General George C. Marshall's Core Convictions & Ethical Leadership
by David Hein
It's a pity that few American university students know the name or accomplishments of George Catlett Marshall, Jr., a Nobel Peace Prize winner and Time magazine's Man of the Year in 1943. If he is remembered at all, it is only by way of two routes: One set of books and articles focuses on Marshall as a major figure in World War II and a statesman of influence in the immediate
postwar era. Another group of scholars has examined this historical record and distilled from the biography of George Marshall important lessons in principled management.
There are some topics in which interesting debates about Marshall's record can still occur: Pearl Harbor, racial integration in the armed forces, Operation TORCH, a possible cross-Channel invasion a year or two before D-Day, troop training and replacement, battlefield equipment, the atomic bomb, China and Chiang, the recognition of Israel, and MacArthur in Korea. But the Marshall biography is pretty much in place.
What writers have failed to do is to go deeper and ask: What lay beneath Marshall's actions? What were his core beliefs?
We live in an era in which American young people—including almost all the media-saturated students I teach—see religious belief expressed in public action as a baleful thing; therefore, their opinions typically include a blanket endorsement of a stark separation of Christianity and commonwealth.
Within this cultural atmosphere, an exemplar such as George Marshall offers a thought-provoking alternative, indeed a salutary challenge. Not a saint, Marshall was nonetheless a Christian gentleman whose core convictions were threaded all through his ethical leadership. Precisely because his beliefs mattered in the shaping of his vision and in the pursuit of his vocation, a fresh examination of his life is called for at a time when leaders like Marshall are so distinctly out of fashion.
Stronger Than Steel
Belief means conviction, an acceptance that certain fundamental things are true and that these realities can be trusted and relied upon. If belief is not absolute intellectual certainty, it at least knows enough to have confidence that its object of faith will return authentic meaning and constant value. More than that, belief entails loyalty. If an entity is worthy of trust, then, as H. Richard Niebuhr and Josiah Royce made clear, believers will be loyal to its cause: their actions will be guided by their commitment to what they believe in. Patriots, for example, not only love their country and believe in its ideals; they will fight for it and, if necessary, die for it.
George Marshall knew the importance of belief. He told Trinity College (Hartford) graduates in June 1941 that "the defense of a Christian nation and Christian values" depends first and foremost not on "things of steel," such as "guns and planes and bomb-sights," nor on "supreme confidence in our ability to conquer and subdue other peoples." More than "enthusiasm," more than "optimism," only "something . . . encompassed by the soul" could be relied upon as the source of the morale, the spirit, which sustains a sure defense. "We are building it [morale] on belief, for it is what men believe that makes them invincible."
What were the interior anchors of George Marshall's life and career? It is an interesting question but not an easy one to answer. Marshall had good friends of many years' standing, but few people knew him well, and his published papers reveal little of the inner man. His principal biographer, Forrest C. Pogue, had trouble interviewing the austere general about his personal life, and so we know less than we'd like to about the human being behind the exterior reserve. But with a little effort, Marshall's core beliefs can be discovered and set out.
For whatever reason, biographers have failed to connect the dots—the bits of historical evidence left behind—of George Marshall's religious beliefs and practices. The picture that emerges is of a man who described himself fairly in a February 1, 1944 letter to Miss Nina Anderson Pape, a friend from Savannah, Georgia: "I hope I am a Christian gentleman, and I certainly should be with Mrs. Marshall's guardianship and influence, but I must confess to occasional outbursts that are secular. You see I am trying to be honest."
The truthfulness of powerful figures' religious professions is always open to question, but in Marshall's case our suspicions are allayed by the fact that his reticence and his sincerity were two sides of the same coin of character. If he said it, you could believe it; if he did it, he intended it; and if he professed it, he meant it. That, at least, all students of Marshall's life agree upon.
On the subject of Marshall's Christianity, we learn more from the record of his decisions and actions than we do from his utterances. Marshall himself would have endorsed this procedure. His biographers note that he mistrusted eloquence, did not consider himself a great speaker, and believed that an officer should express himself through his deeds.
