George Marshall

A Biography

By Debi and Irwin Unger

with Stanley Hirshson

Harper. 490 pp. $35

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Reviewed by Bob Hoover


The 1948 European Recovery Program delivered more than $13 billion to Western European nations struggling to recover from World War II, but nobody calls it the ERP. It's the Marshall Plan, named for Pennsylvania native George C. Marshall, one of the most-admired men in America after the war.

The husband-and-wife team who wrote this new biography say that's why President Truman stuck Marshall's name on the bailout even though Marshall had little to do with creating it as secretary of state. His name was powerful enough to win congressional approval at a time when Truman was battling Republican opposition.

The Ungers continue the work of Stanley Hirshson, biographer of William Sherman and George Patton, who died in 2003 before getting his Marshall book off the ground. Perhaps that's why their writing has a detached tone.

Marshall was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, where, he recalled, what "What I learned most . . . was self-control, discipline, so it was ground in." He showed little aptitude for academic subjects, including mathematics, according to the Ungers. With few skills after graduating in 1901, Marshall had little recourse but to join the Army, a ragged group that blundered its way through the Spanish-American War. Marshall slowly rose in the officers' ranks until President Franklin D. Roosevelt named him chief of staff of the Army in 1939.

The Ungers found little of interest in Marshall's rise to power, concentrating instead on the World War II period, when he soldiered on through a plethora of mistakes, including a poorly trained citizens' military, logistical snarls, incompetent leadership, and the power of politics to influence battlefield policies. Marshall's inadequate organization of troop strength caused him to admit in mid-1944 that infantry performance was mediocre. Marshall muddled through to victory, though, and was eager to retire when Truman pulled him back into government service.

Marshall's civilian tenure suffered from attacks by the McCarthy faction of the Republican Party and some international missteps. The 1952 Republican presidential candidate, Dwight D. Eisenhower, sidestepped a defense of Marshall, his boss during the war, to appease that faction.

Marshall died at 78 in 1959 and drew worldwide praise for his role in World War II and its aftermath. The Ungers, though, aren't as impressed as the obituary writers were, giving him only modest marks for his performance.

Bob Hoover is the retired book editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.