2-548 Speech to the American Legion, September 15, 1941

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: September 15, 1941

Speech to the American Legion1

September 15, 1941 Milwaukee, Wisconsin

This National Convention of the Legion finds our country in the midst of a tremendous defense effort. It finds the Army at a momentary climax of the most extensive and strenuous peacetime training program in the history of this or, possibly, any other country.

A great deal of water has gone over the dam since your first convention in 1919. Unfortunately it carried with it, by way of erosion, most of the military power created by your youthful vigor and your willingness to serve the country in those other critical days. Obsolescence had a similar effect on materiel.

Since the transition of you men from the ranks of the Army to the ranks of the Legion, your organization has fathered and has urged, year after year, military policies and appropriations which if they had been accepted by the people and the Congress, would have found us in 1938 so strong in being and so powerful in immediate prospect, that the influence of this country might have given a different turn to the tragic history of the past two years.

No other group of men and women in this country can render such powerful support to the War Department as yours, and at no other time has this support been so necessary as it is today. In the past you have urged adequate appropriations for defense. Today, money is not the acute problem—the Congress has been ready to provide the desired appropriations. What we lack and what we must have is an understanding by every family in America of the gravity of our situation. They should understand what it takes in discipline, in training, and in time to make a dependable army, and they must realize what infinite harm can be done through ignorance of military requirements and unwitting cooperation with agencies working in the interest of potential enemies.

The problems of preparing our present military forces are quite different from those with which you men were familiar in 1917. In those days the matter of equipment was solved by the tremendous productive capacity which had been developed in England and France after three years’ concentrated military effort. Our troops were sent overseas barehanded, versed only in the basic training of the soldier. Divisions were equipped in the field, trained within sound of the guns along the lines held by our Allies. Corps and armies were actually organized on the battle-field. Units were placed in the line at our convenience. Tactical errors, the results of faulty leadership, were not fatal, although unnecessary losses resulted, since they were localized by the very nature of the sector warfare of that period.

The technique of 1917 is outmoded today. The specialized training for a particular type of operation gives way to the necessity for perfect teamwork in fast-moving operations over any type of terrain. A high degree of technical and tactical knowledge is necessary, from the individual soldier to the commanders of the highest units. Skilled initiative is a mandatory requirement. The complicated coordination of fire power, ground and air, must be managed at top speed, and for a surprising variety of weapons, with little or no opportunity to rehearse the procedure or to gain familiarity with the ground.

The training of this modern Army has been steadily progressive in nature. The soldier is given thirteen weeks of basic military education, including specialized training for his branch of the service. He is then assigned to a tactical unit where he passes through a period of unit training. The man who entered the Army last fall is now engaged in a final phase of training—that is, field service as a member of large military units. These maneuvers have been in progress all summer, with constantly increasing forces, until they are now culminating in the operations of three field armies, involving three quarters of a million men.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of the maneuvers. You veterans who served in France will recall the fog of battle and the utter confusion which often prevails when large military forces come to grips; you probably remember the tremendous difficulties of ammunition and food supply; the great strain placed on field communications and the difficulty of their maintenance; I know you realize the stern necessity of willing obedience and firm discipline. In actual battle these matters are of decisive importance and they cannot be simulated on the parade ground. The present maneuvers are the closest peacetime approximation to actual fighting conditions that has ever been undertaken in this country. But what is of the greatest importance, the mistakes and failures will not imperil the nation or cost the lives of men. In the past we have jeopardized our future, penalized our leaders and sacrificed our men by training untrained troops on the battlefield.

The maneuvers also constitute a field laboratory to accept or discard new methods of applying fundamental tactical principles. They enable us to perfect close liaison between combat aviation and ground units. They permit of test of a possible solution to the secret of defense against tanks. By actual field operations we are determining the proper tactics for the employment of armored units. The development of our mechanized reconnaissance units is being accelerated by experience with the difficulties and uncertainties created by masses of troops operating over wide distances. Opposing divisions are kept in the dark as to the size, equipment, and other capabilities of their immediate opponents. The results at times have been startling. In some cases divisions would have been annihilated; in others they would have been captured. On the field of battle such events would be tragic. Today they are merely mistakes. We can correct them, replace the ineffective leaders, and go ahead. As an insurance policy against whatever operations our troops might be called upon to perform, the cost of these maneuvers represents a trifling premium to pay. Tremendous sums of money have been spent on our national defense effort, but I know of no single investment which will give this country a greater return in security and in the saving of lives than the present maneuvers.

