When President Obama announced his nomination of Ashton Carter to replace Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense in December 2014, many news reports anticipated a quick confirmation process. This proved to be accurate, with the Senate easily confirming Carter on February 12 by a vote of 93–5. The same would not be true when President Truman approached George C. Marshall to rejoin his cabinet as secretary of defense in September 1950. Marshall warned Truman that his nomination could cause problems for the president, as Marshall’s opponents in Congress were still attacking him for the fall of the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek. “I want to help not hurt you,” Marshall stated. (Robert H. Ferrell, ed., Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman [New York: Harper & Row, 1980], 189.) Nonetheless, Truman nominated Marshall on September 12. The press reaction to Marshall’s nomination was similar to that for Ashton Carter. (Pogue, Statesman, 423) As army chief of staff during World War II and secretary of state from 1947 to 1949, Marshall had been easily confirmed by the Senate and was praised as a stellar administrator and a well-respected voice on the international crises of the day, but the similarities between Marshall’s and Ashton Carter’s confirmation processes would end there.
Marshall’s nomination required an amendment to the National Security Act of 1947, which mandated that the secretary of defense could not have served on active duty within the last ten years. On September 15, the House of Representatives approved this amendment by a vote of 220–105 with a stipulation that the provision applied only to Marshall, in order to dissuade fears of the decay of civilian control of the military. The Senate debate on this amendment, however, turned into a personal attack on Marshall by a longtime opponent of the Truman Administration, William Jenner (R-IN), who declared that Marshall was “not only willing, he is eager to play the role of a front man for traitors. The truth is this is no new role for him, for General George C. Marshall is a living lie. . . . Unless he, himself, were desperate, he could not possibly agree to continue as an errand boy, a front man, a stooge or a conspirator for this Administration’s crazy assortment of collectivist cutthroat crackpots and Communist fellow-travelling appeasers.” (Upon hearing of this personal attack, Marshall demurred, “Jenner? Jenner? I do not believe I know the man.”) Despite Jenner’s attack and the continued hesitation of several other senators about authorizing the exemption, the Senate approved the amendment by a vote of 47–21, which set the stage for a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Pogue, Statesman, 426–28)
Although Marshall’s September 19 confirmation hearing lasted only fifty-five minutes and addressed anticipated issues, such as the reasons for the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, rearmament of West Germany, and civilian control of the military, the most controversial portion of the hearing again came from Senator Jenner, even though he was not a member of the committee. Jenner attended the hearing and submitted to the committee chairman a list of questions for Marshall to answer. Marshall was sitting at the opposite end of a table from Jenner during this hearing, and as he heard Jenner’s questions, Marshall “gazed impassively at the Senator, only occasionally chuckling in recognition that Jenner was trying to make a political point rather than seeking information.” (Pogue, Statesman, 424)
Jenner’s questions accused Marshall of kowtowing to Stalin and the Soviet Union rather than protecting American interests both during World War II and during postwar planning at the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences. Jenner also accused Marshall of going to China to coerce Chiang Kai-shek into bringing Communist China and its military into the Nationalist Government. Marshall asserted that he went to China simply because Truman had asked him to go in order to broker a cessation to hostilities there. Did Marshall support, Jenner’s list continued, “turning over U.S. sovereignty to a superstate and making American armed forces a permanent foreign legion?” “That pretty well covers the water front,” Marshall replied. “No, I am not in favor of that.” The last question on Jenner’s list asked Marshall to “assure the American people unequivocally that as Secretary of Defense you will not be dominated by or carry out the policies of the Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who will not turn his back on Alger Hiss,” the former US government official who was accused of being a Communist spy in 1948 and convicted of perjury in 1950. Marshall insisted: “I will not answer that question.” (Pogue, Statesman, 424–25.) Yet again, the committee members attempted to distance themselves from Jenner’s attack, and they voted 9–2 to recommend confirmation. The full Senate approved Marshall’s nomination the following day by a vote of 57–11.
Marshall was sworn in at the Pentagon on September 21 and would serve for one year. During this year, Marshall would endure additional personal attacks, particularly during his week-long testimony in May 1951 on the firing of General Douglas MacArthur, and again the following month in the form of a 60,000-word diatribe by Senator Joseph McCarthy. As Marshall had done during his confirmation hearing, he consistently refused to address these attacks directly and focused on the duties of his office. Marshall’s selection and year of service as secretary of defense will be covered in detail in the seventh and final volume of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, to be published later this year.