[OPINION] George Marshall: A Public Servant and the Public Good

By Park Sae-jin Posted : March 20, 2024, 15:54 Updated : March 20, 2024, 15:54
Arthur I Cyr
[Arthur I. Cyr]

[This article was contributed by Arthur I. Cyr, author of "After the Cold War -- American Foreign Policy, Europe and Asia" (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He has taught at the Universities of Chicago and Illinois, Northwestern University, and Carthage College (Clausen Distinguished Professor).]

KENOSHA, March 20 (AJU PRESS) -- One antidote to our poisonous, nasty political atmosphere is to consider especially significant positive leaders of our past. Author, educator and soldier Josiah Bunting III has done just that for us in producing a new biography of General George C. Marshall.

Marshall, one of the greatest soldiers produced by our or any other nation, is what we used to refer to as a dedicated public servant. As chief of staff of the U.S. Army, he did essential work to get a dangerously unprepared America at least partially ready for World War II, and then led the mammoth organizational effort required for victory. He later served as secretary of state and secretary of defense during the trying post-war years, when the Cold War and Korean War both began.

Marshall wanted very much to lead the Normandy invasion but that mission went to his protégé Dwight Eisenhower. FDR considered Marshall indispensable in his wartime role and stated he would not be able to sleep at night if the general were out of the country. Ever the good soldier, 

Marshall apparently never directly discussed his very intense personal desire with the president. He did his duty with dedication, consistently putting the national interest above his own.

Along with remarkable administrative ability, Marshall demonstrated exceptional diplomatic and political skill. Following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army surrounded American forces in the Philippines under the command of General Douglas MacArthur, a man widely disliked and mistrusted among fellow officers and more generally in Washington. President Roosevelt nevertheless did not want the American commander to become a Japanese prisoner and ordered an evacuation to Australia.

Marshall followed up thoroughly to ensure that media and public, at home and abroad, knew that this was not MacArthur’s decision, and that the government of Australia provided a positive and supportive welcome. The ultimate professional, he never let personal opinion of MacArthur interfere. The ultimate staffer, he devoted the time necessary for operational success.

Bunting’s book focuses primarily on Marshall’s earlier years, before his central and instrumental roles in planning and command during World War II. As a boy, he was extremely shy and reticent, apparently very much in the shadow of an accomplished businessman father and an older brother already headed to military education and training at Virginia Military Institute.

Marshall followed in his brother’s footsteps by going to VMI, a respected educational institution but not the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Then, as before and since, West Point was the professional training ground for future top leaders of the Army.

World War I confirmed Marshall’s growing reputation. Bunting emphasizes this was the result not of genius, but extraordinary focus, discipline and sheer hard work.

Marshall is rarely discussed today. He put little personal information in the public record, and never wrote memoirs, likely in part because he feared inadvertently revealing details about the war and aftermath that were best kept private. Also, at least in part – incredibly from a contemporary perspective – he felt strongly that patriotic citizens should not benefit financially from government office. For him, public service was literally just that, a privilege.

Fortunately, Forrest Pogue authored a masterful comprehensive biography of this great leader. Josiah Bunting has done a fine job of supplementing and enriching that mammoth work.
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