George C. Marshall (1880–1959)


George C. Marshall was a soldier-statesman who served the United States in times of war and peace as Chief of Staff of the Army, secretary of state, and the third secretary of defense. (The position had previously been known as secretary of war.) Having served as chief military advisor to U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marshall supervised the U.S. Army during World War II (1939–1945). As secretary of state he gave his name to the Marshall Plan, the primary plan of the United States for rebuilding the allied countries of Europe and repelling communism after World War II, for which he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. Educated at the Virginia Military Institute, he was a longtime resident of Virginia.

Early Years

George Catlett Marshall Jr. was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on December 31, 1880, the fourth child of George Catlett Marshall and Laura Bradford Marshall. His father, a businessman, was distantly related to the U.S. Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall. He graduated from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington in 1901, having risen to captain of cadets, and entered the U.S.

George C. Marshall at VMI

Army the following year as a second lieutenant. In that year he also married Elizabeth Carter Coles, who died in 1927; they had no children. In 1930 he married Katherine Brown, a widow with three children.

From 1902 until 1916, Marshall served in the Philippines twice and on several stateside army posts, including Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he graduated first in his class at the cavalry school. In his many assignments, Marshall was recognized for his leadership and his talent for staff work, working amicably with senior generals, National Guard units, and civilians. Such experience served him well in France during World War I (1914–1918). Assigned to the staff of the First Division and then to that of General John Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Force, Marshall helped to plan the offensives of Cantigny, St. Mihiel, and Meuse-Argonne. He became chief of operations for the American First Army.

During the interwar years, Marshall attributed his slow advancement to his assignment to staff work rather than field commands. Nonetheless, he continued to serve with distinction in a variety of assignments that would prepare him for future high command. From 1921 until 1924 he was chief aide to Pershing, who was then the highest ranking army officer in U.S. history and serving as the Army Chief of Staff. He became Marshall’s mentor and promoter. Marshall served in China with the 15th Infantry Regiment, as an instructor at the Army War College, and as assistant commandant of the infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia, where he “revolutionized” officer training. Promoted to colonel in 1933, he commanded posts in Georgia and South Carolina, supervised operations with the local Civilian Conservation Corps (a New Deal work relief program), and served as instructor to the Illinois National Guard. In 1936, he was promoted to brigadier general, commanding the 5th Infantry Brigade at Vancouver Barracks, Washington.

World War II

In 1938, Marshall returned to Washington, D.C., to head the War Plans Division of the army general staff. A year later, U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt selected him over more senior officers to be Army Chief of Staff.

Marshall then directed his attention to expanding the army in preparation for the anticipated war in Europe. When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Marshall, an advocate of a “Germany-first” strategy, began working with British leaders on plans to defeat Adolf Hitler. For the duration of the war, he served as the unofficial leader of the military chiefs of staff, reorganizing the War Department and becoming Roosevelt’s primary military advisor, and attending all major summit conferences with the British and Russians. He favored unity of command for British and American forces and pushed for a cross-channel invasion of continental Europe, which, despite his support, was delayed until June 1944. Though he would have been a qualified contender to lead the Normandy invasion, Roosevelt preferred he stay in Washington, giving the command instead to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, whom Marshall had been grooming for such an assignment.

In 1944 he was promoted to General of the Army with five stars; he also was selected as Time magazine’s “Man of the Year” and labeled the “indispensable man” for Allied victory. At war’s end, many credited Marshall as the “architect and organizer” of victory; U.S. president Harry S. Truman called him “the greatest military man this country has ever produced.”

The Marshall Plan and Beyond

Salute to George Marshall

In 1945, Truman sent Marshall to China as his personal emissary to resolve the differences between the Nationalists of Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists of Mao Tse-Tung, but it proved an impossible task. In 1947 Truman selected Marshall to be his secretary of state. The Cold War was beginning and Marshall shaped the new United States policy of “containing” the Soviet Union. On June 5, 1947, he announced plans for what came to be known as the Marshall Plan: a postwar European economic recovery plan that spent billions of American dollars on the economies of Western Europe, saving them from economic depression and communist takeover. As U.S. secretary of state, Marshall also laid the groundwork for the Berlin Airlift, the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and the establishment of the German Federal Republic (West Germany). He was less successful, however, in resolving problems in the Middle East and Far East.

Marshall resigned as secretary of state in 1949, but Truman appointed him secretary of defense at the outbreak of the Korean War (1950–1953). He agreed with the president’s limited war strategy and supported the removal of General Douglas MacArthur from his Korean command. Marshall left the defense position in September 1951, in the face of spurious charges from Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin that his ignorance and duplicity had contributed to the success of communism in China as well as the stalemate in Korea.

In 1953, Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, becoming the first professional soldier to be so recognized. He retired to his Leesburg, Virginia, home and died at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., on October 16, 1959, after suffering a series of strokes. He was buried at Arlington Cemetery.

December 31, 1880
George C. Marshall Jr. is born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania.
George C. Marshall graduates from the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington and enters the U.S. Army as a second lieutenant.
George C. Marshall serves as the chief aide to General John Pershing, Army Chief of Staff, who in turn acts as Marshall's mentor. Pershing had been the supreme commander of U.S. forces in Europe during World War I (1914—1918).
George C. Marshall is promoted to colonel, commanding posts in Georgia and South Carolina.
George C. Marshall is promoted to brigadier general and takes command of the 5th Infantry Brigade at Vancouver Barracks, Washington.
December 7, 1941
The Japanese bomb the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, prompting America's entrance into World War II (1941—1945). George C. Marshall, an advocate of the "Germany-first" strategy, begins working with British leaders on plans to defeat that country's leader, Adolf Hitler.
George C. Marshall is promoted to General of the Army with five stars. He is also selected as Time magazine's "Man of the Year."
With World War II over, President Harry S. Truman sends George C. Marshall to China with the goal of resolving differences between the Nationalist and Communist parties there; these differences, however, prove irreconcilable.
June 5, 1947
Having been appointed secretary of state by President Harry S. Truman several months earlier, George C. Marshall announces plans for a postwar European economic recovery. This will come to be known as the Marshall Plan.
After resigning as U.S. secretary of state in 1949, George C. Marshall is appointed secretary of defense by President Harry S. Truman at the outbreak of the Korean War (1950—1953).
George C. Marshall receives the Nobel Peace Prize for the Marshall Plan, becoming the first professional soldier to be recognized with the honor.
October 16, 1959
After suffering a series of strokes, George C. Marshall dies at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C.
  • Cray, Ed. General of the Army George C. Marshall. New York: W. W. Norton, 1990.
  • Marshall, George C. The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland. 3 vols. Baltimore, Maryland: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981–1991.
  • Pogue, Forrest C. George C. Marshall. 4 vols. New York: Viking Press, 1963–1987.
  • Stoler, Mark. George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century. Boston, Massachusetts: Twayne Publishers, 1989.
APA Citation:
Heinemann, Ronald. George C. Marshall (1880–1959). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/marshall-george-c-1880-1959.
MLA Citation:
Heinemann, Ronald. "George C. Marshall (1880–1959)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 20 Jul. 2024
Last updated: 2021, December 22
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