Born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, on the last day of December 1880, George C. Marshall, Jr., was baptized six months later in his home parish, St. Peter's Episcopal Church. Some elements of a young person's experience and personality are naturally (and fortunately) forgotten or jettisoned, while other features persist; Marshall's church tie endured. He grew up in this church. His denominational affiliation was part of his conscious identity. Although meant to be humorous, the following self-description by the determinedly nonpolitical Marshall is revealing: "My father was a Democrat, my mother a Republican, and I am an Episcopalian."
Encouraged by a primarily pastoral ministry, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Episcopalian such as Marshall would have encountered his priest—termed a "minister" by conscientious Low Churchmen—as a mediator and exemplar: a parson, whose value in large measure depended upon the quality of his person. St. Peter's young rector, the Reverend John R. Wightman, made a lasting impression on the future general. Marshall recalled him in a letter he wrote on August 6, 1943:
Mr. Wightman exercised a profound influence on my character and life. While I was a mere boy in my early teens he honored me with his friendship. We often took walks in the country together and I spent many hours with him at the Parish House which had just been constructed.
We search in vain for a dramatic, emotional conversion experience at the age of 15 or 16, for Marshall's specific tradition was Low Church Episcopalianism, which emphasized a different way of being a Protestant Christian than did revivalistic Evangelicalism. A heart changed over time was the goal, assisted by divine grace, through the ministrations of the church and not without the individual's own patient striving. What was looked for was slow, gradual transformation, not a climactic conversion experience.
The Book of Common Prayer—largely unchanged in Marshall's day from its 1662 English and 1789 American versions—presented a structure to flawed human beings, a rhythm of contrition and repentance, thanksgiving and renewal. Confirmed at St. Peter's at the age of 16, George Marshall continued for the rest of his life in the way he had been brought up.
In the mid-1920s, while serving with the 15th Infantry Regiment in Tientsin, China, Marshall became concerned about the spiritual condition of the post and helped Chaplain Luther Miller improve the chapel. New pews and altarpieces were purchased; men were inspired to fix up and paint the chapel buildings in their spare time; and, when Colonel and Mrs. Marshall attended services every Sunday, attendance picked up smartly. In a memorandum to the secretary of war written on December 12, 1944, Marshall reminisced about this good, productive time with Luther Miller in Tientsin: "Between us we ran the church up from an attendance of eight men to standing room only. I say between us because I took a very active part in the arrangements."
Marshall's chief of chaplains for most of the Second World War was Major General William Arnold, who said: "General Marshall was very much interested in the religious welfare of people in the services." He'd discuss what was needed. "Every time, without a single exception, when we were through he'd get up and walk to the door with me and he'd say, 'Please pray for me.' He was a very religious man."
Marshall regularly attended church services—not just on special occasions or to improve troop morale. In June 1932, for example, following his appointment as commander at Fort Screven, Georgia, he and his wife drove into Savannah on their first Sunday and attended a service at what she recalled was "a quaint and historic old Episcopal church." Participation was important because in Marshall's denomination it was through the liturgy that a person was nurtured over time: the Anglican tradition stressed will and conscience more than feeling and intellect.
This mode of Christianity suited Marshall particularly well. It seems likely that this hand-in-glove fit between Marshall and the Anglican way—rather than mere obligation or social standing or family custom—was the most important reason he persisted with his regular observance. It had formed him from an early age.
Comrades in Faith
Although it has gone unremarked, the common religious habits of General Marshall and British Field Marshal Sir John Dill may have helped solder even more securely the wartime link between them, although their relationship was primarily grounded not in religion but in professional recognition and respect. Although viewed by Winston Churchill as lacking drive and therefore replaced at the end of 1941 as Chief of the Imperial General Staff by Sir Alan Brooke, Dill soon emerged as an essential partner in the Allied enterprise. Appointed to represent the British military service chiefs in Washington, Dill, like Marshall, was a figure of integrity, modesty, and self-discipline. Working together in mutual trust, he and his American counterpart made the Combined Chiefs of Staff of the two key allies a going concern of immense value to the war-making effort.
