I wrote this piece during the 2016 Presidential campaign. It never went anywhere, but as I’ve been reading Daniel Kurtz-Phelan’s excellent The China Mission: George C. Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947, and watching the news of DT’s clownish efforts at diplomacy, I’ve been inspired to put it on my blog.
George C. Marshall and Donald Trump
When I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, the image and memory of George C. Marshall, VMI Class of 1901 was hard to avoid. Physical reminders included the Marshall Library on campus and Marshall Arch, the main entrance to what is still called “New Barracks” (although it is now over sixty years old). More than this, Marshall was recognized as our most distinguished graduate. His unmatched record of service as Army Chief of Staff in World War II, as Secretary of State and Defense after the war, and his status as the only professional soldier ever to win the Nobel Prize for Peace, were seen as a precious gift of the Institute to the nation and to the world. I caught the reverence for Marshall as a plebe, and it has grown with me over the years. Marshall can be such a towering figure that he may seem remote or impossible to emulate, but I’ve learned that he was very human. He was often dissatisfied with himself, and he had to work to control his temper. Sometimes seen as chilly and aloof, he could be funny and affectionate, expressing his concern for others in quiet, even anonymous ways.
As a cadet, Marine Corps officer, even as a parent or employee, I would sometimes ask myself, “What would Marshall do in this situation?” This may strike some people as naïve. I can only say that a conversation, even an imagined conversation, with a great person can be good for you. A question that popped into my mind recently is “What would Marshall make of Donald Trump?” To do this right, one would have to make allowance for differences of time and circumstance. Marshall never ran for public office, so the somewhat undignified antics of political candidates on campaign was something outside the range of his own behavior. He knew the political system, however, and he understood its demands and separate culture. Marshall had also rubbed elbows with the very rich of his day, and he was acquainted with the effect of great wealth on a person’s personality and development. So real estate tycoon-turned politician Donald Trump might have come in for the humorous tolerance that Marshall displayed for the sometimes outlandish figures of the political and financial landscape. Even so, and even allowing for the differences between mid-twentieth century America and the nation as it is today, I think Marshall would be appalled at the spectacle that is Donald Trump. Marshall the logical, deliberate, and humane planner would have found Trump’s emotionalism and his sweeping, untaught pronouncements on strategy to be unseemly and dangerous. Trump’s appeals to fearful xenophobia would likely have struck the author of the design for European recovery that has gone down in history as the Marshall Plan in the same way. Trump’s blowsy posturing and grimacing behind the podium might have reminded Marshall of the rhetorical styles of some of the despised dictators of his own day, perhaps of Mussolini especially. Marshall was known and revered above all for his integrity, and Trump’s lies and misrepresentations (about his own business success, for example) go far beyond what Marshall had come to expect and even accept among some politicians.
A strong indication of how Marshall would have responded to Trump is Marshall’s reaction to another bully and demagogue, Joseph McCarthy. McCarthy attacked Marshall in Congress, blaming him, in rhetoric eerily similar to that of Donald Trump, of responsibility for America’s “retreat from Communism” in China and Korea. McCarthy’s claims amounted to a charge of treason. His disdain for the facts and his abusive language appalled even the members of his own party, but he persisted on the manner of people whose egomania has canceled out sense. Marshall’s response to these attacks was cool. He never replied to them in public, and when a reporter offered to provide material for a rebuttal to McCarthy’s scurrilous charges, Marshal replied, “I appreciate that, but if I have to explain at this point that I am not a traitor to the United States, I hardly thinks it’s worth it.”
Of all of Trump’s shortcomings, his treatment of women might have aroused in the gentlemanly Marshall the greatest contempt. Marshall cared for an invalid wife for the over twenty years of his first marriage, never breathing a word of the toll this might have taken on him. Second perhaps only to the relief of MacArthur on Marshall’s watch as Defense Secretary, the decision which may have attracted the most criticism from McCarthy and the rest of the far right was his appointment of Anna Rosenberg, a Jewish woman, as Assistant Secretary of Defense for Manpower. Marshall came to her defense when the appointment was challenged in Congress. Later, she helped to convince Marshall to begin the racial desegregation of the armed forces. A man of his times, with the strengths of those times, Marshall had the ability to see beyond the limitations of his upbringing and early years.
Marshall the selfless public servant I believe would have seen through Trump’s pretensions. He would have observed Trump’s contempt for law, his incitements to violence and divisiveness, his ignorance and mendacity, and Marshall’s steely, blue-eyed gaze would have dismissed him as the mountebank that he is.