When I taught “American Foreign Policy” (30:061) at the University of Iowa (Go Hawkeyes!) students would occasionally ask me which American policymaker I most admired. I never knew whether the question reflected genuine interest or was merely a ruse to ferret out some suspected political bias on my part. Whatever the motive, my answer was always the same—Gen. George C. Marshall, who was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on this day in 1880.
My answer typically, and sadly, left students scratching their heads. Not much has changed since I left academia. I recently asked three newly minted graduates of elite American universities who George Marshall was. I got three blank stares. This for a man who oversaw America’s victory in World War II and whose name graces the most successful foreign policy initiative in U.S. history.
So here are a few of General Marshall’s accomplishments:
—Chief of Staff of the Army from 1939–45.
—The first U.S. general to be awarded a fifth star and named General of the Army.
—The only person to serve as both secretary of state (1947–49) and secretary of defense (1950–51). Congress waived the provision in the law establishing the Defense Department that barred anyone who had been on active duty in the previous ten years from becoming Secretary of Defense so that Marshall could take the position.
—Twice named TIME magazine “Man of the Year,” in 1943 and 1947.
—Recipient of the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on what we know today as the Marshall Plan.
Winston Churchill hailed Marshall as the “organizer of victory” in World War II. President Franklin Roosevelt depended so heavily on Marshall that he insisted he stay in Washington rather than take command of U.S. forces in Europe. President Harry Truman said that presidents aside he was the greatest American of his lifetime and “just as kindly and as pleasant and as fine a person to be with as ever lived.” The film director Orson Welles called him the “greatest human being who was also a great man.”
Truman’s and Welles’s compliments go to the heart of what makes Marshall so appealing. He combined tremendous ability with great modesty. He didn’t play to the cameras or to historians. Biographies of his life are few in number—though his authorized biography is available online—and Hollywood has not seen fit to make a movie of his life. He just did his job, and he did it well. And all of us are beneficiaries.