George Catlett Marshall, Winston Churchill’s architect of victory in World War II, has been compared to George Washington as a great American, perhaps the only two in the history of our Republic.
In a new book, George Marshall – Defender of the Republic (July 2019), author David L Roll lays out the case for that utterance in 704 pages. I read this book in hour long snippets every night for the last couple of months on my Samsung View — the high resolution tablet with the twice as wide view of an ordinary tablet. I read it methodically, as if I were to be tested on the content. It was a damn good, serious, adult read.
I have just finished reading this extraordinary book and had the pleasure of chatting with the author yesterday for almost an hour. How? I called him at his law firm (former lawyer, full time writer now) and he answered his phone directly. He, like the subject of his book, is a charming, approachable man. At first, I was afraid he might think I was a stalker.
As a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, Marshall’s alma mater, I am, of course, an acolyte of Marshall. As a military leader, he was extraordinary, but it is in his work as Truman’s envoy to the warring Chinese at the end of World War II, as Secretary of State (Marshall Plan, y’all), as head of the American Red Cross, and as Secretary of Defense during the Korean War and the Berlin Airlift that we begin to appreciate the breadth and depth of this quintessential American.
I believe that it takes at least half a century for history to take the measure of a great man. Marshall died on 16 October 1959, making it 60 years since he died. America was ready for this book.
[The scene that describes Marshall’s death will test your tear ducts. There is 80-something Churchill weeping at the doorway of his comrade with Eisenhower nearby.]
In that period of time — the half century noted above, a number of books have been written about his life and segments of his life. Classified files have been unclassified. Other direct participants have contributed memoirs and notes. The quality of sources in history has improved with the advent of the Internet and digital sources of research.
This book could not really have been written until now.
Another book I enjoyed was The China Mission that dealt with Marshall’s work with the Chinese Communists (Mao) and the Republic of China Nationalists (Chiang Kai-shek) after World War II. This 496 page book is an in depth look at a period of history that remains unmined. It holds great insights as to where China came from and where it is headed.
David L Roll’s book is the definitive book on Marshall written with the benefit of extraordinary scholarship (the footnotes are a wonder to read) and the great number of books written on Marshall. It is a wrap up of the scholarship to date.
I walked away with a greater knowledge of Marshall — I learned things I had not known from reading at least half a dozen books on Marshall — and an intense appreciation for the humanity and fallibility of this great man. It was in Marshall’s imperfections that I developed an even greater appreciation for his extraordinary leadership skills, command philosophy, and wisdom.
Here are some of the things I took away:
1. Marshall never commanded combat troops in World War I, but he accomplished some of the most significant staff duties ever undertaken at the Army level. It might not be unfair to credit him with having delivered the coups de grace to the Germans at the end of the war.
2. Marshall was aide-de-camp to General Black Jack Pershing for five years. Pershing is an unappreciated command presence today. The manner in which Marshall came to the attention of Pershing is a well known anecdote, but the book adds depth to it with the description of their subsequent working relationship.
3. Marshall spent a lifetime in the trenches — in China, the Philippines — when Army promotions were slow and tenuous. In that period of time, he served at different levels and in different countries (France, China, Philippines). When his star ascended, he was ready and well grounded.
4. I have never really understood how the US decided to stand up 90 only divisions in World War II, when the original plan was to raise 200 divisions — a number that was derived from the size of the German and Japanese threats. David L Roll exposes this logic and the risk that Marshall finessed at a critical time in the war.
5. Marshall was almost the co-President when FDR was in office. It was Marshall who worked the magic with the Republican Congress as his word was received as gospel on all matters. FDR comes in for high marks for keeping Marshall at his side.
6. Marshall wanted to command the Normandy invasion — the well-deserved pinnacle of a military career — but FDR required him at his side in Washington to run the two front war. The graciousness with which Marshall informed Eisenhower that he would have the job that Marshall wanted is the finest example of grace under fire I have ever read.
The way Marshall allowed Eisenhower to conduct the planning and execution of the Normandy landings is an extraordinary example of how leaders must delegate great responsibilities, get out of the way of their subordinates, and support them when they face setbacks.
7. Roll paints a picture of Marshall’s home life — he loved two women, his first wife dying early in his military career — and the losses associated with being an American. One of Marshall’s step sons was killed in Italy as an armor officer. He went to his grave and took his wife, Katharine, to see it.
Marshall had great luck in his second wife, who provided a stable and relaxing home life for a man who circumstances might have shattered. She owned/bought a home on Fire Island at which Marshall used to surf cast. As a surf caster, I cannot fail to applaud any woman who empowers their man to engage in such a pure and relaxing endeavor.
