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George C. Marshall: WW2, Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Matthew Hill
George C. Marshall was the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during World War II, and Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense under President Truman. He promoted the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe, and in 1953 won the Nobel Peace Prize.

Roots of a General

For much of his military career, George C. Marshall worked in the background, perhaps best known an organizational and administrative tactician, who is rightly credited with orchestrating American victory in World War II.

Marshall was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1880. His father worked in the mining industry, but Marshall opted for military service and attended the Virginia Military Institute. He served in the Philippines, completed the Infantry-Cavalry School in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and later returned to Army service in the Philippines. During World War I, he served as an aide-de-camp to General John Pershing and then was assigned to service in China. Returning, he taught at the Army War College and as head instructor at Fort Benning in Georgia.

Photo of George C. Marshall
George C. Marshall

Marshall as Army Chief of Staff

Marshall had built a reputation for his commanding disposition and organizational skills. The same day Germany invaded Poland, he was appointed the Army Chief of Staff. His primary task was to coordinate the war effort from the home front. He served as the eyes and ears of president Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), consulted with Congress, allocated resources and manpower in the European and Pacific theaters, built wartime coalitions, and served as a bridge between the military and politicians.

His role was like that of a director who worked behind the camera rather than be in the spotlight. This can best be illustrated with the D-Day command issue. It was assumed that Marshall would be given the lead command for the D-Day invasion plan he developed, where troops would invade France via the beaches of Normandy to fight the Axis powers. True to his character, Marshall did not lobby for this position. FDR knew he deserved it, but he chose Eisenhower instead, stating that Marshall was too valuable for him at home; the significance of this is that it was Eisenhower who won most of the accolades for the successes at D-Day.

The 90-Division Gamble

Marshall's most controversial position was the so-called 90-division gamble. The general estimate was that the U.S. needed 200 divisions to carry out a robust war effort, but business leaders in the industrial and agricultural sectors worried that calling up troops in that number would drain their work forces too drastically. Marshall had the unenviable position of having to juggle the manpower needs in both the European and Pacific theaters, which changed constantly depending on the wartime situation.

Marshall opted to maintain the U.S. military forces at 90 divisions, well below the recommendation. The plan was to maintain this smaller number of divisions, but keep them at full-capacity through rotating replacements. This would allow more men to stay on the home front longer and contribute to the industrial and agricultural output of the nation. Marshall took a lot of heat for this, but his logic was that the best asset of the United States was its massive industrial capacity. His strategy, which worked in the end, allocated enough resources for both domestic and military operations, provided a fresh rotation of troops, and stressed technological innovation over raw numbers of troops.

George C. Marshall centered in the back row between Roosevelt and Churchill at the Atlantic Conference
Marshall at Atlantic Conference

Marshall and Wartime Conferences

Marshall did more than desk duty; he participated in most of the high-profile wartime conferences. He was present at the Atlantic Charter Conference off the coast of Newfoundland between the British Prime Minister and President Roosevelt, in which the two parties discussed wartime alliance and goals. He was also at the Casablanca Conference in Morocco, which established the principle of unconditional surrender of the Axis forces. In February 1945, he attended the critical Yalta Conference that hatched the idea of the United Nations, the postwar occupation of Germany, and Soviet assistance against Japan. Lastly, at the Potsdam Conference with President Harry S. Truman in July-August 1945, they discussed the fate of Germany and Japan in a tense series of talks.

Marshall standing third from left at the Casablanca Conference
Marshall at the Casablanca Conference

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