If Marshall’s private life prior to his days of greatness as the “organizer of victory” give us an idea of some of the influences that shaped his character, a consideration of his later years can make him human and sympathetic in surprising ways. The man who claimed to have rid the Army of a lot of “arteriosclerosis” by purging the officer ranks of older men recognized as early as 1940 that old age might be creeping up on him. Applying the same standard to himself as he did to subordinate officers, he tendered his resignation as Army Chief, suggesting that a younger man might be better for the job. This offer was rejected, but in 1951, after just under a year as Defense Secretary, and embarrassed by what he feared was a failing memory, he resigned from that post, ending a life of public service but for a brief return in 1953 to head the U.S. delegation to the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth II. Judging from the Pogue interviews conducted in 1956 and 57, his memory appears to have been quite good even a few years later, although like many older people it might have been better for recalling the remote past than for recent or daily events.
It must have been bitter for Marshall, who had honed his mind to operate at a high level, to see these powers slipping away, and then to have them severely impaired by a stroke, but he bore it bravely, even with the sense of humor he thought so vital to leadership and life. Another disappointment of his later years must have been the fact that this strong and wise man, almost fashioned to be a father, would have no children of his own. Although Marshall inherited a family of two boys and a girl with his widowed second wife, these were Browns, not Marshalls. The pictures of him uncharacteristically beaming with groups of children and the joyful recollections to Pogue of his own childhood suggest how much it might have meant to him to have been a father.
Marshall was mortal and fallible. Like the rest of us, he existed within the limitations of his times and his innate capabilities. He was (to quote a phrase from Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim) “one of us,” but he may have been, among American officers especially, the best of us. He is a reminder that greatness may be within the grasp of many if not all. In the search for whatever greatness may lie within, our mistakes and failures are as necessary as our triumphs and achievements. But most important is a constant striving, not to make an impression or merely to be heard, but to make a difference, to make the world a better, safer, more just home for humankind.
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