George Catlett Marshall, the 50th United States Secretary of State, was both an architect of war and an architect of peace. Marshall directed the U.S. Army during World War II, then, as secretary of state, he organized a massive reconstruction aid effort for war-torn regions. That plan bears his name -- the Marshall Plan -- and earned him a Nobel Prize in 1953.
Marshall's Early Life
Marshall was born in Pennsylvania in 1880. Marshall attended the Virginia Military Institute (VMI), which had produced such American military greats as Stonewall Jackson, and where he would two years ahead of another World War II general, George S. Patton, Jr.
Graduating in 1901, Marshall entered the U.S. Army and went to the Philippines. There the army was attempting to put down the Philippine Insurrection that opposed occurred after the U.S. occupied the archipelago after taking it from Spain in the Spanish-American War, 1898.
Marshall graduated from both the Army's Infantry-Cavalry School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, 1907, and the Army Staff College, 1908. Serving on the U.S. Army's General Staff during World War I, Marshall helped organize General John J. "Blackjack" Pershing's Meuse-Argonne offensive in 1918. That offensive swept around German lines, cut their supply conduits, and forced Germany to sue for peace.
In the interwar years, Marshall worked on Pershing's staff, did a stint in China, taught at the Army War College, served as assistant commandant of the army's Infantry School, and commanded the Eighth Infantry. He became a brigadier (one-star) general in 1936. His extensive staff experience earned him a spot on the Army General Staff in 1938.
In 1939, with the world on the brink of another world war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appoint Marshall as U.S. Army Chief of Staff. Marshall received the rank of full (four-star) general.
Marshall's tenure as Army chief predated by a decade the current Joint Chiefs of Staff system, where all military branch chiefs -- with one designated chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- serve as an advisory committee to the President and Secretary of Defense. In his day, Marshall answered to the Secretary of War, then the President. Nevertheless, Marshall was the preeminent personality involved in American war planning.
Like Roosevelt, Marshall was an "internationalist" -- he did not agree with the prevailing American public opinion that the U.S. should avoid the global issues threatening to ignite a war. Also like Roosevelt, Marshall urged military preparedness, such as building up U.S. manpower and equipment.
World War II began on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland, and England and France declared war on Germany. The U.S. did not officially enter the war until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.
Marshall coordinated the exhaustive organization, supply, and logistics of the U.S. Army during the war, and he articulated with civil agencies the in-theater planning of such operations as Torch, Husky, and Overlord (the invasions of North Africa, Sicily, and France, respectively).
Marshall also developed diplomatic ability as he helped coordinate top-level conferences between Allied leaders, such as the Casablanca Conference in 1943 where FDR and Winston Churchill announced at Allied policy of unconditional surrender of the Axis powers, and the Yalta Conference in 1945, where FDR, Churchill, and Soviet Union leader Josef Stalin agreed on a post-war division of Germany and the creation of the United Nations.
Post-War: The Marshall Plan
The war over, Marshall left the army in November 1945. He could not stay away from public service, however, and when President Harry Truman asked him to serve as U.S. envoy to China (then in a reignited civil war between nationalist and communist forces) he agreed.
In 1947, Truman asked Marshall to serve as Secretary of State, and Marshall again accepted. He would serve in the post for only two years, January 1947 to January 1949, but his impact was great.
Marshall and key economic advisers took note of the economic devastation that World War I wreaked on Germany, and how that and the financial humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles pushed Germany toward World War II. They were determined to avoid a repeat of history.
They also right observed that any lag in the reconstruction of basic infrastructures in war-wracked areas gave Communism a chance to slip into power vacuums and take control. As the U.S. sought to contain Communism to its immediate post-war borders, it seemed prudent for the United States to lead an economic campaign to rebuild war-torn areas with American foreign aid money.
Marshall announced the economic aid plan at Harvard University. It quickly became known as the Marshall Plan. It served as the economic complement to the president's Truman Doctrine, which guaranteed American global efforts to hold Communism at bay.
Marshall again attempted private life, but served one year in the newly created post of Secretary of Defense in 1950-51. As such, he oversaw American action in the early phase of the Korean War.
Marshall received the Nobel Prize in 1953 for humanitarian service in the rebuilding of Europe. Marshall finally did retire from public service. He died in 1959.