58 Following


A general's rise, sans analysis

George C. Marshall: Education of a General: 1880-1939 - Forrest C. Pogue

Ask most people to name the greatest American general of the Second World War and you’re likely to hear such famous names as Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton, or Douglas MacArthur. Only occasionally might someone propose the name George Catlett Marshall, despite his outsized role in the conflict. From September 1939 until November 1945, Marshall served as the military head of the United States Army, in which role he built up and directed a massive ground and air force that waged war across the globe. Yet Marshall’s role has long been overshadowed by those of the commanders on the battlefield, whose achievements were only possible because of Marshall’s organizational abilities and strategic guidance.


How Marshall came to occupy such an important position at such a crucial time in history is the focus of the first volume of Forrest Pogue’s tetralogy about the general and statesman. A former member of the U.S. Army’s historical division and the author of the volume in their famous “green book” series on the supreme command in Europe during the war, Pogue was invited to write Marshall’s official biography and was granted unrestricted access to both the general and his papers. These he combined with additional archival research to provide a comprehensive look at his subject’s life and career.


Pogue begins with Marshall’s upbringing in western Pennsylvania. The son of a businessman, Marshall enjoyed a comfortable childhood until a poor investment on his father’s part left his family in straitened financial circumstances. While drawn to soldiering, the challenges of gaining an appointment to West Point led young Marshall instead to enroll at the Virginia Military Institute. Upon graduation, Marshall was commissioned into an army recently engorged by the Spanish American War with new officers, making for an extremely competitive contest for promotion.


Nevertheless, Marshall rose gradually through the ranks. As Pogue makes clear, this was due to Marshall’s hard work and diligent application to his tasks. The young lieutenant soon demonstrated capabilities far beyond his rank, impressing both his peers and his superiors. After service in the Philippines Marshall returned to the United States, where he distinguished himself as both a student and an instructor in the Army’s emerging professional educational system. For Marshall, however, this proved a double-edged sword for his career prospects, as his gifts as a staff officer denied him the opportunities to serve in the line that were invaluable for an officer’s promotion prospects. As a result, Marshall found himself still a captain after the First World War, while many of his peers sported eagles or even stars on their shoulders.


Yet Marshall benefited enormously from the support of his former commander, General John Pershing. Chosen as Pershing’s aide during the general’s postwar service as chief of staff, Marshall enjoyed Pershing’s patronage and connections as he rose steadily in rank through a shrunken military establishment. During the 1930s Marshall’s service both as a regional commander within the Civilian Conservation Corps and as Deputy Chief of Staff commended him in the eyes of President Franklin Roosevelt, resulting in his appointment as chief of staff on the eve of the momentous outbreak of war in Europe.


Thanks to his access to both Marshall and his documentary legacy, Pogue provides his readers with a thorough account of his pre-Second World War military career. Though rich in detail, the text never drags thanks to Pogue’s deft writing and his ability to supply the exact right amount of explanatory context. Yet while Pogue provides an invaluable of Marshall’s activities, he falls short in terms of analysis, as he refrains from analyzing Marshall’s ideas about tactics or doctrine or strategic thinking. While this reflects in part a paucity of writing on Marshall’s part, his failure to supplement this with his interviews with Marshall represents a missed opportunity, one that Pogue himself never compensates for by offering his own suppositions based on the historical record. It’s an unfortunate omission in what will likely be the most detailed study of Marshall’s development, and limits the achievement of what is otherwise a valuable study of an underappreciated American military leader.