- - Sunday, June 30, 2019


By David L. Roll

Caliber, $34, 704 pages

In 1938, during one of his first meetings with President Franklin Roosevelt, Gen. George Marshall listened to plans to counter Hitler’s military build-up by amassing an air force of 10,000 planes immediately, followed by 20,000 annually.

Other persons in the room chimed agreement, then FDR turned to Marshall, who was soon to become chief of staff. “Don’t you think so, George?” the confident president asked.

Marshall believed that the proposal was amateurish and militarily unsound, that the projected price far exceeded the money available. Further, he had spent the past years building the ground Army which he felt vital for America’s defense. So he replied, “I am sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t agree with that at all.” The planes idea died.

Such an informed dissent was a hallmark for one of the most notable Americans of the 20th century — a man who author David Roll terms “the only soldier-statesman in the history of America worthy of being compared favorably with George Washington.”

Yet Marshall has managed to slip away in history, overshadowed by contemporary Dwight D. Eisenhower. He shunned publicity; he did not write a memoir.

At hand is a deeply researched and masterfully written work that relies in part on never-used documents, one that should establish Marshall at the top of any list of American titans.

Marshall had a rare trait of candor when talking with superiors, a quality lacking in far too many public figures. His speak-the-truth attitude made him a trusted figure, even with such over-bearing characters such as Prime Minister Winston Churchill during the war years.

Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Marshall graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901 at a time when a military commission was not automatic. Marshall worked political channels into a face-to-face meeting with President William McKinley, who heard out the young man’s enthusiasm and cleared the way for him to become an officer.

During World War I, the young Capt. Marshall displayed the courage to speak up against authority when he felt he was right. Gen. John Pershing, the U.S. commander, harshly criticized a newly-arrived unit for inadequate training.

Angry eyes flashing, Marshall rightly put the blame on Pershing’s own headquarters. He later told friends he “felt his career had ended” and that he’d “be fired right off.”

But rather than being offended, Pershing was impressed with Marshall’s “constructive criticism.” The men were friends thereafter. And in a battle for Cantigny, France, Marshall showed bravery in combat when he came under artillery and small-arms fire for hours.

As war loomed in the late 1930s, Marshall set about rebuilding a dilapidated American Army. He developed a revamped infantry training school at Fort Benning, Georgia, and he organized a series of extensive maneuvers throughout the southeast to best the mettle of troops. He kept a book to jot the names of outstanding officers.

Marshall’s reputation by wartime was such that Roosevelt made him chief of staff of the Army and entrusted him with devising strategy for fighting a two-front war.

The intra-Allied brawls were fierce, especially with Churchill, who was hell-bent on an invasion of Europe long before American troops were ready. Roosevelt entrusted Marshall to handle negotiations that relied heavily on plain talk, even when Churchill was infuriated.

And here is where author Roll, a lawyer by training, shows skill in explaining the tangled maze of legalities of the war-time agreements, and how Marshall ably pushed the American positions. FDR considered Marshall so valuable that he kept him in Washington and designated Eisenhower to lead the assault on continental Asia.

Post-war, President Harry Truman charged Marshall with the impossible task of uniting competing forces in China. With overwhelming Soviet military support, the Chinese communists prevailed.

But Marshall’s major achievement — perhaps the most important of his public career — was creating the economic plan that restored the war-torn nations of Western Europe.

The Marshall Plan bore political risks. The charter offered membership to all nations that fought in the wartime alliance — which included the increasingly hostile Soviet Union. Sighs of official relief perhaps caused white caps on the Potomac when Joseph Stalin ordered satellite nations not accept the offered U.S. aid.

In his private life, Marshall chose privacy over exploitation of his accomplishments. Mr. Roll depicts two happy marriages — first to a VMI sweetheart and after her death, to a woman who shared his retirement years.

Marshall’s 50-odd years of public service were capped in 1953 with the Nobel Peace Prize. With an obvious eye on the Soviets, he declared that “a very strong military posture is vitally necessary today.” Of equal importance was “a readiness to cooperate” with other nations in preserving peace.

As Mr. Roll concludes, “If you want to test a man’s character, give him power.” And by any measure, “General George Marshall passed the test.”

• Joseph C. Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and military matters.

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