Dedication Ceremony of the George C. Marshall Conference Center at the U.S. Department of State

Larry_003The man we honor here today did not seek the job of running the State Department. After all, he was retired; what he really wished to do after 45 years of government service was to cultivate his garden in Leesburg.

But his superior needed him to for a difficult mission. So he saluted and said yes sir, as he had for other very likely thankless tasks in his long career. As usual, he approached the job determined to succeed, but more important with the skills needed to succeed.

More noticeable than his management skills, and much commented upon at the time, Marshall had a presence–an aura of gravity, stature, command, the ability to attract attention without trying to. A term the Founding Fathers would have approved, he was widely viewed as a man of virtue.

Marshall’s reputation for professional competence, integrity, humility, honesty, optimism, openness, fairness, and courage preceded him into the Department. Robert Lovett, his second-in-command and frequently the acting secretary here under Marshall, once observed that you were aware of the fact that he was present whether he opened his mouth or not, and that had an impact on any group of people. It was very impressive to watch. He had charisma. And with that kind of personality and with the knowledge which he had of what the essential things were, it was relatively easy to work for him, according to Lovett.

Marshall’s knowledge of “what the essential things were” was important both to the Department and to US foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War.

The State Department has never been a popular or well understood organization. Marshall brought the Department back from Washington’s policy-making wilderness, where it had moldered for the previous 15 years, and made it a key player once again with easy access to and even some influence on the President.

When he came on-board in January 1947, his first instinct was to blanche at the administrative inefficiency of the Department as an operating headquarters. The Department could not even arrive at a consensus on whether or not to move into this building from places scattered all over town. What’s the objection to it, Marshall asked Dean Acheson. Tradition, Acheson replied. Move, Marshall directed.

But more important than its physical structure, the Department’s administrative structure was adequate only for a minor power not the world’s new super-power. Perhaps the Marshall change most often cited by students of the Department was his creation of the think-tank known as the Policy Planning Staff under George F. Kennan, who was established in an office adjacent to Marshall’s.

Robert Lovett noted that when Marshall arrived in the Department there were some 19 different offices reporting directly to the Secretary. Coordination among these offices on matters of mutual interest was haphazard, and in some cases studiously avoided. To use the passive so belovëd by memorandum writers–immediate action was taken by the General to establish a permanent executive office to facilitate and coordinate the flow of information and directives. He also instituted better liaison with Congress and a research and intelligence organization. But probably even more important was his streamlining of communications up and down the chain of command, which improved the Department’s information-gathering and decision-making agility.

Undoubtedly equal in importance to a reformed structure was Marshall’s ability to recruit the right people to operate the structure. For example, Dean Acheson and Will clayton stayed on months longer than they intended in 1947. Robert Lovett thought he had retired until Marshall called upon him to replace Acheson in May 1947. People had a difficult time turning down an invitation from Marshall, in part because they knew that he was working and sacrificing as much as they.

Marshall took seriously the military stricture that morale is a function of command. He worked hard to make the people under his command feel that they were being treated as well as possible under the circumstances. He was not a new-broom-sweeps-clean leader. He repeated frequently when he moved in here in 1947 that he had “joined a team.” Lovett thought that two key aspects of Marshall’s character were his extraordinary compassion and his sensitive and discriminating instinct for people. Of course, he was also the coach-quarterback and worked to fit his players into those positions most beneficial for the team. Given a square peg, he did not try to pound it into a round hole or simply to discard it; he it into a useful square hole.

I should note, however, that Marshall was not a miracle-worker. For example, despite his charisma and despite Congress’s admiration of his role during World War II, he was never able to make the slightest dent in the appropriations committees’ reluctance to fund representation allowances for striped-pants cookie-pushers.

As a military leader–and most people continued to refer to him as “General” rather than “Mr. Secretary”–Marshall was not what Dean Acheson thought of as stereotypically “military” in his thinking–that is, rigidly hierarchical, spit-and-polish, and by-the-book. A five-star with greater experience than anybody in the Pentagon at the time, Marshall was not swayed by military claims of superior knowledge or understanding of foreign issues. He was opposed to saber-rattling unless the U.S. was prepared to act forcefully if its bluff were called, believing that foreign military professionals could easily see through empty posturing. He was also strongly supportive of the idea of civilian control of the military, including Atomic energy–which the army had been making an effort to control. And Marshall was reluctant to flaunt the United States’s monopoly on atomic weapons.

One-third of his two years in office here was spent in international conferences and the rest in juggling multiple crises. He genuinely tried to understand other leaders’ viewpoints and to negotiate small agreements that might lead to improved relations and thus to more significant agreements. His skill with Congress was legendary, and he rarely clashed with other Washington department heads. He even got along, generally, with working reporters.

Nowadays, most Americans, if they recognize Marshall’s name at all, identify him with the Marshall Plan. A Brookings Institution poll in 2000 revealed that American historians and political scientists considered the Marshall Plan to be the most successful Federal Government program of the 20th century. Typically modest, Marshall disliked the identification of the European Recovery Program with him personally. He never called it the Marshall Plan, although occasionally he would refer to it as the “so-called Marshall Plan.” When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953, he pointedly noted that the award to him was as the representative of the American people, who funded the Marshall Plan.

In distant retrospect, one might conclude that a Marshall Plan was inevitable, but this is probably untrue. Without Marshall as the symbol of and campaigner for the program, it could have failed to materialize or have been inadequately formulated for the task.

Marshall was politically astute regarding the crucial role to be played by Senator Arthur Vandenberg, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a pre-Pearl Harbor isolationist who remembered criticizing the General’s efforts to mobilize the country against Germany and Japan. In the mobilization of 1947-48, Marshall made a point of bipartisanship, of keeping Vandenberg informed, of deferring to him, and of stroking the Senator’s ego regarding foreign policy.

I think that the Marshall Plan alone makes George Marshall worthy of a memorial in this building, from which he led in the creation of that worthy and history-changing program. This nation was fortunate to have him available at a difficult transition period in its and the world’s history. What occurred in 1947-48 could have been far more difficult for us without his leadership.