A Quiet Adult: My Candidate for Man of the Century

by David Brin

It seems our favorite preoccupation this year—even more riveting than worry about the Y2K bug—is an obsession with making lists. The 100 best movies of all time Top musicians of the millennium. And so on, as if we’ll somehow better grasp the coming era by tidily summing up the past.

Time Magazine is one beneficiary of this mania, as crowds throng to its web site eagerly voting for who will be named “Person of the Century”. Of course the matter won’t be decided democratically. Time‘s editors will select whose face fills the first Year 2000 cover. (And pedants will insist that Time can do it all over again in January 2001, when the next century officially begins.)

Naturally, I have an opinion. But I’m not hopeful that Time‘s editors will pick my candidate, a man whose name many readers may not recognize, even though they owe him a great deal.

The poll figures at the Time Magazine web site show, if nothing else, the power of organized write-in campaigns. Heading the list are Yitzhak Rabin, Elvis Presley, and Billy Graham. In slots number six through eight we have Pope John Paul H, Martin Luther King and Gordon B. Hinckley, Chairman of the Mormon Church. People also tend to pick “favorite” figures, hence the prominent appearance in the top 20 of John Lennon, Madonna and Princess Diana.

A large number of rather dour folks seem to have concluded (reluctantly, I hope) that Adolf Hitler was the most significant figure of this century, because he caused the biggest ruckus and slaughtered lots of people. This faction is large enough to win him the number four slot.

Only a handful of the top twenty made a decisively positive difference to world history, instigating profound and universally recognized changes for the better. People like Dr. King, Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela and Henry Ford certainly deserve mention. But in my opinion, none of the flamboyant top candidates altered the course of human civilization as much as one quiet man who was never an entertainer, religious figure, or chief of state.

His name was George Marshall.  Let me explain.

At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, there were fond hopes for a new era of reason. Some of the world’s great intellects spoke of a coming time when nations would abandon the strict command hierarchies of the past, such as monarchy or inherited wealth, in favor of more open systems based on merit. A time when colonialism would give way to equality among peoples and superstition would step aside for of free enquiry. While few contemporary politicians shared these aspirations, there were some exceptions. Theodore Roosevelt and later Woodrow Wilson proclaimed their belief in such a vision, calling for a mature, planet-wide civilization based on pragmatism, mutual respect, local self-determination, universal education, democracy, and international cooperation for peace.

As we all know, events did not go as they wished. After the horrific agonies of World War One, the progressive worldview was rejected both in America and abroad, partly due to narrow minded self-interest, but also because humanity was otherwise preoccupied. Like careening drunks, we commenced a long and horrible infatuation with ideologies — from communism and fascism to nationalist jingoism and every other “ism” imaginable.

Hitler and Stalin were no more than particularly gruesome manifestations of this fever — a passion for simplistic visions of utopia, shared with almost hysterical ardor by millions who invested their favorite manifestos with the kind of devotion formerly given to kings and religions. These hypnotic formulas werenearly always based on reducing human beings to formulas or paper caricatures, denying our true complexity.

Today, at the end of this tense century, we might look back on it as a pit that Homo sapiens fell into, then somehow managed to climb out of again, chastened and perhaps even a bit wiser. Though ideology still sings its polyphonic siren call to millions, the trend in human affairs seems now to be gradual movement toward tolerance and pragmatism… along with a healthy dose of suspicion toward all authority. Despite myriad problems, ours is a better, more hopeful world than it was in 1942, when humanity wallowed in violence, justified by frantic polemics.

How did this change come about?

First and above all, the worst ideologues had to be defeated. For this task, Franklin Delano Roosevelt —who guided the United States from isolation into the crucial alliance against fascism — relied utterly upon his most trusted military advisor, George Marshall.

Earlier, Marshall had been responsible for training a generation of American officers in completely new doctrines and tactics that modernized our armed forces, preparing them to face the coming struggle with unprecedented agility. Then, as Chief of Staff, Marshall streamlined the chain of command and personally selected the younger leaders who won great victories.

When offered command over the D-Day invasion of Europe, and the glory that would come with it, Marshall passed that honor to Dwight Eisenhower because FDR confided — “I don’t sleep well when you are away.” His value as a wartime diplomat, nurturing a fragile alliance among prickly allies, was immeasurable. In gratitude, Winston Churchill called him ‘the noblest Roman.’

Marshall’s most difficult work commenced after victory was achieved. Dragged out of retirement in order to serve as U.S. Secretary of State, he worked with fellow titans — Harry Truman and Dean Acheson — to counter relentless crises from Finland to Greece and helped midwife the birth of Israel.

Of course he was the guiding force behind the ‘Marshall Plan”, which turned the great wealth of the United States into a river for the war-ravaged peoples of Europe and Asia. In fact, if the Plan had been his sole accomplishment, it would be enough to merit placement on the short list for Man of the Century. That oneact of resolve — achieved over fierce political opposition — reversed the bellicose tradition of 4,000 years by treating vanquished foes with generosity instead of vindictiveness. Among those who have been honored with the Nobel Peace Prize, few names were ever so universally acclaimed.

While Marshall’s name may be unfamiliar today, the respect that mid-century contemporaries held for him was almost unprecedented. President Harry Truman once said of Marshall that “He was a man you could count on to be truthful in every way, and when you find somebody like that, you have to hang on tothem.”

David McCullough adds to this image, in his biography of Truman. “Like George Washington, with whom he was often compared, Marshall was a figure of such flawless rectitude and self-command (that) he both inspired awe and made description difficult.”

Amid the tempests of an angry era, Marshall (again, in cooperation with others) helped ensure that the United Nations was built into something more capable than the old League of Nations and that the principles Woodrow Wilson pleaded for in 1919 would at last become the official standards of world conduct.

