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By Debi and Irwin Unger with Stanley Hirshson
Harper. 552 pp. $35
Harry Truman called George Catlett Marshall “the greatest man of World War II.” Winston Churchill heralded him as the “Organizer of Victory.” Both characterizations exaggerate Marshall’s accomplishments, according to Debi and Irwin Unger, whose careful and measured “George Marshall” deflates the often overblown praise showered on the five-star general and secretary of state while describing his pivotal role in the war effort and U.S. diplomacy in the early years of the Cold War.
After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute, Marshall joined the Army in 1902, embarking on a career that spanned most of the significant world events in the first half of the 20th century. He served on the staff of Gen. John Pershing, commander of U.S. forces in France during World War I. On the eve of World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Marshall Army chief of staff. After the war, Truman named him secretary of state. Marshall also served as Whether he fully deserved the encomiums showered on him is another matter. The Ungers acknowledge his role in presiding over the rapid expansion of the U.S. Army during World War II but also criticize him for hindering the fight against Germany by espousing a limit on the number of divisions to be committed. He gets more credit for his efforts to make the war in Europe a priority over the conflict in the Pacific and for skillfully dealing with his often-condescending British counterparts.
As a diplomat, Marshall is remembered for the postwar plan to aid economic recovery in Europe that bears his name and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But the Ungers argue that Dean Acheson and George F. Kennan, among others, deserve as much credit for the plan as Marshall (who, the Ungers note, never referred to the program as the “Marshall Plan”).
The book’s accounts of wartime conferences are sometimes tedious, and the authors’ admirable refusal to be overawed by Marshall’s Olympian reputation sometimes leads them astray For example, they fault Marshall for failing to bring together Chinese nationalists and communists after World War II — a feat that no one could have pulled off. Such lapses, however, are rare. The Ungers have provided a balanced introduction to an important figure in the 20th-century dramas of war and foreign policy that still shape our world.
‘George Marshall: A Biography’ by Debi Unger and Irwin Unger (Harper)