Although we have streamlined the Army, blistered feet and aching bones are still the lot of the recruit, and heavy burdens and long marches the role of the majority of the soldiers. Tank and truck travel may be fast but it is far from luxurious, really a severe hardship, which the men must be trained to endure.

Strenuous as the past year has been on the troops, we find that all but a few have gained weight and that despite the tremendous increase in the size of the Army during the past year, the death rate has actually decreased from 3 per thousand to 2 per thousand. Although we moved hundreds of thousands of men from all parts of the United States into tent camps in the middle of winter, the sickness rate in our Army camps was, and is, generally below that of the average civilian community. Our soldiers probably constitute the healthiest group of individuals in the world today.

Along with the progress of the past year, we have encountered problems that have taxed our ingenuity to the extreme and there is one in particular which I wish to discuss tonight. It is a very serious matter for it strikes at the taproot of military efficiency.

Although the President has proclaimed a state of emergency, the Army for all practical purposes is still operating under peacetime conditions. Perhaps it is this unusual, unprecedented situation which has resulted in a lack of understanding by the public as well as parents of soldiers and the soldiers themselves, regarding fundamental military requirements. The power of an army cannot be measured in mere numbers. It is based on a high state of discipline and training; on a readiness to carry out its mission wherever and whenever the Commander-in-Chief and Congress decide. Any compromise with those requirements and that purpose not only minimizes our efforts but largely vitiates our development of military power.

This Army belongs to the American people—it is their Army, your Army. What it does, what it is, are naturally matters of personal interest to all of our people; not only to those who have relatives in uniform, but to every citizen depending on the army for security. Despite the pros and cons which have attended every issue debated during the past year, whether on the floors of Congress, in the press, or over the radio, I am certain that everyone is in agreement on one point—that is, this country must have the best army in the world.

Now, as veteran soldiers, I submit to you men of the Legion the impossibility of developing an efficient army if decisions which are purely military in nature are continuously subjected to investigation, cross-examination, debate, ridicule, and public discussion by pressure groups, or by individuals with only a superficial knowledge of military matters, or of the actual facts in the particular case. I submit that there is a clear line of demarcation between the democratic freedom of discussion which we are determined to preserve and a destructive procedure which promotes discontent and destroys confidence in the Army.

As Chief of Staff I am largely responsible for the military program and for the decisions of subordinates. Mistakes have been made and it is to be expected that more will be made. However, I am certain that we in the Army are the most severe critics and also that we can best detect deficiencies and we are better prepared to determine the method for their correction.

Please have these considerations in mind. A sane, a wonderful step has been taken by this country in adopting a policy of preparing its military forces in time of peace, as the wisest of precautionary measures in the face of a world crisis. The very fact that the nation has shown such unprecedented [foresight] in a military way presents the most serious difficulty for those responsible for the development of the army. With a clear-cut task before us well-known to the troops, the development of the army would be comparatively a simple matter. But must we declare war in order to facilitate training and morale? Must you burn down the building in order to justify the Fire Department?

The local posts of the Legion can do much to bring the people at home to a better understanding of the requirements of the situation. Even you veterans probably do not realize the result of appeals of the young man angling for a home-made cake or bragging to his parents or his girl of the hardships he endures, or grousing over the failure of his leaders to recognize his particular ability by immediate promotion. The War Department at times receives a veritable avalanche of criticisms or pressures resulting from such ordinary soldier reactions as these. The incidents in themselves are often amusing, as in the case of the mother who complained that her son wasn’t getting enough to eat, and we found her boy had gained sixteen pounds in twenty days. But the total effect is really serious. As I read confidential reports from abroad there is a startling similarity between our present situation in this respect and that which affected the late lamented Army of France. Criticism, justified or otherwise, is to be expected. In fact, it is as inevitable as a Congressional investigation, but when its nature or purpose is to cause disunity within the Army, I say, direct such criticisms at me personally, but leave the Army alone. Don’t tear down what you are striving so hard to build up.

Let me cite an example of what I mean. Take the matter of a separate Air Force. Because we are convinced that the establishment of a separate Air Force would not only be a grave error but would completely disrupt the splendid organization now in process of building, we are accused of being unprogressive, jealous of prerogatives and incredibly short-sighted.

