WWII: Preparing for Battle

Just before World War II, Marshall was promoted from a one-star general to a four-star general. This rise in rank was sudden and dramatic, but so were the events in the modern world. Across the Atlantic, a once-defeated nation had again become a military giant and was asserting its strength across Europe. Germany, whose leader, Adolf Hitler, had enlisted the help of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and was upsetting the organization of Europe that had come about after World War I. At the same time, across the Pacific, a booming economic powerhouse was also expanding. Isolated no longer, Japan was pushing itself into China and other areas of East Asia where the United States also had interests. The uneasy peace since World War I was about to be shattered leaving Marshall, and the United States, right in the middle of it all.

On September 1, 1939, George C. Marshall realized his life-long dream and was sworn in as Army Chief of Staff. That same day, Hitler's troops invaded neighboring Poland, triggering the six year nightmare known as World War II. Once again, the British and French fought against Germany and its related powers. Once again, the Americans watched from the sidelines, wondering if the conflict would draw them in as well.

The Americans did not want war. Having just recovered from the Great Depression, the memories of World War I were still fresh in everyone's mind. Like Woodrow Wilson before him, President Franklin Roosevelt recognized that Americans supported neutrality. The nation was in an isolationist mood, but Roosevelt encouraged Americans to support military preparedness as the best way to preserve that neutrality.

Marshall too recognized the country's desire for keeping peace, however he also believed there to be more at stake than preserving American neutrality. Western European countries had quickly fallen to Germany and France. Should Great Britain fall as well, the U.S. would be alone on the battlefield. Marshall concluded Roosevelt did not fully understand the danger of the situation. An American show of strength would not be enough. Whether Americans liked it or not, the United States needed to be ready to fight a war, and win.

A Painful Truth: Honesty Prevails

Believing the U.S. Army to be unprepared, Marshall knew he had to speak the truth, whether appreciated or not. He stepped forward and took his unpopular message first to the President and then to Congress. At the time, the U.S. had only 180,000 troops, which ranked it sixteenth militarily in the world. After hearing from Marshall, Congress agreed to enact a peace time draft, which within a year expanded the Army and its Air Corps to over a million men. By 1945, over 12 million Americans would make up the total U.S. fighting forces.

Marshall had learned from the mistakes made in World War I. This time, the United States would be prepared if war broke out. On December 7, 1941, nearly 200 Japanese airplanes swarmed over Hawaii's Pearl Harbor in a surprise attack on a U.S. fleet. Many American ships were sunk and lives lost, forcing the United States to declare war against Japan. Because Japan had already signed a mutual defense treaty with Germany and Italy, the U.S. was suddenly fighting a worldwide war.

The problems of the new war landed on the Chief of Staff's desk without reserve. First, they were fighting a global war which had two fronts: one in Europe, the other in the Pacific. An agreement had to be established for a united plan of action between the American and British governments. The strength of two powerful politicians, President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, together with the rivalries between military branches that had to be set aside, made the collaboration an enormous challenge. The Allies agreed to defeat the German military threat first, however strategy for re-taking Europe was open for discussion.

While the debates raged, Marshall had to be sure the Allied plans were successful. He made sure the militaries had the materials and manpower they needed to execute these plans. Material had to be manufactured and people had to be trained, which took time. Organization of supply distribution needed to be accurate and efficient.

Marshall's largest battle was with the American people themselves; funding the war in a democratic society seemed nearly impossible. In the totalitarian governments of Germany and Italy, the nations' leaders simply dictated what must be done, regardless of cost. In the United States, representatives in Congress were told by the American people what should be done. Marshall needed to ask the people's permission for every penny the military needed while trying to win on the battlefront.

Representatives in Congress were not military thinkers. Most were civilians unfamiliar with the ways of war. Throughout his life, Marshall had established a reputation for honesty. People respected and trusted him with their sons, daughters, and country. When Marshall testified before committees, Americans listened. In turn, Congress accomplished what was necessary and Marshall was granted what was needed to successfully fight the war.

Operation Overlord: A Brilliant Plan, A Missed Opportunity

Winning the war was a huge job, one Marshall commanded mostly from his desk in Washington, D.C. Despite his mostly stationary seat, he was required to scout out reality on the battlefield. He now boarded long-flying airplanes to check on troops stationed not only in Europe and the Pacific, but in Alaska, Egypt, and Papua New Guinea.

