The Fallible and Accessible George C. Marshall
To make full disclosure, George C. Marshall has been foremost among my gallery of personal heroes since I made my appearance as a “rat” at the Virginia Military Institute four decades ago. You couldn’t escape Marshall at VMI in those days, and I suspect he is even more inescapable today. The Marshall library is more active than ever, and since my day the Institute has built an ethics center named for Marshall. As a cadet, I bought the Marshall mystique unreservedly, even before I knew very much about him. In the years since I’ve come to know more, mostly through biographies. I’m also addicted to the speeches, videos, and other postings put online by the Marshall library. I keep a small picture of Marshall on the wall in my office; his stern gaze, the simple uniform he wore so well, are reminders to me to stay on task, to try to be as worthy of my Constitutional oath as he was of his. Most recently, I’ve enjoyed listening to and reading the interviews conducted by Forrest Pogue in the mid 1950’s. These have given focus to a disquiet that I and other admirers have always felt about Marshall and his legend, which is that we have made of this man a figure almost too great for empathy or emulation. In his own words, a different Marshall emerges, one who was fallible, who changed his mind, who was often dissatisfied with himself and frustrated (although always patient) about his own ability to make his point or exert the kind of influence over people and events that he wanted. In this paper, I want peel back some of the layers of near-idolatry that have come to stand guard over Marshall’s memory, to give examples of the fallible and human Marshall, and to explain why I think it is so important to sometimes approach Marshall in this way.
Why is Marshall so remote? It is partly his fault. It is unsurprising that Marshall seems rather distant as a historical figure, since that is how he also struck many of his contemporaries, and that is generally the way he preferred it. Like other men marked early for greatness, Washington and Charles De Gaulle among them, Marshall allowed himself few friends. A northerner at VMI and a VMI graduate in an officer corps dominated by West Point alumni, the role of aloof outsider both came naturally while it was also promoted by circumstance. As he moved up in rank, he disciplined himself to keep his distance from others, especially as he saw the need to purge the officer corps of those who demonstrated an inability to meet the demands of wartime. Still, his aloofness may have been overplayed. The younger Marshall loved dancing and parties. He took full advantage of the festive atmosphere that prevailed in Europe after the World War I Armistice. As Pershing’s aide, he received many invitations to grand houses and lavish parties, and he seems to have enjoyed dancing, chatting up the hostess or other personable woman, dining and drinking the free-flowing and free champagne. Even when he got older, he organized so many social events as commanding officer, as for instance at the Fort Benning Infantry School, that some of his subordinates thought he was overdoing it. Marshall’s fondness for the organized social life of an army post may have reflected the fact that, between the death of his first wife in 1927 and he remarriage in October, 1930, he was a widower and unmarried. If the mature Marshall sometimes seems chilly and forbidding, his first marriage may be partly at fault. Marshall’s first wife told him on their wedding night that she was an “invalid” and not capable of physical intimacy. It is possible that Marshall was completely celibate at least until his second marriage. The unpleasant surprise handed to him by the first Mrs. Marshall, and the years of abstinence that followed must have had an effect on him. What effect that was we can only speculate, since Marshall was too much the Victorian-era gentleman to ever allude to such matters, except perhaps in strictest privacy. Marshall had confidants, “old friends” Philip B. Peyton, Charles D. Herron, and Frank McCoy Still, it possible that he never discussed his sex life at all, except perhaps with his second wife. The dissatisfactions of his personal life may have been a factor in Marshall’s extraordinary profession dedication. One might draw an analogy to an episode in the life of the young Lord Nelson. Wounded and depressed, uncertain of the prospects of his naval career, Nelson is supposed to have gone through a personal and professional epiphany. “I will be a hero,” he thought, in spite of sorrow or disappointment. All that would count with him would be his zeal for king and country. Well, he never quite attained that degree of perfect selflessness (there was the middle-aged tryst with Emma Hamilton), but his dedication unto death is unquestionable. History records no such moment for Marshall, but it is not hard to imagine a similar idea growing on him as reputation and career grew and the wife of his first marriage sickened and died. Marshall found happiness in his second marriage, but by then the habit of throwing himself into his work had grown on him. He was “going places,” but as with Nelson, it soon became no longer a matter of his private happiness or professional fulfillment. The fate of his country might be in his hands.
Next post: Part 2: Duty and Humanity