With fairness his guide throughout, David L. Roll has succeeded admirably in this latest biography of George C. Marshall, twentieth-century America’s greatest public servant. The author’s impressive treatment of his famous subject is more richly researched, nuanced, and balanced than the previous disappointing 2014 study of Marshall’s life by Debi and Irwin Unger.
With military and civilian careers spanning a half century, General/Secretary Marshall defined the soldier-statesman: fifteenth Army Chief of Staff for the six-year pressure-cooker of World War II, fiftieth Secretary of State (and first career soldier) during those critical early Cold War years when he presided in peacetime over a revolution in foreign policy, and third Secretary of Defense amidst the frustrations of limited war in Korea. Few individuals in the nation’s history can claim comparable breadth and depth of devotion to country in times of profound national crises. In exercising enormous power, as Roll consistently emphasizes, Marshall’s virtues dwarfed any defects in his nature.
So, how does David Roll’s George Marshall differ from the man appearing in earlier serious biographies? With new evidence, along with fresh perspectives, he has revised and refined aspects of conventional wisdom. First, Marshall’s leadership is more inspired than previously acknowledged. Second, in his professional life he is generally more assertive and self-assured, more likely to be uncompromising, and at times even less humble. His momentous judgments, which subsequent events usually vindicated, repose as well on much greater independence of mind.
Whether moving divisions of doughboys from one battlefield to another in 1918, re-organizing infantry tactics at Fort Benning in the late 1920s, creating unprecedented structures for waging coalition warfare in multiple theaters during World War II, or refusing to bail out Chiang Kai-shek in China’s protracted civil war, his confidence and trust in himself in the face of a chorus of criticism border on the extraordinary.
Few individuals in the nation’s history can claim comparable breadth and depth of devotion to country in times of profound national crises. In exercising enormous power, as Roll consistently emphasizes, Marshall’s virtues dwarfed any defects in his nature.
Take, for example, even his much-maligned advocacy of a cross-channel invasion in the fall of 1942, a fight he ultimately lost to his British ally. Meant to prevent a diversion of forces and war material to an indecisive North African theater, as well as to stave off a potentially decisive Soviet collapse on the Eastern Front, his promotion of the so-called “Cherbourg Plan” now meets with a biographer’s informed, if belated, approval.
However risky a continental bridgehead on the Cotentin peninsula, with the deep-water port of Cherbourg its lifeline, Roll’s extensive research has accredited its feasibility, rather than its supposed foolhardiness. To him, that spurned option makes vastly more tactical sense than has been conceded in prior accounts by critics with less documentation in hand. Weighing environmental, geographical and airpower considerations of that proposed operation, the author finds enemy defenses then in place a misunderstood mixture of weakness and vulnerability.
Not only were German defenders without the formidable deterrence of a yet-to-be-built Atlantic Wall, but Marshall’s leading opponents among his British allies fortified their position by withholding (or else slanting) vital facts from the ultimate judge, the War Cabinet. According to Roll, in misleading presentations of their respective cases, General Sir Alan Brooke and Air Chief Sir Charles Portal rigged deliberations to General Marshall’s disadvantage. Perfidy has never been as palpable as weather.
Roll’s Marshall also conducts himself as less of a team player, as well as being more confrontational with higher authority. He is more prone to issue rebukes, along with ultimatums, to superiors, threatening resignation over inflexible principles. Almost all of his major judgments, invariably incisive, have stood tests of time and scholarship, but as Roll points out even-handedly, notable misjudgments occurred, too.
In uncovering what he rightly refers to as occasional “blind spots,” the author is bent on humanizing his subject, rather than diminishing his heroic stature, as the Ungers attempted. He does not flinch from exploring ordinarily unaddressed features of Marshall’s personality. And no effort is put forth to whitewash failures, or make inconvenient facts disappear. Fallibility shares the stage with prescience and unerring judgment in Roll’s masterly portrait.
Two illustrations in this regard must suffice. Long overdue, one is that Marshall’s utterly unenlightened attitude on race and race relations has become a part of the retelling of his life. Even-handedness is strikingly clear as well in the author’s autopsy of official responsibility in Washington for Japan’s successful surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. According to Roll, the intelligence failure at the bottom of that tragedy can be traced, at least in part, to the Army Chief of Staff’s inability to recognize the true meaning of “MAGIC intercept #83,” a deciphered message that came to his attention back in October.
He does not flinch from exploring ordinarily unaddressed features of Marshall’s personality. And no effort is put forth to whitewash failures, or make inconvenient facts disappear. Fallibility shares the stage with prescience and unerring judgment in Roll’s masterly portrait.
