Finest Hour 147, Summer 2010
Coalition Perfected, 1941-1945 / Churchill and Marshall: The Boss and the Paragon / When an Irresistible Force Collided with an Immovable Object, the Result Was Victory
By Robert H. Pilpel
Mr. Pilpel is the author of Churchill in America (1976) and a FH contributor. His “What Churchill Owed the Great Republic” (FH 125) won what is now the Somvervell Award for the oustanding article of 2005. His previous contribution was “Churchill and Orwell” in Finest Hour 142, Spring 2009.
Time heals all wounds, but victory heals them quickly. After five years of bruising encounters, with victory in Europe assured and victory in the Pacific likely if only through the “device” being readied for testing in the New Mexico desert, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sent the following message to Field Marshal Maitland “Jumbo” Wilson, head of the British Military Mission in the United States:
Pray give [General Marshall] my warmest congratulations on the magnificent fighting and conduct of the American and Allied armies under General Eisenhower….What a joy it must be to him to see how the armies he called into being by his own genius have won immortal renown. He is the true “organiser of victory.”
Fast backward forty months to Churchill’s bedroom in the White House, three weeks after Pearl Harbor: General Marshall is presenting the PM with the necessity of establishing “supreme” unified commands of all the Allied forces in each theater of the war. As Marshall remembered:
He was opposed to it. He couldn’t conceive a naval command under a possible army command because, he said, “What would the army officer know about handling a ship?” “Well,” I said, “what the devil does a naval officer [or, indeed, an army officer, at that time] know about handling a tank? We are not enlisting sailors or tank drivers or airplane pilots. We’re getting control[!] The President doesn’t know anything about ship handling or tank driving or airplane flying, but he’s the commander-in-chief of all our armed forces.”
As seasoned Churchillians know, Winston Churchill liked nothing better than men who would stand up to him and make their case, and in George Marshall he had his paragon. Long before the General assumed command of all American ground and air forces (on 1 September 1939, while war was breaking out in Europe), President Roosevelt convened a meeting of military leaders in the White House.
FDR was in one of his jollier moods but, steel fist within silken glove, he proposed a particular course of action that had caught his fancy. All the generals and admirals harrumphed and gave the President their unqualified agreement—all but a lowly colonel, who remained silent. “Well, George,” said Franklin Roosevelt, “what do you think of the idea?”
Marshall bristled visibly at the use of his given name and then replied: “I’m sorry, Mr. President, but I don’t think that’s a good idea at all.”
All the generals and admirals clucked quietly and shook their heads, mourning the likely the end of a promising career. But FDR, like Churchill, had nothing but admiration for men who stood their ground. “George” was soon promoted to Brigadier General and Deputy Chief of Staff. And from that time forward the President always addressed him as “General Marshall.”
History often slights great personalities whose public images were strictly business, whose personalities lacked that flamboyant hook on which journalists and historians hang their assessments. In them, the man in the street senses no aura of charisma such as that which attended Churchill and FDR. These individuals did not lack personal magnetism; but they projected it in private encounters, where many public icons stand revealed as lacking substance. Among such great figures, George Catlett Marshall was the perfect examplar. Irresistible force and immovable object was a recipe for dynamic tension of the sort that refines disparate viewpoints into optimal consensus. Let us consider how the refining fire worked its magic.
As the winter solstice approaches in December every year, daylight yields too early and the darkness reigns. Even at midday a wrack of overcast often blocks the sun’s warmth, and only the modern versions of ancient rites that strove to propitiate the gods and start the sun moving again toward its zenith keep people’s spirits from sinking too low.
There is much to be gloomy about at the winter solstice of 1941. America’s Pacific Fleet lies in the muck of Pearl Harbor; two of Britain’s proudest warships are at the bottom of the South China Sea; Hitler is master of continental Europe, his armies so close to Moscow that Stalin has decamped eastward; the Philippines are doomed; Singapore will soon succumb in one of the most ignominious surrenders in modern history. In vain do people of good will search the skies for some gleam of hope. In the back of many American, British and Commonwealth minds, Daniel’s words may appear all too appropriate: “Thou hast been weighed in the balance and found wanting, and thy kingdom is divided and rent from thee.”
But in America’s capital strong men with agile minds have convened to concert a strategy, among them the heads of Britain’s armed services and their Boss, the Minister of Defence:
“I spend this anniversary and festival far from my country and family,” says the Boss from the south balcony of the White House on Christmas Eve, where FDR has just closed the circuit that turns thousands of ornaments into brilliant multicolored points of light on the towering conifer that serves as the national Christmas tree. “Yet I cannot truthfully say that I feel far from home….I cannot feel myself a stranger here in the center and at the summit of the United States. I feel a sense of unity and fraternal association which, added to the kindliness of your welcome, convinces me that I have a right to sit at your fireside and share your Christmas joys”….such as they were.
On Boxing Day, appropriately enough, the Boss addresses a joint session of Congress. And again, as in 1940, he sounds a chord that steels hearts and fortifies minds. “It is not given to us to peer into the mysteries of the future. Still I avow my hope and faith, sure and inviolate, that in the days to come the British and American people will for their own safety and for the good of all, walk together in majesty, in justice and in peace.”
