Saturday, October 25, 2014

George Marshall by Irwin & Debi Unger: Book Review

George Marshall by Irwin & Debi Unger (Harper, October 2014, 560 pages, $35.00/18.99) is a contemporary re-appraisal of George Marshall's life and career. Despite the fact that throughout his long military service, Marshall was always recognized for his character and ability, this biography seems to go out of its way to find fault with the man and his achievements. Whether the issue is the impossibility of any human achieving to the level Marshall's acclaim suggests or a need to find fault with a general widely thought to be one of America's finest military examples, the Ungers seem to go out of their way to fault Marshall for not always getting it right. Never recognized for his brilliance in speech nor given the opportunity to command men in battle, George Marshall still managed to rise to the highest levels of the military and to serve as Army Chief of Staff under Roosevelt and both Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration. A person of seemingly modest ambition, he was named Time Magazine's Man of the Year twice and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He was promoted to General of the Army, the highest possible rank in the U.S. Army. Despite his recognition, the Ungers are always careful to explore how Marshall falls short of absolute icon status when fully examined. How could he not?

Marshall as Cadet at VMI

Marshall was born in1880 in Uniontown, PA, the son of a local businessman, but he early identified with the Virginia gentry from which his mother was descended. He attended Virginia Military Institute, where his career was acceptable, but not notable, perhaps spurred on by a denigrating remark made by his older brother. He was commissioned in the regular Army, and like so many of his age cohort serving in the peacetime Army, found promotion to be slow and rewards meager. Generally speaking, he was recognized for his organizational ability, his attention to detail, and his encouragement of his subordinates to take the initiative. He gained a reputation as an effective organizer and administrator, a role he functioned in throughout his career, never having the opportunity to command troops in battle, the usual path to top positions in the Army. Unlike his, perhaps, greatest rival, General Douglas MacArthur he neither came from a distinguished military background, nor gained recognition through his skill at commanding men or as a strategist. Marshall was a consummate bureaucrat, always keeping the spotlight on others as he rose through the ranks. Whenever the opportunity arose for him to take a command post, his superior officers much preferred to keep him in staff positions where his judgment and knowledge were seen as being indispensable. After impressing General John J. Pershing with his directness and honesty, Marshall often had the support of Pershing as he rose through the ranks after World War I. As Pershing's personal aide, Marshall came to know the people and the levers of power in Washington. After Franklin D. Roosevelt became President, his rise in the Army ranks became swifter. While not highly articulate or learned, Marshall was persuasive in both the counsels of the mighty and before Congressional hearings.

After World War I, the Army's size was drastically reduced. He foresaw the potential difficulties of Hitler's rise to power and lobbied hard to increase the size of the Army and the level of fitness to serve among officers and enlisted me. However, it was not until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 that the U.S. saw the need to mobilize. As Chief of Staff, Marshall oversaw the increase in the Army's size from fewer than 200,000 to over eight million, while helping to organize war production to provide the necessary material support. Seemingly bland and unassuming, Marshall was able to work effectively with the large personalities of men like FDR, Winston Churchill, and even Stalin, as the allies became enmeshed in defeating the Axis powers (Germany, Japan and Italy) around the world. He could see beyond the parochial needs of men like Patton and MacArthur to recognize the importance of maintaining balance and perspective. While never a man of great warmth, humor, or likability, Marshall commanded the respect of all through his probity, honesty, and ability as a fair broker between competing interests. He was a bureaucrat's bureaucrat when the term was not pejorative. The most important moments in Marshall's rise in the ranks seem to have come when he spoke out in opposition to ideas proposed by those in authority. Rather than destroying his career, those moments provided him with a reputation for courage and honesty, and were rewarded with promotions and increases in responsibility, always in staff positions.

Marshall's career did not progress without areas of criticism. In subordinating Army expansion to the needs of domestic suppliers and defense industries, training was compromised and men arrived at the front with inadequate preparation. Marshall, as a consummate compromiser, allowed the U.S. to be involved in the costly campaigns in North Africa and Italy, which served to postpone the invasion of Europe in 1944, but also may have completed the training necessary to succeed. He was strongly criticized in Congress (along with FDR) for the Pearl Harbor debacle, and later was constantly under pressure from the isolationist right wing and from the demagoguery of Senator Joseph McCarthy during the fifties. When President Truman dismissed MacArthur for insubordination, Marshall, too, came under enormous pressure. While maintaining a reputation as a non-partisan, Marshall's greatest success and promotion came under Democratic administrations, which predominated during the height of his career. Nevertheless, Dwight Eisenhower was a Marshall protege whom he happily congratulated on his election as President.

Author Irwin Unger has won the Pulitzer Prize in history for The Greenback Era as well as two Guggenheim fellowships. Together Irwin and Debi Unger have authored LBJ: A Life and several other books. They live in New York City.

George Marshall by Irwin & Debi Unger (Harper, October 2014, 560 pages, $35.00/18.99) is a thorough re-appraisal of the life and career of General of the Army George C. Marshall, who presents interesting problems for potential biographers because he was distinguished for his character and bureaucratic ability rather than for his brilliance as a tactician or strength of personality. To keep this biography from becoming a hagiography, they have resolutely identified areas where Marshall's efforts fell short of the ideal. Tasked with managing an impossibly complex war and then overseeing American efforts as the new post-war country had to confront issues of the Cold War, the emergence of Israel, and the threat of world Communism, it's amazing that one man could manage to keep as many balls in the air as he did. Meanwhile, we still struggle with the outcomes of America's rise and fall in a difficult world with new and ever-changing rules. I received George Marshall by Irwin & Debi Unger from the publisher through Edelweiss as an electronic galley. I read it on my Kindle App.