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George C. Marshall's Early Career

George C. Marshall was born on December 31, 1880 in Uniontown, Pennsylvania into the family of a prominent local businessman whose company manufactured coke ovens and who participated in real estate ventures. His comfortable childhood was filled with episodes of fun and mischief, shaped by the love and discipline of his parents. In his early education he proved a lackluster student, but later when he overheard his older brother Stuart beg his mother not to let George go to the Virginia Military Institute because he thought it would disgrace the family name, George was inspired to outshine his brother. His career at VMI was marked by an uncommon determination to excel, and in his senior year he was selected as First Captain of the Cadet Corps, the most honored position in that institution.

He obtained his commission as a Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1902 as the result of an interview with no less than President McKinley. This interview led to his being authorized to take the required examination, his success at which made possible a commendation by his Senator on Marshall's behalf to the Secretary of War. Immediately after receiving his commission he married Elizabeth "Lily" Carter Coles, his college sweetheart from Lexington, Virginia. His first assignment was with the 30th Infantry in the Philippines. This assignment in leading troops in combat was the beginning of a long career of learning the many duties and functions of an Army officer, vital to an officer destined to achieve the highest rank in the service. His duties prior to the First World War included service in mapping remote parts of Texas, a stint as student, and later as instructor, at Fort Leavenworth's officer Staff School. As the top student in his class, his assignment as a Leavenworth instructor was a distinct honor indicative of his evident potential. This was the first of many key teaching assignments that marked his military career. His assignment with the Massachusetts Militia, fore-runner of the National Guard, and duty with the 4th Infantry is three different military bases, gave him insight into the range and structure of the U.S. Army in peacetime. His duty as aide de camp for General Liggett in the Philippines and later to General Bell in the U.S., afforded him invaluable experience in effective staff work that would eventually propel him to a position that proved to be his forte in WWI, and in later years.

His assignment as Assistant Chief of Operations for the show-horse First Division in France in 1917 gave him the opportunity to distinguish himself amongst the senior Army leadership as one of the most promising staff officers in the command. Ironically this opportunity arose as the result of a characteristically Marshall reaction to what he perceived as an injustice. His challenge of the formidable Commanding General John J. Pershing in front of the First Division staff for his unfair criticism of the division and its commander was virtually unprecedented conduct for a middle grade officer. His crisp and meticulous critique of the failings of Pershing's General Staff that had undermined the division's performance stunned the General Pershing and the assembled staff. 

Pershing said nothing. He departed abruptly thereby persuading Marshall's peers that his career was over. But Marshall's determination to speak "truth to power" proved an incalculable asset to his superiors and belied the pervasive belief that unvarnished candor to superiors was career suicide. Marshall's honesty and intellectual rigor soon earned him appointment to the Operations Staff of the General Headquarters. In this capacity he drafted the operations order moving 400,000 American troops from the St Michel salient to the Meuse-Argonne offensive to join some 200,000 Americans already engaged in a complex 72-hour movement. Marshall's order was viewed as a masterstroke of brilliant staff work. This exercise marked Marshall as a likely future Chief of Staff of the Army though he was then only a Lieutenant Colonel.

After the Armistice, Marshall remained in France as Chief of Staff of the Eighth Army until he was selected to be General Pershing's Aide-de-Camp. As such, he accompanied Pershing on a victory tour of the Allies' capitals which gave him the opportunity to meet several of the individuals who became prominent leaders in the Second World War. His service as Pershing's ADC while the latter served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, provided Marshall insight into the Army's dealing with the administration, the federal bureaucracy and, most importantly, with the Congress. In 1924 when General Pershing stepped down as Chief of Staff, Marshall sought appointment as a line officer, and was assigned to the elite 15th Infantry in Tientsin, China, becoming its deputy commander. This was one more assignment during which he could expand his the scope of his acquaintance with promising officers, as well as to evaluate those that did measure up, a sort of virtual "Black Book."

This methodical process of observation became a part of the critical personnel decisions that Marshall would have to make when he rose to command the U.S. Army as it mobilized for WWII. It was at the end of this tour in 1927 that his beloved but frail first wife Lily Coles died. Marshall had initially been assigned as an instructor at the prestigious Army War College. After his wife's death he was given the choice of three posts and he opted to be Assistant Commandant at the Fort Benning Infantry School, another excellent vantage point to expand and refine his "Black Book."

It was in this assignment that George Marshall made one of his most enduring contributions to the Army by promoting the reform infantry doctrine and training to replace infantry attacks in mass formations with assault by small units by fire and maneuver. He revamped training methods to keep operations and orders simple, to provide officers flexibility in responding to changing situations, and to concentrate on field exercises in lieu of lectures. This change in tactics and training saved thousands of American infantrymen's lives in WWII which was a war of movement, as opposed to one of static defense that he had observed from the front in WWI. During Marshall's five years at Fort Benning, according to Marshall's biographer Forrest Pogue, 150 future WWII generals passed through in training, and some 50 more future generals served on the Infantry School's staff.

