1-524 Speech to the American Legion, November 6, 1938

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: November 6, 1938

Speech to the American Legion1

November 6, 1938 Brunswick, Maryland

As I understand it, this gathering today is to celebrate the Armistice of twenty years ago, which brought to a close the active fighting of the World War. The anniversary of so momentous an occasion should be observed, not to celebrate a victory, but in consecration of the sacrifice of the young Americans in France, and to bring to mind the conditions of that frightful conflict, in an effort to provide for the avoidance of such a catastrophe in the future.

Unfortunately these present days, particularly these past few months, have involved a series of events frightening to every citizen, in their threats or implications.

No one of us wants war. I believe that is axiomatic in this country—certainly on the part of any veteran of the World War. There is nothing romantic, dramatic, or satisfying in modern conflict. It is all horrible, profoundly depressing; and now it carries with it a dreadful threat to civil populations. I think we are in general agreement regarding the statements I have just made, but the trouble, the difficulty of the problem, is what is to be done about it.

We honor our dead of past wars; we encourage the ideal of patriotic self-sacrifice of the individual; but, we must be far-sighted and sound in our attitude as to just what is the proper thing for this Government to do in the way of national defense.

You know, a photograph in a weekly magazine depicting some horror—like the bombing of a city in China or in Spain—not only creates a profound impression upon every civilian who examines it, but it more or less fixes in his mind a specific remedy—practical or impractical. But there is far more to this business than the bombing of cities—far, far more—and my desire today is to find the words to make clear the real issue, from a Governmental point of view, of a matter of vast importance to every citizen. Possibly by utilizing some homely examples, I might better be able to make clear the complications of the problem and the difficulties which are inherent in its solution.

In the first place, national defense under modern conditions has become a tremendously expensive business, so much so that I think it is the business of every mature citizen to acquaint himself with the principal facts, and form a general idea as to what he or she thinks is the wise course for this country to follow.

I am not discussing the evil of war, or what brings about war, or whether or not I think there is any possibility of our being involved in a war in the near future. I want merely to present the problems involved from the viewpoint of the professional soldier on duty in the War Department.

Allow me to give you a few examples of this so-called unpreparedness:

All of our military strength developed during the Revolutionary War had been disbanded at the time of the outbreak of the War of 1812. I think we had then some eighty-nine soldiers, and it therefore became necessary to create an army out of whole cloth. Public opinion, and mark that well—public opinion forced us immediately to an invasion of Canada, and we enjoyed a series of the most humiliating military episodes on record. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, our school boys have had their attention diverted from these tragedies by the splendid but local victories of American privateers on the high seas in conflict with isolated English naval vessels, and by the magnificent performance of General Jackson at New Orleans.

The Mexican War had a slow approach, giving us time for preparation of an army in the field in Texas. We were dealing with a weak country and had every advantage in means and men. But even here we find some remarkable examples of American military policy. For instance, we find General Scott’s army hurrying up from the coast at Vera Cruz to cross the fever district of the plains before the hot season developed, forcing its way into the mountains at Cerro Gordo in order to secure the passage of this high mountain range before the time of service of a large portion of his men expired, to leave him in Mexico, in the enemy’s country, with the mere remnant of an army. He had to wait there until the new men arrived. Fortunately, the enemy was not capable of taking advantage of what might well have been a fatal dilemma.

The Civil War was so full of illustrations of our lack of preparation that it is useless to recite them.

However, when we come to the Spanish American War, which is within the day of many of us here, we find most surprising situations. Out in San Francisco an expedition was embarking to sail to the Philippines, to back up Admiral Dewey. They lacked all knowledge of the country, of the people, of the general necessities; they lacked training and organization; and yet they sailed off across the broad Pacific to fight, seven thousand miles from their base, with only one hundred and fifty rounds of ammunition available per man, just about one day of rifle fire on a battlefield. What was to happen the morning following the first encounter had to be completely ignored.

In those days we had nothing, literally, but small garrisons at old frontier posts, and little units along the coast to man ancient guns. There were no reserves of war supplies, and practically no modern equipment. Our losses, due to ignorance of leadership on the part of troop commanders, and poor sanitation on the part of an untrained medical personnel, were greater in the camp and hospital than they were on the battlefield.

Following this disgraceful display, in which the questions of personal courage and patriotic energy were never questioned, a deliberate effort was made for the first time to remedy conditions. Mr. Elihu Root stepped into the picture as Secretary of War, and out of his great mind came a revolutionary step in the modernization of the American Army—the introduction of the military school system which culminates in the War College at Washington, the creation of a General staff which consists of a group of highly trained officers to coordinate all military effort towards the best preparation of the army for its ultimate purpose. These growing pains brought about many difficulties, as was natural, and we reached the World War in the midst of the transition of the National Guard— our principal immediate available forces—and before we had had time to develop organizational methods for handling large bodies of troops. Our part in the World War is well known to all of you, but many of our blundering steps are unknown to the general public.

