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George Marshall: statesman, 1945-1959.

George Marshall's lessons of statecraft and public service

In an age when government is populated by leaky self-promoters, the qualities of George C. Marshall seem quaint. Imagine Henry Kissinger or A1 Haig turning down million-dollar offers to write their memoirs. Marshall did it repeatedly, explaining to one publisher that he had not served his whole life in government to sell his story to the Saturday Evening Post. The aging general was so self-effacing that as army chief of staff during World War II he refused to be decorated while young men were dying abroad. He was so duty-bound that when President Truman called him out of well-earned retirement after the war to go to China as a special envoy, Marshall instantly said yes, without so much as asking his wife (who was quite bitter about it). As secretary of state from 1947 to 1949, he was so unpretentious that he refused a body guard, saying that he would "rather be murdered than embarrassed.' Over the years, Marshall has even been spared by Cold War revisionists, who have noted that as secretary of state he tried on several occasions to tone down the Truman administration's more inflammatory anti-communist rhetoric.

The somewhat hazy glow around Marshall brightened this June when the general was remembered for launching the European Recovery Plan that bears his name 40 years ago at a Harvard commencement speech. His image is further buffed by the fourth and final volume of his official biography*, the completion of a project begun some 30 years ago by Marshall's faithful Boswell, Forrest C. Pogue. The book is thorough but uncritical and, like General Marshall's speeches, flat and a little boring. It does not put much flesh and blood on the icon, nor does it grapple with an intriguing question raised by Marshall's career, particularly his unfortunate last tour of duty: is it possible to be too virtuous?

* George Marshall: Statesman 1945-1959. Forrest C. Pogue. Viking, $29.95.

Marshall was not only above reproach, he was above the fray; he never stooped to petty squabbles or schemed against his bureaucratic rivals. Yet the flip side of statesmanlike bearing is Reaganesque detachment. Delegation is an effective management style but only, as President Reagan has learned, if you are delegating to the right people.

Pogue's new volume picks up the old soldier as he becomes a statesman after World War II. As an army chief of staff who had to referee between feuding theater commanders, Marshall knew a great deal about diplomacy, but he was hardly a geopolitical thinker. He was, for instance, about the last major government official to give up on the hope of cementing a peaceful alliance with the Soviets. But no matter. Marshall had the good sense to pick able assistants who did understand a changing world, most notably Marshall's chief of policy planning, George F. Kennan. Indeed, Marshall seems to have always been away giving a speech or attending a conference in South America when crises erupted. Luckily, he did not have to worry much; his undersecretaries--Dean Acheson and Robert Lovett--were more than able to cope in his absence. When Marshall did give orders, he was usually brief. Tasking Kennan to prepare a plan to rescue Europe from post-war ruin, Marshall had two words of instruction. "Avoid trivia,' he said.

Marshall's disdain for politics and bureaucratic gamesmanship could be counterproductive. He frowned on all leakers. "Planners don't talk,' he warned Kennan. Yet Marshall so intimidated Kennan that Kennan suffered silently while the press and politicians dangerously exaggerated his containment doctrine. So apolitical that he refused to vote, Marshall utterly failed to comprehend what motivated congressmen. Advised that he needed to curry favor with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Arthur Vandenberg in order to win passage of the European Recovery Plan, Marshall balked. "He assumed that Vandenberg was motivated by national interest and therefore required no cultivation,' recorded another able lieutenant, Chip Bohlen. The solution was to name the plan after Marshall. "That will sell a whole hell of a lot better in Congress than if they name it after me,' remarked President Truman. Marshall dutifully testified before Congress, but it was Bob Lovett who stroked Vandenberg, sharing cocktails and top secret cables with him in the evenings after work.

In the 1948 election, Marshall took the noble goal of a nonpartisan foreign policy to new and somewhat shaky heights when he quietly offered to step down as soon as Dewey beat Truman in order to let John Foster Dulles take over as secretary of state and ease the transition. Marshall had to be tactfully reminded that as long as Truman was president, he had constitutional responsibility for foreign policy.

