5-160 Speech to the Maryland Historical Society, June 11, 1945

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: June 11, 1945

Subject: World War II

Speech to the Maryland Historical Society1

June 11, 1945 Baltimore, Maryland

I approach this evening without written notes, or any special preparation, because as a matter of fact when Senator Radcliffe called me on the telephone and arranged in a matter of two minutes for me to talk to a group of the Maryland Historical Society I thought I was accepting an invitation to talk over the dinner table to a small group of members of the Association. It was not until four days ago that I learned from Mrs. Marshall that I was involved in talking to a rather large assembly. It was then too late for me to alter my plans or rather lack of plans.

I was quite pleased by Senator Radcliffe’s invitation to address the Society because of my intense interest in history; my interest was a natural one in the first place. Early in life I acquired a fondness for the subject but when I came to realize the tremendous importance of a knowledge of world history to the citizens of a democracy my interest became greater. My greatest concern for some time now has been war, the most terrible pestilence of mankind. We all recognize war as a horrible disease of civilization; Americans especially, of the peoples of the world, hate war and inveigh against it, particularly after a war has been ended, but we do very little to avoid it. There must be specific causes for wars, and there must be a way to eliminate them. The question is, what can be done that has not been done?

Most persons, particularly those of my generation, react to what has occurred in the past largely in accordance with the beliefs and impressions they derived from grade and high school histories. I am not referring to those who were fortunate enough to pursue advanced courses in history at college or university. I have in mind the great numbers of people with a casual secondary school knowledge of history who have unfortunately acquired much misinformation because they were taught according to the prevailing local prejudice. I recall clearly my high school beliefs concerning the Boston Massacre and my great surprise when later in life I learned the facts.

Another factor contributing to general misunderstanding is the manner in which history is taught. I came out of school with some dates in my mind—1066, for example—but without any, or certainly very little, idea of cause and effect. I had no conception of the underlying causes of the endless repetitions of wars, that have plagued mankind for centuries and set us back the Lord knows how many years in our progress towards a peaceful civilization.2

It has seemed to me, especially during the latter part of my 43 years of Army service, that something very definite was required beyond the casual approach to the problem we have taken heretofore. As I said before, we recognize war as a terrible pestilence, we deplore it, and inveigh against it, but we do little to determine its exact causes and to establish what might have been done to avoid war. I think that one of our most serious mistakes is that while we are in the throes of war, and immediately after the close of a war, we consider the subject of avoiding future wars in a too highly emotional and intense state of mind. Later when that great factor of all political campaigns, the annual budget, is under consideration, whatever good resolutions we have had regarding measures to avert war, whatever lessons we thought we learned in the most recent war, all are abandoned almost completely. I am speaking now from very specific knowledge.

I sailed for France—please pardon these personal references—in the last war, on the first ship on the first convoy. Eighty percent of the men were recruits. Many had received their weapons on the trains en route to the port of embarkation. We didn’t know what equipment our unit had, since it was spread over a number of ships and had embarked hastily. I first learned the organization of this unit, the First Division, which made a famous reputation later on in that war and again in this one, from a photostat of an organizational chart which I received after we had sailed. And I was a member of the general staff of that Division. Another member of the general staff was General [Lesley J.] McNair, who was killed in this war. We examined the photostat of our organization during the voyage, but could not know whether the units on other vessels were organized or equipped as indicated on the chart. It was not until we landed in St. Nazaire, and I proceeded to check up, as the vessels docked, that I found that some of the troops had never heard of the weapons with which they were supposed to be equipped. That is the way we went to the war in France in June of 1917. The Lord was good to us and so were our Allies who held the line, as in this present war, until we had an opportunity to get ourselves organized and trained.

We were very fortunate in this present war in the action of Congress—reflecting the will of the people—which gave us Selective Service more than a year in advance of Pearl Harbor. But do not forget when you study the history of this war, the tribulations and trials the Army suffered in carrying out its preparations, the numerous attacks that were made on almost everything we attempted. Don’t forget the misunderstandings of those days and what they cost us later in delays of preparation. We could not get our plans under way as rapidly as the dire emergency required, even though we knew it was all but upon us.

