REMEMBERING THE MAN AND HIS PLAN
JUNE 5, 1997
Fifty years ago this week, George Marshall delivered a commencement address at Harvard University which proved to be the spark that rebuilt Europe. Following a look at the life of the general, the NewsHour historians, joined by the the editor of Marshall's papers, discuss Marshall's life and legacy.
JIM LEHRER: More now on George Marshall from NewsHour regulars Presidential Historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Michael Beschloss, Journalist and Author Haynes Johnson, joined tonight by Larry Bland, a historian, editor of the Marshall Papers at the George C. Marshall Foundation at the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Virginia. Michael, does George Marshall deserve the reverence he receives today?
A RealAudio version of this NewsHour segment is available.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of military issues.
A Marshall Plan page put together by the U. S. Information Agency.
The text of the address given by Gen. Marshall at Harvard in 1947 that detailed the Marshall Plan
A Marshall Plan 50th Anniversary site put together by the Marshall foundation.
A short biographyof George Marshall.
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS, President Historian: He sure does. This is one of the clearly great leaders in America in the 20th century. And the odd thing, Jim--and Charles Krause mentioned it in that excellent package just before we began speaking a moment ago--George Marshall's greatest act, perhaps, was not the Marshall Plan. It was really his role in winning World War II and organizing for victory. The Marshall Plan was something that was very important, and he was central in it. And I think the other thing is that as you look at Marshall's career, the amazing thing is that he is less well known perhaps than the other generals in World War II. One of the most poignant stories is that when the invasion of Europe was being prepared in 1944 for D-Day, Franklin Roosevelt said, "I think really George Marshall, although I can't bear to lose him in Washington, should lead operation because he deserves to have his name known by future generations." Selflessly, Marshall stepped aside, let Eisenhower lead the invasion, and as a result Eisenhower is much better known today.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, why? What was it that Franklin Roosevelt saw in George Marshall that caused him to choose him, pass over a lot of other generals, and turn back to him more than once?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN, Presidential Historian: Well, it's a wonderful story. In 1939, Marshall was in a meeting in the White House with Roosevelt, and there were 34 other generals at that point above him in the seniority stream. And Roosevelt came out with some pet project. And all the other general sitting around said, oh, it's a great idea, Mr. President, nodding their head. Marshall spoke up and said, "Mr. President, that's a terrible idea." And everybody thought that was the end of Marshall's career. They thought that the conference was over; he would never get a choice. Several months later Roosevelt reached down. He wanted the kind of person who could speak out, who could actually stand up to him. Roosevelt was such an informal, warm character that somehow choosing a person with a very different temperament, a real reserve--there's another story about Marshall that just illustrates that dignity and presence he had. One of his friends was evidently appointed and told that he had to go on a transfer to another country and Marshall found out he hadn't left when he was supposed to, so he called him up and he said, "What's happened?". And the guy explained that his wife wasn't there, so there was no one to pack his furniture. And he said, "I'm sorry." But Marshall said, "I'm sorry too, but you'll be retired tomorrow." It's that kind of reverence for duty, that straight speaking, that honesty, that Roosevelt knew he needed, especially given his own charming ambiguity. And it turned out to be an excellent choice.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Bland, if you had to mention one thing that we should all know about George Marshall, what would it be?
LARRY BLAND, George C. Marshall Foundation: I would say devotion to duty. I think this is what drives him. He has no ambitions for higher political office or a writing career, or no ambitions actually after the army. And this allows him to concentrate his efforts on doing what he's trained to do, without having to worry about what historians think of him, or without having to worry about a post-military career.
JIM LEHRER: But he did the Marshall Plan. I mean, his name was on it, one of the most--I don't know--one of the largest projects of its kind in history.
LARRY BLAND: Marshall was very well liked in Europe partially because the leadership elite over there recognized that during World War II he had been devoted to keeping the allied coalition together. So I think Europeans probably know Marshall better than Americans, at least the younger generation. And I think that they recognized in him what would be, I guess, an aristocratic fellow and a dedicated public servant.