On the basis of a cold-blooded analysis of facts, the matter has been studied in great detail by the War Department during the operations in which foreign nations are now involved. I can assure you that nothing has developed as a result of the present war which indicates that a change should be made in the present setup in the United States. Comparisons are drawn that two nations whose air forces have attained the greatest success have so-called separate air forces. Here again we encounter a confusion of facts. Consider, for instance, the case of our friends, the British. Except for the gallant and truly remarkable defense of the British Isles which is a special problem having little application to our problem of hemisphere defense, the lack of unity of command between the air and ground forces has courted disaster in virtually every operation they have undertaken. In the operations in Belgium, and France, in Norway, in Greece, in Crete and in the Middle East this lack of unity of command has remained a continuous, unsolved problem. In fact, the British have found it necessary to modify the separate air arm idea with respect to naval aviation. More recently they have been improvising special groups to operate more closely with ground troops.

The ex-democracy of France had a separate air force which operated on a basis similar to that which some individuals are now proposing that we adopt. France was defeated and reduced to a state of vassalage in a five week’s campaign. The Italian air force which nurtures the theory of total war from the air and which has so-called independent control has yet to be effective in the present war. Contrary to popular belief, the German air force is not independent of the ground arms in the generally conceived sense, but is closely coordinated by means of a system of command and staff over and above all civil departments, which would not be acceptable to a democracy such as the United States. The German government is geared throughout for the primary purpose of making war through a superlatively centralized form of control. Hitler is Commander-in-Chief, but he operates through a Chief of Staff of a Supreme Staff which plans, directs, and controls the operations of the Army, Navy, and Air Force, and is responsible only to the head of the Government. Through this machinery a campaign is planned, the organizations—air, ground and naval—are allotted, and a Commander is designated. He organizes and trains this task force and at the appointed time carries out the campaign, with every available resource of Germany in support. He may be a ground officer, an air or a naval officer. But he is in sole charge of every phase of the operation.

It is needless to say that the American people are not likely to establish a military oligarchy for this country, and lacking such an organization the German system would be ineffective. As a matter of fact, we have adapted to our own use a setup that approximates that of Germany as closely as is possible under our system of government.

Just a year ago the President gave final approval to the Selective Training and Service Act and to legislation authorizing reserve components to be called into federal service. The importance of these two measures for the national defense was tremendous. They constituted a reversal of the historic and almost tragic policy that the United States would prepare for war only after becoming involved in war. Our peacetime military force was maintained for minor transactions, not to meet a first-class foe; a perilous policy, and one of extreme extravagance in men and money when the emergency arose. The greatest security which this nation can possess is a powerful navy, backed by a well-trained army, together so strong that no foreign nation will dare to provoke a war. The Army is now in the making, but it must go through another winter of training under field conditions before it is fully prepared; and it must have the understanding and support of the people at home.

You gentlemen are practical soldiers. You can understand the difficulty of handling large masses of men under conditions of warfare. You recognize the meaning and importance of discipline. You realize how easy it is to tear down, and how difficult it is to build it up. During this emergency the sound policies of the Legion have been a tower of strength to the War Department and to commanders in the field, and it is to you that I look for the support necessary to the accomplishment of our objective.

The spirit and determination that were yours twenty-three years ago, in the Meuse-Argonne, at San Mihiel, or in a training camp at home, must be instilled in the men of this new Army. You can understand this and I know you will help. There is a further responsibility which I place upon you. I look to you to educate the people at home as to the necessities of the times. Without a united country it will be impossible to build the type of Army we must have. We cannot build the best army in the world unless the people of this country are behind it.

I am a soldier and I have spoken to you as one soldier to another. I have but one purpose, one mission, and that is to produce the most efficient Army in the world. Given the American type of soldier and our war industries operating at top speed; given your aggressive support on the home front, and it can be done, and it will be done in time.

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 sent the ribbons and medals that he received at the Legion convention to Edward R. Stettinius, Jr.’s, youngsters. In a letter to Mrs. Stettinius, Marshall wrote: “I am sending you some loot from the Legion Convention, to be bestowed upon Joseph and Wallace. Tell them that the advantage is all on their side. They can wear the ribbons and the medals and still not have to listen to me make a speech.” (Marshall to Mrs. Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., September 19, 1941, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].)

Recommended Citation: The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, ed. Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr. (Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 606-612.

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