Morale restored, strong people must now grapple with the devil’s own details. Here many dynamic partnerships arise, none more lively than that between the Force and the Object.
It would be overstating things to say that Churchill and Marshall worked smoothly in harness. But their objectives were identical, and with the help of intermediaries such as Field Marshal Dill (Jumbo Wilson’s predecessor as head of the British Military Mission), Harry Hopkins (see last issue), and General Sir Hastings Ismay (who headed the secretariat of Churchill’s Ministry of Defence), the two men contrived to create a structure of collaboration that would endure to the end of the war.
At the pinnacle of this structure was the Combined Chiefs of Staff, consisting of leading British and American officers whose job was to balance the needs of close to a dozen Theatres of war around the world. As Marshall ruefully observed, supreme commanders, wherever they might be, were likely to fall prey to “localitis.” Accordingly, a joint committee with a global perspective was absolutely essential.
Once established the Combined Chiefs of Staff (CCS) sensibly spawned a Joint Operations Planning Committee and a Joint Munitions Allocations Board to help the President and Prime Minister decide where to strike next, and how much war materiel to allocate for each operation.
The first fruit of this new organizational tree was Operation Torch, the invasion of North Africa. And in a rare moment when his internal censor was absent without leave, Marshall summarized the need for a major offensive during the long build-up before America’s armed forces attained operational readiness. “The leader of a democracy has to keep the people entertained,” he said, adding quickly that “entertained” might not be precisely the mot juste. No harm done, however, and barely four months after Pearl Harbor, Marshall arrived in England for his first encounter with the lion in his lair.
Churchill’s peculiar work schedule and indifference to the strain it imposed on his staff were decidedly not to Marshall’s liking. But the General was nothing if not a quick student, as his biographer Forrest Pogue noted:
…he learned that his best weapon against his opponent [sic] was sheer doggedness. Throughout their sessions, in which winning charm, cold persuasion, rude insistence, eloquent flow of language, flashes of anger, and sentiment close to tears were called on by Churchill to advance his cause, the Chief of Staff stuck to his basic contentions for a strategy that suited the interests of the United States.
Alas, as many another man had learned to his sorrow, victories over Churchill tended to be decidedly Pyrrhic, especially in light of the PM’s favorite last resort: an end run around the “experts.”
Again and again Marshall won what he believed to be firm agreements, only to find them dissolved in a matter of hours. The most solid victories became hollow when Churchill, finding that Marshall backed by Hopkins was too much for his cajolery or bite, simply dodged around them to their more pliable Commander-in-Chief.
And so it went, in meeting after meeting, in Washington or Hyde Park, at 10 Downing Street or Chequers, the amiably ruthless Prime Minister contrived to get his way, until, that is, the preponderance of American power rendered him an increasingly dismayed junior partner. In the palmy days of equal partnership, however, Churchill usually got what he wanted, often by the simple expedient of putting a different label on his original proposal. Indeed, the PM was so unscrupulous in the pursuit of his objectives that at one point he went so far as to kidnap his foremost “opponent.”
Nowhere else in modern history can such a bizarre incident be found. In the late spring of 1943 the Allies were “masters of the North African shores,” and Churchill was once again in Washington, making a strong case for every scheme, fantastic or otherwise, that had captured his imagination. Rightly or wrongly, Marshall’s superior at the War Department, the venerable Secretary Henry L. Stimson, expressed fears that the General might be flagging in his confrontations with the British. When U.S. Army Air Force General “Hap” Arnold suffered a heart attack just before the “Trident” summit conference in early May, Stimson noted in his diary that Arnold would be sorely missed, not least of all because he “was less diplomatic and less cautious than Marshall in dealing with our British allies, and was therefore a valuable counterpoise to the Chief of Staff.”
Had Stimson been a regular participant at sessions of the CCS, he would have discovered that the true counterpoise was his cautious and diplomatic Army head, and that Hap Arnold was a quivering milquetoast next to the rough-spoken, Anglophobic, and often hung-over Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King.
Despite Marshall’s diplomatic and cautious approach to negotiations, his irresistible force had at this juncture been unable to budge the immovable object in Downing Street. The point at issue was the proper target of the next Allied thrust. Churchill as always argued vehemently for his “soft underbelly” strategy, which meant Sicily and Italy, in that order. Marshall by contrast was anxious lest American forces be mired in a Mediterranean Theatre that would serve British “colonial” interests far more extensively than it would the ultimate goal of defeating Hitler.
Unaccustomed to frustration, the PM executed one of his legendary end runs and persuaded FDR to let him “kidnap” Marshall, i.e., accompany him to Algiers, where they could jointly meet with Eisenhower and get the Supreme Commander’s opinion.
Of course this was a pure Churchillian ruse, since the PM knew full well that Eisenhower was Marshall’s creation and idolator. His purpose was not to let Ike have his say, but to expose Marshall to the atmosphere of Ike’s Theatre, and to the combined persuasive powers of his own and those of savvy Mediterranean Minister Resident Harold Macmillan.
