An overdue, authoritative biography of one of America’s greatest soldier-statesmen.
Roll (The Hopkins Touch: Harry Hopkins and the Forging of the Alliance to Defeat Hitler, 2013, etc.) emphasizes that George Marshall (1880-1959), a brilliant staff officer, always impressed his superiors. A favorite of Cmdr. John Pershing, he became aide-de-camp when the general served as Army Chief of Staff from 1921 to 1924, and few were surprised when Marshall attained that office in 1939. The author excels in describing the period from Germany’s 1939 invasion of Poland until Pearl Harbor, when Marshall urged rearmament and Franklin Roosevelt, aware that most voters opposed it, proceeded too cautiously for his taste. Opposition vanished after Pearl Harbor, to be replaced by questions of strategy, and here, Marshall’s record is spotty. He advised defeating Germany before taking the offensive against Japan and invading France in 1942 or 1943 instead of expending resources on the periphery: North Africa and Italy. Always congenial, Roosevelt agreed and then, after listening to public opinion, Churchill, and other advisers, changed his mind. After the war, President Harry Truman sent Marshall to China to end its civil war in what everyone agrees was an impossible assignment. Appointed secretary of state in 1947, he vigorously supported the European Recovery Program, which became known as the Marshall Plan. He resigned in 1949 but returned as secretary of defense in 1950 during the nadir of the Korean War, when he helped restore confidence in the armed forces. He resigned permanently in 1951 and received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, the only serving military officer to do so. Roll admits that America would have won World War II even with a less competent chief of staff, and many of his decisions remain controversial, but he was a thoroughly admirable, surprisingly quirk-free figure who, even during his life, seemed larger-than-life.
Despite not straying far from the almost universal veneration, this is a definitive, nuanced portrait.