George Catlett Marshall

George Catlett Marshall was one of VMI's most celebrated graduates. At the dedication of the George C. Marshall Research Library in Lexington, Virginia, several of his close associates, including President Johnson, Robert Lovett, and General Omar Bradley, paid tribute to his leadership. General Eisenhower in particular spoke with insight of his forthright relations with his former commanding officer during the war years.

General Dwight D. Eisenhower and General George C. Marshall meet in North Africa in 1943. (AP)

It is a high privilege for me, once again, to pay a simple tribute to General George C. Marshall. This time I do so in terms of my personal contacts with him.

A few of his characteristics are uppermost in my memory, and on these I shall dwell. They include his consideration for others; his clear, direct, and logical approach to any major military problem; his complete, single-minded dedication and loyalty to his country and government; and his selflessness and objectivity in making decisions and in courageously discharging his vitally important duties.

From World War I onward, I had often heard of George Marshall. By older officers he was always described as a brilliant soldier, by many as a genius. But until World War II was a week old, I had met him only twice, and then but momentarily. My direct association with him began December 14, 1941, on a Sunday morning in the old “munitions buildings” in Washington, D.C. He placed me in charge of military planning, later adding operations. On that Sunday morning a great deal of our conversation dealt with the situation in the Pacific. General Marshall brought me up to date with events and then said that he would look to me for assistance in planning help for that beleaguered area.

Just before dismissing me, he gave me some brief instructions that I have never forgotten. I can repeat his words almost verbatim, “Eisenhower,” he said, “the department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”

He looked at me with an eye that seemed to me awfully cold, and so, as I left the room, I resolved then and there to do my work to the best of my ability and report to the General only situations of obvious necessity or when he personally sent for me.

This habit I cultivated to the point that one day, finding myself in a crisis situation, I issued an order that occasioned for me ten days of acute embarrassment. Indeed, I suspected—with obvious reason—that I might be ignominiously dismissed from the presence of the Chief of Staff, if not from the Army. The facts were these:

We badly needed to send a division of troops to Australia, and it happened that in one of our ports and ready to depart was the British ship the Queen Mary. Having permission to use her, I directed the loading of 15,000 men on her and started her across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope without escort.

Because of her speed, I was not particularly worried until we intercepted a cable sent by an Italian official in Brazil to his government in Rome. It read as follows:

“The Queen Mary just refueled here, and with about 15,000 soldiers aboard left this port today steaming southeast across the Atlantic.”

At once I had visions of all the German submarines in the South Atlantic trying to concentrate around the Cape of Good Hope area, possibly intercepting the great ship and filling her full of torpedoes. For the next few days I slept little. But finally I had the welcome news that the Queen Mary had arrived safely in Australia.

I felt so good that I took the time off to go voluntarily to the General’s office to tell what I had done and of the great suspense in which my principal assistants and I had been living. I said that I had not told him this before because I saw no use for his bearing the same burden of worry that I had been carrying. But now that all was well, I thought he might like to know what had happened.

He smiled and said, “Eisenhower, I received that intercept at the same time that you did. I was merely hoping that you might not see it, and so I was saying nothing to you until I knew the outcome.”

Rarely have I seen such generous consideration for a subordinate so beautifully exemplified.

One incident has bearing upon his conception of performance of duty without fear or favor. I was in his office once when he picked up the telephone to answer a call that an aide said came from a senator, the chairman of an important committee. As I watched the General’s face, it became flushed; he was obviously more than a little annoyed.

Within moments he angrily broke in to say, “Senator, if you are interested in that man’s advancement, or that of any other, the best thing you can do is to avoid mentioning his name to me. Good-bye!” Then he said to me, “I may make a thousand mistakes in this war, but none will be the result of political meddling! I take orders from the Secretary of War and the President; I would not stay here if I had to respond to outside pressures. Moreover,” he added, “I don’t like people who are seeking promotions.”

To possible senatorial displeasure he gave not a single thought.

In early conferences of the American Chiefs of Staff and, later, of the combined Chiefs of Staff—which meetings I attended as one of his assistants—he quickly established himself as the dominant figure. His vision was so clear, his grasp of complex issues so instinctive and precise, and his convictions so strong, that he was almost invariably the leader in discussions and in resultant decisions. In all Allied meetings in which I was present with him this continued throughout the war; his complete absorption in the task at hand was apparent to all.

