In the realm of international relations and policy, few can compare to the respect and influence garnered by General George C. Marshall. Over his 44-year military and legislative career, he orchestrated the victorious Allied operations of World War II, fostered diplomacy between fragmented nations, and rescued Europe from total economic collapse. Our world as we know it today could not exist without Marshall's exceptional efforts for peace.
George Catlett Marshall was born in Uniontown, Pennsylvania on December 31, 1880, the youngest of three children to Laura and George Marshall Sr. Throughout his childhood, George was a mediocre student (the only subject he really seemed to excel at was history). He aspired to be like his older brother, Stuart, a Virginia Military Institute (VMI) cadet and a brilliant academic; however, living in his brother’s shadow fostered a contentious relationship. When George himself enrolled in VMI, Stuart protested to their mother, stating that George’s poor academic abilities would “disgrace the family name.” George overheard his brother’s hurtful comments and used them as motivation to dedicate himself to his education. In 1901, George graduated from VMI 15th in a class of 34 and ranked 1st in military discipline, which earned him the distinct honor of being named First Captain of the Cadet Corps.
Marshall was designated as Commandant of the Danville Military Academy shortly after his graduation. In February 1902, he received a commission from President William McKinley to be 2nd Lieutenant in the 30th U.S. Infantry and to join his regiment in the Philippines later that May. Before he was deployed, Marshall married Lily Carter Coles—a resident of Lexington, Virginia, who also happened to be Stuart’s ex-girlfriend.
Marshall excelled during his time in the Philippines. By the time he returned home in December 1903, he had risen to the rank of company commander. In 1908, Marshall entered the Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and graduated first in his class. Marshall’s military discipline and prowess caught the attention of some of the U.S. Army’s highest ranking officers. In June 1913, on a second deployment to the Philippines, Marshall was made Brigadier General Hunter Liggett’s aide-de-camp. Upon his return to the states in mid-1916, he became aide-de-camp to Major General J. Franklin Bell, commander of the Department of the West in San Francisco, California.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Bell and Marshall were transferred to the Department of the East on Governor’s Island, New York. Marshall was named Assistant Chief of Staff for the 1st Division of the American Expeditionary Force, where he helped mobilize and train soldiers for combat operations in France. He led United States troops to their first significant victory of the war at the Battle of Cantigny, May 28 – 31, 1918. Marshall also coordinated the logistics for the Meuse-Argonne Offensive—the largest Allied assault of the war which involved 1.2 million American soldiers and ultimately contributed to the German Armistice on November 11, 1918.Following the Great War, Marshall became aide-de-camp to General John J. Pershing, who had recently been appointed U.S. Army Chief of Staff.
In August 1924, Marshall was assigned to command the 15th Army Regiment in Tientsin, China, where he and his wife Lily lived for three years. They came back to the U.S. in the summer of 1927 when Lily’s heart condition was aggravated by severe hyperthyroidism. She underwent emergent surgery at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington D.C., but unfortunately died a few weeks later after a weakened heart wall ruptured. Marshall dealt with the pain of losing his wife of 26 years the best way he knew how—by remaining focused on his military duties.
Between 1927 and 1932, Marshall became assistant commandant of the Army’s Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia. During his time at Fort Benning, Marshall implemented new staffing and command regulations, incorporated small-unit assaults in attack formations, streamlined communications, and increased field drilling exercises—all to modernize and increase the efficiency of the U.S. armed forces. Marshall also remarried while in Georgia. He married Katherine Boyce Tupper on October 15, 1930.
In 1932, Marshall moved from Fort Benning to Fort Screven to command the 8th Infantry Regiment and oversee the progress of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camps in Georgia and South Carolina. In October 1936, Marshall was promoted to Brigadier General and placed in command of the 3rd Infantry Division at Vancouver Barracks, Washington, where he resided for two years.
In 1938, Marshall was assigned to the War Plans Division of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s War Department Staff as the threat of another world war loomed on the European continent. When Chief of Staff Malin Craig retired in 1939, Marshall was appointed to succeed him. He was sworn in on September 1, 1939, the same day Nazi Germany invaded Poland, igniting World War II. Marshall would hold the position of Chief throughout the war.
As acting Chief of Staff, Marshall organized the largest military expansion in United States history, increasing the number of enlisted men from 172,000 to more than 1 million by December 1941 and 8 million by 1945. Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the United States’ formal declaration of war, Marshall went to work coordinating Allied operations in the European and Pacific theaters. In early 1943, Marshall laid out the foundation for Operation Overlord—the Invasion of Normandy—which he hoped to implement on April 1; however, Winston Churchill and other Allied leaders were not in favor of a large-scale amphibious assault at that time. Instead, they convinced FDR to commit troops to Operation Husky—the Invasion of Italy. Marshall’s plans for invasion weren’t implemented until June 6, 1944.
Marshall’s success as a military commander and coordinator earned him the rank of Five-Star General on December 16, 1944—the first American Army general ever to be given such a distinction. As the defeat of Nazi Germany became imminent, Marshall’s role transitioned from chief military officer to peace-making diplomat. He accompanied FDR to the Yalta Conference in February 1945 to discuss how to re-establish nations conquered by the former Axis powers and organize post-war Allied occupation of Germany. Later that July, he joined President Harry Truman to the Potsdam Conference, which established Germany’s final terms of surrender.
