Born in Pennsylvania, George Marshall pursued a military career in his teens, entering the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia, in 1897. Despite a rocky start, he performed well and graduated in 1901. The following year, he was commissioned as an officer in the U.S. army and headed for service in the Philippines. By 1908, he had acquired additional military education at the Infantry-Cavalry School and the Army Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. As Marshall slowly moved through the ranks, he broadened his leadership experience by teaching at military institutions. Following the United States’ entry into World War I in 1917, Marshall was selected as chief of operations for the army’s 1st Division and served in France. After the war, he became General John J. Pershing’s aide-de-camp and later took a post in China.
In September 1939, as World War II began, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Marshall chief of staff for the U.S. army with the rank of general. Marshall remained in this position for the duration of the war, overseeing the vast mobilization and organizational effort required to raise, train, and equip the more than eight million American troops who were eventually under his command. Marshall also became a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and dispensed strategic advice from a military perspective at many of the international Allied conferences. Although he was a strong proponent of the cross-Channel attack plan, when D-Day arrived in June 1944, Roosevelt placed General Dwight D. Eisenhower in command of that operation, telling Marshall, “I didn’t feel I could sleep at ease with you out of Washington.”
In November 1945, with the war over, Marshall (now a five-star general ) resigned his post. However, the very next month he visited China on a diplomatic mission at President Harry S. Truman’s request. By January 1947, he had accepted Truman’s offer to serve as U.S. secretary of state. In this role, he is best known for proposing the European Recovery Program , which was soon called the Marshall Plan . The initiative offered economic aid to European countries and was intended, in part, to encourage democratic—as opposed to communist—ideals and government. The Marshall Plan was a success, with the U.S. furnishing about $13 billion in funds for European recovery and boosting the economic health of participating countries.
In 1950, as the U.S. became involved in the Korean War, Truman appointed Marshall as secretary of defense. Three years later, Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize . The presentation speech cited “his indefatigable work for the welfare of the soldier,” his dedication to “honor and self-sacrifice,” and his promotion of “the idea of a general peace in Europe.” Marshall died on October 16, 1959, from complications after suffering a stroke.