I returned from the last war with General Pershing and spent a month with him in the Adirondacks during September and early October of 1919, studying the hearings which had been in progress before the Military Committees of Congress since the previous spring. Virtually every phase of national defense, of the peacetime character of the Army, had been treated in those hearings, which were to close with General Pershing’s testimony in October. I sat with him during those hearings, during the presentation of his advice regarding the post-war Army. The Committees then worked on the draft of a Bill which was debated during the spring and came to a vote in June 1920. A very respectable measure for national defense was enacted. It was a formal military policy, except that the backbone, or teeth of the program was omitted, the training phase. There was a period from the Armistice in 1918 to the summer of 1920, when everybody seemingly was aware of the tragic lessons of the war. Though Congress did not take the full measures for security thought advisable by the Army, it did enact a very wise piece of legislation which, had it been supported by the required appropriations through the years immediately following, might possibly have prevented this present war.

The thought I should like to leave in your minds is this: within either nine or fourteen months—I might have the two periods reversed—Congress took action, through the annual budget, to cut the Army it had just authorized from 18,000 officers and 285,000 men, down to about 175,000 men and 14,000 officers; either nine or fourteen months later another cut in the military budget which pared the Army down to 150,000 men followed; the next blow reduced the Army still further to 125,000 men about a year later, and cut the officer strength to 11,000. None of the provisions of the law of June, 1920, had been changed but the result was that the field Army of the United States had nearly vanished. The only places where we still had sizeable garrisons for training were in Hawaii and the Philippines and a smaller force in the Panama Canal Zone. Please remember that these governmental reactions occurred almost immediately after the wise efforts which had resulted in the Act of June, 1920. I mean to suggest by this discussion that we have to face the high probability of the same thing happening again however much we may feel today that we have learned our lesson. I have very little faith in the accuracy of that statement I now hear so frequently that “We have learned our lesson.”

It is important for us to realize, how close a squeeze this country had at several times during this war. My own embarrassment in talking in this manner is that I am naturally regarded as a prejudiced witness concerned with only one side of the picture. Although in my position I may not be able to qualify as a strictly unbiased witness, I can qualify as an expert witness regarding the military situations of this war. I know how close were the calls. I am keenly conscious of the agonizing periods through which we passed when we couldn’t explain, and yet explanations were demanded; of how we suffered reverse after reverse, knowing the fault was basic and involved the fundamental failure of the people of the United States to prepare themselves against danger. I repeat—the people of the United States and their point of view from 1920 to 1940. I felt time and again in the years of peace that our position, supported by public opinion, was untenable and I knew well what it was to mean. In a war, every week of duration adds tremendously, not only to the costs, measured by appropriations, but in casualties measured in lives and mutilation.

The struggles for existence that we had in Africa and in New Guinea, were the direct responsibility of the policies of the people of the United States in the years from 1920 to 1939.

Our history records victories. We have triumphed in each of our wars, except for those of our states who were on the Southern side in the Civil War. As a result I feel that many of our people have been misled into a feeling of false security by the teaching or talk of those in certain positions of authority or responsibility. Finally the resulting reaction misled the Japanese and tempted them into a war against us. The Japs were led to think that our young men would not fight, that they were soft and unwilling to defend their country. It was a terrible thing to advertise a disgraceful weakness—if there was such a weakness, and tempt the highwayman to try for the kill. If there is any other way of defending one’s country except by force of arms, God knows I should welcome it.

The full impact of the war comes more to me, I think, in some respects than it does to anyone in this country. The daily casualty lists are mine. They arrive in a constant stream, a swelling stream, and I can’t get away from them. When you feel, as I do, that they might have been avoided, it is a terrible thing to contemplate. And when you know what can happen again if some definite, practical preventive action is not taken, that all this endless horror and colossal waste may be repeated, it is even more tragic.

If we had done the things that might have been done, if we had heeded the lessons of history, I think we could have been spared the greater part of our losses.

I may be in error in this historical example. The Romans had a peace of some 250 years. The entire life of this country since the adoption of the Constitution involves little more than 150 years. Yet the number and size of our wars make quite a contrast with the famous Roman Peace. It seems we clearly could have avoided some if not all of these wars, especially since we have had the best of advice from our greatest American, George Washington, who both as a citizen and a soldier, understood so well the people of this country and the hazards which they should guard against.

