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General George C. Marshall: Strategic Leadership and the Challenges of Reconstituting the Army, 1939-41

Authored by COL John T Nelson II. | February 1993

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George C. Marshall formally assumed the duties of Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, on September 1, 1939. Earlier that same day, Germany had invaded Poland, triggering war in Europe. Marshall subsequently served over 6 grueling years as Chief of Staff, becoming a popular American hero for his role in the war effort. Winston Churchill's praise of him as "the true organizer of victory" for the Allies has found an enduring resonance over the years. Intuitively, he remains regarded as one of the greatest strategic leaders of this century. In this connection, his performance during the war years, 1942 to 1945 in particular, gets by far the bulk of historical attention for obvious reasons.

Yet, his actions during the prewar years, 1939 to 1941, offer equally valuable insights into the exercise of strategic leadership in a democratic society. The challenges Marshall faced in 1939 seemed monumental. In later years, Marshall himself admitted that the prewar years were his toughest. As he assumed his new duties, he felt an urgent need for massive improvement in the Army's preparedness to conduct modern, mobile warfare. He could easily imagine that America might eventually be drawn into a European war, as it had been in 1917. The U.S. Army in 1939 ranked 17th in the world in size, consisting of slightly more than 200,000 Regular Army soldiers and slightly less than 200,000 National Guardsmen--all organized in woefully understrength and undertrained formations. The Army possessed only 329 crude light tanks and only a handful of truly modern combat aircraft within a total inventory of just over 1800 planes. It was a force equipped with the leftover weapons, materiel, and doctrine of the last war. It had a grossly overage officer corps, in which advancement was largely a function of seniority. Captains, for example, were usually in their late thirties or early forties. War-related industries were infinitesimal. Congress and the public were united in their staunch opposition to any increased military expenditures or involvements abroad. The mood of the country was distinctly isolationist. Extremely sensitive to this mood, President Roosevelt was very reluctant to sponsor sizable military increases. The potential political costs were too great. Against this political backdrop, Marshall was a relatively unknown and uninfluential figure in Washington. As Deputy Chief of Staff (October 1938-June 1939) and as Acting Chief of Staff (July-August 1939), he had appeared before Congress several times and had interacted with the President from a distance. But he had acquired no real personal leverage to shape the larger issues which confronted him. Roosevelt had appointed him on the recommendations of others; thus, Marshall had to start almost from scratch to build a working relationship with the President.1

The situation inside the War Department painted an equally unpleasant picture. The Secretary of War, Harry Woodring, was in a continual feud with his primary civilian assistant, Louis Johnson, who coveted his boss' job. With strong political influence of his own, Johnson felt his position completely secure; at the same time, he thought he had already secured assurances of being Woodring's eventual successor. The two seldom agreed on anything, and Marshall was caught squarely in the middle of this dysfunctional situation. The War Department had great difficulty speaking with a single voice on any issue. Marshall walked a tightrope to keep from alienating either man. At the same time, the War Department was locked into an antiquated organizational setup by long-standing congressional legislation. With multiple, semi-independent power centers and no clear coordinating authority below that of the Chief of Staff personally, the Department's structure was fundamentally inefficient, unresponsive, and ponderous in decision making and in following up on matters.

By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army's overall situation had changed dramatically for the better. By then, over 1.4 million men were serving in the Army, organized into 36 divisions and 64 air groups. War industries were in high gear, making America the "arsenal of democracy." The Army as a whole was experienced in army and corps-level maneuvers, well along the way in preparing for mobile warfare. The officer corps had been invigorated. A selective service system was in place. America's leaders had made great strides in laying the foundation for wartime strategy, and the War Department had been reorganized to run more efficiently and effectively.

Marshall cannot be credited solely for these accomplishments; however, his role was pivotal at the highest levels of government, in the halls of the War Department, and in the field. He emerged with enormous influence in Congress, in the government bureaucracy, and in the White House. He had become a respected and trusted public figure who had placed his personal stamp on America's preparation for war. Thanks to his efforts, America entered the war with a running start and was able to launch a large-scale offensive less than one year later. In short, Marshall's accomplishments were gigantic. The depth and breadth of his leadership were awe-inspiring.

That leadership will serve as the focus for this study, with Marshall's actions from 1939 through early 1942 being analyzed from the perspective of strategic leadership. The intuitive notion of strategic leadership long pre-dates World War II; however, as a formal concept, it is relatively new. Examining Marshall through this prism will provide useful illustrative insights and shed light on what has been for most an unglamorous period overshadowed by the more dramatic events of the war. Interestingly enough, Marshall's situation during the prewar years has much in common with that of any strategic-level leader in peacetime attempting to achieve what he considers to be an adequate military force in the face of significant public opposition. Many of the insights are timeless. Apart from this, Marshall's leadership serves as an inspiring example in itself.


