2-094 Speech to the American Historical Association, December 28, 1939

Publisher: The Johns Hopkins University Press
Date: December 28, 1939

Speech to the American Historical Association1

December 28, 1939 Washington, D.C.

National Organization for War

The character of the organization of nations for war appears to be determined largely by their state of civilization, their geography, and their politics. From a military point of view, the state of civilization of the dominant nations approximates the same level; all use similar weapons, organize their forces in corresponding units, and man and equip their armies in much the same manner. Their military set-up differs principally in the extent of organization and in the degree of readiness of the major forces, and these differences appear to be dictated principally by geographical and political considerations.

The influences of geography are numerous and usually obvious. Invading forces, for example, prefer open frontiers and avoid ocean barriers. The possibility of conflicting interests between nations diminishes as the distance between them increases. This country is fortunate in its geographical position, and if the Atlantic Ocean has not guaranteed complete immunity from wars with European powers, it has made such wars so difficult of management as to be approached with caution and reluctance, and it does make sudden attack on us seem unlikely. The influence of distance has been modified by the airplane, along with increased speeds on land and water, but these changes have not as yet materially affected our unusually favorable situation.

If these views regarding the effect of civilization and geography on the organization of this country for war are accepted, then we must turn to political considerations to find the dominating influence in this vital matter. In our democracy where the government is truly an agent of the popular will, military policy is dependent on public opinion, and our organization for war will be good or bad as the public is well informed or poorly informed regarding the factors that bear on the subject.

Public appreciation of international affairs is of course important to a sound view regarding military policy, and the radio and press are doing a remarkable job of keeping the public informed. School children today are probably more fully informed on current international developments than were many high government officials of thirty years ago. But even more important are the lessons of history. Therefore, it is to the historian, to you gentlemen, that we must turn for the most essential service in determining the public policy relating to national defense.

Popular knowledge of history, I believe, is largely based on information derived from school text-books, and unfortunately these sources often tell only a portion of the truth with regard to our war experiences. Historians have been inclined to record the victories and gloss over the mistakes and wasteful sacrifices. Cause and effect have been, to an important extent, ignored. Few Americans learn that we enrolled nearly 400,000 men in the Revolutionary War to defeat an enemy that numbered less than 45,000, or that we employed half a million in 1812 against an opponent whose strength never exceeded 16,000 at any one place, and fewer still have learned why these overwhelming numbers were so ineffective. The War between the States pointed numerous lessons for our future protection, yet seldom has a nation entered a war so completely unprepared, and yet so boastfully, as did the United States in 1898. Veterans of the World War often seem to overlook the fact that almost a year and a half elapsed after the declaration of war before we could bring a field army into being and even then its weapons, ammunition and other materiel were provided by our Allies. And many of them seem unaware of the fact that the partially trained state of our troops proved a costly and tragic business despite the eventual success.

What the casual student does learn is that we have won all our wars and he is, therefore, justified in assuming that since we have defeated the enemies of the past we shall continue to defeat the enemies of the future. This comfortable belief in our invincibility has been reflected legislatively in the inadequate military organization of past years, resulting in stupendous expenditures in each emergency, invariably followed by a parsimonious attitude, if not the complete neglect of ordinary military necessities. In addition to the perils of war there is the issue of huge war debts with their aftermath of bitter years of heavy taxes. I think it apparent that much of this misfortune in the life of our democracy could have been avoided by the influence of a better informed public on the decisions of the Congress.

Personally I am convinced that the colossal wastefulness of our war organization in the past, and the near tragedies to which it has led us, have been due primarily to the character of our school text-books and the ineffective manner in which history has been taught in the public schools of this country. In other words, I am saying that if we are to have a sound organization for war we must first have better school histories and a better technique for teaching history.

I have had no opportunity for research in preparation for this discussion but I have found in a brief survey of some of the present school text-books on American history that there has been a great improvement since the days of my early schooling, and a material improvement since the period, a few years after the close of the World War, when I became officially interested in this question. I should confess that I was particularly impressed with Dr. Alben Bushnell Han’s volume, but I have no data as to the extent to which it is used in the schools of this country.2

I might attempt a philosophical discussion this morning regarding the proper organization of this country for war, or, to put it more tactfully, for the national defense; but however convincing this might be, the effect would be negligible—or at least but momentary. The members of a Congress, wise on heels of a war, will legislate with serious purpose to avoid a repetition of the crises, the plights and frights of their recent experience; but what is done is usually undone, the military arrangements emasculated, the old story of unpreparedness continued on into the next chapter of repetitions, because of the pressure of public opinion.

