General George Catlett Marshall was the US Army Chief of Staff from the day Hitler invaded Poland to the end of World War Two. He followed that with stints as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defence, which gave him at least equal public recognition, and, in the case of the Marshall Plan for economic aid to postwar Europe, possibly greater acclaim. But he never commanded a single soldier in combat. So can he be a great general?
Marshall was from an old Virginian family that considered itself middle class. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in 1901. He had postings around the US and the Philippines until sent to France in 1917, where he was a planner for both training and operations. He moved to Pershing’s headquarters to plan operations, including the Meuse-Argonne offensive, and develop an intimate relationship with the army’s demigod that was to help propel him to a rank partly invented for him. (One of the reasons the Americans adopted the term ‘General of the Army’ instead of using the universally accepted term, was because they didn’t want their first five star army officer to be called Field-Marshall Marshall.)
He switched between staff appointments and commanding barracks – usually for training commands - for most of the interwar period, but was jumped from a one star Brigadier to a four star General between June 30 and September 1 1939 (July and August were spent as a two star Major-General), to take over as Army Chief of Staff. This sort of promotion is unheard of in most other peacetime armies, and presumably either reflected superhuman abilities, or the right connections. Various biographers have suggested either alternative, with some suggesting it needed both.
As a result he was the only Allied Chief of Staff to hold office not just for the period that the US was in the Second World War, but for its entire length. Some of his biographers have used this to claim that he was therefore a greatly superior and greatly more experienced military leader than any of the others members of the CCOS. (Forest Pogue in his magisterial book Organizer of Victory – based on the title Churchill assigned to Marshall – said: “1943… Marshall was more than ever the pre-eminent figure on the military scene both at home and abroad… fast becoming first among equals in… CCOS meetings… the only one of the CCOS to have held his position since the day war in Europe began… more experience than any other military leader in finding resources for his own forces and America’s allies, for dealing with members of Congress, the President, and the general public.
This is an interesting interpretation of what makes a great general when compared to someone like the British CIGS Alan Brooke, who successfully commanded both corps and armies in battle, and army groups in the front line facing invasion, before becoming the professional head of the wartime service, where all but his worst enemies admired his undoubted abilities. I have always wondered what qualities of generalship some biographers put above practical experience in leading troops in combat? Indeed Marshall was certainly the most experienced Bureaucrat of the CCOS (possibly explaining why he got on so well with the equally bureaucratic Field Marshal Dill), but the pre-eminent ‘General’? Not as I understand the term.
So let us analyse the parts of his generalship.
He never led troops in battle, so there is considerable difficulty assessing his abilities compared to others in many regards. But some things can be said.
Personally he was a picture of Robustness for a staff officer, though he never had the stress of field operations. He was an immensely impressive Character, though he never had the chance to demonstrate whether he would be able to inspire troops at the front. He had considerable Humanity, though many would argue that his treatment of individual soldiers as simply replacement parts of a complex machine was not something to be proud of. He had great Spirit, but again never the chance to demonstrate he could infuse it into his troops. All these things appear positive, if un-measurable in combat.
Now for the negatives.
We can judge his Common Sense by what he tried to achieve, and how he responded to failure. Many of the training systems this so-called ‘training-expert’ set up, particularly the Individual Replacement System, were quite disastrous. His refusal to change the system cannot be considered a positive. When Brooke complained in North Africa of the inadequate training of American troops, particularly replacements, Marshall’s frustrated response was “at least they learn”, which was missing the point that the untrained replacements died in vast numbers through not getting a chance to learn. By the end of the war many American units were a weakened conglomeration of tired experienced survivors who were close to breaking (if not actively deserted in their tens of thousands), mixed in with constant levies of poorly trained cannon fodder with a very short life expectancy – often only two or three days. Most of the failures of the common soldier in the American Army in the Second World War can be traced directly to this system.
His ability as a Mentor is also deeply questionable. He managed to pick at least as many failures as successes amongst the generals he appointed to high office, with particular examples like Fredendall (of whom he said “One of the best”… “I like that man, you can see determination all over his face”…); and Lucas, failing miserably in battle. Many of his other choices were highly questionable (Clark and Hodges will be other posts), and some like Lee (Eisenhower’s logistics commander in France and another post), were indefensible. He, like Auchinleck, showed a distressing willingness to stick by proven failures, and to refuse to dismiss them no matter what. At the very best he was only average in this category.
Because he never led troops, ever, his Operational abilities can only be judged on what we can gather from his suggestions and orders to others. What they reveal is a man too far removed from the realities of the front line.
Planning, like training, was supposed to be a specialty of Marshall’s, and indeed here he deserves the greatest praise. He converted an army of a few hundred thousand into a force of 8 million, and more or less made it work. Unfortunately the bureaucratic achievement is somewhat undermined by the practical results. The plan had been for over 200 divisions, not the 90 he finished with. The plan had been for a brilliant inter-operability of troops, not the frantic conversions to plug gaps that became necessary in France. The plan had been for the best equipment, not to make the barely adequate stuff available in 1942 (tanks and anti-tank guns spring to mind here) hang on in service until it was completely outclassed. The plan was to create an unsurpassed military force, not a barely average one reliant on willingness to take almost unlimited casualties to make gains. As a mastermind of expansion, Marshall was excellent: but the devil is in the detail, and the detail looks decidedly less impressive.