Following WWII, Marshall resigned his commission as Chief of Staff. In December 1945, he served as Special Envoy to China in the midst of their post-war crisis. The relinquishment of Japanese occupation left a power vacuum in the country that resulted in years of senseless violence and mass casualties. Marshall tried to negotiate a coalition between Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and Communist leader Mao Zedong, but no compromise was reached between the factions. Marshall returned to the U.S. in late 1946 having failed to achieve a lasting peace in China. The warring continued for two more years until Mao’s Communist Revolution finally prevailed on October 1, 1949. The fall of China to communism was a warning sign to American and European legislators: economically and politically-vulnerable countries in the post-war world were susceptible to communist insurrection and the abandonment of democracy. These feelings, coupled with the hostile attitudes and policies of the Soviet Union, fueled the fire of the Cold War.
Europe was a war-torn continent following Germany’s surrender. Its countries were fragmented, its industry ruined, its people falling victim to starvation and rising crime rates. Many people feared that these desolate conditions were opportune for Soviet expansionism to sweep across the continent, abdicate democracy, and establish totalitarian satellite states in its wake. Upon his appointment to Secretary of State in January 1947, Marshall realized that the only way for communism to be contained was through concerted humanitarian efforts to rejuvenate Europe’s economic welfare. On June 5, 1947, Marshall attended Harvard University’s commencement ceremony and outlined a strategy that would foster European economic recovery and development, the most memorable legislation of his illustrious career: the Marshall Plan.
In its most elemental form, The Marshall Plan was designed to restore the European economy by organizing a joint relief effort between European nations and the United States. American financial aid and resources were allocated to each participating nation to rebuild infrastructure, remove trade barriers, modernize industry, and prevent the spread of communism. The idea for the Marshall Plan came on the advice of George F. Kennan, a State Department Russian Specialist who called for “firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” Marshall’s plan for European recovery also aligned with the tenets of the Truman Doctrine—to provide support to vulnerable states being subjugated by armed minorities or external forces and deter the development of totalitarian regimes.
When the Marshall Plan was administered in 1951, sixteen countries were authorized to participate, including Germany. While many leaders of the world wanted to punish Germany for its role in WWII, Marshall believed that German inclusion was absolutely necessary to achieve economic stability and support in Europe, especially since adjacent countries (like Belgium and the Netherlands) were dependent on German industry for economic prosperity. Marshall had also extended an invitation to the Soviet Union, but they declined to participate. Instead, the Soviets developed a similar policy, the Molotov Plan, which blocked Marshall Plan aid and cultivated socialist interests Eastern Bloc countries.
After two years and $13 billion of U.S. investment, the European economy began to improve on an impressive scale. Gross National Product increased by an average of 33% while industrial production and interstate trade rose nearly 40%. Crime and starvation rates plummeted significantly as financial and social stability slowly returned to a rebuilding Europe. On December 10, 1953, Marshall was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to resolve Europe’s post-war economic and humanitarian crises. He is the only career U.S. army officer to ever receive the award.
After resigning his position as Secretary of State in 1949, Marshall became Chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission and President of the American Red Cross. In 1950, as the United States entered the war in Korea, Marshall was appointed Secretary of Defense where he remobilized and expanded the U.S. military in preparation for armed intervention. He participated in the post-Ichon landing discussions which authorized General Douglas MacArthur to conduct military operations north of the 38th parallel. As American and U.N. armed forces invaded North Korea, China joined the conflict, backed by the Soviet Union. Hoping to avoid another all-out war, Marshall advocated for a steady withdrawal of American military support. On April 11, 1951, Marshall relieved MacArthur of command after seeing that his aggressive military campaigns took the conflict out of civilian control. Following the Korean War, Marshall retired to his home in Leesburg, Virginia, and passed away on October 16, 1959, at the age of 78. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
The Marshall’s home in Old Town Leesburg was originally constructed by John Drish between 1805 and 1826. It passed hands several times over the years and had once served as the Loudoun Collegiate Female Institute. Katherine Marshall purchased the mansion in 1941 for $16,000 and the Marshalls resided there until George’s death in 1959. The story goes that when Katherine decided to buy the estate, she threw the ‘for sale’ sign into the bushes to deter any buyer competition before she could pay for the deed. While Marshall was still active duty, the house was used as a weekend retreat from bustling activity of Fort Myer, Virginia. Following his retirement, it was his permanent residence.
In the years following Marshall’s death, the home fell into a state of disrepair. It was slated to be demolished in the early 1990s for a shopping center. Fortunately, the historic estate was saved by members of the George C. Marshall Home Preservation Fund who bought the property for $2.3 million and spent another $4.5 million restoring the home to its original decorum. Most of the money used to save the Marshall House was donated on behalf of the European nations who benefited from the Marshall Plan. The home opened to the public on Veteran’s Day, 2005.
The George C. Marshall House can be visited on weekends from March through December and there is a $15 fee for entry. Tours of the mansion take between 75 and 90 minutes. The house is decorated in a 1950s style similar to how the Marshalls furnished it. In fact, about 90% of the furniture in the home is original to the Marshalls. The museum-quality displays, biographical videos, and tour guides are all extremely informative. While the $15 admission may seem pricey, the quality of the home tour and significance of George C. Marshall’s life supersede that. Be sure to visit this site on a weekend trip to Loudoun County and learn about one of the most-decorated military leaders in United States history!
For more information on The Marshall House, visit the George C. Marshall International Center website!
For more on George Marshall's life, read this biography created by the George C. Marshall Foundation!
Peruse through this 3,700-page collection to learn more about the specific policies and appropriations outlined in the Marshall Plan!
Visit the Office of the Historian to learn how the Marshall Plan addressed the issues the plagued post-war Europe!
Check out this resource about Marshall on Google Books: Jeffers, H. Paul, and Alan Axelrod. Marshall: Lessons in Leadership. St. Martin's Press. 2010