By 1943, Marshall recognized that the Allies' massive global coordination of troops and battles was finally beginning to go well. After several defeats, the Pacific fleet was on the offensive against Japan. In the Mediterranean, the Germans were being pushed out of North Africa, and Russian troops fighting with the Allies had scored victories against the Germans in the Soviet Union as well. Based on these reports and his own observations, Marshall knew it was time to push hard for a plan to defeat the Nazis once and for all.

Marshall's idea, supported by President Roosevelt, was to have Allied troops gather in Great Britain, cross the English Channel, and land on the beaches of France. From there the troops would push across Europe to victory. The British, on the other hand, preferred a different plan that involved invading Europe through Italy. In the fall of 1943, the Allies finally agreed to Marshall's plan, which they code-named Operation Overlord. This top-secret invasion of France was scheduled for the early summer of 1944. Many people, including British leaders, expected Marshall would lead this battle. He had performed an outstanding service as Chief of Staff, however he had always preferred combat to deskwork.

Perhaps that was why President Roosevelt called Marshall in December 1943 and asked him if he wanted the job. Marshall was almost 63 years old; in two years, he would be forced to retire. This was his opportunity for greatness in combat, the missing piece among his lifetime of strategic triumphs. Rescuing Europe from the Nazis would be the capstone of his career.

Marshall wanted the job, but decided it should ultimately be the decision of the President. Roosevelt should make his decision based on the good of the country, not for Marshall's personal glory. And so Roosevelt chose someone else to lead the invasion and sent his loyal soldier back to his seat. Marshall's planning skills were too important to sacrifice in battle.

Six months later, 175,000 troops under the command of General Dwight D. Eisenhower surged onto the beaches of Normandy, France on a single day. The D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944 was indeed the turning point of the war. Despite incurring heavy casualties, the Allied forces pressed on. In the next nine months, they pushed the Nazi forces all the way back to Germany. By the spring of 1945, the Germans had surrendered and Europe was liberated. That victory carried General Dwight D. Eisenhower to glory and fame in both Europe and throughout the world. Seven years after the war, the American people would elect Eisenhower as the President of the United States.

Although that fame wasn't destined to be Marshall's, his position behind his desk may have been an even more essential part in the success of World War II. He was there working out the supplies for Allied forces as they fiercely battled over one Japanese-occupied island after another. He was there when new President Harry S Truman ordered the dropping of the first atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was still there five days later when the Japanese finally surrendered on August 14, 1945.

Retiree to Diplomat: Truman Calls Again

Marshall was now nearing 65, the age at which he was required to step down from active military life. After more than 40 years of service to his country, Marshall was ready to follow no one's orders but his own. While Europe was picking itself up from the ashes of war, America celebrated and received their war heroes home. Marshall's retirement however, lasted less than a week before President Truman called him to serve once again.

With World War II over and Japan just defeated, a struggle for power had erupted among the Chinese. Civil war had turned into revolution involving the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek and the communist forces of Mao Zedong. Truman appointed Marshall as Ambassador and head of the U.S. Mission to China. He was immediately sent overseas for a meeting with nationalist and communist Chinese officials in an attempt to mediate civil war.

Marshall attempted his mission without success. He was then appointed Secretary of State in January, 1947. The European economy was still in ruins; there was great political instability and widespread personal suffering as a result of the war. At a conference of foreign ministers in Russia shortly thereafter, Marshall spoke with Joseph Stalin about working with the United States to provide aid to ruined Europe. Stalin was not interested. Marshall came to realize that the United States would be on its own in its attempts to help, and he believed that it was in our country's best interest to help Europe achieve economic stability.

Selected Bibliography

Pogue, Forrest C.
George C. Marshall
4 vols., New York: Viking, 1963-87
Vol III, Organizer of Victory, 1943-1945

Parrish, Thomas
Roosevelt and Marshall: Partners in Politics and War, The Personal Story
New York: William Morrow & Co., 1989

Beal, John Robinson
Marshall in China
Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., 1970
Beal, a newspaper reporter, was hired in the spring of 1946 by the Chinese government as advisor on press and public relations. Marshall recommended the position as a method of keeping the Nationalist regime from generating bad publicity in the United States.

Bland, Larry I.
George C. Marshall's Mediation Mission to China,
December 1945-January 1947

Lexington, Va.: George C. Marshall Foundation, 1998
A collection of essays by various authors

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