Marshall’s Mistakes

One reason we should not view Marshall as a model of perfection is that he did not do so himself.  The Forrest Pogue interviews contain some startling examples of this. In a conversation about Patton’s swearing and tendency to extreme, even absurd pronouncements and behavior, Marshall recalled his own occasional swearing in conversations with World War II subordinates.  This was apparently done for effect, or for emphasis, but Marshall said in the interview that he regretted resorting to bad language to make his point.  Since he set a high standard of respect for subordinates and he insisted on considerable correctness and even formality, he likely felt, in retrospect, that swearing went against the kind of gentlemanly and controlled conduct that he expected officers to display.

One of Marshall’s greatest challenges was his relationship with FDR.  As Army Chief of Staff, he was often frustrated at his inability to make his points clearly and forcefully enough to convince the president on some issue.  Roosevelt’s continuing belief in the airplane as a kind of military panacea was an example. Marshall had disagreed with FDR on this point at their first meeting of Marshall’s term as Army Chief of Staff.  Marshall’s willingness to dispute openly with the Commander in Chief is sometimes cited as an example of his rock-solid integrity, but Marshall himself recalled that, although the point had been made, it had not been carried, and Marshall would have to contend again with the President over the latter’s conviction that aircraft production by itself was the key to victory.  Marshall had also disagreed with Pershing at their first meeting in World War I.  Pershing had been scathing in his comments over a training exercise that he witnessed. Marshall openly challenged Pershing, even grabbing his sleeve to get his attention, and he went on to carefully describe the difficulties under which his division had been laboring, difficulties which Pershing and his headquarters had addressed mostly by finding fault.  This is another episode that is cited as evidence of Marshall’s integrity, but on tape Marshall recalled that the collisions he had with seniors (as when discussing the treatment of soldiers in France after the Armistice) were often brought on by temper as much as by higher motives. Marshall’s reflection on his own conduct suggests that these encounters could actually be pointless or counter-productive: examples of a tired, overworked, fed-up junior officer venting his frustration.

Another example of Marshall’s dissatisfaction with his performance occurred when he was trying to convince some senators of the need for more pre-war army appropriations.  As recalled by Bernard Baruch and recounted by Forrest Pogue, Marshall showed the “strongest emotion his friend had ever seen him display,” saying “I have utterly failed. I don’t know what else to do.”   Marshall’s frustrations on this point would continue until America’s official entry into war, and with the nation committed to war he would sometimes have to painstakingly quench overly-optimistic predictions of easy war and early victory.

Not only was Marshall fallible, he viewed failure and mistakes as necessary to success. Marshall’s early successes as a cadet and junior officers had been largely motivated by his early mediocrity and a fear of failure.  When someone said that the number of mistakes being made in large army maneuvers called the value of the maneuvers into question, Marshall objected strenuously. It was those very mistakes that made them so valuable, he maintained, since this was how the soldiers learned. Marshall’s second wife recalled his habit of self-criticism.  “It was as though he lived inside himself and George Marshall was someone he was constantly appraising, advising and training to meet a situation.  Marshall emphasized to his staff that they were to express their disagreements with him openly.  He made the same observation to Eisenhower in the preparations for Operation TORCH in North Africa.  In response to some of Eisenhower’s characteristically (at this point in their relationship) deferential correspondence, Marshall wrote back, “When you disagree with my point of view, say so, without an apologetic approach; when you want something you aren’t getting, tell me and I will try to get it for you. I have complete confidence in your management of the affair, and I want to support you in every way practicable.”

Next: Marshall’s Brain

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