During their initial meeting at the Atlantic Conference in Argentia, Newfoundland, in August 1941, the two men overcame their natural reserve and formed an immediate and enduring bond. At this meeting, Marshall and Dill shared not only the details of the sessions and the enjoyment of meals. They were also together for the high point of the entire conference, the extraordinarily moving church service on the quarterdeck of HMS Prince of Wales, survivor of the fight against the Bismarck and victim, only four months after the Atlantic summit, of a Japanese air attack off the coast of Malaya.
A man of deep and sincere Christian piety, Dill, more than anyone else at the Argentia meeting, impressed Marshall. In her 1946 memoir, Together, Katherine Tupper Marshall commented that the hazards of war "bound my husband and Sir John in a close understanding and comradeship such as seldom comes to men of their age."
Tragically, Sir John Dill contracted a rare disease (aplastic anaemia) and died at age 62 in Washington on November 4, 1944, before the war's end. Marshall asked Congress to pass a special act allowing the burial of a non-American in Arlington National Cemetery. A memorial service was held in the National Cathedral, where Marshall read the lesson. At the graveside service in Arlington, Marshall's face, a friend recalled, was stricken with grief at the loss of his Christian comrade.
A Soldier's Prayer
In recent years, historians of the Second World War have helped us toward a more mature view of the ethical ambiguities and moral disasters of the Allied cause in the so-called Good War. In their work, institutional Christianity rarely appears except in a predictably negative light. But in their eagerness to detect the ethical blind spots, the sins of commission and omission, and the Manichaean language of righteous armies marching to war against evil foes, revisionists may overcorrect and neglect to appreciate the virtues of the Christian witness and of men who were shaped by Christian institutions.
Throughout his career, George Marshall—to the consternation of Senator Joseph McCarthy—totally avoided dualistic language; but he may be forgiven if he thought that World War II offered a choice, as Churchill and Roosevelt averred, between two religions—and that the religion of Nazi racialism was a devilish option. And he had no need to apologize for participating in the service on HMS Prince of Wales, at which a
Royal Navy chaplain led a prayer that God might,
in the day of battle . . . strengthen our resolve, that we fight not in enmity against men but against the powers of darkness enslaving the souls of men, till all enmity and oppression be done away and the peoples of the world be set free from fear to serve one another as children of one Father.
Nor could Marshall, who for as long as he could remember had been reciting the words of the General Confession in the service of Morning Prayer ("We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts. . . . And there is no health in us"), have been greatly surprised by the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, for the Book of Common Prayer was simply Christian realism avant la lettre. Neither would Marshall have been tempted by the project of twentieth-century secularization: a diffused spirituality in which almost everything was a little bit divine, but nothing in particular was. It's fair to say that his beliefs incorporated a serious grasp of both human sinfulness and divine transcendence—and therefore his faith kept him clear about what was truly ultimate and what was only relative.
Teacher of Leaders
Marshall's trust in God may have been most directly reflected in a distinctive manner that many people commented upon: his absence of fear, his calm in a crisis—although this demeanor was also the mask of command that every military leader attempted to keep in place. And he was a maker of military leaders.
He was devoted to the Virginia Military Institute, which accomplished its primary objective of building leadership and character through military discipline. Marshall excelled in this area, proving to be a model cadet and becoming First Captain in his final year. But he did not respect VMI as an academic institution. Uninspired by his instructors, he was a poor student, graduating in only the top 45 percent of his class. VMI's academic approach—learning by way of rote memorization—did not suit Marshall at all. But its pedagogical failure turned out to be a tremendous educational goad: Marshall would do better, both as a student and as a teacher.
In the decades following his graduation, Marshall not only worked hard to make up for his deficiencies—learning, for example, to become a writer of strong, effective prose. He also became committed to a different approach to education. So much was this the case that when, in 1927, he received a hint that the superintendent of VMI might retire in favor of Lieutenant Colonel George Marshall, he refused the lure: "My ideas and methods would too probably arouse the restricting hand of a Board of Visitors." Instead, Marshall spent a good part of his career as a teacher in the Army, where he had a notable, indeed historic, impact, for hundreds of the men he taught became high-ranking combat commanders in the Second World War.