8. Marshall lived modestly, but well. He woke to a horseback ride along the Potomac whenever he could as the war raged around him. He knew his energies and how to husband them for the good of the country. He had a modest home in Pinehurst, a country home in Northern Virginia (Dodonna Manor, in Leesburg, which can be seen even today. It is about to undergo a renovation shortly.)
9. In my work with startups, I have always thought that the US military in World War II was the greatest startup endeavor ever. At the core of it was George Marshall, an extraordinary entrepreneurial founder/leader/manager in a high stakes game.
His personal wisdom in judging and assigning talent was one of the keys to victory. His decision to replace older division commanders — something we would call ageism today — was a stroke of genius. He was the kind of man who could tolerate George Patton’s behavior because he had pegged him to be a great fighting general. [The US has few great fighting generals today, a topic for a different day.]
10. The book also opened my eyes on some critical elements of World War II. I have always thought that the Russians bore the brunt of the fighting in World War II — a position that does not endear me to other former soldiers. The size of the battle space, the number of casualties suffered by both sides supports this idea.
Marshall spent a lot of time ensuring that the Russians stayed in the war and didn’t make a separate peace with Germany as they did in World War I.
11. Brother Roll does a superb job of laying out the series of Allied conferences — counsels of war amongst Roosevelt, Churchill, and their respective generals — that guided the war effort and the roles played by the US, the Brits, the French, the Chinese, and the Russians. The Tehran Conference with Stalin is a particularly interesting part of the story.
12. But, I was surprised to read of Marshall’s concern about the quality of platoon leaders and the training of straight leg infantry units. One doesn’t have to make much of a leap of faith to get the idea that he knew some of our units were suspect when it came to leadership and training. Keen military observers will suggest that what we lacked in leadership and training, we made up in aggressiveness, equipment and support.
13. It is in the intimate staff work between the US and the Brits that Marshall shone. He was both a co-conspirator and a foil to Churchill, who had broad plans to avoid the cross Channel invasion with the memory of the horrific World War I casualties England suffered. Marshall had a few bonehead ideas, but he maintained the alliance’s focus on landing in France, driving through the Ruhr to emasculate the German industrial machine, and cutting the snake’s head off in Berlin. He was the strategic flame keeper of the effort.
At the end of the war, he wisely let the Russians take Berlin and suffer 300,000 casualties in the process. While Marshall was a warrior and knew first hand the price of conflict, he was sparing when he could be in risking American lives.
14. Marshall tried to retire at the end of World War II, but Truman would not allow it. He sent Marshall to China to try to make peace between Mao and Chiang. It could not be done. It is worth noting what a physical ordeal that type of long distance travel was for a man of his age. Again and again, Truman — the American Nation speaking through Truman’s voice — asked Marshall to serve and each time Marshall saluted and undertook the ordeal of duty.
15. It has always been whispered that Marshall and MacArthur had a frosty relationship. Apparently, that is more than a little myth. The book deals with Marshall’s relationship with MacArthur.
I think MacArthur is also one of those people whose reputation continues to shine up well as time passes. The landing at Inchon continues to rank as one of the all time boldest military actions in the history of the profession of arms.
[My favorite such is George Washington’s night, double envelopment, river crossing, Christmas Day attack on the Hessians at Trenton after the Brits kicked Washington’s army across Long Island, Manhattan, Harlem, New Jersey until the Colonials lay gasping on the far side of the Delaware. Where did the inspiration to go over to the attack come from in that scenario? This one battle may explain more about Washington’s greatness than any other single act of his command of the Colonial Army.]
14. It is in times of real crisis that Marshall was at his best. When confronted with the Battle of the Bulge, the 1950 attack by the North Koreans, the Russians cutting off West Berlin, Marshall was the steadying force in the room with Presidents, the Army, and the Congress.
In his first words, he would set the tone for the entire endeavor thereby allowing others to summon — to marshal — their courage. He was a man of first impression able to move others to his view with the depth of his character.
15. I was truly surprised to learn the inner workings and the legislative effort to create and execute the Marshall Plan, a plan that was spawned from his genius, sold by him, but executed by others. Only today can we really appreciate the bulwark against Communism that this plan created.
Marshall’s legislative support was the critical element in the plan’s passage through Congress at a time when the US was not flush with money and there was no identifiable financial return from the plan. The book goes into great detail on this effort — something I had not read elsewhere.
If you read this book, I ask you to use two lenses: first, consider the greatness of this man who ranks with Washington and Washington alone as a great American; and, think of his duty to our country. There are no such men alive in the political firmament today.
Reward yourself when you finish the book. It is a great read and you will not regret it. It is also particularly well written. It is an easy read, but it is like the 72 ounce steak at The Big Texan Steak Ranch & Brewery in Amarillo. If you eat the whole thing, you eat it for free. When you finish this book, go buy yourself a steak on the Big Red Car. [There will be a quiz.]