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Europe: George Catlett Marshall -- A Selfless Public Servant

  • Don Hill

Prague, 26 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- George Catlett Marshall failed spectacularly at his first diplomatic assigment as a civilian. So President Harry S. Truman then named him U.S. secretary of state. And from there Marshall championed the plan that lifted Western Europe from black post-war depression and changed the direction of history. What happened was this:

General Marshall became chief of staff of the U.S. Army on September 1, 1939, the day that Nazi Germany set off World War II by invading Poland. He directed the U.S. military build-up for the war. He recommended the choice of General Dwight D. Eisenhower as commander of allied forces in Europe. He advocated the Normandy invasion of June 1944. After victory and when he reached age 65, he retired in triumph.

But a few days later, in political need of a dramatic action, Truman persuaded Marshall to go to China as a special envoy to mediate between the Chinese Nationalist forces of Chiang Kai-shek and those of Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong. The China peace mission failed on all fronts. Marshall, renowned as a man of his word, was frustrated by the cunning and duplicitous word-play of Chinese leaders on both sides.

But such was the regard of Truman and other U.S. political figures for Marshall that, when Truman nominated him for secretary of state, the U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed the nomination in January 1947 without a hearing.

Almost immediately, Marshall led a U.S. delegation to a foreign ministers' conference in Moscow to discuss German war reparations and other issues of postwar Europe. There he once again was frustrated by diplomatic duplicity. He came home in April 1947 convinced that the Soviets were deliberately sabotaging agreement, hoping to gain advantage from a perpetually disrupted and impoverished Europe. In a U.S. radio speech after his return, Marshall put it this way : "The patient is sinking while the doctors deliberate."

Marshall's answer was to order his State Department to determine what Europe needed in economic aid and how the United States should provide it. There followed the famous Marshall Plan speech at Harvard University on June 5, 1947. He said in that speech: "The remedy lies in breaking the vicious circle and restoring the confidence of the European people in the economic future of their own countries and of Europe as a whole."

In the months afterwards, Marshall -- famed in the Army as a planner and tactician -- organized a successful congressional and public-relations campaign to support U.S. economic cooperation with post-war Europe.

Everything in his life had prepared Marshall for this time.

He was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the son of a prosperous coal merchant whose family roots were in the U.S. South. He attended Virginia Military Institute, graduating in 1901. VMI -- like the United States Military Academy at West Point -- seeks to instill in its cadets the virtue of reverence for "Duty, Honor, Country." For the rest of his career, Marshall's patriotism and sense of duty were legendary among his military colleagues. So were his uprightness and cool asperity that once led the general to say: "I have no feelings, except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall."

Marshall's rise in the Army, mainly in staff positions, was continual. During World War I, he helped plan the 1918 Meuse-Argonne offensive. Later, as a senior faculty member at the U.S. Army Infantry School, he extended his influence to a whole generation of U.S. fighting commanders.

Some critics expressed concern about allowing what they called "a military mind" to hold civilian offices, such as special envoy and secretary of state, usually reserved for proven statesmen. One such statesman, Dean Acheson, responded with these words: "Nothing could be more mistaken than to believe that General Marshall's mind was a military mind in the sense that it was dominated by military considerations."

Before he retired as secretary of state in 1949 for reasons of health, Marshall worked within the United Nations for world peace. He called for the rearmament of Western Europe to contain Soviet expansionism, and he helped prepare for the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

When the United States entered the Korean War a year later, duty, honor and country called the old general once again. President Truman named him secretary of defense. He built up the Army, and won unprecedented U.S. domestic support for reinstituting universal military training. Even with a hot war in Asia, he didn't forget Europe. He continued to support and develop NATO.

In 1953, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded Marshal the Nobel Prize for Peace, the first professional warrior so honored. The committee cited his achievements in advancing European economic recovery.

George Catlett Marshall died in 1959 at age 78. World War II Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson had once described him as "one of the most selfless public officials I have ever known." Marshall surely would have appreciated that as an appropriate epitaph.