Marshall and September 11th

Thirteen years ago the world watched in disbelief as terrorists attacked New York City, Washington, DC, and Pennsylvania. Our sense of shock was due in part to the fact that the United States has rarely experienced attacks from foreign enemies within its own borders. As the country pauses to reflect on the tragic events of September 11th, we should recall a similar attack that took place when George C. Marshall was Army chief of staff.

41.11 War Dept. Staff heads [1054]The Japanese bombings at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the September 11th terrorist attacks 60 years later are important and horrific reminders that despite tremendous efforts to protect the country from outside threats, the United States is still vulnerable. Speaking at a conference of African American newspaper editors on December 8, 1941, Marshall remarked that, “Great as our efforts in the interest of national defense have been during the year which now draws to a close, events of the past day have brought to us the sterner realities of actual war.”

With most of the country still reeling from the recent tragedy at Pearl Harbor, General Marshall’s leadership and vision shaped the American response to the attack. During the same address to the African American newspaper editors Marshall stated, “I now know that this news has brought to all our people a new realization of our common destiny as free men.” Later in an address to the graduating class of the United States Military Academy in May 1942, Marshall declared forcefully the United States response when he said, “We are determined that before the sun sets on this terrible struggle our flag will be recognized throughout the world as a symbol of freedom on the one hand and of overwhelming force on the other.”

George C. Marshall Filmography Collection

When congressmen asked him before December 7, 1941, about where American soldiers might serve, Marshall observed that “No one could tell what the future might hold for us. But one thing was clear to me, we must be prepared to fight anywhere, and with a minimum of delay.” Marshall’s words about the need to be ready to face an uncertain future remain relevant today, especially as the ways in which wars are fought and the threats to this country’s national security are changing rapidly.