JIM LEHRER: Haynes, is there--is this a special human being, or was--is he one of these people that was driven by special events? Help us understand what this is. It seems so unusual to have a man revered like this, so general.
HAYNES JOHNSON, Author/Journalist: In today's terms especially, half a century later--we're heroes today, they go out and sell themselves on television, they cash in, they take off their clothes in public, they tell you all their psyches. Here's a guy like George Washington and Robert E. Lee and others who is almost inhuman in the sense of absolute devotion; as Michael has said, has Doris has said, as Dr. Bland has said, believed in patriotism, serving your country, not serving anything else, devotion to duty, and it's almost too good to be true in today's context, and yet, what we just saw tonight in that wonderful black and white footage is a whole history of one man who served over and over again for his country and is not much remembered today by most Americans.
JIM LEHRER: Where did this devotion to duty come from, Dr. Bland? You've studied George Marshall's career very thoroughly. Was it from childhood or in his school, in the military, where did it come from?
LARRY BLAND: Marshall's a hard man to read. You could read all of his documents, but he keeps it inside. He--for example, historians just love long newsy letters to friends, telling them all about what's going on in this life. And Marshall didn't write those kinds of letters. And so you have to psychologize or try to piece together what he's about. He's a very self-contained man, very stoic, and to a certain extent, this helps him get through military school.
JIM LEHRER: But speaking of military school, in Charles's piece he made the point that the three most prominent generals who emerged from World War II were Eisenhower, Patton, and MacArthur. I mean, Patton and MacArthur--Eisenhower is a separate case--but MacArthur and Patton are two of the biggest showboats in the world, are they not? And they went to the same school, came out of the same background that Marshall did.
LARRY BLAND: Yes. And Marshall recognized there are different ways of getting followers to follow you. And one of Marshall's ways was aloof correctness. The integrity--
JIM LEHRER: Aloof correctness.
LARRY BLAND: Yes. The steely-eyed stare. He had light blue eyes, and so when he looked at you, it looked like it was very piercing, even if he was friendly. So Marshall's shtich, I guess you'd call it, is the perfect correctness. You can follow me because you can trust me. I will not lead you astray. Patton's thing was entertainment, and Marshall recognized this in Patton, and he recognized Eisenhower's great strength as a diplomat, not as a great strategic planner, so Marshall was able to grasp the great strengths of Patton are as a battlefield commander; the great strength of Eisenhower is as a coalition leader and not to make the wrong--put square pegs in round holes.
JIM LEHRER: Use ‘em all in their strengths. Michael, why is it that Marshall has not gotten his public due up till now?
MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: Well, one reason was because he did choose to remain in the background during World War II. Another is because although perhaps we're aware of the Marshall Plan, it is not really on the lips of younger people. And I think one way to sort of use this 50 year anniversary of the Marshall Plan is not only to remember Marshall but to remember that the last couple of years we've been having a few 50-year anniversaries of some very good, heroic, unifying moments in American history: D-Day, the victories in Europe, and so on. Once you get after the Marshall Plan, there are very few moments that we can say this was an isolated incident that all of us Americans agree on as a great moment in the 20th century, so I think one way to honor both the Marshall Plan and Marshall is to look at the Marshall Plan as perhaps the centerpiece of the strategy that ultimately won the Cold War after 45 years and perhaps as an emblem of the fact that the United States made an awful lot of sacrifices for nearly ½ a century that saved the world from the Soviet Union and Communism.
JIM LEHRER: Doris, would you agree that that's the way we should look upon the Marshall Plan?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, I think so. I mean, there's no question that had it not been for Marshall's prestige and the kind of presence that he carried, it was very difficult for Truman to imagine getting that plan through.
JIM LEHRER: And it was really kind of Truman's idea, was it not, more than it was Marshall's?
DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Oh, absolutely. Truman and Acheson, but Truman is quoted as saying, "If I send up anything in my name to that Congress"--that he was already having great difficulty with--"it will quiver and die on the spot." So it was Truman's strength that allowed him to give Marshall the credit. Again, Truman at one point said it doesn't matter who gets credit. A lot more can be accomplished if you give it to them. So, thank God Marshall gets that credit because I keep going back to that moment that Michael alluded to. Roosevelt would have appointed Marshall, in my judgment, the commander of the allied forces if Marshall had spoken up and said, I deserve it; I want it. Roosevelt knew he deserved it. He knew whoever got it was going to be the hero of World War II. But when Harry Hopkins went and asked him, he said, "I will support wholeheartedly whatever the President wants to do." The President didn't want to lose him from Washington. He depended on him. So in a certain sense Marshall found his own calling, which could have been the hero, and he turned away. And that's an extraordinary thing.
JIM LEHRER: It really is extraordinary, is it not, Haynes, I mean, to turn something like that down?
HAYNES JOHNSON: And we're still--
JIM LEHRER: Knowingly. Knowingly.
HAYNES JOHNSON: Oh, yes. And we're so lucky. Not only George Marshall but talk about Harry Truman, Dean Acheson, Chip Bowl and all those people who came out of World War II, and actually made the big decisions that we're sitting here tonight free to talk about, scandals and everything else, in a free America. I mean, and not to be too cheap about it, we owe them; we really owe them a great deal. JIM LEHRER: What do you think we should remember about the Marshall Plan itself?
HAYNES JOHNSON: It saved the world, put it--
JIM LEHRER: So you agree with Marshall? Marshall said, "The fate of the world is truly hanging on this."
HAYNES JOHNSON: Absolutely.
JIM LEHRER: You agree with that.
HAYNES JOHNSON: And it wasn't just nobility, I think, Jim. It was also a matter of great self-interest. The Cold War was beginning. There was--Europe was in ruins, and the lessons of 50 million deaths in World War II and the memory of what happened after World War I, when the League of Nations failed that we didn't join it, and that led 25 years later to an even greater war. These people were all forged and George Marshall, certainly, who was a commander of troops in World War I in France, they certainly were shaped by that memory, and I think we owe that legacy. You cannot overemphasize how important it was.
JIM LEHRER: Dr. Bland, that's a hard thing to fathom, though, this idea, this idea called the Marshall Plan, that the fate of the world really rested on that?
LARRY BLAND: Well, I suppose diplomatic historians would--would quibble about it, but certainly if you don't have a Marshall Plan, I think that you get the collapse of many democratic governments. Italy was teetering on the edge. The French Communists were very powerful. Without the moral lift, the morale lift in which Europeans are told the greatest, most powerful, richest, least damaged country in the world is on your side, you don't have to vote Communism to secure your future. I think this is an enormous boost for Western Europe.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think George Marshall, because of this anniversary will now get the attention that he has not gotten up till now?
LARRY BLAND: Well, certainly the Marshall Foundation is going to try to make that. The Foundation was created because Harry Truman, who decided to try to found it, were fearful that Marshall would, in fact, be forgotten. And--
JIM LEHRER: They knew--why did they think that?
LARRY BLAND: Because he wasn't a battlefield leader. There are--you can't--no person can remember lots of people, so you remember four or five big battle winners or--or commanders who were in the newspapers all the time. And Marshall consciously stayed out of the spotlight.
JIM LEHRER: Why did he never run for public office?
LARRY BLAND: He felt that he would not be a good politician. He felt that--
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
LARRY BLAND: Yes. I don't think he would have been good at shaking hands and kissing babies and telling fat fibs, and suggesting programs that couldn't possibly work. Marshall would have told them exactly the truth, and this is why Congressmen loved him. And he would have gotten in all kinds of trouble.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Doris, gentlemen, thank you very much.