To maintain a sound organization the public must understand the general requirements for the defense of this particular country—the requirements for the maintenance of peace as we soldiers believe, before Congress can be expected, year in and year out, to provide the necessary legislation with due regard both for the economics of the situation and for the essential requirements for an adequate Army and Navy, with the necessary industrial organization behind them. When the high-school student knows exactly what happened, and most important of all, why it happened, then our most serious military problem will be solved. Potentially the strongest nation on earth, we will become the strongest and at a much smaller cost than has been paid for our mistaken course in the past. The historian, the school history and its teacher are the important factors in the solution of the problem I am discussing so superficially this morning.

History as a science has many specialties. The military historian is a specialist. Normally he is not concerned in the preparation of school textbooks. Furthermore, military history, since it deals with wars, is unpopular, and probably more so today than at any other time. Yet I believe it is very important that the true facts, the causes and consequences that make our military history, should be matters of common knowledge. War is a deadly disease, which today afflicts hundreds of millions of people. It exists; therefore, there must be a reason for its existence. We should do everything in our power to isolate the disease, protect ourselves against it, and to discover the specific which will destroy it. A complete knowledge of the disease is essential before we can hope to find a cure. Daily we see attacks on war and tabulations regarding its cost, but rarely do we find a careful effort being made to analyze the various factors in order to determine the nature of war; to audit the accounts as it were, and to see to whom or to what each item of the staggering total is really chargeable.

As to the character of the organization for war suitable and acceptable to this country, I might say that certain definite policies have been developed through the years, and given a degree of permanence in the general amendments to the National Defense Act, of June 1920:

1st A small Regular Army as the keystone of our land defense program. It should provide the small force that might be immediately required for the security of the interests of this country, and supply the training standards and the training staff for the development of a citizen army.

2nd A territorial force, the National Guard, voluntarily maintained by the State governments in cooperation with the Federal Government, to supplement the small standing Army for the first phase of the defense of the country in the event of war.

3rd A democratic system for developing a Reserve of trained officer material—the ROTC and the CMTC, and a practical plan for the prompt procurement of man-power to fill up the ranks of the Regular Establishment and the National Guard, and later to provide the necessary replacements and the men for the new units which will be required.

4th A reserve of non-commercial munitions.

5th A practical set-up for the prompt mobilization of the industrial resources of the nation, to provide, with the least practicable delay, the munitions that are required.

And lastly, an adequate reserve of the raw materials essential for war purposes, which are not available in this country.

The foregoing policies have been generally accepted by the public and are a part of the organic law. Properly administered and developed, they provide a democratic basis for the national defense suitable to our form of government and to our particular international situation.

In the development of these policies two factors dominate the thought of the War Department. The first pertains to economic considerations. Everything in this country is expensive, in keeping with the high standards of living demanded by our people. Therefore, the military establishment is very expensive, and its maintenance on a sound basis is always endangered by the natural demand of the people for economy in government. This demand concentrates first on the Army and Navy immediately following a period of war, gradually grows more insistent in time of peace, and finally becomes politically compulsory with a depression in business. The War Department, therefore, concentrates earnestly on the problem of how best to maintain an adequate standard of national defense for a minimum of expenditure.

The time factor is the other dominant consideration which influences the planning of the Department. It is related to all our preparations—the production of materiel, the training of troops, of pilots and of mechanics, the organization of new Units, and the mobilization of a war Army. The Navy in peace is 75% fully prepared. The Army machine is probably less than 25% ready for immediate action. Our problem, therefore, involves the development of a war force after the emergency has arrived. The time factor dominates the situation to a degree not approximated in any other great country. For this reason in particular the problem of a suitable war organization for the United States is one of many complications, and the influence of a well-informed public is of profound importance.3

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 addressed a joint meeting of the American Military Institute and the American Historical Association at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. The content of this speech on preparedness is similar to his February 10, 1923, address to the members of the Headmasters Association in Boston, Massachusetts. (See Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #1-196 [1: 219-22].)

2. Marshall had instructed his orderly, Sergeant James W. Powder, to select a sample of United States history textbooks from the Washington, D.C., Public Library on December 26, 1939. (Kenneth Buchanan Memorandum for the Public Library, Washington, D.C., December 26, 1939, GCMRL/ G.C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Categorical].)

3. After the speech, Senator Elbert D. Thomas, Democrat from Utah, challenged Marshall. Thomas believed it would be “dangerous” for individuals in public life, including teachers, to criticize soldiers and inefficient military methods. (New York Daily News December 29, 1939, p. 5.) Commenting later on the chief of staff’s remarks, Charles A. Beard, past president of the American Historical Association, asserted that “if Gen. Marshall will get the American Legion to tell the real truth about the War of 1812 and will get the pure history law of Wisconsin repealed and convince parents that the true history of the War of 1812 ought to be taught their children, it is probable that historians might be willing to tell it.” (Washington Post, December 30, 1939, p. 4.)

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. 123-127.

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