“Enthralling.”—Andrew Roberts • “Important.”—William I. Hitchcock • “Majestic.”—Susan Page • “Engrossing.”—Andrew J. Bacevich • “Judicious.”—Walter Isaacson • “Powerful.”—The Wall Street Journal • “Definitive.”—Kirkus
Winston Churchill called him World War II's "organizer of victory." Harry Truman said he was "the greatest military man that this country ever produced." Today, in our era of failed leadership, few lives are more worthy of renewed examination than Marshall and his fifty years of loyal service to the defense of his nation and its values.
Even as a young officer he was heralded as a genius, a reputation that grew when in WWI he planned and executed a nighttime movement of more than a half million troops from one battlefield to another that led to the armistice. Between the wars he helped modernize combat training, and re-staffed the U.S. Army's officer corps with the men who would lead in the next decades. But as WWII loomed, it was the role of army chief of staff in which Marshall's intellect and backbone were put to the test, when his blind commitment to duty would run up against the realities of Washington politics. Long seen as a stoic, almost statuesque figure, he emerges in these pages as a man both remarkable and deeply human, thanks to newly discovered sources.
Set against the backdrop of five major conflicts—two world wars, Palestine, Korea, and the Cold War—Marshall's education in military, diplomatic, and political power, replete with their nuances and ambiguities, runs parallel with America's emergence as a global superpower. The result is a defining account of one of our most consequential leaders.
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Harvest of Death
George Marshall's ascent to power and prominence began on January 27, 1914, "under the shade of a bamboo clump." Nearly five thousand U.S. Army soldiers had just completed an amphibious landing on the island of Luzon in the Philippines and were gathering to attack Manila, some sixty miles to the north. Marshall, then a thirty-three-year-old first lieutenant, was sitting in the mud with his back against one of the trees, surrounded by officers awaiting orders. The wide brim of his felt campaign hat was tipped up, revealing closely cropped sandy hair and deep-set blue eyes. Staring intently at a map, he slowly and confidently dictated orders detailing a choreography of infantry, cavalry, field artillery, signal corps, Filipino scouts, field kitchens, surgical tents, wagons, and hundreds of pack animals. They were to move north day and night on mucky trails through patches of jungle, fields of sugarcane, towering razor grass, and mountain passes. One of the officers who witnessed Marshall's performance that day was Henry "Hap" Arnold, a West Pointer who would rise to become head of the army air force during World War II. Arnold was so impressed that in a letter to his wife he wrote that he had "met a man who was going to be chief of staff of the army some day."
Over the next eight days, Marshall's invasion forces outwitted the enemy defenders and captured successive objectives on the way to Manila. It was just an exercise, a mock invasion and attack, but those who were there spread word throughout the officer ranks that Marshall was a military genius, one of the most promising future wartime leaders in the army.
Instigated by the War Department in Washington, the 1914 maneuvers had been designed to test the army's readiness to defend the Philippine archipelago against a possible invasion by Japan. Following victory in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, and the complete annexation of Korea five years later due to the assassination of a prominent Japanese statesman by a Korean, Japan had become the preeminent power in the Pacific. The Philippines, symbol of U.S. imperialism, stood directly in the path of Japan's increasingly aggressive designs to dominate East Asia. To simulate a Japanese attack, a "White Force" was to land at Batangas Bay, south of Manila, and try to overwhelm the "Brown Force" charged with defending the capital.
Given the importance and high-profile nature of the maneuvers-the largest ever in the Philippines-it was unlikely that a mere first lieutenant like Marshall, no matter how competent, would command the White Force. In fact, General J. Franklin Bell, head of the Philippine Department, had initially selected a hard-drinking colonel to take charge. "A courtly gentleman, a very nice fellow," recalled Marshall, although he couldn't-or preferred not to-remember his name. Referring to the man's propensity for strong drink, Marshall wrote that the colonel would ride beside him in a "spring wagon" with a "zinc-lined suitcase," and every time they stopped he would open the suitcase and "refresh himself against the Philippine heat."
Under the colonel-his name was William Cathcart Buttler-the first stage of the attack, the amphibious landings by the White Force, had to be delayed a week due to a snafu in procuring an adequate number of landing boats. Marshall, an adjutant assigned to the colonel's staff, stepped into the chaos and coolly secured the boats, arranged to have stalls built for the pack animals, and organized the amphibious landings. The umpires for the maneuvers, having lost confidence in Colonel Buttler, proposed that he be removed from command. At some risk to his own career, Marshall presumptuously suggested that to save face the colonel be left in nominal command, but that he, Marshall, be allowed to act as Buttler's alter ego in planning and leading the attack, along with Marshall's close friend, Captain Jens Bugge, the White Force chief of staff. The umpires agreed. The next day Bugge suffered a malarial attack and had to return to Manila. The umpires and General Bell had no choice. Marshall was the only one with knowledge of the White Force plans, forces, and officers. With the War Department in Washington and the garrison in Manila watching, the maneuvers had to go on. First Lieutenant Marshall was in sole command of almost five thousand men.
