Marshall, George Catlett (1880-1959)

U.S. Army

George C. Marshall was born in Pennsylvania and graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901, receiving his commission the next year. He graduated first in the 1907 class of the Infantry and Cavalry School.  He served as a staff officer under Pershing in World War I, rising to the rank of colonel, but in accordance with U.S. Army regulations he reverted to his peacetime rank of captain at the end of the war.  He would not become a colonel again until the 1930’s, when he was appointed commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Marshall planned the redeployment of the AEF from St. Mihiel to participate in the Meuse-Argonne offensive and thereby established himself as one of the Army's premier logisticians. He also planned the final Meuse-Argonne offensive. However, he had the perspicacity to realize that the American experience of the First World War was potentially deeply misleading, since it was limited to participation in the final stages of a static, semi-siege campaign, and that future warfare would more likely to be a war of movement in which confusion would reign. Marshall became an expert trainer of troops in a more roundabout fashion. During the depths of the Depression, he ran Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Illinois and Washington and was an instructor for the Illinois National Guard. These experiences would serve him well during the massive expansion of the Army in the early years of the Second World War.

Marshall had once witnessed a bright and promising lieutenant fold up in a field exercise in China.  The lieutenant had superb marks from West Point and knew “the book” inside and out, but when an unexpected situation arose, he was completely at a loss. "The man was no fool, but he had been taught an absurd system.... I learned that he had stood first at Benning, and I then and there formed an intense desire to get my hands on Benning" (Larrabee 1987). Marshall decided that the primary goal of the Infantry School would be to teach officers how to cope with the confusion that always reigns on the battlefield.  He did this in two ways:  First, the school taught only one tactic, the hook.  This tactic was simplicity itself:  Two maneuver units would attack to pin down the enemy at the objective, and a third maneuver unit would attempt to get around behind the enemy.  This tactic was appropriate for the triangular organization then being adopted by the Army, was applicable at any level from platoon to army group, and did not require extensive communications and coordination — which Marshall expected to see break down on any future battlefield anyway.

The second method used by Marshall to teach officers how to deal with confusion was to deliberately generate as much of it as possible.  Officers at the Infantry School were given ambiguous orders. On field exercises, they might discover that road signs had been switched. Or they might discover that the maps they were supplied with were (literally) written in Greek.  Many officers concluded that Marshall was off his nut.  But some caught on to what Marshall was up to.  The names of these officers often found their way into Marshall’s black notebook of prospective future generals.

Marshall became chief of staff of the Army in September 1938, despite the opposition of rival general Douglas MacArthur, largely because of the patronage of Pershing.  He proved to be a superb choice, putting an end to the second-class status of Army aviation, successfully lobbying Congress to relax the strict seniority rules for officer promotion (so that he could promote promising young officers over older incompetents), quietly supporting civilian Grenville Clark's successful call in 1940 for a peacetime draft, and managing the complete reorganization of the old Army bureau system into Army Ground Forces, Army Air Forces, and Army Service Forces. Marshall is rightly regarded as one of the principal architects of the Allied victory, yet until late 1941 he was doubtful of the wisdom of American intervention in the war. However, his extraordinary organizational skill cost him the opportunity to lead the Allied assault on Europe, a posting that went to Eisenhower instead, because Roosevelt could not bear to see Marshall out of the country.

Marshall was guilty of perhaps only one major mistake in the management of the Army prior to and during the war, but it was a real boner:  He believed that individual riflemen could be trained to be interchangeable parts that could be installed anywhere in the military machine.  Marshall thought this would make it possible to keep a division in the field indefinitely, so that fewer divisions would be required.  Instead of rotating a division out of the line when it became depleted, fully trained replacements would be sent forward to keep the division at strength.  This was a disastrous policy.  The replacements had not trained with their new unit, and unit cohesiveness suffered accordingly.  Wounded soldiers who recovered were returned to a different unit than the one they had left, which was disastrous for morale.  The replacement depots charged with implementing these policies quickly acquired a deservedly foul reputation for being little better than prisons.  It is noteworthy that neither the Marines nor the Army’s own airborne divisions, which were elite units, adopted Marshall’s replacement policy.

Despite serving as Chief of Staff during the greatest war in the nation’s history, Marshall is little known today as a military commander.  He is probably best known for the postwar Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, which he promoted while serving as secretary of state under Truman.  For his contribution to this plan, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the only professional soldier to ever be so honored.  Perhaps predictably, there were widespread Communist-orchestrated protests of the award.

Marshall had a fierce temper, but this more often expressed itself as cold contempt than as a volcanic outburst. Eisenhower wrote in 1942 that "I've never seen a man who apparently developes a higher pressure of anger at some piece of stupidity. Yet the outburst is so fleeting ..." (Larrabee 1987). Marshall's determination to rapidly silence his anger led some associates to make the mistake of believing it was the initial anger that was put on. Marshall could also be ruthless in preparing the Army for its greatest test in combat. When an old friend objected to being sent overseas on the grounds that his wife was away and his furniture unpacked, Marshall took the phone to tell him he would be retired immediately.

Marshall became the target of some of the most scurrilous accusations leveled by Joseph McCarthy.  Marshall retained his dignity and refused to strike back, but it is clear that both the accusations and the failure of President Eisenhower to come to his defense smarted.  Perhaps the greatest irony is that the Venona decrypts, released in the 1990s, proved that there really were a number of Communist agents in key positions within the United States government in the postwar years; but McCarthy’s demagoguery and knack for picking the wrong targets did far more damage to the anti-Communist movement than to the Communists.

Service record


Born in Pennsylvania

Graduates from Virginia Military Institute
2 Lieutenant     
30 Regiment, Philippines

Infantry and Cavalry School
1 Lieutenant     

Army Staff CollegeMarshall

Instructor, Army Staff College

Military observer, Europe


1 Division

Chief of staff, VIII Corps

G3, 1 Army; planned St. Mihiel offensive

Aide-de-camp to Pershing
Lieutenant colonel     
Executive officer, 15 Regiment

Assistant commandant, Infantry School
Commander, 8 Regiment

Senior instructor, Illinois National Guard
Brigadier general
Commander, 5 Brigade

Director of War Plans, War Department

Deputy chief of staff, U.S. Army
Chief of staff, U.S. Army
General of the Army     



Secretary of State

Secretary of Defense
Nobel Peace Prize     


Dies at Walter Reed Hospital


Boatner (1996)

Dupuy et al. (1992) (accessed 2007-11-26)

Larrabee (1987)

Perret (1991)

Venzon (2003)

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