Very few American soldiers or statesmen have profoundly altered the course of their nation’s history. Even rarer has been the soldier-statesman whose decisions assured not only victory in war but also the foundations of a lasting peace. Such an American original was George Catlett Marshall, who in 1953 became the only professional soldier to ever receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Often noble and wise, almost a paragon, yet in some instances flawed in judgment, Marshall remains perhaps our most extraordinary and underappreciated leader of the 20th century.
The future five-star general and Army Chief of Staff first distinguished himself during the Great War. But he is best remembered as World War II’s “Organizer of Victory”—Churchill’s apt description of him. Marshall was the architect of a belated mobilization and grand strategy, first modernizing for combat what was in 1939 the 19th largest Army in the world and then mastering the complexities of global allied warfare against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Afterwards, as Secretary of State, he revolutionized America’s relations with the outside world: first, by transforming a failed prewar policy of isolationism into one of internationalism, foreign aid (Marshall Plan), and collective security (NATO); second, by replacing an expedient wartime military alliance with the Soviet Union with a postwar policy of containing communism and Soviet expansionism; and, finally, by serving in many respects as the midwife to an era of world responsibility unparalleled in American history.
The life of George Catlett Marshall, VMI Class of 1901, intersected with his century’s towering political figures. A leader of sterling character and democratic values, Marshall was without personal political ambition or partisanship. His incomparable sense of public duty as its own reward, his professionalism, and his integrity commanded near unanimous respect and admiration. Nonetheless, in one of the perverse twists of American history, Marshall was at the end of his career the target of shrill red-baiting attacks as the supposed villain who “lost China.” After 50 years of selflessness and patriotism, a serene and stoical Marshall remained silent at his retirement home in Leesburg, Virginia.
Marshall’s life has valuable lessons for today’s students of history about the conception and execution of military strategy and foreign policy. Above all, Marshall exemplifies the nature of leadership, even within a world of partisan politics. Our faculty includes W&L emeritus professor of history Barry Machado, Marshall biographer Mark Stoler, and professor of politics Wayne Thompson.