At Fort Benning, where he was assistant commandant and head of the infantry school from 1927 to 1932, he embraced teaching methods that combined the inculcation of habits of attention and industry with practical, real-world exercises. Officers had to learn to be imaginative and flexible, to prepare for the unexpected; they couldn't wait for orders that spelled out the details of their tasks. Marshall took his students over miles of terrain and then had them draw maps of the ground they'd covered. He told them that they wouldn't receive accurate maps or complete intelligence data prior to going into combat; they'd have to be resourceful. He used large-scale maneuvers as, in his phrase, a "combat college for troop leading"—and thereby discovered who had the right stuff for command.
During his five years at Fort Benning, he had men recently returned from troop duty come in to teach classes. They were forbidden to give long lectures or to read from a text; thus, they were compelled to use precise, clear language. All officers had to master the art of stating simple orders that citizen-soldiers could readily grasp within the confusion of combat. Marshall encouraged officers to demonstrate initiative and to produce original solutions to tactical problems; he took points off for the standard textbook answer, and he insisted that the officers show some backbone and state what they honestly believed to be true, not what they thought their instructor or commander wanted to hear.
Like his mentor Pershing, Marshall grew to love learning and became an excellent teacher; he later said he sometimes wished he'd pursued an academic career. He read voraciously, especially military history and biography, and then, if he could, he'd familiarize himself with the battlefields first-hand. From his study of history, he would have begun to master the relationship between grand strategy and operational art, and he would have started to grapple with the main problem he had to solve in World War II.
Fortunately, as the essayist Lance Morrow has noted, Marshall possessed not only intellectual drive and an outstanding memory but also "what might be called a kinetic military imagination—a genius for seeing the dynamic interaction of facts in rapid motion through time." This imaginative faculty is also what he tried to develop in others. He believed in education—not the dull sort he'd encountered at VMI, but the dynamic version he'd been an evangelist for at Benning.
Committed to Virtue
While students of Marshall's life and career always mention his positive character traits—his selfless devotion to duty, for example—they have been slow to recognize that these attractive characteristics were embedded in a commitment to virtue itself. Although he did not speak of an order of natural or divine law, as C. S. Lewis did when he wrote about the universal Tao in The Abolition of Man, Marshall was a Victorian who gave every indication of having viewed the virtues in just this way.
Influenced not only by the southern tradition of the gentleman but also by the American military's stress on George Washington as the model officer, Marshall believed in honor and self-mastery. This belief meant loyalty to virtue's cause: honesty at all costs, duty and service, and kindness toward those who could do you no good. It repudiated self-seeking, unbridled emotion, cynicism, and any excuse to do other than your best.
It's not that Marshall automatically embodied these character traits; they were not inborn. What it means to believe in virtue is to believe that there's only one way to be. It means embracing the old-fashioned view that we are formed not just by nature or culture but by will and conscience, by the cultivation of good habits, by rightly ordered thoughts, by being grounded in a hierarchy of beliefs and principles, and by choosing to participate in communities that are schools of courage and compassion. It's not that Marshall was preternaturally selfless; it's that he learned to see himself objectively, to channel his clamant ego, to direct his ambition, and to bend his will to public service—because he believed that course of conduct to be true and right.
His explosive temper—a character flaw from early on—was one thing Marshall struggled to master. In this instance, virtue was not merely its own reward. If angry eruptions undermined his chances for promotion or reduced his effectiveness as a commander, then he had to control them: to rule or be ruled. If he never gained complete control over these outbursts, he at least succeeded in limiting both their frequency and their duration.
Confidence & Humility
Marshall's wife, Katherine, wrote perceptively about her husband:
In many of the articles and interviews I have read about General Marshall the writers speak of his retiring nature and his modesty. . . . No, I do not think I would call my husband retiring or overly modest. I think he is well aware of his powers, but I also think this knowledge is tempered by a sense of humility and selflessness such as I have seen in few strong men.
Biographers confirm this characterization—Thomas Parrish, in Roosevelt and Marshall, noted that "Marshall, like Roosevelt, possessed a high degree of self-confidence"—but they do not say much about the apparent paradox of humility and ego.
