Born on December 31, 1880, in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, George C. Marshall was a distant relative of former Chief Justice John Marshall.
Marshall decided early on to embark on a career in the military and attended the Virginia Military Institute. While there he was an All-Southern tackle for the VMI Keydets football team.
After graduating, Marshall served as commandant of students at the Danville Military Institute. He was then commissioned a second lieutenant and served in various commands in the US and the Philippines. This included a stint as a platoon leader and company commander during the Philippine-American War. Marshall also continued his education, becoming the honor graduate of his infantry-cavalry class and graduating first in his Army Staff College class.
Following further service in the Philippines, Marshall was made aide-de-camp to Major General J. Franklin Bell, the commander of the Army’s Western Department. When America declared war on Germany in April 1917, Marshall accompanied Bell to New York when the general was transferred to the Department of the East.
Marshall trained the 1st Division for service. He traveled with the unit to France and planned America’s first attack in the Battle at Cantigny, which ended in victory. Marshall was later assigned to the American Expeditionary Force headquarters in mid-1918. He worked closely with General John Pershing to help plan American operations. His coordination of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive contributed to the defeat of Germany and the end of the war. When the war was over, Marshall remained in France as Pershing’s aide-de-camp. The lessons Marshall learned from Pershing, and the experience he gained during World War I, served him well in later years.
Between wars, Marshall was a noted planner and writer within the War Department. He also commanded the 15th Infantry Regiment in China and instructed at the Army War College. In 1927 Marshall was made assistant commandant of the Infantry School at Fort Benning. While there, he made significant changes that ultimately proved positive during World War II. In the coming years, Marshall commanded at Fort Moultrie and Vancouver Barracks, as well as 35 Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Oregon and Washington. While working with the CCC, Marshall took strides to improve morale, established a CCC newspaper to share their successes, and created new programs to expand their skills and improve their health. Marshall once said that his time with the CCC was “the most instructive service I ever had and the most interesting.”
After that service, Marshall joined the War Plans Division in Washington, DC, and was made Deputy Chief of Staff. In that role, he was the only person to speak out against President Franklin Roosevelt’s plan to provide aircraft to England. While many expected the move would mark the end of his career, instead it led to his appointment to Army chief of staff. Marshall was officially sworn in as chief of staff on September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland.
During World War II, Marshall organized the largest military expansion in US history – going from 189,000 men in 1941 to over eight million the following year. He picked or recommended a number of top commanders, including Dwight D. Eisenhower, George S. Patton, Mark Clark, and Omar Bradley. He approved a shortened training schedule, aimed at establishing a 265-division Army, though he was pressured to reduce it to just 90 divisions.
Marshall also wrote the book used by US Army and Air Forces in preparation for their operations in Europe. Some historians believe his proposed plan to launch Operation Overlord a year early might have ended the war a full year earlier. At one point, he was considered to serve as supreme commander of Operation Overlord, but President Roosevelt admitted that he couldn’t sleep at night if Marshall wasn’t in Washington. Time named him Man of the Year in 1943 and the following year he was the first American general to be promoted to the five-star rank, making him general of the Army.
Marshall resigned from his position as chief of staff in 1945. From 1947-49, he was the US secretary of State, the first professional soldier to hold this position. Marshall served briefly as president of the American Red Cross before becoming US secretary of Defense from 1950-51. As secretary of State, Marshall introduced the European Recovery Program, also known as the “Marshall Plan,” in 1947. Under this plan, the US spent billions of dollars rebuilding the devastated nations of Western Europe. Historians credit Marshall’s plan for checking the spread of communism in Europe, and helping to create a more peaceful world. Marshall’s work earned him the 1953 Nobel Peace Prize.
Marshall retired in 1951 and spent his final years in Leesburg, Virginia where he enjoyed gardening and horseback riding. During his retirement, Marshall led the American delegation at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and headed the American Battle Monuments Commission. He died on October 16, 1959, and was buried at Arlington, National Cemetery.
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