1-196 Speech on School History Texts, February 10, 1923

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: February 10, 1923

Speech on School History Texts1

[February 10, 1923] Boston [Massachusetts]

When Doctor Perry graciously honored me with an invitation to address the members of the Headmasters Association I was much complimented but very loathe to accept the undertaking. You know, Army officers below the grade of Brigadier General seldom have experience in making after-dinner speeches, and I might add, that our Generals frequently offer proof of this assertion. But the opportunity to talk to you gentlemen who are in such close touch with the young men of the country and who exert such a profound influence on their minds during the formative period, made it seem highly desirable that I should accept Doctor Perry’s invitation and do my best to tell you something of the War Department’s plans and hopes, and particularly of its interest in developing good citizenship. . . .2

Immediately following the termination of war, the public mind centers on the tragedies involved. All are thinking of the recent sacrifices of life, which always have been due in a serious measure to a lack of methodical preparation. Therefore, the legislators are in a frame of mind to recognize our military necessities and they draft their laws accordingly. Then comes a new thought dominating all minds, the war debt, high taxes and their reduction. Economy is demanded by public opinion; everyone loathes war; and a reduction of the military establishment is the easiest political makeshift for immediate retrenchment. So the cycle is completed and we are moving today into the same predicament in which war has always found us.

You gentlemen I believe, are intimately concerned with these passing and contradictory phases of public opinion and you can undoubtedly render a very great service in this matter. To explain—I doubt if as many as 5% of our men study history after they leave school. Therefore, the textbook they use and the manner in which they are taught finally determines their knowledge of American and world history. From their number a few are chosen to represent them in Congress. If it is agreed that the average politician is seldom a student, then one can understand the inconsistencies of legislation regarding national policies concerned with our international relations. It is hard to believe that a man familiar with the history of the centuries could fail to guide his course somewhat by the lessons of the past. As a matter of fact, many of our legislators have premised their decisions on impressions retained from schooling in biased histories, poorly taught and devoid of reference to the conclusions to be drawn from the recorded events.

In this connection the prediction is ventured, that more of our future schoolboys will know the date of the declaration of war against Germany than will learn that a year elapsed before an American soldier could attack the enemy. Almost none of them will be given any idea of the deplorable situation in which we found ourselves and the reasons for it existing. They will leave school knowing how long the war lasted, how many men were engaged, who were the principal figures, how gallantly our men fought at Cantigny, Chateau Thierry, St. Mihiel and in the Meuse-Argonne; the billions expended and the thousands who died will probably figure in many examination papers; but do you think that much will be known of the real plight in which General Pershing found himself landing on foreign soil, three thousand miles from home without an organization, even on paper, without a plan and without a gun? How many will cogitate on the national dilemma in which we would have found ourselves had our enemy been free to attack us in the first month and not been held at arm’s length by our Allies?

Let us analyze this a little further. You gentlemen are representative of the most highly educated and cultured class in America. Are you familiar with Washington’s difficulties with the Continental Congress over the maintenance of his army of the Revolution? Do you remember any of the cautions that he pointed out to the coming American? Are the many humiliating incidents of the land fighting in 1812-13 clear in your mind and more particularly the reasons for them? Do you know why the Union armies were so unfortunate during the early days of the Civil War and the Confederate armies so frequently successful? Have you ever read how most of the State Volunteer troops had to be returned from the Philippine Islands, leaving a small contingent of the Regular Army actually besieged in Manila?

History is filled—in fact, it almost consists, of remarkable repetitions. General Pershing the other day called attention to the fact that during the long period of the Roman Peace protective garrisons were maintained by Roman Legions stationed at Cologne, Coblenz and Mayence, with a reserve of ten thousand at Treves. Eighteen hundred years later, during the recent Peace Conference in Paris, British soldiers were stationed at Cologne, Americans at Coblenz, and French at Mayence, with a general reserve at Treves, which incidentally was his, General Pershing’s, Advance Headquarters. Certainly here is a remarkable repetition. If there are any lessons to be drawn from it, would not that be more important knowledge to be implanted in the minds of our future citizens than an extensive collection of dates, names and places?

About a year ago I had occasion to re-read the Life of General Philip Sheridan. He was one of the five men to hold the highest rank in our Army—Washington being the first and General Pershing the last. After the Civil War Sheridan was sent to Europe to observe the operations of the German Army then invading France. He joined the Emperor William on the eve of Gravelotte. In Bismarck’s carriage he rode into Pont-a-Mousson—now that was the right flank of General Pershing’s army at St. Mihiel. From there he followed the Prussians through Commercy to Bar-le-Duc—that was the principal route in the movement of the American troops from the St. Mihiel salient to the Meuse-Argonne. In Bar-le-Duc he watched the Bavarians turn northward and he followed them to Clermont—that was the exact axis of the advance of the American troops deploying against the Germans in the Argonne Forest. He slept in each of these towns I have mentioned and continued on to his next billet in Grand Pre, still on the axis of the advance of our victorious troops who had cleared the Argonne of the enemy.

And now comes what is to me the most remarkable coincidence. From Grand Pre he followed the victorious Germans through the Foret de Dieulet into Beaumont, where they surprised a French division in its billets and captured practically the entire force. Our Second Division advanced at night through that same forest and captured Germans—not Frenchmen—at breakfast in Beaumont. Sheridan pushed on with the entourage of the Emperor William and from the crest of a hill just south of Wadelincourt looked down into Sedan where the French Army had been cornered, but not yet captured. He stood on the same hill from which the troops of the Sixteenth Regular Infantry of the First Division looked at the retreating German forces in Sedan on the morning of November 7,1918, four days before the Armistice. Possibly there is a lesson in this. In any event it goes to prove that the friend of today may be the enemy of tomorrow, and that the road over which one advances to victory might be the identical route of withdrawal in defeat.

Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Speeches, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.

Document Format: Typed draft.

1. Marshall extensively edited the original typewritten document. The edited version is printed here.

2. Omitted here are 275 words tracing the history of the policy of rapidly expanding the United States Army during each war and severely reducing it afterwards.

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland and Sharon Ritenour Stevens (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 1, “The Soldierly Spirit,” December 1880-June 1939 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981), pp. 219-222.

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