “Marshall, Education, and Leadership,” Williamson Murray notes this connection: “The most important quality that Marshall brought to his self-education was a realization of how badly educated he had been at the Virginia Military Institute.”
In the decades following his graduation, Marshall not only worked hard to make up for his deficiencies—for example, as a writer of strong, effective prose; he also became committed to a different approach to education. So much was this the case that when, in 1927, he received a hint that the superintendent of VMI might retire in favor of Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall, he refused the lure: “My ideas and methods would too probably arouse the restricting hand of a Board of Visitors….” Instead, Marshall spent a good part of his career as a teacher in the Army, where he had a notable, indeed historic, impact, for hundreds of the men he taught became high-ranking combat commanders in the Second World War.
At Fort Benning, where Marshall was assistant commandant and head of the infantry school from 1927 to 1932, he embraced teaching methods that combined the inculcation of habits of attention and industry with practical, real-world exercises. Officers had to learn to be imaginative and flexible, to prepare for the unexpected; they couldn’t wait for orders that spelled out the details of their tasks. Marshall took his students over miles of terrain and then at lunchtime had them draw maps of the ground they’d covered. He taught them they’d not receive accurate maps or complete intelligence data prior to going into combat; they’d have to be resourceful. He used large-scale maneuvers as, in his phrase, a “combat college for troop leading”—and thereby discovered who had the right stuff for command.
During his five years at Fort Benning, he had men recently returned from troop duty come in and teach classes. They were forbidden to give long lectures or to read from a text; they were compelled to use precise, clear language. All officers had to master the art of stating simple orders that citizen-soldiers could readily grasp within the confusion of combat. Marshall encouraged officers to demonstrate initiative and to produce original solutions to tactical problems; points off for the standard textbook answer. And for heaven’s sake, show some backbone and state what you honestly believe to be true, not what you think your instructor or commander wants to hear.
Like his mentor Pershing, George Marshall grew to love learning; he became an excellent teacher—and later said he sometimes wished he’d pursued an academic career. He read voraciously, especially military history and biography, and then if he could he’d familiarize himself with the battlefields first-hand. From his reading of Thucydides, Williamson Murray points out, Marshall would have gained “a sense of the … interplay between policy, strategy, and chance.” From his study of history, Marshall would have begun to master the relation between grand strategy and operational art. He would have started to grapple with the main problem he had to solve in World War II. Fortunately, as the essayist Lance Morrow has noted, Marshall possessed not only intellectual drive and an outstanding memory but also “what might be called a kinetic military imagination—a genius for seeing the dynamic interaction of facts in rapid motion through time.” This imaginative faculty is also what he tried to develop in others. Marshall believed in education—not the dull sort he’d encountered at VMI but the dynamic version he’d been an evangelist for at Benning.
Eighth, the countryside. In 1933, when Marshall was ordered to go to Chicago as a senior instructor for the Illinois National Guard, he had to live in a city apartment, which took its toll: “Those first months in Chicago I shall never forget,” his wife said. “George had a grey, drawn look which I had never seen before, and have seldom seen since.” But the job started to go better, men responded well, maneuvers got Marshall out of doors, and: “The following spring we moved to a cottage—White Gate Farm Cottage—near Dunham Woods Country Club, forty miles outside the city. Here we could breathe good country air, George could ride, and life in many ways was more pleasant for all of us.” Katherine Marshall also recalled the value of Dodona Manor: “Our place at Leesburg was a real source of comfort. No matter what else failed, the flowers bloomed, the garden grew, Mother Earth did her part.” She worked with flowers, her husband with the shrubs, vegetables, and heavy planting.
Whenever he needed rejuvenating, Marshall repaired to the countryside—to ride, hike, hunt, or fish. In September 1944 he and General Hap Arnold enjoyed a ten-day fishing trip in the High Sierras at 10,000 feet. They kept in touch with Washington by radio. His biographer Mark Stoler writes: “Throughout his life Marshall remained most comfortable and relaxed in rural pursuits, such as gardening, that he had learned as a boy.” For Marshall, work was not an end in itself. As often as he could, he left his office at four o’clock. At home he’d walk with his wife, take leisurely canoe rides on the Potomac River, enjoy a canter on his horse, or tend to his garden. He believed in the restorative powers of the natural world.
If George C. Marshall were a book, we might urge his recognition as a great classic: a canonical author who should be appreciated—or at least read—more than he is today. Of course he is not a book; nor was he the maker of one. Always wary of self-aggrandizement, especially when it came, as it often did, at the expense of others, he did not like to write or to talk about himself. Moreover, in reaching decisions and giving orders affecting the future of freedom and democracy in the world, he consciously suppressed any thought of how historians would judge his actions.
Marshall believed that keeping diaries or memoranda of daily events, as suggested to him by the R. E. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman in 1942, might unconsciously cause “self-deception or hesitations in reaching decisions.” Following Freeman’s advice would subtly bend the mind toward thoughts of “one’s own reputation, the future appreciation of one’s daily decisions.” Concern about this historical record, Marshall believed, would make him “unduly concerned” with judgment by others when he needed to be intent upon the only problem he knew he should worry about: “the business of victory.”
General George C. Marshall maintained a steely-eyed focus on his nation’s goals and did the best he could in his present circumstances. He made mistakes, but the net result was a rare achievement in Christian character, military command, and peacetime leadership. In this case, not the bound leaves of a book but beliefs, principles, practices, choices, and commitments embedded in a life’s story compose the best account: a classic text worth reading deeply, marking well, and passing along to a hyper-connected but amnesic generation. Indeed, members of all generations would do well to honor—in both the public and the private sides of Marshall’s life—the beneficial possibilities sparked by the connection between true beliefs and right conduct.