Except for Marshall's failure to commit enough of his forces to the first day's objective, his performance was regarded by the umpires as outstanding. Under pressure day and night for two weeks, he was imperturbable. With courtesy and self-effacement, he cut through the reluctance of colonels and other senior officers to accept orders from him. The clarity and precision of Marshall's field orders evidenced his grasp of the situations he confronted and his attention to tactical details. The landings of the men, animals, food, and equipment on the beaches at Batangas went smoothly despite the fact that the boats could not stand in closer than three-quarters of a mile and there was no dock. On the way to Manila, Marshall kept his units intact so that attacks on the enemy defenders could be made in strength. He managed three successful mock battles and several skirmishes and cavalry forays, reaching the capital on February 4.
One superior officer wrote in Marshall's efficiency report that he was the best leader of large bodies of troops in the entire American army. Another gushed that "there are not five officers in the Army as well qualified as [Marshall] to command a division in the field." Although the umpires ended the maneuvers without declaring Marshall's White Force a clear winner, the tales that grew out of his performance, and the dazzle that surrounded his name, guaranteed him a reputation in the small officer corps of the Regular Army that few if any of his rank could equal. Beneath the overblown legend, however, certain facts stood out: Marshall's White Force executed a successful amphibious invasion, and then proceeded to outsmart and overwhelm the Brown Force defenders, thus providing the army with vital lessons for the future. Much later, when a confrontation with Japan was far more than a possibility, these lessons were incorporated into the army's war plans.
Whether or not Marshall's performance deserved all of the plaudits it received, there is no doubt that an aura surrounded him, an emanation of controlled power. "His figure," wrote Dean Acheson, "conveyed intensity . . . It spread a sense of authority and calm." Physically, Marshall was lean, erect, square-shouldered, and tall for his era, slightly under six feet. He had a way of carrying himself that conveyed order and self-restraint. His face was pleasing and dignified, though with a long, thin upper lip and receding chin he could hardly be described as handsome. Professionally, Marshall was stern, deliberately reserved, yet he exhibited "nothing of the martinet." In social situations he was typically genial, friendly, and sometimes even warm and charming. Yet his emotions, including his explosive temper, were usually masked, his fears and vulnerabilities well hidden.
Marshall tried but could not conceal his susceptibility to the effects of the enormous stress he was under throughout the war games' days and nights. After the maneuvers were suspended, he was hospitalized in Manila for about two weeks, suffering for the second time from what the doctors of that era called "neurasthenia," a catchall term for a variety of nervous conditions short of insanity such as chronic fatigue, anxiety, depression, and nervous breakdown. Where he fit into this spectrum is unknown. Following these episodes, Marshall realized that he was working himself to death and resolved to take better care of himself. For much of the rest of his life, he made an effort to ride for an hour most mornings before breakfast, play tennis or catnap in the afternoons, and relax after dinner viewing a movie or reading. And if he could find time to hunt or fish, he would escape for a day or two with Hap Arnold or another army pal.
While recuperating, Marshall wrote a rare but revealing letter to his older brother Stuart. Marshall detested braggarts, yet to his brother he boasted at length about how he took on "the entire burden" of commanding the White Force, "chewed the other side up, captured two of their six cavalry squadrons, and smashed up their infantry." In the same letter he wrote that his wife Lily "looks very well," had "gained a number of lbs.," and that they were looking forward to resting for "several weeks or a month" in a "celebrated hotel" near Mt. Fuji in Japan. Had it not been for some emotionally searing comments that Stuart had made years earlier, there would be nothing particularly remarkable about this letter. After all, it is not unusual for a younger brother, no matter how self-effacing, to seek approval from his older sibling, or write about a romantic interlude with his wife. Yet this letter sought more than approval. It summoned a painful past.
Marshall would never forget a conversation between Stuart and their mother that he overheard in 1897, when he was sixteen, living with his family in Uniontown. Marshall had been begging his parents to send him to the Virginia Military Institute. From a room adjoining the kitchen, he heard his brother, who had graduated from VMI in the class of 1894, attempting in vain to persuade his mother that Flicker should not be allowed to attend the Institute because he "would disgrace the family." Stuart was referring to Flicker's feckless attitude toward school, his shyness, and his fear of failure and rejection. As Marshall recalled later, "The urgency to succeed came from hearing that conversation; it had a psychological effect on my career . . . I decided right then that I was going to wipe [Stuart's] face, or wipe his eye."