During his prewar years as Chief of Staff, George Marshall was concerned primarily with the challenge of preparing the Army for war. Events in Europe made the eventual commitment there of American ground forces very imaginable for him, although the specific conditions and situations of such a commitment were ambiguous. Driven by his own poignant experiences from World War I, Marshall determined that the Army must be ready to fight coherently in large formations as polished, combined-arms teams when the war began. This meant as well that all modern supplies and equipment, in addition to a warm, functioning industrial base to support sustainment and expansion, had to be on hand from the onset. His strategic vision thus revolved around the efforts comprehensively to expand and upgrade the Army during this period. With the Army's small size, its inadequate level of training, its obsolescent equipment, its virtually nonexistent military industrial base, its underdeveloped Air Corps, and its anachronistic War Department organization, the tasks associated with implementing this vision seemed staggering. They consumed the great bulk of his time and energies from 1939 through 1941.Given the generally unsympathetic attitude in Washington and around the country in 1939 toward any steps which smacked of involvement in another European ground war, Marshall's achievements over the next 2 1/2 years were truly remarkable.

Without question, Marshall's actions addressed in a particularly impressive way all aspects of strategic leadership which were abstractly postulated at the beginning of this report. He developed, articulated, and followed a vision which served as the enduring road map for himself and the Army. In the process of implementing his vision, he demonstrated extremely adept interpersonal talents. In this regard, his ability to persuade diverse groups, to develop networks of influential contacts, and to make timely compromises was critically important. In connection with, and in support of, his vision, he strongly promoted certain crucial values across the Army as an institution--namely, efficiency, responsiveness, teamwork, initiative, and morale.

In addition, he consistently revealed an indepth understanding of the derivative effects of actions, as well as of a related keen awareness of the timing associated with execution. His means of gaining feedback from the Army at large were effective--ranging from his many, frequent inspection trips, to the broad use of his Inspector General, to his copious, direct correspondence with subordinate commanders. Marshall definitely kept his fingers on the pulse of the Army as it expanded.

While so doing, he rapidly advanced a whole new leadership generation into the general officer ranks, based on demonstrated skills, adherence to institutional values, and potential for increased responsibility. By and large, these young leaders covered themselves with distinction during the ensuing war years, and well beyond.

Marshall's strategic leadership was also manifested by the fashion in which he progressively evolved the War Department's organizational structure to reflect both his vision and his desired institutional values. This evolution itself comprised an insightful lesson in the art of the possible and the timing of related actions.

In the realm of strategy formulation, he played a central role in shaping the acceptance of the "Germany-first" approach as the linchpin of American wartime strategy. He went on to play the central role in formulating the highly successful Anglo-American wartime structure at a very formative point in the Alliance. The employment of theater supreme commanders reporting back through the Combined Chiefs of Staff to the President and the Prime Minister was clearly a creature of his making; it was adopted only because he doggedly persisted without much encouragement in pursuing the concept. Some authors have gone so far as to characterize the acceptance of this setup as the single most important strategic contribution of the war--a necessary prerequisite for the unprecedented unity of command which undergirded subsequent Allied success.

George Marshall clearly made a difference. He started out in 1939 as a relative unknown in Washington circles and emerged 2 1/2 years later as one of this nation's better known and influential figures. He had to face squarely many unpopular issues which politicians of all types just didn't want to handle. Yet, he persisted in focusing attention on them, articulating the Army's needs relative to them, and forcing politicians over and over again to view the issues in a different light--the nonpolitical perspective of national security. To be sure, Marshall was helped repeatedly by developments abroad. But all his fights still remained uphill ones against the odds. In this connection, it is hard to imagine America being as ready for World War II as it was without the yeoman efforts of its Army Chief of Staff. Marshall and Marshall alone made the federalization of the National Guard and the Selective Service Act realities in 1940. Again, he alone engineered the term of service extensions for the National Guardsmen, Reserve officers, and inductees in 1941, an act which kept a coherent force from disintegrating completely. Marshall made the autonomy of the Army Air Forces a reality while ensuring that air and ground forces formed a better combined-arms team. He pushed hard for a firm organizational structure to reflect Anglo-American adherence to an unprecedented degree of Allied unity of command. All these results had an important and lasting impact on this country's later performance in the war. These achievements appear impressive in retrospect. They appear truly monumental looking forward from the perspective of 1939. Unquestionably, they alone place George Marshall among the great American strategic leaders of this century.


1. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Ordeal and Hope, 1939-1942, New York: Viking Press, 1966, pp. xiv, (hereafter cited as Ordeal and Hope); Ed Cray, General of the Army George C. Marshall, Soldier and Statesman, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990, p. 143; Richard M. Leighton and Robert W. Coakley, Global Logistics and Strategy, 1940-1943, U.S. Army in World War II Series by the Office of the Chief of Military History, Department of the Army, Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office (hereafter cited as GPO), 1955; reprint ed., 1984.