It would be a fine thing if a way were found to amplify or improve the teaching of history through the medium of the motion picture in our grammar and high schools. I believe a man with the talents of Frank Capra could present outlines of certain broad phases of history in such a manner that it would make a deep impression on the schoolboy. He did a superb job along this same line for the army. The student would acquire an understanding that would stick in his mind. Some better means of teaching the salient lessons of history to the majority of the people is an inherent necessity for a democracy. We urgently need a more effective system of instruction and I am sure the motion picture medium can be of much assistance. There is an obligation, it seems to me, to explore these possibilities, that rests on a society such as yours.

I loathe war. No one in my position could feel otherwise. I have finished my military career, but I feel that I must do my best to have us avoid a tragic repetition of our past neglect, our past failures. Situated as we are between the Atlantic and the Pacific, with all the resources and wealth we have, and with the courage of America, it would be a tragedy to civilization if we should again be blindly stupid and expose the coming generations to a repetition of this grim business. It must not be. If Americans can be brought to understand history it will not be.

I was asked to say something about the course of the war. You are familiar with the immediate events leading up to the cessation of hostilities in Europe, but I doubt if many of you realize the rapidity of the action. As we lived through the struggle it seemed terribly long to all of us. Our combined Intelligence Headquarters sent me the other day a map showing in solid colors on the map of Europe the progress each week beginning shortly before the landing in Normandy. What seemed so torturously slow at the time was in fact remarkably rapid. The little pin-point representing the Normandy bridgehead suddenly blooms and spreads all over the map of France like a garden, and then comes the further expansion as the army crossed into Germany. There were the long Russian gains—showing the tremendous territory they covered. And there were the successive surges up through Italy, though we recall mostly the delays in the mountains. Out in the Pacific the successive advances covered tremendous distances in the vast reaches of that region.

It took me some time to understand Australia. Although I am familiar with maps and was trained in making maps, it was difficult for me to appreciate the coast line distances of Australia. We found ourselves in December 1942 [1941], faced with great difficulties of communication and transportation. We had but one American soldier in the whole of Australia, I think. Here was this country with its vast coastal perimeter, with railroads of various gauges that took you forever to go from one place to another, and with few roads and limited electric communications, judging by our standards. Our army and supplies were being dumped on that continent without previous preparation. I selected an officer in whom I had great confidence and told him to drop his work within the hour and prepare to leave for Australia. I instructed him to select about fifty men, experts in transportation, communication, port operation, and all the services of supply, and be ready to leave for Australia in ten days. He left in eleven days with the fifty men, civilians, picked for their various qualifications from all over the United States. I was trying to capitalize on the initiative and talents of America. Congress provided funds—and in doing so they gave me a fine vote of confidence, first by placing twenty-five million dollars and later one hundred twenty-five million dollars at my complete disposal. On two days’ notice I started Mr. Hurley off for Australia with some of this money to expedite the blockade running of supplies to MacArthur.3 The Japanese had reached Borneo. I then discovered that checks were not acceptable to prospective blockade runners. Those hard-bitten men wanted cash on the barrel for their families and for themselves. Our funds were in the bank at Melbourne several thousand miles away. I had to find some way to get cash in a hurry to the Celebes, Java, and Northwestern Australia. I managed this by loading lots of $250,000 each in bombers en route across Africa, Arabia and India.

It was necessary to occupy Iceland before the Germans could beat us to that strategical post for guarding and controlling convoy movements. The laws then on the books introduced all sorts of complications; we couldn’t use this man because the law prohibited for one reason, and we couldn’t use that man because of still another legal restriction. There were various provisos regarding reserve officers, this one could go and that one could not; this private could go, that one could not. We dismantled sixteen companies to organize one small quartermaster company for service in Iceland. We shook the entire regular army and emasculated it to provide instructors and cadres for other units. We had to send overseas National Guard units that were only partially trained. We did our best under the appalling circumstances of unpreparedness. That’s another example of the way we went to war.

I am sure people do not realize how close we came to catastrophe. Shortages of personnel forced us to strip division after division that we had trained. This drove the division commanders to strenuous protests. Just as those new units were reaching an excellent standard of efficiency, we would rip them to pieces in order to provide men as replacements for the growing battles overseas. We lacked sufficient replacements because deliveries from Selective Service were short in terms of a hundred thousand or more. We were confronted with a terrible problem for which the armies in the field paid the price, but we finally got things straightened out. We screened every non-combatant unit here and abroad, going through them like a sieve, to get men to be converted into infantrymen, and, incidentally, I think I heard from the mothers of most of these men who were taken from other branches of the service, and from every father whose son I was forced to take out of college. After all these struggles, the last division to reach France landed there April 1, and the end came on May 8. We had just enough and no more, and it all went in.4

The interesting part of this was that just as we got the great European army completed, we started to dismantle it within two weeks of the time it had reached its peak. That’s about as rapidly as such large matters can be handled or as close a computation as one can make. We had a close squeak with the enemy. I am a little afraid that in the tremendous emotional rejoicing over the victory and the cessation of the tragic daily lists of casualties, we shall forget almost completely the lessons of that early struggle, and that we shall forget also the special conditions which made it possible for us to carry through to a successful finish.

