History at its best. The man behind the Marshall Plan

George C. Marshall: Statesman 1945-1959, by Forrest C. Pogue. New York: Viking Penguin. 603 pp. $29.95. IT is not enough to say that George Catlett Marshall was born to greatness, although so many factors - his family's prerevolutionary roots, his distant relationship to United States Chief Justice John Marshall, his commanding military presence - pointed in that direction.

There was more, far more, depth to the man - ultimately ensuring a position of preeminence in American political and military history. Biographer Forrest C. Pogue refers to Marshall's profound sense of public service; his global view of military/political affairs; his genuine concern about the individual men and women who made up the nation's armed services.

Forrest Pogue has written a grand book about a grand person, the concluding volume in an authorized four-part biography that will likely be the definitive study of Marshall. This is history at its very best.

To present-day Americans, many of whom have come of age since Marshall's passing in 1959, the former general is vaguely remembered for the economic recovery program bearing his name that helped rebuild war-torn Europe. The Marshall Plan, announced by then-Secretary of State Marshall in a Harvard University commencement address June 5, 1947, was extraordinarily creative. The United States ultimately gave more than $12 billion to rebuild Europe. Pogue shows that the plan was not Marshall's alone: Dean Acheson, Marshall's deputy secretary of state, played a major role, as did others, including George Kennan, Charles P. Bohlen, and William L. Clayton. But Marshall was the key, winning support because of his enormous credibility.

Indeed, what is so ironic about the Marshall Plan is precisely its origin - that it came in large measure from a man who had been US Army chief of staff during World War II. Marshall, who graduated from Virginia Military Institute at the turn of the century, loved the military. He did not, as Pogue shows, coddle his troops. Yet, he was never a blood-and-thunder commander who overlooked war's consequences. He could tap flamboyant generals - Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton, for example - but he preferred more genial, quiet generals, like Dwight D. Eisenhower. During the war, he would have frequent casualty charts prepared for President Roosevelt - in bright colors - so that FDR would never forget the terrible impact of the war in human terms. Nor was Marshall as militarily distant as his pictures could sometimes suggest. Essentially a private person, he nonetheless relished a good joke and loved gardening - once, to the discomfort of his associates, inadvertently leaving baskets of fish heads for his garden in his car in the State Department garage over a weekend.

As America's foremost military strategist during the war, Marshall had proved himself a global thinker. So it was not surprising that President Truman selected him as special ambassador to China after the war, secretary of state in the late 1940s, and, finally, secretary of defense during the Korean war - no retirement for this man! During his final tour of service, at the Defense Department, Marshall - though cautious at first - subsequently supported Truman's decision to remove MacArthur from the Korean war command, thus upholding the principle of civilian control over the military in a democratic society. Little wonder, given Marshall's eventual career as military leader, global strategist, and diplomat, that Eisenhower, in his diary entry of Nov. 6, 1950, could write that Marshall was ``the best public servant of the lot.''

Pogue's account is written in an understated, somewhat dry style. Yet, that approach underscores the reticent Marshall's achievements. Is today's American military - let alone civilian - sector turning out leaders with the vision of Marshall? A few generals have fulfilled a diplomatic/military role in recent years - Maxwell Taylor and Alexander M. Haig, to name two. Yet, Marshall's sense of selfless public service is unique, more like that of Robert E. Lee or George Washington. One cannot imagine, for example, the petty machinations of Oliver North taking place under the no-nonsense gaze of the individual who, more than anyone, gave the world the Marshall Plan.

Guy Halverson is an editorial writer for the Monitor.

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