During his five-year duty at Fort Benning he courted and married in October 1930 Katherine Boyce Tupper Brown, a charming Baltimore widow with three young children. His subsequent assignments with the Civilian Conservation Corps in Georgia and South Carolina in 1932-33, gave Marshall a window into the character and ability of young American men who would serve in his citizen army in the coming World War. Following his service with the CCC, he returned again to a recurring role in his life, that of teacher serving as the Senior Instructor with the Illinois National Guard. His focus in his 3-year tour (1933-1936) was to apply his infantry training concepts to the poorly motivated and trained National Guard units in recognition that the citizen-soldier would carry the burden in any future war. He concentrated his efforts on enhancing the professionalism of the Guard soldiers, and especially of the officers. He also developed Guard command staff structures, while at the same time making unit training more realistic and more efficient. He also pressed the Army for the assignment of higher caliber officers to all the state National Guard commands. Marshall's promotion to brigadier general in October 1936 was, as he recognized, and for which he had gently campaigned, an essential step toward realizing his interest in becoming Chief of Staff of the Army.

His promotion to Brigadier General earned him command of the Fifth Brigade of the Third Infantry Division, and the position of post commander of Vancouver Barracks situated just north of Portland, Oregon. This proved to be a very satisfying assignment for him both professionally and personally. In addition to obtaining a long-sought and significant troop command, traditionally viewed as an indispensable way station to the pinnacle of the U.S. Army, Marshall was also responsible for 35 CCC camps in Oregon and southern Washington. As post commander, Marshall made a concerted effort to cultivate relations with the City of Portland and to enhance the image of the U.S. Army in the region. With the CCC he initiated a series of measures to improve the morale of the participants and to make the experience beneficial in their later life. He started a newspaper for the CCC region that proved a vehicle to promote CCC successes, and initiated a variety of programs that developed their skills and improved their health. Marshall's inspections of the CCC camps gave him and his wife Katherine the chance to enjoy the beauty of the American northwest, and made this assignment "the most instructive service I ever had, and the most interesting."

In July 1938 George Marshall arrived at his new assignment as Head of the War Plans Division at Army Headquarters in Washington. While Marshall was widely regarded as a brilliant staff officer, he regretted giving up his troop command and the satisfaction of working with the CC in the magnificent setting of the northwest. War clouds were gathering in Europe as Hitler aggressive actions slowly began to persuade European democracies that they could only be constrained by the use of force. Concurrently, Japan pursued its conquests in China and threatened other western interests in the Pacific. Distasteful as it was for Americans, war planning became essential, and Marshall was clearly the officer to lead these efforts. Yet within three months, he was elevated to the Deputy Chief of Staff position. In this capacity he attended a White House conference in November 1938 which proved a fateful encounter that shaped not only his career, but also the course of American history in the 20th Century.

At this council of his senior advisers, President Roosevelt presented a proposal to built 10,000 aircraft to provide to European democracies to forestall U.S. involvement in the impending war. Marshall was stunned by the proposal which made no provision for training of flight crews and other logistical challenges. More importantly, this initiative would be at the expense of America's need for more troops, tanks and all the other material required to prepare for war. When Roosevelt went around the room asking the attendees for their reaction, Marshall was further astounded that all of his military colleagues assented to the proposal with which he knew they really did not agree.

When the President came to Marshall, he asked, "Don't you think so, George?" Marshall, who was attending his first conference with Roosevelt, was vexed at the President's "misrepresentation of our intimacy," by the use of his first name. Nonetheless, he firmly replied, "I'm sorry Mr. President, I don't agree with you at all." This apparently startled the President and the meeting adjoined abruptly thereafter. As with his confrontation with Pershing in 1917, Marshall's fellow participants assumed his compulsion to express his opinion bluntly, yet honestly, spelled the end of his career in Washington. To his credit, Roosevelt recognized Marshall's character and came to value his unfailing honesty. In April 1939, Marshall was summoned to the White House and Roosevelt informed him that he had decided to select him to become Chief of Staff of the Army, thereby vaulting him over several dozen more senior officers. Marshall was honored, but made clear in his response to the President, that, "I have the habit of saying exactly what I think," which he added, "can be unpleasing. Is that all right?" Roosevelt's acceptance with a grin only inspired Marshall to remind the President again that his candor may be "unpleasant." Roosevelt maintained his grin and said with resignation, "I know." This exchange cemented the terms of probably the most important operational relationship in American military history.

Click here to read about Marshall during World War Two.

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