When Truman won his famous upset, Marshall resigned anyway. Typically, he had been putting off for six months a kidney operation on a pair of tumors the size of baseballs. But Marshall, who was nearly 70, was not allowed to rest for long. Two months after the Korean War broke out in June of 1950, Truman fired his vexatious and incompetent defense secretary, Louis Johnson, and called on Marshall, the Organizer of Victory in World War II, to take over the Pentagon once again as secretary of defense.

Marshall's first major decision was a blunder. He wired his field commander, General Douglas MacArthur, to "feel unhampered tactically and strategically' as he drove his army over the 38th parallel between the two Koreas toward China. This time, Marshall had taken detachment entirely too far. He would have been much wiser to order MacArthur to stop right where he was, to restore the status quo before the North's invasion of the South, and not to try to subjugate all of Korea. For MacArthur, seized by one of his megalomaniac bouts with destiny, was determined to end his career by cleansing the Pacific of communism, even if that meant going to war with a billion Chinese.

Marshall worried about MacArthur's mad dash to the Chinese border, but he made no attempt to rein him in. In part, he hewed to the principle first established by Lincoln with Grant: that once a field commander has been assigned a mission "there must be no interference with his method of carrying it out.' But personal factors also weighed on the general. Although he typically had not hesitated to accept Truman's summons to duty, he was old and tired--perhaps not quite up to the rigors of running the Pentagon during wartime. More important, he felt he could not show any trace of ill will toward MacArthur. The American Caesar had regarded Marshall as a rival out to do him in ever since Marshall had been the bright young staff officer and MacArthur the dashing field commander in World War I. Marshall bent over backward not to fuel MacArthur's paranoid delusion. He was as determined as ever to show that personal likes or dislikes had no place in wartime councils. "I have no feelings,' Marshall would say, "except those I reserve for Mrs. Marshall.'

Marshall's luster kept the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, from second guessing his judgment. Acheson had been warned by the Chinese that if MacArthur came too close to their border, they would jump into the war. Indeed, "we had the clearest idea among ourselves of the utter madness and folly of what MacArthur was doing up North,' Acheson later wrote. "But we sat around like paralyzed rabbits.' Why? Acheson was awed by Marshall and uncharacteristically humble around him. Though officially outranked by the secretary of state, Marshall had to insist that Acheson follow protocol and enter a room before him. Lovett, again serving as Marshall's deputy, was equally cowed. Though he mocked MacArthur (imitating the vain-glorious general's habit of combing his last few strands of hair across his bald pate), Lovett never questioned Marshall's decision to allow MacArthur to plunge on. Like Acheson, he was so transfixed by Marshall's essential goodness he could not see that Marshall had made the wrong decision.

In late November, 300,000 Chinese troops exploded around MacArthur's overextended army and practically drove him off the Korean peninsula. The war dragged on three more years to accomplish what MacArthur had won in September. Another 25,000 American soldiers died.

Pogue makes no attempt to explain Marshall's failure; in fact he assigns him no blame. But it can be argued that Marshall was blinded by an overdose of principle when the situation called for a touch of expediency. Marshall's forbearance toward MacArthur may have been the "right' thing to do given their assigned roles and long-rumored rivalry. But had Marshall stopped MacArthur, he would have saved a lot of lives.

Yet, Marshall finally did recommend that MacArthur be relieved a few months later, after the general kept spouting off to Republican congressmen about the need to "unleash' Chiang Kai-Shek on the Red Chinese. Characteristically, Marshall did not shy from accountability for his tragic blunder. After reviewing MacArthur's record, Marshall showed a willingness to admit error not often seen around Washington these days. He told Truman, "We should have fired MacArthur two years ago.'
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Author:Thomas, Evan
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1987
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