Allow me to give you a few examples within my own experience. I sailed from New York on the first ship of the first convoy, in June, 1917. This was the First Division, a unit which eventually had 27,000 men in its ranks and suffered 25,000 casualties in France. It went over with the first convoy and it returned with the last in September, 1919. We embarked hurriedly in Hoboken, put out from the dock in the several boats, and anchored awaiting the completion of the installation of naval guns, and the preparation of convoy arrangements for crossing the Atlantic. The Staff of that Division, of which I was a member, immediately got together—having assembled for the first time on the boat—to study our situation. We found, while anchored in the Hudson River, that the organization of the troops was entirely new to us, that there were four regiments of infantry in the division instead of the nine of our previous experience; that there were units of which we had never before heard, armed with weapons of which we knew nothing. And like that expedition from San Francisco to the Philippines in 1898, with only 150 rounds per man, we were sailing 3,000 miles from home to fight on foreign soil, and not until we arrived in France did the Division Commander and the members of the Division Staff learn that these new weapons were non-existent, and that the troops which on paper were charged with operating those weapons had never seen even a model of one. We found that eighty percent of the men in ranks were recruits, to many of whom rifles had been issued on the trains between the Mexican Border and Hoboken. They were all good men, they were all splendid Americans—but they were not soldiers.

The day we landed in France I saw the French General in command of that region, in his full dress uniform, with his medals on his chest, arrive at our headquarters, which had been hastily established in a stubble field. He was calling on our Commanding General to extend the welcome of France to the first unit of American soldiers to arrive on the soil of France, to repay our debt to Lafayette. He was calling on an organization of the Regular Army, as he thought. The sentinel at the gate was a tall, rangy, Tennessee mountain type. As the General approached, the Tennessean did his best with a salute—and I was concerned to see that not only was his blouse partly unbuttoned, but he had a watch chain stretched from one pocket to the other. The French General made an evident comment regarding the rifle, and our sentry handed his gun over to the Frenchman and seated himself on a nearby post to roll a cigarette.

I am not depreciating the quality of those men. I saw them on a series of terrible battlefields where they established an outstanding reputation in the AEF, and a world-wide reputation in Europe. Finer soldiers you could not have found, but the point is, at this moment, they were not soldiers; but our peculiar fortune in that war was, that our Allies protected us on the field of battle for a long year while we slowly got ready—for we landed in France on June 26, 1917, and it was not until September 12, 1918, that an American Army deployed in a battle. Prior to that time there were engagements in which smaller detachments of American troops were engaged. The First Division made the first American attack at Cantigny on May 28, 1918, and participated in the famous counterattack at Soissons, the turning point of the war, on July 18, 1918. Other divisions operated in the Marne Salient that summer. But, more than a year elapsed after our declaration of war before our first divisional unit engaged in battle, and seventeen months before an American Army appeared on the field.

I emphasize these time elements because the implications of the past few weeks have indicated that war is a sudden and terrible business, with the accent on the sudden.2 Nothing that has recently been said or printed seemed to indicate that we would have a year in which to get ready. Now, what we are interested in, as our simple duty in the War Department, is the development of logical plans suitable to our national characteristics and adequate for our protection.

There are a few thoughts I would ask you to keep in mind. Remember that almost every weapon of war, certainly every gun—big or little—and every device for aiming and firing that gun, like the elaborate instruments necessary for anti-aircraft artillery, require a year to a year-and-a-half to manufacture. So, no matter how many billions of dollars Congress places at our disposal on the day war is declared, they will not buy ten cents worth of war materiel for delivery under twelve months, and a great deal of it will require a year-and-a-half to manufacture. In other words, whatever your son and my son is to use to defend himself and to defend us and the Country, has to be manufactured in time of peace.

We have models of the best weapons and mechanical devices, we think, in the world, and we have the finest aircraft in design and performance; but what we must have is the accumulation of an adequate reserve of this materiel, not just some popular item, but a balanced program suitable for the instant arming of our first modest war army, in the event of trouble.

Our primary need is materiel, everything else is of secondary importance.

Our policy is, I think, thoroughly in keeping with American thought and characteristics—only the means necessary to defend ourselves until the vast resources of this country, in men and industry, can be mobilized. We want nothing today for armed invasion, we want no huge forces on foot or wing; but we do want the materiel and the nucleus for the rapid equipping and expansion of the Regular Army and the National Guard to a strength adequate to protect us; that is, the United States, Panama, and Hawaii, while our great industrial plants are set going towards the production of war materiel, and our vast resources in men can be organized and trained.

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 spoke to the American Legion at Brunswick, Maryland.

2. The Germany-Czechoslovakia crisis of September, 1938, appeared to be drifting rapidly toward war until Great Britain, France, Germany, and Italy signed an agreement at Munich, Germany, on September 30.

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. 644-648.

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