Nor would Marshall ever forgive Stuart for the "unkind, unfair remarks" he made about Lily Carter Coles, the flirtatious, titian-haired beauty with whom Marshall fell in love as a senior at VMI, the year he headed his class of thirty-three as First Captain, the highest-ranking cadet. In February of 1902, after he had graduated and received his commission in the army, Marshall married Lily in the parlor of the little Gothic cottage at 319 Letcher Avenue near the south Limit Gate of VMI in Lexington, Virginia, where she lived with her widowed mother. The night after their wedding, at the New Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, Marshall learned for the first time that Lily could not risk a pregnancy due to a heart condition (Marshall called it a "mitral regurgitation"). The substance of Stuart's hurtful remarks about Lily, and when he articulated them, is unknown. It is known that Stuart courted Lily when he was at VMI. One historian speculated that Stuart disliked her because she had rejected his marriage proposal. During the late 1920s, Marshall confided to his goddaughter that Stuart "opposed everything I wanted to do, including my marriage to Lily. He attempted to run my life and was unpleasant about it, but when he made unkind, unfair remarks about Lily, I cut him off my list."
Though out of character, Marshall's boastful letter to Stuart in 1914 was his way of "wiping" his success in his brother's face-a not-so-subtle reminder that he had become a credit, not a disgrace, to the family. References to nesting in a celebrated hotel with Lily were yet another means of rubbing it in-telling Stuart that he was wrong, that he and Lily were happily married. This would be one of the last letters that Marshall would write to Stuart. He would be estranged from his brother for the rest of his life.
After Marshall was discharged from the hospital in Manila, he and Lily set off on a four-month journey to Japan, Manchuria, and Korea, courtesy of the army's generous sick leave policy combined with Marshall's accumulation of regular leave. As guests of the Japanese army the couple spent a month in Manchuria, where Marshall toured on horseback the already forgotten battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War, prophetically noting in his thirty-three-page report "the sublime spirit of self-sacrifice for the cause of the Emperor displayed by the Japanese soldier." On the return trip to Japan, Marshall stopped to investigate the terrain on the south side of the Yalu River before he and Lily continued by train to Seoul. Thirty-six years later, when he was secretary of defense, this area would be a flashpoint in the Korean War.
On June 28, 1914, when Marshall and Lily were nearing the end of their trip, an act of terrorism in the turbulent Balkans improbably triggered what came to be called the Great War, later known as the First World War. The terrorist, a nineteen-year-old Bosnian Serb named Gavrilo Princip, shot and killed at point-blank range Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, and his consort Sophie when their carriage came to a momentary halt opposite a caf in Sarajevo. Princip and his coconspirators hoped that the murder of the future king would foment an uprising leading to the freedom of the South Slav people from Austro-Hungarian rule and the creation of a Greater Serbia. Instead, they were the spark that kindled the first of the twentieth century's two world wars, at the center of which was German power.
If Princip was the spark, the fading empire of Austria-Hungary, called the Dual Monarchy, was the chaff that ignited the fire. Rather than dealing on its own with the tiny kingdom of Serbia, home of the conspirators, it decided to seek the support of Germany. In the judgment of historian John Keegan, it was this decision that "transformed a local into a general European crisis." Once Germany signaled its support for war against Serbia, the fire began to spread. Russia mobilized for war. Germany declared war against Russia, then against France, Russia's ally. The blaze raged out of control. When Germany demanded that its armies be permitted to pass through Belgium to attack France, Great Britain, a guarantor of Belgian neutrality, declared war against Germany.
Within six weeks of the double assassination, Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm II, emperor of a powerful new nation less than half a century old, was at war with the three other great powers in Europe-Russia, France, and Great Britain. Except for France, it was a family affair since Czar Nicholas II of Russia and Britain's King George V were cousins of the kaiser. Not to be left out, Austria-Hungary declared war on Russia and Britain, and France declared war on the Dual Monarchy. From his window overlooking Horse Guards Parade in London, British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey lamented, "The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our lifetime."
In the fall of 1914, the German army sliced through neutral Belgium and Luxembourg into France, at one point reaching the Marne River, a short distance from Paris. Racing to the front, many in taxis, French soldiers rallied, pushing the Germans more than thirty miles back to the line of the Aisne River. Farther north, in Belgium, twenty-five-year-old Private Adolf Hitler fought as an infantryman with the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment on the Menin Road in the First Battle of Ypres, known in Germany as the Massacre of the Innocents because 40,000 German enlistees were killed in the first twenty days-Hitler's regiment alone was reduced from 3,600 to 611 men. On December 2, the future FŸhrer was awarded an Iron Cross, Second Class, for protecting his commander's life when a French shell hit their dugout, killing several German soldiers. It was, he later said, "the happiest day of my life." Weeks later, when Hitler's comrades emerged from their trenches during the spontaneous "Christmas truce" of 1914 to shake hands and sing carols with enemy troops in no-man's-land, he strongly disapproved, believing that nothing should interrupt the slaughter.