George C. Marshall
Soldier—statesman of the American Century
By Mark A. Stoler
Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt described George Marshall as “the strongest weapon I have always had in my hand… our Army and our people have never been so deeply indebted to any other soldier.” Winston Churchill, a man who didn’t always get along with Marshall, described him as, “the noblest Roman of them all.” Henry Stimson, the secretary of state during FDR’s administration, said of Marshall, “I have seen a great many soldiers in my lifetime, and you, sir, are the finest soldier I have ever known.” A winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and namesake of the economic plan that saved Europe after World War II, Secretary of State and of Defense, a military genius who instigated and helped devise Operation Overlord, Marshall deserves the many pages written about him and documenting his outstanding life of service and sacrifice. Mark A. Stoler offered up another one of these memorials in George C. Marshall: Soldier—Statesman of the American Century.
Stoler’s work presents some excellent historical work, as well as room for some criticism. Certain aspects will be evaluated including documentation of primary sources, organization of the work, and strengths and weaknesses of content.
Although Stoler was not the official biographer for Marshall, his thoroughness in research validates him as a capable biographer. At first glance through the early chapters documented in the bibliography, many of the references are made from other biographers and works done on Marshall, including his official biographer Dr. Forrest C. Pogue. Obviously during his early life it would be difficult to find numerous primary sources from the actual time period, as he had no need for a bureaucratic paper trail and he didn’t keep a journal. His interaction with family and friends would be remembered, but hard to document and recite from primary sources. Stoler does a good job in spite of this, piecing together Marshall’s early life of childhood memories and early school experiences. Stoler quotes extensively from interviews between Dr. Pogue and the general around 1956 and 1957 and Marshall’s own memoirs. Although primary sources, recollections recited from memory and memoirs are already tainted by the fog of remembrance. Once Marshall moves to the higher ranks of the army and the situation for the American Army becomes more dire, more primary documents of the time period are quoted from, showing that Stoler did his homework.
The biography for the most part is organized chronologically along the time span of Marshall’s life, beginning with his birth and ending with his death. Not much information is provided preceding Marshall’s life, and the book ends three paragraphs after his death is recorded. Although the life of such a great man is what the book documents, it may have been beneficial for the reader to see a more macro aspect of Marshall’s life and how it fit into the 20th century from the views of others besides his own contemporaries. Without doubt Marshall’s fellow soldiers, subordinates, and the presidents that gave him orders would only bestow the highest praise and honors, but it is interesting and beneficial for historians and casual readers to see how the world views someone well after they have passed away. Aside from this, the biography documents Marshall’s life succinctly and to the point, providing readers with bureaucratic details of his climb through the ranks of the army and intimate moments with his wife and leaders.
Stoler’s work provides some strong points of content that give greater understanding and respect for Marshall’s integrity and character. It may be easy to gloss over difficult aspects of a hero in hopes to portray the man or woman unflawed, but Stoler reveals some of the chinks in Marshall’s armor. For instance, Stoler documents that Marshall was physically awkward and a poor performer as a student. He says of the awkward boy, “By age ten he was quite tall, had large feet, and was made fun of by his classmates. He was also considered a slow learner, primarily because of poor preparation and attitude rather than low intelligence” (6). This type of insight helps the reader understand that Marshall didn’t grow up as some prodigy; instead, he was less endowed with talent than many of his classmates. The realistic portrayal also develops the admiration Marshall deserves as later in the biography he becomes top of his class at Leavenworth (22).
Another example reveals Marshall’s temper. In what could have been deemed an act of insubordination, Marshall grabbed the shoulder of General Pershing and “exploded” (36). He was trying to talk to Pershing about attacking a divisional commander in front of his subordinates, and was only being overprotective. The act, and others, including some with President Franklin Deleanor Roosevelt, could have been grounds for dismissal or reprimand. Instead, Marshall’s apparent weaknesses became strengths others admired in him. Stoler’s honest portrayal reveals not only a real Marshall for the reader to come to know, but also someone deserving more admiration than some superfluous soldier.
Although Stoler’s accurate account is detailed and well documented, he lacks a proper breadth of Marshall’s life before becoming a soldier. Only a brief six pages document Marshall’s life before he entered the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) (7). Of those pages, only a handful of personal experiences of Marshall’s childhood are shared, including one revealing act when Marshall let the air out of a raft carrying two girls who had lied to him (6). Understanding Marshall’s defining years during and after World War II obviously should be the heart of any biographical work on the man, but by leaving out details of his youth and childhood the reader misses out on knowing Marshall on a more intimate level. In addition to this, beyond brief documenting of Marshall’s first wife and family and second wife, not much is said about his family and children. Stoler makes sure to show how dedicated Marshall was to his country, and admittedly his schedule (arising at 5am and working almost 7-8pm). These details would have provided a deeper connection between the reader and Marshall.