As V-E Day drew to a close, Secretary of War Henry Stimson gathered a group of top generals and officials in his office and sent for Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. "I have never seen a task of such magnitude performed by a man," Stimson said to Marshall in front of everyone. "I have seen a great many soldiers in my lifetime and you, Sir, are the finest soldier I have ever known."
Such flattery usually sounds insincere or ridiculous, but not when applied to George Catlett Marshall. The only man to ever serve as both secretary of state and secretary of defense, his greatest achievement may have been devising the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt a devastated Europe after World War II. Born in the same year as Douglas MacArthur, he is perhaps the only other military man to play major roles in both World Wars as well as the early years of the Cold War. But Marshall was as reserved as MacArthur was flamboyant, as self-effacing as MacArthur was egotistical. The two men offer a fascinating study in contrasts.
Growing up in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, Marshall developed a love for the outdoors evident in the early-morning horseback rides he maintained even during the war. After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute (he had been rejected by West Point), Marshall quickly made a name for himself in the Army. He performed so brilliantly at the Army Staff College that in 1908 he was made an exception to the rule that barred anyone below the grade of captain from serving as an instructor. During the war in France, Marshall cemented his reputation as a brilliant staff officer under General Pershing, who faced unprecedented logistical and strategic difficulties. Again, the contrast with the romantic, swashbuckling MacArthur is irresistible: Marshall is largely credited with planning the decisive Meuse-Argonne offensive, which included the battle at the Cote de Chatillon, scene of MacArthur's most conspicuous acts of bravery. "In many ways," comments Marshall biographer Mark Stoler, "Douglas MacArthur was the last great 19th century soldier, while George Marshall was the first great 20th century soldier."
The inter-war years were alternately fulfilling and frustrating for Marshall. He enjoyed his time at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he helped lay the foundation for the army he would lead in the next war. In the words of historian Eric Larrabee, "Benning became Mother Church, spinning off disciples and replicate institutions that could carry the Word, center of a True Faith that radiated outward in concentric circles like the ripples on a pond, until they reached every corner of it." The low-point came in the early 1930s, courtesy of Chief of Staff MacArthur, who assigned him to run the Illinois National Guard. But even there the experience he gained in working with civilians would later serve him well.
Two weeks after the Munich conference in the fall of 1938, Marshall was named deputy chief of staff. Less than a year later, as the Nazi war machine went into high gear, President Roosevelt passed over 33 more senior generals to name Marshall Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Taking the oath of office on September 1, 1939, the day Hitler invaded Poland, Marshall spent the next six years building and running an army charged with winning the greatest military conflict the world had ever known. He proved such a gifted administrator and global strategist that Franklin Roosevelt was forced to give the job Marshall coveted, the command of Operation Overlord for the invasion of France, to Dwight Eisenhower, saying to Marshall, "I didn't feel I could sleep at ease with you out of Washington." Winston Churchill probably came the closest to describing Marshall's importance in the war effort when he cabled Washington late in the war: "He is the true 'organizer of victory.'" The debt Europeans owed Marshall only deepened in the late 1940s, when, as Secretary of State, he crafted and sold to the American people the generous and far-sighted Marshall Plan, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953.
In November of 1945, President Truman made Marshall his personal representative to China, where he tried to broker a settlement of the civil war between the Nationalists and Communists. The failure of the mission, coupled with the "loss" of China to the Communists in 1949, resulted in vicious attacks on Marshall and members of the State Department from anti-communist crusaders like Senator Joseph McCarthy. Given Marshall's unquestionable patriotism and postwar role in formulating the Truman administration's strong anti-communist policies, such attacks were ludicrous. Suffering from serious health problems, Marshall retired in 1949, only to be called back to duty as Secretary of Defense during the next great crisis: the war in Korea.
Parallel careers and divergent temperaments had placed Marshall and MacArthur in opposition many times before: in World War I, it was the staff officer vs. the front line warrior; in World War II, the global manager vs. the theater commander with a bad case of "localitis." During the war in Korea, Marshall's reluctant but unwavering support of the President's dismissal of General MacArthur placed the two in conflict once again. But on balance, when one considers what each man accomplished during a long and often perilous stretch in history, one thing seems clear: America was lucky to have them both.