Outmaneuvered, Marshall was obliged to postpone his and Admiral King’s planned visit to the Pacific Theatre and trudge aboard the British flying boat “Bristol,” moored on the Potomac. As always Marshall was stoic, but Stimson was livid:
To think of picking out the strongest man there is in America, and Marshall is surely that today, the one on whom the fate of the war depends, and then to deprive him…of a much needed opportunity to recoup his strength…and send him off on a difficult and rather dangerous trip across the Atlantic Ocean where he is not needed except for Churchill’s purposes is I think going pretty far.
But Marshall had a fine ability to make a virtue of necessity, and took full advantage of the opportunity to confer with Eisenhower. Ike, for his part, was delighted and relieved to spend time with his wise and kindly mentor, struggling as he was to stay afloat in the swampy political waters that had risen in the wake of Allied “redemption” of the dark continent.
The reader is well aware that the main result of the PM’s engineered confab in Algiers was Operation Husky: the invasion of Sicily. Marshall obtained a few consolation prizes, but the grand prize had again gone to Churchill. History benefitted as well, because for the first and only time all of the main principals fighting the Axis in Europe had gathered in a single place, where an Army photographer snapped an historical picture (above) that ranks among the most memorable since Mathew Brady’s time.
What political acumen could not accomplish, raw power eventually provided. As the British presence in the major Theatres continued to dwindle, Marshall found himself not merely winning more arguments but converting Churchill to American points of view….sometimes. But one final clash of titans was destined to occur before the Allies celebrated V-E Day.
This momentous confrontation, in Washington, involved the machinations of Clementine Churchill, who was pretty formidable in her own right.
Marshall had commissioned the highly respected film director Frank Capra to produce a film that would explain to the average soldier the goals the Allies were pursuing. The result was “Why We Fight,” a classic propaganda documentary that even Josef Goebbels would have admired, had he seen it.
Clementine had accompanied Churchill to Canada and Washington for the 1944 OCTAGON conference, and Marshall kindly arranged to show her the rough cut in the tiny War Department projection room. He was letting her see the film, he said, only on the condition that she mention it to no one without exception, because Roosevelt himself had yet to see it and wouldn’t be able to until he returned from Hyde Park. Clementine duly promised, but it’s probable that behind her back her fingers were crossed.
Crossed or not, her fingers accompanied her back to the White House, where she chatted with Harry Hopkins. Minutes later, Marshall received a phone call from Hopkins, who jauntily informed him that the Prime Minister wanted to see the movie—right away! Marshall flatly refused, and within moments found himself talking to the Boss himself.
Calling upon all his resources of self control, Marshall told Churchill what he’d told Hopkins. According to Marshall’s memory the following dialogue ensued:
WSC: I’m asking you, General, I’m asking you….
Marshall: I know you are, Mr. Churchill, and I know you are the Prime Minister of the British Commonwealth and the guest of the President. But he hasn’t seen it yet and you are not going to see it ahead of him.
WSC: And when are you going to show it to him?
Marshall: When it is finished [conjuring memories of Michelangelo and Pope Julius discussing the Sistine Chapel]. It isn’t finished, and I’ll never get it finished if I get involved in this circuit you are proposing.
WSC: Well, I very much want to see it, General.
Marshall: Right, if you promise me that you won’t mention it to the President or anybody else—anybody else—I will send it over there for a private showing.
WSC: I think you can hardly exact a promise from the Prime Minister of Great Britain.
Marshall: In that case I’ll just not send it over.
WSC: You’ve got me, then. I’ll just have to wait until the President gets back.
Marshall: If you tell him, you’ll be breaking a promise. I’m not going to do it. I’m not going to have this thing stalled by that sort of a procedure. Even the Secretary of War hasn’t seen it.
Eventually Marshall relented, but the titanic struggle was not yet finished….
WSC: The film is excellent. I want to take it back to England with me.
Marshall: You can’t do that until the President sees it.
WSC: In that case I’ll hurry things up.
Marshall: It’s the last damn thing you’ll ever get from me if you try to hurry things up. I’m doing a job and you are interfering!
WSC: You certainly are stubborn.
Marshall: I’m not half as stubborn as you are. And I’m not going to let this thing get out. You know I’m very fond of Mrs. Churchill and admire her greatly. But I will never forgive her for telling you, because I might have known that this would happen.
Seismometers all over the world must have buried their needles as this clash reverberated. But Marshall won: the PM did not take the film back to England, prompting Marshall to note, “I did not send it over to Mr. Roosevelt for quite a long time. And the White House kept it for four months [just as I feared]. But meanwhile three million American troops saw it.”
To my mind this incident and the likely dialogue captures the essential qualities of both men. But as usual it was Churchill’s privilege to have the last word. And in his fourth volume of war memoirs, The Hinge of Fate, he laid it out: “Hitherto I had thought of Marshall as a rugged soldier and a magnificent organiser and builder of armies—the American Carnot. But [with victory looming] I saw that he was a statesman with a penetrating and commanding view of the whole scene.” And, Winston Spencer Churchill said privately to Ismay, Marshall was “perhaps the greatest Roman of them all.”
Motion pictures aside, Marshall might very well have said the same of him.
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