Logistics is an area where Americans pride themselves. Pity Marshall never understood it very well. Not in terms of producing the correct equipment, and not in terms of improving the speed and reliability of its transport. Certainly he (and Roosevelt) created vast quantities of materials, but a surprising amount of American production was obsolete even as it was being produced. The British had an excuse for continuing to produce 2 pounder anti-tank guns instead of the 6 pounder replacements they knew were needed in 1940 and 1941… they were facing imminent invasion. The Americans had no excuse for producing tens of thousands of outdated tanks and aircraft in 1943, and 1944, which just went into storage. The P39 Airocobra for instance, supposedly an air superiority fighter, had been declared obsolete by the British for European operations even before Pearl Harbour, and thereafter was used in Europe largely as ground attack aircraft by minor allies like co-belligerent Italy, Poland and even Portugal. It was nonetheless kept in production until July 1944, with a large number of the planes produced being crated and stored (though about a third went to the Russians who actually had a combat environment that suited them). Certainly GI’s watching ‘Tommy-Cooker’ British Sherman’s - at least equipped with 17 pounders that could stop any German tank - had reason to wonder why they were still using ‘Ronson-lighter’ Sherman’s, with short barreled 75mm guns that fired shells that bounced off. Marshall got a huge force into action with a lot of equipment. Pity so much of the force and the equipment was sub-standard.
More importantly Marshall never really understood the significance of opening the Mediterranean, no matter how often the shipping figures were shown to him. This theoretically could be considered a single minded, if misguided, pursuit of the most direct approach to attacking Germany from Britain: until one remembers that he was just as keen on getting supplies to China along the most lengthy and difficult supply line in the world. The lack of consistency implies that this was another area he failed to understand very well.
Topography and Movement. Again, the American military is very big on map-reading. Marshall was very big on it himself, and rightly pointed out that mountainous Italy was hardly a ‘soft underbelly’. (Though Churchill of course meant politically not geographically.) Yet his other efforts at long distance map reading from Washington are somewhat dubious. He was against British plans to invade North Africa through ports further into the Med because he preferred the ‘safer’ Atlantic Coast. (Luckily the normal swell which would have ruined the Morroccan attack was quite that particular day). Why he felt that troops who needed the ‘safety’ of distance from the Axis in North Africa, would be better suited to a head on attack on veteran German forces in France, is a mystery. Yet in both North Africa and France he then planned nice straight lines of attack in complete disregard of terrain. He argued against a campaign in mountainous northern Italy, and then supported Eisenhower’s plan to advance into the forests and mountains of Southern Germany instead of along the North Sea coastal plain. Then consider his favoured ‘hump’ route for supplies to China. There is little to demonstrate that he had above average understanding of topography or movement.
Tactics. Again, Marshall never commanded troops in battle, but he did suggest lots of ideas to his field commanders, so we can get some idea of his grasp of tactics. The best revelations are probably in the book ‘Dear General’ which runs through Eisenhower’s correspondence with his mentor. The editor himself comments that Eisenhower starts as a supplicant, but gradually grows more willing to argue with his mentor. By the end there is a feeling of exasperation from Ike when Marshall suggests clearly ridiculous things like dropping an airborne corps into France far from the chance of possible relief. Combined with his clear failure to understand the problems of invasions, we cannot rate Marshall’s tactical understanding very high.
Combined Operations are actually a particular problem for Marshall. The great proponent of an invasion in 1942 or 1943 admits in1944 that apparently a worldwide lack of Landing Ship - Tanks might be an issue (while commenting that he had hardly heard of the things a year ago).
Marshall scores somewhat better in Command abilities, but again there is always the suggestion that his Olympian perspective from Washington is far too remote from the realities at the front. He was a firm believer in good clear instructions, and his Clarity can only be admired when it comes to administrative matters. (When it comes to what he would like to happen on the battlefield however, some of his more optimistic orders to Eisenhower and Stillwell sound about as convincing as Hitler’s orders to von Paulus at Stalingrad.)
He was excellent at Delegation within the Pentagon, and no underling ever doubted that attempting to stretch or thwart his orders would bring down the wrath of God. Good people were encouraged, bad disciplined. But again there are questionable examples such as letting his administrative generals get away with unsavoury behaviour like bugging British officers they didn’t like. More worryingly, it is clear that he let distance affect his control. Again, it is unlikely General ‘Jesus-Christ-Himself’ Lee would have got away with a quarter of what he did in France if Marshall had been close enough to see what was happening. In fact this is the most concerning part of his delegation. Why didn’t any of his own people, in his own hierarchy, tell him what was going on. Or why did he ignore any who did? How much did he ignore feedback that didn’t meet his preconceptions?