Yes, I’ll concede the obvious. Adherence to those standards has been spotty, even by the nations who championed them. Nevertheless, we should find it profoundly historic that there is now a widely accepted world moral code, one that even the worst dictators pay lip service to. Today the words that WoodrowWilson used so long ago cast long shadows across every negotiating table. They have weight whenever oppressed people rise up to denounce the tyrants that kept them down. Without a world conscience to appeal to, how would Ghandi and Mandella have prevailed? Marshall played an important role in putting ideals high on the international agenda.

Alas, ideals aren’t enough. Good words often must team up with harsh practicality. Back in the late forties, ideological fevers still raged, both in Moscow and in a Washington D.C. that seemed awash with hysteria and panic. Surrounded by frantic calls for either isolationism or spasmodic war against the Soviets, George Marshall calmly helped forge the Atlantic Alliance, The strategy of containment that he and Acheson devised — aiming to neither provoke the Communist Empire, nor allow it to run wild — was the middle road that guided every U.S.administration for 50 years, notwithstanding episodes of naivete and saber-rattling.


In sharp contrast to the spasmodic impulsiveness that used to drive international affairs, Marshall’s global plan was sober, far-seeing, patient, prescient, and it held until the Soviet fever finally broke.

Many mistakes — and even calamities — happened along the way. Much that is regrettable was done in the name of America and the West. But you have only to ask the people of Prague, Warsaw, and a hundred other places how they feel about the outcome.

Above all, we did not panic and fry this planet. Wasn’t that enough?

Then consider yet another great service, when the administration headed by Truman and Marshall ordered the United States military to end racial segregation and discrimination in its ranks, becoming the first great American institution to show the way, With the armed forces integrated — passing millions of young men through a rigorous “school for equality” — the writing was on the wall. There could be no going back. The rest of society must follow.

George Marshall would be the last to claim sole credit for any of these accomplishments. Invariably courteous and imperturbable under pressure — (‘the imperturbability of a good conscience,’ George Kennan called it) — he was, in David McCullough’s words “without a trace of petty vanity or self-servingambition.”

Which is my chief point in nominating him. For it is ultimately demeaning to pick one charismatic individual, elevating him to stand, detached in godlike splendor, above all the other billions who lived and labored in this century, making our age unlike any other for its combination of savagery and progress. The great achievements of this era were realized by teams of bright, cooperative people, not megalomaniacs or magnetic orators. In the long run, leaders are only as effective as the citizens they persuade to follow them.

By appointing and encouraging skilled people, demanding the best from them, and then stepping aside when his pupils won acclaim, George Marshall showed us how to guide a modern, confident civilization, not a fervid rabble. This style explains his effectiveness… and the reason why so few of his countrymen now know his name.

As the Twentieth Century wanes, the notion of arranging society according to some contrived dogma has at long last begun to seem tiresome. Many of us now see that all of the radical and zealous prescriptions were part of the same feverish disease, that only time and patience could cure. Even modern saints like Ghandi — though properly admired for their principles and moral courage — are seen to have been limited or foolish in their specific political agendas, from pastoral-socialism to libertarian solipsism. Humanity proved more complex than ideologues ever imagined.

Couldn’t the “Man of the Century” somehow reflect this hardwon lesson? Naturally, it should be a person who dramatically affected the course of human events. But how about also picking someone who can serve as a role model?

Many of the most popular candidates displayed courage, brilliance, fortitude, compassion and relentless tenacity — admirable traits of heroes. Indeed, George Marshall exhibited many of those same qualities.

But he also showed a few that are far more rare, Calmness, quiet competence, adaptability, a genius for detecting and promoting talent, an aversion toward flamboyance, plus a tireless willingness to hear the other guy’s point of view.

These traits go beyond mere heroism. They are features of a genuine adult.

That word — adult — is one the editors of Time Magazine might do well to ponder when they pick a “Man of the Century.” If we humans are going to make something of ourselves in the next hundred years, we should not start by picking our role models from among the last century’s passionate prima donnas.

How about instead honoring the millions who are best exemplified by George Marshall. Those who spent their lives in quiet service, showing us how to behave as grownups.


Author’s Note: In the decade since writing this Man of the Century essay, I came to realize that I missed perhaps George Marshall’s greatest accomplishment.  In partnership with others, he helped set up the world’s first system of international trade that fostered development in many poor countries, instead deliberately hindering it with mercantilist practices (the habit under previous “pax” empires). This appears to have been a deliberate matter of supreme strategic policy, directly aimed at helping raise up half of the world’s population into (or toward) the middle class. By encouraging export driven growth in Europe, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Southeast Asia… then India and China… America become the world’s economic engine of hope. Elsewhere(https://www.metroactive.com/metro/11.25.09/news-0947.html), I explain ( https://davidbrin.blogspot.com/2009/11/how-americans-spent-themselves-into.html) how much of the credit should go to George Marshall and his colleagues, who were the right men, at the right time, with the vision humanity needed.


About David Brin

David Brin is a scientist, technology speaker, and author.  His 1989 ecological thriller, Earth, foreshadowed global warming, cyberwarfare and the world wide web.  A 1998 movie, directed by Kevin Costner, was based on The Postman.  His fifteen novels, including New York Times bestsellers and winners of the Hugo and Nebula awards, have been translated into more than twenty languages.  David appears frequently on History Channel shows such as The ARCHITECHS, The Universe and Life After People.  Brin’s non-fiction book — The Transparent Society: Will Technology Make Us Choose Between Freedom and Privacy? — won the Freedom of Speech Award of the American Library Association.

Copyright 1999 David Brin.   All rights reserved.