Humility and Getting it Right

To his biographer Forrest Pogue and others close to him, Marshall was noteworthy for his humility.  In a sense, his attitude towards himself and his own accomplishments can be our guide to approaching and understanding him.  When he became Army Chief of Staff in 1939, Marshall could look back on a career of nearly forty years during which he had trained himself and thousands of others to think about complex and time-sensitive military and broadly strategic questions.  He knew that these matters were too difficult and often too subject to chance and incalculable factors for him always to get it right or have the answer.  A careful planner by habit, he sometimes showed the impulses of a gambler.  His desire for an early landing in northwest Europe was eventually overruled. He likely had too much faith in the ability of airborne forces to operate independently.  His decision to limit the Army to 90 divisions was a near-run thing might have been, in the words of an official Army history, either “an uncommonly lucky gamble or a surprisingly accurate forecast.”

An important benefit of Marshall’s humility was that he seems never to have lost the habit of learning, even once he had reached an age and received a degree of adulation that would encourage in many people a sense of their own omniscience and infallibility.  Pogue records the openness and curiosity that the aged Marshall displayed.  Even during the interviews in the last years of his life, Marshall would ask Pogue about the precise meaning of a word. During a discussion of some changes that he had initiated as commander of the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Marshall had this to say-

“As I have said several times, this puts me in the embarrassing position of seeming to be the one who knew.  Well, as a matter of fact, throughout all of this, I’m largely recording my reactions to the experiences of the AEF and later training the army when I was with General Pershing, and my own experiences in those schools.”

Marshall saw himself not so much as a person of special abilities or even knowledge, but rather as the repository and conduit of much institutional knowledge.  If he had a special trait, it was perhaps his receptivity and retention of knowledge that was there for the taking.

Marshall’s modesty actually led to one of his most long-reaching decisions, which was to create the office of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and to recommend the very able Admiral Leahy for the post.  Marshall was sincerely uneasy that he might be having an undue or unchallenged influence on the president, since the arrangement before Leahy’s appointment led to Marshall having in effect “two votes” to Navy chief Admiral King’s single vote.

Another example of his humility and his very great desire to get it right was his willingness to modify his views on a subject, either in the light of new evidence or simply on reconsideration.  One very important change of mind he had as chief of staff concerned the question of aid to Britain.  At first intent on building up the small and weak American army in preparation for war, Marshall came to realize that there were moral and practical reasons for providing aid to Britain.  One decision that caused him much doubt was whether to “lend” some B-17s bombers to the RAF. The ostensible reason for this was to give the new American airplane some testing in battle, but Marshall worried that this was really a pretext to provide aid to Britain, and that the loan was not really motivated by any potential benefit to the development of an American weapon for use by American forces.  In the end he approved the transfer of the bombers, and he was relieved to later learn that the use of the B-17 by the British actually had resulted in some useful lessons learned for American aircraft designers and pilots. Another issue on which Marshall altered his views was the relief of MacArthur.   He hesitated to go along with President Truman and his other principle advisors, and he asked permission to review the file on MacArthur before reluctantly recommending MacArthur’s relief.

Next Post: Conclusion

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