Leadership seems always to be on our minds. We think we know what it is by pointing to heroes such as George Washington, whose greatest act, because his most selfless, was to step down from the American presidency after eight years – but Washington is a remote figure who was gilded with legend before he was cold, and was a notorious slaver.
In a crisis, we look for the leaders but are not sure what we seek: Is it President Trump, with his harum-scarum press conferences? New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, with his stiletto scarcely concealed by his way with words? Leadership may be achieved with a speech – think Churchill – but seldom if ever with a press availability.
Could it be Gov. Jared Polis, who explained not so long ago that in tackling the coronavirus, “We’re building this car as we’re driving”? Leadership takes candor, but there is a line well before oversharing. And if selflessness is what we seek, along with courage, honor and a sense of duty, should we even be looking among the elected and those who seek high office?
Think of George C. Marshall, whose greatness and selflessness are intertwined in David L. Roll’s recent biography, “Defender of The Republic.” If Marshall’s name only vaguely rings a bell, it might help to know that the Marshall Plan, which saved Europe after World War II, was named for him, although those who evoke the plan for current purposes seem to have little idea what it was or who he was, and the two are intimately connected. (President Truman could have called it the Truman Plan, but he thought that might doom it.)
Everyone admired Marshall. Perhaps it is enough to know that at the height of his career, great figures in their own right said he was the only one who could be compared favorably to Washington. He was a bit of a conundrum: The first general to hold five-star rank, he never led troops in battle. What made him great was his mastery of himself to the point of self-erasure. He had a tendency to look down and mumble when he spoke publicly. It is why he never sought elected office, even though a path to the presidency could have opened for him as it did for his protégé, Dwight Eisenhower.
Commissioned a second lieutenant in 1902, Marshall, a whiz at logistics, won distinction in World War I for planning the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, which led to the defeat of the German Army in 1918. He rose between the wars, becoming a general, and Army chief of staff – President Roosevelt’s choice, because he privately spoke his mind – on the same day in 1939 that Germany invaded Poland.
Marshall championed the plan for the Allies’ invasion of Europe that would result in D-Day, but when the time came to pick a commander for that operation and FDR asked him who it should be, Marshall humbly declined to answer – whereupon FDR said he did not think he could sleep well if Marshall were not in D.C. “Never had (Marshall) wanted anything so much in his whole career as to end it in the field,” said a contemporary – but he was never known to have complained.
After the war, Marshall, as secretary of state, led a plan to rebuild the European economies. Huge outlays from the U.S. Treasury were intended to create markets for American goods and keep Western Europe from falling into the hands of Communists. Marshall’s unimpeachable integrity was key to selling it to Republicans in Congress, who were hostile to Truman, Europe, internationalism – and Communism.
It was the nation’s most successful foreign policy initiative. But Marshall himself never called it the Marshall Plan. For a magnanimous man, as Roll writes, who “found incentive and reward deep within himself,” it was simply enough to have done it.