C. S. Lewis provides the answer, via Screwtape: "The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another." There's no mental bias in one's own favor.
Marshall was not only very smart, but also strong-willed. He had to be in order to contend with Churchill and Alan Brooke, who doubted Marshall's strategic judgment. Observes Andrew Roberts, in Masters and Commanders: "Good-natured, charming, with fine manners, Marshall was nonetheless a tough man, and knew it." And yet he retained the kind of humility that Lewis describes. In 19 Stars: A Study in Military Character and Leadership, Edgar F. Puryear, Jr., provides an excellent example:
Marshall's air of confidence was accompanied by an attitude of humility, not arrogance. He never considered himself a great leader. When men asked his opinion, listened, and accepted his advice, he considered that they listened because they believed he was better informed on the subject than they were.
Authority & Responsibility
Marshall's commitment to virtue underlay his trust in and loyalty to the Constitution. He believed in the civilian-military division of duties. And so—sometimes counter to his own deep disagreement and strong reservations—he suppressed personal ambition, always told the truth, respected the role of Congress, strived to leave geopolitical questions to the politicians, and loyally obeyed the president as commander-in-chief. FDR told Speaker Rayburn:
When I disapprove his recommendations, I don't have to look over my shoulder to see which way he's going, whether he's going to the Capitol, to lobby against me, or whether he's going back to the War Department. I know he's going back to the War Department, to give me the most loyal support as Chief of Staff that any President could wish.
In naming Marshall Man of the Year in 1943, Time magazine declared that "American democracy is the stuff Marshall is made of."
In June 1942, General Marshall ended his graduation speech at West Point with this pronouncement: "We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle, our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming power on the other." As a tool of a free nation, power, Marshall believed, was a dangerous but necessary, indeed inescapable, reality. He knew its uses—from the persuasive power of negotiation and argument to the physical might of deadly force. In Inferno, Max Hastings argues that World War II, as a total war, required that Marshall be an adroit administrator, an effective strategist, and a supreme recruiter of talent—and by those very means a great warlord, whose contribution to victory was second to none. As secretary of state from 1947 to 1949, Marshall was involved with the Truman Doctrine, the policy of containment, and the planning of NATO. As secretary of defense, he played a role in large-scale rearmament as the United States took on increasing global responsibilities in the postwar period.
Warrior for Peace
Marshall believed in peace as only a soldier could. Testifying on May 1, 1940, before a Senate military appropriations subcommittee, he asked for more funds for the military— especially to build up the Army—in order to forestall American entry into another European war. "I am more of a pacifist than you think," Marshall told the legislators. "I went through one war, and I do not want to see another. My idea, however, as to the sound basis for peace may differ from others'." But Senator Harry Truman, another veteran of the Great War, knew just what the Army Chief of Staff was talking about. Marshall continued:
I saw it from the start, and I do not want to see it again. . . . I say this in all sincerity. I do not believe there is a group of people in the United States who are more unanimous in their earnest desire to avoid involvement in this ghastly war than the officers of the War Department.
When the U.S. entered into World War II, following Pearl Harbor, Marshall wrote letters to the parents and wives of all the soldiers who were killed. He had to stop doing that—the combat deaths were too many—and he resorted instead to sending an engraved card. The signed letters he did promptly write—in cases where two or three members of the same family were killed—make hard reading even today. Marshall made sure that President Roosevelt received detailed weekly reports on casualties.
The human cost of the war was brought home to his own family when he received a radio message on May 30, 1944, from General Mark Clark, commander of the Italian campaign. It informed Marshall that his stepson, Lt. Allen T. Brown, the 27-year-old son of his wife, Katherine, had been killed in action the previous day near Campoleone, as his tank unit advanced toward Rome. A devoted stepfather, Marshall was devastated. It was a week before D-Day in Normandy. Later, Marshall visited Allen's grave at Anzio, talked with members of his stepson's crew, studied the terrain, and worked to reconstruct the action surrounding Allen's death.
