George C. Marshall was one of the most extraordinary individuals to have lived during the twentieth century. Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, in 1880 and trained at the Virginia Military Institute, Marshall was a career military man who will forever be remembered for his efforts to promote peace and bring about a strong connection between America and Western Europe.
Reading the comments of Marshall’s many admirers is awe-inspiring. Winston Churchill called Marshall “the true organizer of victory” for his efforts during World War II as army chief of staff for President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. The British chiefs of staff sent Marshall a message that read, in part, “Your name will be honoured among those of the greatest soldiers of your own or any other country . . . Always you have honoured us by your frankness, charmed us by your courtesy, and inspired us by your singleness of purpose and selfless devotion to our common cause.” President Harry S. Truman said Marshall was “the greatest military man this country has ever produced—or any other country for that matter . . . the more I see and talk with him, the more certain I am he is the great one of the age.” Time magazine named him Man of the Year twice.
As army chief of staff during World War II, Marshall was credited for building America’s underprepared military infrastructure so that it would be in a position to win the war. After Marshall recognized that America was falling seriously behind Germany in military preparedness, though it would be another three years before America was attacked, he worked incessantly to revitalize American military strength. The energy and effort Marshall put into his work led Senator Henry Stimson to say, “I have never seen a task of such magnitude performed by a man.”
Marshall’s Passion for Human Value
Throughout his remarkable career, Marshall’s actions encouraged connection among people by fostering human value, knowledge flow, and inspiring identity. He increased human value in several ways. When FDR put the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression under Marshall’s command, he developed an “absorbing interest” in helping the young men by educating them and taking care of their health care needs. According to Marshall’s biographer, he “kept his men intelligently occupied . . . giving them tasks that would awaken their interest.” Married soldiers and their families suffered real economic hardship during the Depression so Marshall started a program that allowed every military family to pay only fifteen cents a meal. To avoid the perception that the program was a “condescending charity,” he and Mrs. Marshall ate the meals too.
One of the best known examples of Marshall’s passion for human value was celebrated in the movie Saving Private Ryan that starred actor Tom Hanks. After learning that James Ryan’s mother had lost three of her four sons in battle, Marshall sent a squad to France specifically to retrieve Private Ryan and return him to America and to his mother.
Perhaps the greatest example of Marshall’s increasing human value came after World War II when President Truman asked Marshall to become secretary of state. He accepted the role because he envisioned the opportunity to remove the causes that led to war. For two years he set about to persuade Congress and the American people of the need to provide assistance to the war-torn economies of Europe where famine and disease were rapidly spreading. That was no easy task, considering the human inclination to avenge former enemies rather than help them. To his credit, Marshall knew that ignoring human suffering was wrong and would lead to bitter resentment and potentially to a future war. During a commencement speech at Harvard, General Marshall told the world: “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, desperation, and chaos.” Marshall redirected his tireless efforts from waging a war to helping the very nations he had fought against. The Marshall Plan, as the reconstruction effort became known, was an overwhelming success. You can still visit European towns where merchants sell postcards that show the destruction following World War II, in stark contrast to the beauty of these same towns today.
For his humanitarian actions, he was the first career soldier to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. The British were so moved by the compassion and efforts of Marshall that when he entered Westminster Cathedral to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation and people in attendance spotted him, they stood in his honor.
Marshall’s Commitment to Knowledge Flow
George Marshall also increased knowledge flow in cultures by speaking truth to those in power. During World War I in France, General John “Blackjack” Pershing once criticized then Major Marshall’s division commander in front of his subordinates over a mixup that was actually the fault of Pershing’s office. As Pershing tried to walk away, Marshall refused to let him leave, even grabbing his arm to stop him, until Pershing heard the truth. The officers present thought Marshall’s behavior would surely end his career. To Pershing’s credit, however, he appreciated Marshall’s candor and courage. Eventually, Pershing promoted Marshall to colonel, making him a part of his personal staff, and later promoted him to become his personal aide.
Another incident shows Marshall’s commitment to openness and honesty. Years later when Marshall was attending his first conference with FDR, the president asked for his opinion on a subject that everyone else in the room had already agreed on. To the president’s surprise, Marshall opined, “I’m sorry, Mr. President, I don’t agree with you at all.” Somewhat surprised, FDR abruptly ended the meeting. Afterward, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau approached Marshall and said, “Well, it’s been nice knowing you.” As it turned out, FDR appreciated Marshall’s integrity and his willingness to say what he really believed. A little over a year later, FDR made Marshall the army chief of staff reporting directly to him.
George Marshall increased knowledge flow by valuing education. One theme running throughout his career was an “insatiable desire to learn, to know, [and] to understand.” Stationed in Tientsin, “he . . . [became] an authority on Chinese civilization, history, and language . . . [and was] the only American officer who could examine Chinese witnesses without the aid of interpreters.” Marshall’s awareness that Hitler was building a huge military industrial complex led him to warn of the Nazi threat and America’s vulnerability.
Marshall’s Promotion of Inspiring Identity
The inspiring identity that George Marshall spread to others was one of a dutiful public servant to a worthy country that he loved. When the time arrived for the Allies to invade Europe, General Marshall had hoped to be the one to lead the effort as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces. The position would be based in Great Britain. FDR, however, felt he needed General Marshall with him in Washington, D.C. Although he was personally disappointed, Marshall remained working for the president as army chief of staff and appointed Dwight D. Eisenhower to the position of supreme commander of Operation Overlord. While Marshall served in a less visible but nonetheless important role, Eisenhower’s success as supreme commander served as a springboard to the presidency. It takes an extraordinary personal sense of one’s duty for someone to make a sacrifice of the magnitude made by General Marshall.
George Marshall once said, “The less you agree with the policies of your superiors, the more energy you must direct to their accomplishment.” This attitude gave FDR confidence that he could always count on Marshall, and the president expressed this confidence by saying, “When I disapprove [of Marshall’s recommendations], I don’t have to look over my shoulder to see which way he is going . . . I know he is going . . . to give me the most loyal support as chief of staff that any president could wish.” It takes an uncommon degree of integrity and humility to do this.
Soldier of Peace and Connection
A soldier of peace, George C. Marshall left as a legacy strengthened connections among peace-loving nations. His work laid the foundation for the unprecedented spread of liberty in the last half of the twentieth century.
This article originally appeared in the book Fired Up or Burned Out by Michael Lee Stallard with Carolyn Dewing-Hommes and Jason Pankau.
More From Michael Lee Stallard
Michael Lee Stallard, MBA, JD, is a thought leader, speaker and leading expert on how human connection in workplace cultures affects the health and performance of individuals and organizations. In addition to Fired Up or Burned Out, he is the primary author of Connection Culture: The Competitive Advantage of Shared Identity, Empathy, and Understanding at Work.