Marshall Myths: Marshall’s “Little Black Book”

Occasionally visitors to the Marshall Foundation will ask staff to verify a story that they heard about George C. Marshall. As with any historic figure certain stories about Marshall have become widely accepted as true even though they do not have any factual basis. This post will be the first in an occasional series exploring myths about George C. Marshall and presenting versions of the stories that are supported by the historic record.

One of the most popular myths about George C. Marshall concerns a “little black book” that he was purported to keep. The story goes that as chief of staff of the United States Army Marshall kept a “little black book” in his desk that contained the names of officers that Marshall identified as capable leaders. The names supposedly spanned from classmates of Marshall’s when he attended the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in 1906-1907 through students and instructors during the time he was vice commandant at the Infantry School at Fort Benning, to officers who performed well when he was observing maneuvers. The myth of the “little black book” has particular staying power because Marshall’s official biographer, Dr. Forrest C. Pogue, referenced it on page 95 of volume 2 of the biography.

In an attempt to set the record straight Dr. Larry Bland, editor of The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, asked Dr. Pogue on two separate occasions whether Marshall kept a “little black book” to which Pogue replied that Marshall did not. Pogue explained that at the time he was writing volume 2 of the Marshall biography, the “little black book” was presumed real. Dr. Bland noted that repeating the myth of the “little black book” in Marshall’s biography caused it to gain authority and that Dr. Pogue said he was sorry he had repeated it in his writing.

Those familiar with Marshall know that he had an incredible memory and could vividly recall past experiences and people he had met. Marshall’s uncanny ability to remember details made it possible for him to keep a list of officers he was considering entirely in his mind rather than recording it in a “little black book”. When asked about Marshall’s “little black book” Foundation staff explain that no physical “little black book” existed and that if Marshall had kept a “little black book” it would have only existed in his mind.

Although individuals hoping to learn about Marshall’s assessments of the officers who served under him are disappointed to discover that Marshall did not keep a comprehensive record of his evaluations in a “little black book” it is possible to find documents in which Marshall discusses the performance of subordinate officers in The George C. Marshall Papers. Anyone interested in learning about Marshall’s views on the capabilities of a particular officer can submit an inquiry to the research library staff.

One thought on “Marshall Myths: Marshall’s “Little Black Book”

  1. Fascinating story, well worth repeating. I can attest that neither Forrest nor Larry ever mentioned the notional black book to me. I confess freely, however, that I believed it, because Marshall was said to have had a somewhat poor memory for names (and might have found useful a cheat-sheet for personnel assessments), and because it seemed to fit in with his ability to inspire a bit of fear — in addition to respect, admiration, and loyalty — among his subordinates. Sometimes a leader needs all of these.

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