Marshall's Plan: To Build Up Europe, Not His Image
Today's date often reminds me of one of the great statesmen in U.S. history, although I wonder if we’d still honor Gen. George C. Marshall if the media hadn’t dubbed the Truman administration’s great post-World War II rebuilding effort in Europe the “Marshall Plan.”
At the time, Marshall was secretary of state, and his service in that job is certainly worthy of remembrance. It’s why the sports teams at a Fairfax County high school named in his honor are called The Statesmen. But Marshall first made his name as an officer in the United States Army; and 65 years ago today, he became the only career military man to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Although that was impressive enough, something else about Marshall stands out all these years later: Today, we live in a time when our highest government officials and assorted political celebrities -- journalists included -- are often preening peacocks given to incessant boasting and petty partisan attacks.
George C. Marshall was the opposite of vainglorious, He was modest and understated. He had much to brag about, however, if that had been his inclination. As a five-star general during World War II while serving as Army chief of staff, Marshall’s contribution to the Allied war effort had earned this succinct praise from Winston Churchill: “the organizer of victory.”
Later, his oversight of the Marshall Plan not only prevented the spread of communism into war-torn Western Europe, it also rescued tens of millions of people from poverty, disease, and even starvation.
But Gen. Marshall did not compare himself to Spartacus, or boast to the United Nations that he’d accomplished more than anyone else in history -- or say anything of the sort. He didn’t even run for office. He certainly didn’t hire himself out to be a partisan talking head.
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The Norwegian Nobel Committee made it clear during the 1953 presentation of the Peace Prize that its American recipient, former Secretary of State George C. Marshall, was being honored for his peacetime work, not his wartime military service.
Still, the Oslo presenter freely acknowledged the obvious paradox, which was that had it not been for the armies directed by Marshall in 1944 and 1945, there would have been no free Europe for the Marshall Plan to rescue in 1948.
We tend to think of George Catlett Marshall as a Virginian, as he was the scion of a prominent Virginia family, attended Virginia Military Institute, and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. And that high school I mentioned, the one named after him, is in Northern Virginia. Actually, Marshall was born in Pennsylvania and he spoke with a flat and unaffected accent that conveyed modern Midwesterner more than chivalrous Cavalier.
In his Nobel lecture in Oslo, Marshall discussed the dangers of disarmament -- highly unusual for a Nobel laureate -- pointing out how America’s abrupt demilitarization after the end of the Second World War had made the circumstances ripe for South Korea to be invaded. Marshall described the U.S. military as a “vast power for maintaining the peace,” even while acknowledging in his straightforward way that his honor had made some people uneasy.
“There has been considerable comment over the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a soldier,” he said. “I’m afraid this does not seem as remarkable to me as it quite evidently appears to others.”
He went on to discuss the topic the audience wanted to hear about, the massive U.S. aid effort, referring to it, as he invariably did, by its formal name: the European Recovery Program. This humility was the genuine article. So was the affection for him among free people around the world. In his excellent book on the Nobel Peace Prize, writer Jay Nordlinger recounts a subtle vignette that succinctly captures both propositions:
“In June 1953 -- six months before he received the Nobel Prize -- he attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, as the American representative. When he entered Westminster Abbey, unannounced and, as usual, unassuming, the entire congregation rose. Marshall, aware that people were standing, looked around to see who had entered. It was he.” email@example.com