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.
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(a 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
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.