Then there is the matter of our international dealing. It is very, very important to understand the other man’s point of view. I am talking now about the British, the French, the Russians. You may disagree with everything they contend, for that is perfectly normal expression of human and racial differences. You have disagreements in your own State, town, counties, cities. But, however much you disagree if you understand the other man’s point of view you can usually work out a reasonable adjustment.

I secured the permission of the British—and they were very loath at first to give it to me—to show the members of Congress what was going on in England. I showed them a chart giving the V-bomb strikes on the metropolitan district of London. Each bomb was represented by a dot—a very small dot—yet you could hardly make out the great metropolitan district for the multitude of those black dots. Fifty per cent of the houses had been destroyed or badly damaged, and the casualties had mounted to 70,000 since June 10, 1944. The point I was trying to make was this: every speech in Parliament, every statement by men in British public life and most of the newspapers of England were, in effect, delivered from the rostrum of that suffering city. Though practically no reference was made by them to the bombing, yet the views of the individual or paper were naturally colored by the surrounding destruction. At this very time, the front pages of our papers carried large headlines regarding the “tragic loss of life” in the Mid-West from floods, eight or ten lives, as I recall. England was silent, stoically silent. The enemy was not to know of his success and they accepted their tragedy in silence. But the man speaking from that rostrum would inevitably have a somewhat different point of view from the man who voiced his international policies or criticism from the peaceful rostrum of Washington or New York.

What is going on now in San Francisco,5 and what comes next, makes it especially important historically to understand the other fellow’s point of view. I seem during the past three years to have spent most of my time disagreeing, but I have made a very conscious effort to understand the background of the other fellow’s situation before voicing my disagreements.

Somehow or other these different points of view must be merged. I know no other way than by a thorough knowledge of the lessons—not the specific dates—of history. My present interests are centered in two things, the early completion of this war and the measures this country will take to avoid future wars.


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

Document Format: Typed transcript.


1. Marshall had been invited to address the Maryland Historical Society by its president, George L. Radcliffe, the junior senator from Maryland and a member of the Democratic party. The remarks printed here are from a Marshall-edited transcript made by the historical society. It was published as “Some Lessons of History,” Maryland Historical Magazine 40 (September 1945): 175-84.

2. Marshall had spoken several times during his career on this theme of the effect of poor teaching of U.S. military history in the secondary schools. For examples, see his speeches to the Headmasters Association, February 10, 1923, and the American Historical Association, December 28, 1939, in Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #1-196 [1: 219-22], and #2-094 [2: 123-27].

3. Patrick J. Hurley’s official position had been U.S. minister in New Zealand between April and August 1942. On the War Department’s efforts to procure blockade-running vessels, see ibid., #3-080 [3: 87-88], and #3-107 [3: 108-9], and Chapter 22 (pp. 390-404) in Louis Morton, The Fall of the Philippines, a volume in the United States Army in World War II (Washington: GPO, 1953).

4. “Of all the calculated risks taken by General George C. Marshall in World War II,” Maurice Matloff wrote in his classic essay on the issue, “none was bolder than the decision in midwar to maintain the U.S. Army’s ground combat strength at ninety divisions. Students of warfare will long debate whether the decision was as wise as it was courageous, as foresighted as it was successful.” Matloff, “The 90-Division Gamble,” in Kent Roberts Greenfield, ed., Command Decisions (Washington: GPO, 1960), pp. 365-81; quote on p. 365.

5. The inaugural meeting of the United Nations (more formally known as the United Nations Conference on International Organization) was held in San Francisco between April 25 and June 26, 1945.

Recommended Citation: ThePapers 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. 5, “The Finest Soldier,” January 1, 1945-January 7, 1947 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), pp. 220-227.


Digital Downloads




Holding Rights: Public Information
Holding ID: 5-160

Rights: Public Information