How Marshall failed to recognize that, by mapping a grid of warships berthed at Pearl Harbor, Tokyo signaled its intentions to attack from the air remains puzzling to this day. As does his failure to provide General Walter Short, commander on the ground, with a more forceful war warning. Consequently, in the author’s estimation, the head of the U.S. Army deserves partial blame for the disaster of December 7, 1941.
Roll further reminds us of Marshall’s well-known, potentially career-ending, truth-to-power confrontations with General John Pershing, head of the AEF, in 1917, and later with President Franklin Roosevelt, his Commander in Chief, in 1938. But one of this book’s notable surprises is that General Marshall actually bracketed World War II with threats to resign as Chief of Staff.
The first instance occurred in a disagreement with FDR over the extent of the authority wielded by a newly created Combined Chiefs of Staff, which Marshall saw, correctly, as a vital instrument for efficient Anglo-American warfare. His last rebellion against authority involved the insistence of Secretary of War Henry Stimson on ten new Army divisions, raising a 90-division ceiling agreed to at the start of the war. Despite the Battle of the Bulge’s absorption of strategic reserves, Marshall refused to budge on the manpower cap. He stuck to his calculated gamble. When confronted by Marshall’s steely resolve and indispensability to the war effort, both civilian superiors backed down.
The author’s digging does overlook, however, an additional threat of resignation that Marshall issued to Stimson within a year of attaining his lifetime dream of Chief of Staff. When the head of the War Department foolishly proposed reintroducing the shake-and-bake, pre-World War I Plattsburgh System of training army officers, Marshall rebelled against a method discredited by experiences of AEF troops in combat. He knew how best to ready soldiers for battle. This confrontation, in which Stimson again backed down, happened in mid-1940 during the run-up to active belligerency. It certainly bolsters Roll’s depiction of a more willful, less Olympian George Marshall.
Of course, Marshall’s most celebrated and controversial rebuke of higher authority took place in 1948 while a civilian cabinet official running the State Department. Much-debated, that episode involved whether or not immediate recognition should be extended to the new state of Israel. In discussing this instance of flawed, rather than incisive, judgment, Roll captures the crucial historical context of decision-making at the uppermost level of the Truman Administration. The episode is a representative example of the book’s cover-to-cover reliance on searching, sophisticated analyses.
As Roll persuasively explains, the debate on recognition constituted one of American diplomacy’s low points rather than, like the genesis of the Marshall Plan and NATO, its finest hour. On the nuts-and-bolts formulation of policy, Truman and Marshall were never really working with the same tools, nor did they work in concert. The President, for example, withheld knowledge from his own Secretary of State, whom he revered, about meetings with Chaim Weizmann and Eddie Jacobson, both of which weighed heavily in Truman’s thinking.
As many readers probably knew in advance, during that botched decision-making Marshall warned President Harry Truman, to his face, that if he followed assistant Clark Clifford’s politically motivated advice for immediate recognition, and Marshall, in turn, exercised a previously unexercised right to vote, then he would have cast his ballot against his boss in the upcoming presidential election. At least, more recently, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not call President Donald Trump a “moron” in his presence.
In dissecting motives in that fouled-up process, Roll comes to two forceful conclusions. First, he absolves Marshall of anti-Semitism for his opposition (as he does for an earlier failure to rescue European Jewry during World War II). And, second, he calls into question the Secretary’s profession of abhorrence of partisan politics and outrage over the “straight politics” of it all. For the discerning researcher, this affair provides a compelling illustration of a “blind spot,” or glaring inconsistency, that did tarnish on rare occasions Marshall’s usually impeccable good sense throughout fifty years of selfless public service. That “Showdown in the Oval Office,” the title of Chapter 16, reveals that Marshall’s strength of self-assurance could also morph into a weakness of self-righteousness.
As Roll persuasively explains, the debate on recognition [of Israel] constituted one of American diplomacy’s low points rather than, like the genesis of the Marshall Plan and NATO, its finest hour. On the nuts-and-bolts formulation of policy, Truman and Marshall were never really working with the same tools, nor did they work in concert.
By devaluing domestic politics during that affair, much to Truman’s dismay and shock, Marshall discounted a constant in crafting foreign policy, something he never did when teaming up with that consummate professional politician, Senator Arthur Vandenberg, successfully to sell the European Recovery Plan to Congress and the American public. His inspired leadership had previously required regular genuflections to domestic politics. Moreover, as the author clarifies, Chief of Staff Marshall had already compromised principle for a larger good by cheapening the Medal of Honor. He had conferred the award on a singularly undeserving Douglas MacArthur after “Dugout Doug’s” flight from Corregidor to Australia.
When necessary, Roll’s Marshall could also bluff on the grand scale. In July 1942, for example, he threatened Churchill with a seismic shift in America’s grand strategy from “Europe First” to “Pacific First.” He sought to counter London’s continued push for peripheralism in fighting the Germans, as well as its foot-dragging in launching a frontal invasion of the continent. Worried about Marshall’s true intent, the British Prime Minister softened resistance, at least rhetorically, to his criticisms.
