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BookMark: "George Marshall: A Biography" by Debi and Irwin Unger

Cover of "George Marshall: A Biography" and reviewer Brady Clemens
for right: Erin Cassidy Hendrick

When I came across “George Marshall: A Biography” by Debi and Irwin Unger, I knew I needed to read it. Marshall, General of the Army during the Second World War, is perhaps best remembered as the creator of the “Marshall Plan,” for which he later won a Nobel Prize.

My first professional job was in the city of Uniontown, Pennsylvania, the birthplace of George C. Marshall. Reminders of the general's presence were everywhere, from the plaza dedicated to his memory to the portraits that rested in the library. There was even one hanging directly across from my desk. Two full shelves in the library were dedicated to various biographies of Marshall. But all of them were laudatory, including one whose very title declared Marshall "A Hero for Our Time." So it was with great interest that I came across a new biography by historians Debi and Irwin Unger. The book promised to paint a more balanced picture of the general's life and achievements.

While not denying his successes, the authors are quick to point out Marshall's many flaws. While he deserves acclaim for overseeing the military build-up during World War II, the training of American soldiers was grotesquely inadequate. Lauded as an exceptional judge of character, the Ungers assert that the real record speaks otherwise. His trust in Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe and U.S Army field commander Omar Bradley were valid. But his faith in General Joseph Stillwell and the cautious General Lloyd Fredendall were not. The authors note he trusted Stalin's good intentions too willingly and for too long. The plan for the recovery of Europe following WWII that bears his name was not truly his idea, at least not originally. But his cultivated professionalism, good manners and affable personality helped shield him from most criticism during his lifetime.

The authors’ analysis of Marshall's record, and their grasp of the competing personalities during the Second World War is often insightful. But their criticisms of Marshall sometimes seem unreasonable. Faced with intransigent isolationist sentiment and a Congress that saw little need for increased military spending, anyone in Marshall's position would have been hard pressed to do better. It was his personality and bi-partisan reputation, that were invaluable in securing the modest increase in military funding before Pearl Harbor. Also, Marshall was hardly the only one who thought the best of Stalin, America's then-ally against the Nazis. Even Franklin Roosevelt wanted to believe the best of "Uncle Joe." And while Marshall did not come up with the idea for the "Marshall Plan," the Ungers admit that his tireless promotion of the plan across the country and before Congress helped ensure its passage.

The real surprise is not that Marshall was imperfect, but that we continue to imagine that our heroes must be without flaws. Marshall was human, yes, but he remains a hero still.

"George Marshall: A Biography"by Debi and Irwin Unger is published by Harper Books.

Reviewer Brady Clemens is the district consultant at Schlow Regional Library. 

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