Friday, May 25, 2007

George Marshall: Out of the Shadows

George Catlett Marshall was described as a military genius by his commanding officer in 1916.

Two of Marshall's early commanders said that they would gladly serve under Marshall's command.

Unfortunately, Marshall's career remained on the slow path. When he became a lieutenant colonel, he remained in that rank for eleven years. When he promoted to colonel, he was assigned to the Illinois National Guard; hardly a fast track to the top.

Marshall had the reputation of a person who continually impressed his superiors and associates but, for some reason, he did not enjoy a rapid rise.

Until 1938.

With the probability of war rising, President Franklin Roosevelt passed over 38 names of senior generals (four of whom were real contenders) to pick George Marshall for the position of Chief of Staff of the United States Army. The next month, President Roosevelt received this letter:

My Dear Mr. President,

Ever since your appointment of my husband - as your next Chief of Staff - I have wanted to write you. It is difficult for me to put in words what I really feel. For years I have feared that his brilliant mind, and unusual opinion, were hopelessly caught in more or less of a tread-mill. That you should recognize his ability and place in him your confidence gives me all I have dreamed of and hoped for. I realize the great responsibility that is his. I know that his loyalty to you and to this trust will be unfailing. It is with the deepest feeling of gratitude and happiness that I send you this note of thanks.

Very Sincerely Yours,

Katherine Marshall

The selection of George Marshall turned out to be one of FDR's best appointments.

Why did Roosevelt pick him? Historian Eric Larrabee notes that a telling difference may have been that Marshall had some very influential people, such as John J. Pershing and Harry Hopkins, pushing for his appointment.

Which always makes me wonder: What if they hadn't pushed? How close did we come to having the brilliance of George Marshall hidden in the shadows? How many large organizations today have similar individuals who will remain, as Mrs. Marshall put it, "hopelessly caught in more or less of a tread-mill?"


Derrick Kwa said...

Nice thoughts. Just like to add my opinion. Yeah, it makes you wonder that, and those are valid questions. One thing it shows me, though, is that if you are good enough, you'll get the breakthrough eventually.

Michael Wade said...


I think that is true in many instances but consider this: If Marshall had died in 1936 or if Pershing and Hopkins were not around to lobby for him in 1938, it is likely that Marshall's story would have been tragic.