Despite the sheer scope of his undertaking, Roll has gotten very little wrong in this 600-page biography, an indication of his tenacity of purpose and thoroughness as a non-academic scholar. His representation of Marshall’s iconic Harvard Speech in June 1947 as having at least three “fathers” is a good case in point. As is his representation of major American Red Cross reforms that have long been misattributed to Marshall when serving as that organization’s President during 1949 and 1950. Never did he introduce them, or put them into practice.
Furthermore, Roll’s refusal to accept uncritically what some of George Marshall’s prominent contemporaries have said in their oft-quoted memoirs separates his quest for historical truth from earlier efforts. In particular, on key matters he has found Dean Acheson’s recollections to be unreliable and misleading.
When necessary, Roll’s Marshall could also bluff on the grand scale. In July 1942, for example, he threatened Churchill with a seismic shift in America’s grand strategy from “Europe First” to “Pacific First.” He sought to counter London’s continued push for peripheralism in fighting the Germans, as well as its foot-dragging in launching a frontal invasion of the continent.
Since David Roll has been vigilant in detecting a fallible George Marshall’s “blind spots,” it is only fair that at least a few of the author’s own “blind spots” are identified as well. Sparse words about issues central to understanding the coherence in Marshall’s post-World War II strategic vision deserve comment. Despite being a genuine, complementary, second “Marshall Plan,” Universal Military Training receives mention only twice, and just in passing. Indeed, it is not even listed in the Index.
Probably the biography’s most important oversight has to do with George Marshall’s lifelong, largely solitary self-education, especially the voracious reading habits he developed as he matured. Beginning in adolescence, Marshall became a lover of history and biography, with special interest in the American Civil War as well as Greek and Roman history. Too much has been made of his weakness for westerns and other pulp fiction late in life. His impressive knowledge of the past and its lessons served, ultimately, as a foundation of his statecraft. Constant companion to his sense of duty was his sense of history, a major source of that unyielding confidence in his own judgment.
His second wife Katherine pointed out in Together, her narrative of their first fifteen years of marriage, that “my husband has always been an incessant reader. . . . [H]e would go through a pile of books with the avidity of a swarm of locusts devouring a green field.”1 Katherine knew her husband well. During the Second World War, a peripatetic Marshall logged roughly 100,000 miles per year in the air, many on marathon flights overseas. For him, flying and reading history went hand-in-hand, and he kept libraries in both his planes and homes.
In contrast to a policy-maker blessed with a historical sensibility, for which abundant evidence exists, the entirety of David Roll’s text discloses a solitary chapter on World War I’s Gallipoli campaign to be the sum of Marshall’s acquaintance with history. Those pages comprised but a small part of a larger unspecified volume, written by an unnamed author. He turned them while flying to London in April 1942, for a pivotal Anglo-American conference pitting strategic priorities against one another. Prime Minister Churchill, architect of that earlier military disaster while First Lord of the Admiralty, attended. A fiercely debated Second Front topped the items on its agenda.
The untitled book was actually Soldiers and Statesmen, 1914-1918. A timelier read for a Marshall in quest of a cross-channel invasion as soon as possible is hard to imagine. Its author, Field Marshall Sir William Robertson, had been chief of Britain’s wartime Imperial General Staff, and he thought poorly of Churchill’s strategic blunder back in 1915. Like other histories he read with “avidity” during his lifetime, Marshall’s dip into The Great War had contemporary relevance, bearing directly on upcoming exchanges with a “Former Naval Person.” After all, that earlier peripheral operation in the Dardanelles invited questions about the Prime Minister’s credentials as a strategist, as well as the wisdom of his war planning in the present.
Probably the biography’s most important oversight has to do with George Marshall’s lifelong, largely solitary self-education, especially the voracious reading habits he developed as he matured.
To appreciate the soundness of nearly all of Marshall’s judgments, the fact that he was historically minded in arriving at them should be factored into any story of his life. When absent, interpretations of his achievements and legacies, including one as elegantly argued as David Roll’s, fall somewhat short of the mark.
When addressing June 1950 graduates of his alma mater, Virginia Military Institute, Marshall provided the clearest acknowledgment of profound indebtedness to the teachings of a usable past. “I’ve seldom found myself in a position of importance concerning world affairs in war and in peace,” he confessed, “for which I could not find some historical parallel.”2
David Roll, a provider of many and valuable insights into his subject, would certainly agree that Marshall’s book learning, about which, with characteristic modesty, he almost never boasted, is an invaluable piece of the puzzle. When inserted, we can better understand why George Marshall was equal to so many awesome challenges as soldier and statesman.