In one meeting I saw convincing proof of his utter selflessness. American Chiefs of Staff were traveling to the Cairo and Teheran conferences in November of 1943. They stopped overnight at Allied Headquarters in the African Theater of War. Speculation was then rife as to the identity of the individual to be named to head the cross-channel operation scheduled for the next spring, named Overlord. Washington headlines, I was told, were fairly agog about the matter, some misguided persons even alleging that General Marshall and I were engaged in a bitter vendetta, each falsely accused of seeking the prize of command.

On the evening of the President’s arrival in Carthage, General Marshall and Admiral King, quartered with me in my cottage, had a long conversation into which Admiral King brought this subject. He had been given to understand in Washington, he said, that General Marshall was to go to London and I to the post of Chief of Staff. According to the Admiral, it was assumed the President, believing that Marshall would like to be in the field and that he had clearly earned the right to make his own choice of positions, had ordered the shift in assignments, agreeing to accept me as a substitute for General Marshall in his Washington post.

Admiral King, however, was convinced that the nation needed General Marshall in Washington said he was going to use what influence he had with the President to keep the Chief of Staff there. He made a prolonged presentation of his arguments and then, finally, invited my comments. I merely replied I would try to do my duty wherever my superiors decided I should serve.

General Marshall smiled and remarked, “I don’t see why any of us is worrying about this. The President will have to decide on his own, and all of us will obey.” He went on to say: “The President has asked for my preference, and I’ve refused to express any.”

I was struck by his complete objectivity; and not once in later years did he ever give me a hint as to his personal choice of the two positions.

Incidentally, there was a sequel to this story that should dispel any fanciful idea that there might have existed any rivalry between General Marshall and me for the Overlord command. At the end of the Cairo Conference the President decided to keep General Marshall in his vital post. The telegram informing Stalin that I would go to London was written out in longhand by General Marshall and signed by the President. The original text as then sent to me by General Marshall with this note:

Dear Eisenhower. I thought you might like to have this as a memento. It was written very hurriedly by me as the final meeting broke up yesterday, the President signing it immediately.


The telegram was not nearly as important to me as was the kindly thoughtfulness so clearly evidenced by a busy superior who wanted a subordinate to have a souvenir certain to be highly valued.

In December of 1945 I assumed General Marshall’s duties as Chief of Staff of the Army. One thing he said as I came to report to him has persisted in my memory. He expressed a great feeling of relief at laying down the duties of active service; the enthusiasm for the rest, recreation, and happiness of the life he saw stretching out before him and his family was, to say the least, unusual for him.

I was not only happy for him; I wished that I could have done the same. But the sequel to this incident was far from pleasant. Hardly had he been settled in the family home in Leesburg when he come into my office and announced: “The President is sending me to China; I’ll be needing some help from the Army; will you see that my requests are considered?”

“Of course,” I replied. “Anyone you want.” But I could not help asking whether he was not to have some rest and vacation.

“It seems,” he said, “that the matter is one of some urgency.”

Not a word of complaint against fate or superiors—he just set about quietly to do his duty. But this time I knew where his heart lay; and I knew he felt keen disappointment, even though he would never voice it.

Finally, some time before he entered the hospital on his last illness, I stood with him as there was presented to the government, in his honor, a portrait of this unusual man. He was one of the three or four men whom, in positions of great responsibility, I have rated—in my own mind—as the most distinguished in character, ability, and leadership.

At that simple ceremony I found myself wishing that he could have understood how much he had meant to America, how much his fellow citizens appreciated the vision that impelled him in the late thirties and early forties to labor so hard to prepare the nation for the probability of its entry into the war and against pacifistic tendencies that almost defeated the draft law.

I thought of his moral courage, calmness, and wisdom after the war began in directing the mobilization and worldwide deployment of great armies and air forces; of the readiness and selflessness he displayed in forsaking all his own cherished plans as he undertook new and onerous duties in the afternoon of his life. These and a myriad of other things, I prayed that he might fully understand. But his modesty would have rejected any effort of others to tell him.

Now the documents telling of his life and time are being collected, edited, and made ready for historical use. They will tell to future generations what those of us who were privileged to serve with him have long known: Here was truly a great man!