- - Monday, December 1, 2014



By Debi and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshson

HarperCollins, $35, 552 pages, illustrated

A biography of Gen. George Marshall is not to be undertaken lightly. The general was famously austere, a man whose icy stare alone could intimidate staff officers who feared nothing on the battlefield. He was humorless, had few friends and once observed that he had no personal feelings for anyone other than his wife. He was a professional soldier who lived only to serve his country.

Yet no one made a greater impression on his contemporaries. Churchill’s private secretary remarked that there were few people who could mesmerize Churchill, but that Marshall “was one of those few who came close to doing so.” An American general was awed by Marshall’s personality. “I had always the sense that I was in the presence of a man who was altogether my superior in his tremendous determination.”

Debi and Irwin Unger are New York authors who have written several joint biographies. This book is aimed at the general reader.

Born in Pennsylvania, Marshall graduated from VMI and thereafter would be closely associated with the state of Virginia. His very professional work as a staff officer in World War I was recognized by Gen. John J. Pershing, and Marshall spent part of the interwar years as Pershing’s aide.

Marshall came close to resigning in this sterile period of budgetary austerity. He slowly rose in the Army’s ranks, however, and was a newly minted brigadier general in 1938 when, in a White House meeting, his was the only voice in opposition to a presidential decision concerning allocation of fighter aircraft. Many thought that Marshall, with his courageous dissent, had ended any prospects of promotion. But the next year FDR — possibly influenced by Pershing and White House aide Harry Hopkins — appointed Marshall chief of staff over the heads many more senior officers.

Marshall inherited a poorly equipped Army of fewer than 200,000, and a tiny, obsolescent air corps. His immediate task was to increase the Army’s strength, purge it of incompetent officers, train it and equip it for modern warfare. As chief of staff, Marshall organized the largest military expansion in history, but he was obliged to cut some corners. An accelerated training schedule resulted in an army that was formidable in size but deficient in weapons proficiency and combat tactics.

Fortunately, Marshall — even as a middle-grade officer — had been taking note of promising leaders in the event of war. In his legendary “little black book” Marshall had noted the promise of men like Omar Bradley, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower, men who would serve him well. He did not propose “to send our young citizen-soldiers into action under commanders whose minds are no longer adaptable to the making of split-second decisions.”

For all his aloofness, Marshall could relate to the GI in the trenches. He once remarked, “The poor devil in the Army marches tremendous distances; he is in the mud he hasn’t had a full meal and he fights in a place he’s never seen before.”

America’s entry into the war in December 1941 vastly increased Marshall’s responsibilities. He led the strategic decision to make the defeat of Germany the Allies’ first priority, even though it had been Japan that initiated hostilities. Marshall not only favored a Europe-first policy but urged an invasion of Europe at the earliest possible date. This put him at odds with Churchill, who favored a Mediterranean-based strategy in part because of his considerable respect for Hitler’s soldiers.

It was widely assumed that Marshall would command the Allied forces in the invasion of Europe in 1944. Roosevelt demurred, however, remarking that he did not think he could sleep with Marshall out of Washington. It was Dwight Eisenhower who became supreme commander, but it was Marshall who helped Ike in key personnel decisions, backstopped him in many confrontations with the British, and maintained the Allied focus on Europe as opposed to the Pacific.

At the end of the war, Marshall was one of the most respected men in America. In 1947 Harry Truman appointed him secretary of state, and the U.S.-led program to rebuild Europe became known as the Marshall Plan.

But postwar policymaking proved far more controversial than waging war. Following a trip to China, Marshall angered conservatives by concluding that no U.S. troops should be sent to assist Chiang Kai-shek. Regarding the Middle East, Marshall opposed U.S. recognition of Israel on the grounds that Israel could not survive on its own, and that U.S. recognition would lead to war in the Middle East. Truman overruled his secretary of state, for America’s Jewish vote was perceived as crucial in the forthcoming presidential election.

In perhaps his most blunt statement to any president, Marshall told Truman that if he were to recognize Israel “and if I were to vote in the election, I would vote against you.” Such was Marshall’s prestige that he kept his job, and Truman’s respect as well.

Historian and biographer John M. Taylor lives in McLean.

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