Marshall's Men

By Bunting, Josiah,, III | New Criterion, January 2013 | Go to article overview

Marshall's Men


Bunting, Josiah,, III, New Criterion


In 1960, Henry Steele Commager, a professor of history at Amherst, wrote an article that asked why America had failed to produce a generation of leaders to rival the country's founding generation. It's true that the Civil War had given rise to a great president and two generals of unusual military gifts, but Commager saw in his day no leaders of comparable distinction. I'd like to talk about a group of men in living memory whose leadership skills rivaled those of the makers of the Revolution and the architects of the Constitution. These were men who saw the country through the Second World War and especially through the early years of the Cold War--all of whom worked at one time or another for George Marshall. One duster in this cohort included the American Army's and Navy's most senior officers during the war. Their actions constituted a pillar of liberty during a time of world crisis.

From 1941 until 1945, the United States Army was led by the ablest cohort of military leaders in American history--the men who led the Greatest Generation, none of whom survives into the twenty-first century. With rare exceptions, they were men born between 1890 and 1900, and to the larger culture they were essentially unknown until the last year or two before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a group, their achievements were by any measure extraordinary. The force they built and led grew from 190,000 (in 1939, the American Army ranked in size alongside Portugal's) to 8.3 million in the summer of 1945. Its deployments and campaigns were global. In aggregate, the combined naval and military establishments enrolled more than sixteen million men and women at one time or another during the period of active conflict: this from a national population averaging about 135 million.

In the realm of familiarity, the ranking generals still remain close to household names: MacArthur, Eisenhower, Marshall, Patton, Bradley, Stilwell, Truscott, Bedell Smith, Ridgway, Gavin. Immediately beneath them, colonels who would attain divisional commands or prominent positions in the Army Air Forces before war's end ate still remembered: Curtis LeMay, Leslie Groves, "Tooey" Spaatz. The list might be prolonged indefinitely. Whence had they come? How were they raised? How educated? How were they employed, as soldiers, during the long military silence in America during the interwar period? Who identified those with strong aptitudes for "active service," and by what evidences and criteria? For there is perhaps no profession in which aptitude for leading, in roles and positions of large authority, is less readily identifiable among its young associates than in the wartime military. Henry Stimson, the man FDR appointed Secretary of War, congratulated the uniformed head of the Army, George Marshall, on having selected "good war men" in the latter's list of recommended brigadier generals. The inference was plain: you have promoted those who will be good in the leading and management of campaigns and battles.

Some generalizations are safe. There has never been a military caste in the American Army, no tradition of sons following fathers and grandfathers into uniformed service, West Point, "smart" regiments, etc. Overwhelmingly, this cohort of prominent generals were children of the American outback; many were raised on farms; few were sons of successful professional men or socially prominent families. Most were children raised in stable families and most attended church. Many were read to at night, often from well-known volumes of imaginative literature or history (in which "ancient" history and the history of the United States--biography being a staple--were most prominent). Secondary education was implicitly rooted in notions of emulation and inculcation. The historical novels of G. A. Henty, for example, were a staple of evening readings in the Marshall household in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. And at school, boys born into late Victorian (American) families were taught by, or often in the company of, veterans of the Civil War, veterans who were still relatively young men themselves. …

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