There is no doubt that Marshall was excellent at relations with his political master, as long as you only include Roosevelt on that list. It is not clear that he ever understood that in the sort of coalition he was in, the political masters of the CCOS included the Prime Minister of the equal partner. (Having said that, Dill was better at relations with Roosevelt than with Churchill too: but then Roosevelt rarely actually consulted or really listened the way Churchill interacted with his generals.)
Marcshall also tried quite hard to be good at Relations with allies and other services. Certainly he was outstandingly superior to Admiral King in this regard, though the somewhat junior Chief of the Army Air Force, General Arnold, was even better. Yet he expressed constant frustration with others - British, French, Poles, even Canadians - for not seeing things his way. Eventually he let this frustration overflow into ignoring requests that he didn’t feel were important, and encouraging Eisenhower and MacArthur to do as they saw fit regardless of the opinions of his fellow CCOS, or of their host governments.
Perhaps this would have been reasonable, had Marshall demonstrated that his Strategic sense was superior to that of his Allies. But he never showed much in the way of ability in this regard. His frustration with his allies came down to the fact that he simply wanted to invade Germany by the shortest route as quickly as possible. He wanted to hit the northern French beaches in 1942, or at least 1943, and always believed that anything else was a frustrating diversion. He never agreed with clearing North Africa first. He never desired to go to the effort of knocking Italy (and her large army and navy) out of the war. He never understood the implications of clearing the Mediterranean on Allied shipping and troop movements. He never believed that there was any need to tie down dozens of good German divisions in Italy, the Balkans and Southern France. He never understood that Allies arriving over beaches in France could not possibly build up faster than Germans arriving by train (unless the German army was weakened and their communications shattered – something certainly beyond Allied ability in 1942 and probably also in 1943). He never agreed that American troops might need a little battle hardening in nice remote locations like North Africa or Sicily or Italy before facing the Germans in an attempted rampage across northern France. He never acknowledged the many failures of these troops (and some of his handpicked generals) in North Africa and Italy. He never even recognized that he simply was not sending enough troops towards Europe fast enough to make an earlier invasion anything but an assault against superior numbers. (Though he contributed to this by his constant collusion with King that if France was not going to be invaded right now, they could put off new forces so they could do more in the Pacific.) He supported Eisenhower’s ‘broad front’ strategy in France, even after the German army collapsed and a Blitzkrieg was a genuine alternative.
He believed in the value of the Chinese, regardless of all evidence. He trusted the Russians, regardless of all evidence. He opposed Churchill’s first attempt to save the Greek islands, and was unhappy about the second, successful attempt, to save Greece itself from the communists. He agreed with Eisenhower’s decision not to advance to Berlin, or even into Czechoslovakia. He supported the planned invasion of Japan even though he knew that the Japanese wanted to surrender. He agreed to the decision to drop the Atomic bombs, possibly mainly because he had finally realized that the Russians were untrustworthy.
Here we overlap into the realm of Geopolitics, and this is definitely one of Marshall’s weak areas. He apparently believed wars were for military victory, not to achieve political goals. He seemed to honestly think that once the enemies were defeated, the Allies would have a nice chat and agree to things. He was dragged kicking and screaming behind British moves to save Greece and Trieste and Denmark, and managed to prevent them saving Czechoslovakia. He then went to post war China and almost single handedly (according to McCarthy and even – much to Marshall’s shock - Eisenhower), handed over China to the Communists – leading to a domino chain in North Korea, Vietnam and Burma, and a long civil war in Malaya. In fact Marshall’s contribution to the postwar strategic situation was more to provide a firm foundation for the Cold War, rather than to contribute to a new Golden Age. That is as true when he was Secretary of State or Secretary of Defence as when he was COS.
The summary of all this would suggest that Marshall was a good administrator, but not a good general. I suppose it is possible that had he remained a two star and commanded a division or corps early in the war before progressing to three star - preferably under a particularly good mentor - he might have developed into a reasonable army commander, but this seems doubtful. He simply lacked Operational skills across the board. He certainly failed to understand equipment requirements. His correct place was certainly as a staff officer, and here he was certainly one of the best of the war. The mistake (common to most armies) was in thinking that a good staff officer makes a good executive commander. (See Churchill appointing Dill, Dill appointing Percival, Canadian PM King appointing Crerar, Stalin appointing Voroshilov, or Togo appointing Mutaguchi.)
Marshall was an impressive man of great character, but probably lacked the skills to have made a good frontline leader. He was a brilliant administrator and bureaucrat, possibly the ideal person to expand an army: but not a good CIC, and certainly needed someone to over-rule his stubbornness on such disastrous decisions as the Individual Replacement System and mass production of outdated equipment. He was a very poor choice to help design global strategy, and Brooke was probably right to wish he had the vainglorious MacArthur (who he considered to be both strategically and geopolitically excellent) in Washington instead. Marshall’s limited military viewpoint missed the whole point of why nations fight wars, with dire consequences for future generations.
In summary Marshall is in the same category as Dill. A great man, a noble man, a brave man, but completely out of his depth in the wrong job. Marshall, as the strategic voice of the United States, failed completely either to shorten the war (his personal goal), or to leave the world better placed for peace afterwards (the goal of a truly professional national military commander).