At one point, speaking before the assembled scholars of the American Historical Association, Marshall asked them to investigate the awful disease of war and to try to discover its cure. As World War II dragged on, his abhorrence of bloody violence only increased. After the war, he turned his attention to institution-building. As secretary of state, he helped to formulate and gain acceptance for the European Recovery Program, which, at a moment of crisis in history, famously combined American self-interest and generosity. Marshall saw both it and NATO as strategic instruments for deterring war.
For his sponsorship of the European Recovery Program—he never called it the Marshall Plan—he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953. In his acceptance address he noted that there was "considerable comment over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier. I am afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others." The reason was that peace is every true soldier's ultimate aim: "the cost of war in human lives is constantly spread before me, written neatly in many ledgers whose columns are gravestones. I am deeply moved to find some means . . . of avoiding another calamity of war."
He observed, however, that the means to peace included the matériel of war. "A very strong military posture is vitally necessary today. How long it must continue I am not prepared to estimate." There was also a need for education and international understanding, for a response to the aspirations of people living in dreadful conditions, and for both democracy and food. Millions, he said, seek "a fair share of the God-given rights of human beings."
Eyes on Victory
Toward the end of his life, Marshall recalled that at VMI he had been greatly influenced by the Robert E. Lee tradition in Lexington. In 1900, this Lee was the romanticized gentleman of Lost Cause iconography—and, like Marshall, a Low Church Episcopalian. Outside their professional spheres, neither Lee nor Marshall was an original thinker—or had any interest in being a radical innovator. Marshall was traditional in ethics and religion, a man of consistent habits and conservative temperament: all the more reason to take him at his word—or at his deeds—when it comes to identifying his most important beliefs.
If George C. Marshall were a book, we might urge that he be recognized as a great classic: a canonical -author who should be read and esteemed more than he is today. Of course he is not a book; nor was he the maker of one. Always wary of self-aggrandizement, especially when it came, as it often did, at the expense of others, he did not like to write or talk about himself. Moreover, in reaching decisions and giving orders affecting the future of freedom and democracy in the world, he consciously suppressed any thought of how historians would judge his actions.
This general believed that keeping diaries or memoranda of daily events, as suggested to him by the Robert E. Lee biographer Douglas Southall Freeman in 1942, might unconsciously cause, in Marshall's words, "self-deception or hesitations in reaching decisions." Following Freeman's advice would subtly bend the mind toward thoughts of "one's own reputation, the future appreciation of one's daily decisions." Regard for the historical record, Marshall acknowledged, would make him "unduly concerned" with judgment by others when he needed to be intent upon the only problem he knew he should worry about: "the business of victory."
General George C. Marshall maintained a steely-eyed focus on his nation's goals and did the best he could in his present circumstances. He made mistakes, but the net result was a rare achievement in Christian character, military command, and peacetime leadership. In his case, not bound leaves, but the beliefs, principles, practices, choices, and commitments embedded in his life story provide the best account. Marshall's biography is a classic text worth reading deeply, marking well, and passing along to a hyper-connected but amnesic generation. Indeed, members of all generations would do well to honor, in both the public and the private sides of his life, the beneficial possibilities sparked by the connection between true beliefs and right conduct.
When Marshall died on October 16, 1959, the rites that followed were in accord with his wishes: no lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda (as had been done for Pershing and would be done for MacArthur), a brief service at the Fort Myer (Arlington, Virginia) chapel using the Order for the Burial of the Dead from the Book of Common Prayer, no eulogy. Marshall had specifically requested no grand funeral in the Washington Cathedral. His old friend Luther Miller, chief of chaplains at the end of the war and now a canon of the cathedral, read the burial service at Fort Myer. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower were present. As in life, so also in death: the Christian ritual marked the man it had helped to form. •
David Hein is Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Hood College, in Frederick, Maryland. His many books include C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination (co-edited with Edward Henderson; SPCK and Cascade) and Archbishop Fisher, 1945-1961: Church, State and World (co-authored with Andrew Chandler; Ashgate). His most recent World War II-related essay is "Vulnerable: HMS Prince of Wales in 1941," in the Journal of Military History (2013).
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