Copyright © 1999. Marshall Papers Project. All rights reserved.

Historical Introduction

Who was George C. Marshall?

This American soldier-statesman was born on December 31, 1880, into a family of Virginia and Kentucky lineage in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, where his father manufactured coking coal for the iron and steel industry. The Uniontown Marshalls were distantly related to John Marshall, former chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. He had an older brother, Stuart (1875-1956), and a sister, Marie (1876-1962).

Young Marshall was not a particularly good student in school, but he was particularly interested in history, and he developed the ability to interpret American society and specific problems he faced in a broad historical context. In later years, when asked to which political party he belonged, Marshall generally responded: My mother was a Republican; my father was a Democrat; and I'm an Episcopalian.

Marshall attended the Virginia Military Institute, graduating in 1901 as the highest-ranking cadet. He entered the U.S. Army in February 1902. For the next fifteen years, he served in various of the posts in the U.S. and the Philippines. Between 1906 and 1910, he attended army schools at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and also taught there. He was a member of the small group of U.S. Army officers trained in modern warfare prior to World War I.

He went to France in the summer of 1917 as the director of training and planning for the First Infantry Division. In mid-1918, he was promoted to American Expeditionary Forces headquarters, where he was a key planner of American operations. In 1919 he became an aide-de-camp to General John J. Pershing. Between 1920 and 1924, while Pershing was army chief of staff, Marshall was an important planner and writer in the War Department in Washington, D.C.

Following a tour of duty (1924-27) with the Fifteenth Infantry in Tientsin, China, Marshall was assigned to teach at the Army War College, but when his wife died, he was moved to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, to become head of instruction. There he reformed army infantry officer training to prepare for a war of mechanization, air power, and rapid movement. He briefly (1932-33) commanded posts at Fort Screven, Georgia, and Fort Moultrie, South Carolina, where one of his key duties was creating and running Civilian Conservation Corps camps. Between 1933 and 1936, he was in Chicago as senior instructor to the Illinois National Guard. He was promoted to brigadier general in October 1936 and given command of Vancouver Barracks, Washington, and its CCC district (1936-38).

Marshall returned to Washington to become head of the War Department's War Plans Division and then deputy chief of staff (1938-39), prior to being selected by Franklin D. Roosevelt to be army chief of staff (1939-45). Highly regarded by his peers, leaders of the Roosevelt administration, and members of Congress, Marshall was in charge of getting the U.S. Army and Army Air Corps ready for war (1939-41), reorganizing the army (1942), and leading it throughout the war. He was the most important member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and, according to Winston Churchill, the organizer of Allied victory.

Marshall "retired" in November 1945, but President Truman immediately asked him to go to China to attempt to mediate a settlement between the Nationalists and Communists. In January 1947 he was named secretary of state. In that role, his name is most commonly associated with the "Marshall Plan," for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1953. In 1949 he resigned from the State Department and was soon named president of the American National Red Cross, hardly a sinecure, given the organization's troubles at the time. In September 1951, three months after the outbreak of the Korean War, Truman asked him to become secretary of defense, a job he held for a year. Marshall died at Walter Reed Hospital on October 16, 1959, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Mini-Edition: George C. Marshall's Early Career, 1897-1917

The first twenty years of Marshall's life away from Uniontown coincided with important social and economic transitions in America. Observers at the time and since have often proclaimed that the Spanish-American War constituted America's debut as a world power. As the brief conflict demonstrated, however, the U.S. Army was not prepared, intellectually, organizationally, or in materiél terms, for this new role.

The years between 1901 and 1917 witnessed the initiation of numerous efforts to correct the army's perceived faults. Marshall benefitted in several ways from these efforts.For example, the increase in the army's size somewhat eased Marshall's path into the professional army, despite his neither having graduated from the U.S. Military Academy or being a volunteer in the recent war. Improvements in the army's school system--and his successes at the Leavenworth schools were crucial to his career--laid the foundation for the development of the well-trained mid-level leadership cadre that prevented U.S. participation in the World War from being a disaster. Moreover, increases in the size, training, and funding of the National Guard permitted Marshall to learn from Guardsmen while teaching them and gave him valuable connections with and insights into the nation's citizen-soldier component.

The eighty annotated documents (plus editorial notes) of this mini-edition provide a view of Marshall's early life and the development of his army career. Marshall's oral history interviews, done in 1955-56 for his authorized biographer, Forrest C. Pogue, are indispensable in the annotation for this period and give insights into his thinking and development as a leader. Numerous documents on various aspects of the National Guard are important examples of Marshall's attitude toward the citizen-soldier and his own development as a trainer.

Documents from Marshall's 1906-10 assignments at Fort Leavenworth are rare, but an October 2, 1935, letter reminiscing about a teacher there who had a profound impact upon Marshall's thinking is included in the pages covering 1908-9. Several documents from Marshall's 1913-16 assignment in the Philippines illustrate Marshall's growth in stature in the army (particularly when he led the attackers in the 1914 maneuvers) and his continued interest in professional education (as demonstrated in his lengthy 1914 report on a visit to the Manchurian battlefields of the Russo-Japanese War).

Bright young officers were sometimes retained by senior generals as aides in order to permit them to exercise authority (in the general's name) far beyond their rank in the promotion-by-seniority army. The mini-edition includes documents from 1916 and 1917, when Major General J. Franklin Bell made Marshall his aide in order to help with army mobilization, first in the Western Department and then in the Department of the East.

In June 1917, Marshall was selected by the commanding general of the First Infantry Division to be the training and operations officer. In France, he witnessed the problems attendant upon an unprepared force entering the third year of a generally static war. His perceptions, considerably different from those of officers who arrived later, when the Germans were weaker and the Americans better armed and trained, provided Marshall with important lessons about preparedness and mobilization that would be important to him as army chief of staff in 1939-41. Two November 1917 documents describe the results of the first German raid on an American position.


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