September 6, 2015

Finest Hour 168, Spring 2015

Page 17

By Mark Stoler

Winston Churchill and  General of the Army  George C. Marshall

“This was the noblest Roman of them all.”
Julius Caesar, Act V, scene v

Palace of Westminster, London

2021 International Churchill Conference

Join us online (for free!) or live in London, 7-9 October 2021
View Event

General of the Army George Marshall Winston Churchill dealt with numerous US military officers during the Second World War. The highest ranking and most important of these was George C. Marshall, the chief of staff of the US Army throughout the entire war and the officer Churchill later proclaimed “the true ‘organizer of victory.’”1

As with all Americans with whom he dealt, Churchill had to persuade Marshall to agree to his plans. And persuading George Marshall to do anything was not an easy task.

Marshall possessed a distant and rather forbidding personality. “The moment General Marshall entered a room,” Dean Acheson recounted, “everyone in it felt his presence. It was a striking and communicated force. His figure conveyed intensity, which his voice, low, staccato, and incisive, reinforced. It compelled respect. It spread a sense of authority and calm.” As Secretary of State in 1947, Marshall told Acheson, then deputy secretary, that he would “expect the most complete honesty, particularly about myself. I have no feelings except those reserved for Mrs. Marshall.”2

Marshall insisted on speaking “truth to power.” He risked his career during the First World War by lecturing his commanding officer General John J. Pershing. Later at a large White House meeting in 1938, before he became chief of staff, Marshall bluntly told President Franklin D. Roosevelt that he did not agree with the president’s rearmament plans “at all.” Throughout the war Marshall made clear to FDR his disagreements with presidential decisions and kept a personal distance from Roosevelt so as not to be manipulated, insisting that he be referred to as “General Marshall” rather than “George” and refusing to visit the president at his Hyde Park home or even to laugh at his jokes.3

Marshall also kept his distance from Churchill, and according to Harry Hopkins, President Roosevelt’s closest wartime adviser, his apparent immunity during the war to Churchill’s oratory made him “the only general in the world” Churchill feared.4 He also may have been the only man to walk out on the two warlords at once. After being summoned to one of Churchill’s late night sessions with Roosevelt in June of 1942, Marshall dismissed their idea to send a US Army to the Middle East as “an overthrow of everything they had been planning for” and walked out of the room with the comment that he would not even discuss the issue “at that time of night.”5

To make matters worse, Marshall and Churchill held conflicting views as to proper strategy during the war. They also possessed sharply different personalities and histories.

A few similarities existed between the two. Both had grown up with distant fathers and American mothers, had received military educations, had been poor students, and had needed help in obtaining their military commissions. Both were also highly ambitious, myths to the contrary about Marshall notwithstanding, and both had served on the Western Front during the First World War. Each possessed exceptional speaking ability, and each would receive a Nobel Prize, albeit in different fields.

But their differences far outweighed such similarities. Marshall awoke early and went to bed early, whereas Churchill was notorious for his late nights and late mornings in bed. While Churchill’s nights were filled with alcohol, Marshall did not drink at all during Prohibition and after repeal did so only modestly. Churchill was famously witty, Marshall taciturn. One came from the upper class, the other from the middle class. Their speaking styles were also different, and while Marshall refused to write his memoirs (supposedly turning down a million dollar offer to do so after the war), Churchill wrote six volumes. Finally, while Churchill was a career politician, Marshall refused even to vote, let alone run for office. Indeed, when asked for his “political faith” he quipped that his father had been a Democrat and his mother a Republican, while he was an Episcopalian.6

Most importantly, though, while Churchill and Marshall shared certain broad strategic views about the war, their differences over execution were profound. Both agreed by early 1941 that the United States and Great Britain should fight together against the Axis powers, avoid the mistakes of the First World War coalition, and focus on defeating Germany before Japan. But they disagreed strongly on how any of this should be done.

At the ARCADIA conference a few weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Allies agreed to the formation of an Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff but disagreed as to whether it should be headquartered in London or Washington. Churchill also objected strongly to Marshall’s innocuous-sounding proposal of “unity of command,” the idea of placing all British and American forces in each theater under a single commander. What could an army officer possibly know about handling a ship, the prime minister belligerently asked. “What the devil does a naval officer know about handling a tank?” Marshall shot back. His aim was not to turn sailors into tank drivers but to obtain unified control of Allied forces so as to be able to plan logically and defeat the common enemy.7

Churchill and Roosevelt meet in Casablanca, 1943 Churchill and Roosevelt meet in Casablanca, 1943 Churchill gave in to Marshall on “unity of command” and the location of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in Washington, but there was long-lasting disagreement regarding the proper strategy to adopt in order to defeat Germany. Marshall favored the “direct” approach of cross-Channel operations in northern France as soon as possible. The Prime Minister preferred a peripheral strategy focusing on the Mediterranean before any attempt to cross the Channel. On his way to the ARCADIA Conference, Churchill prepared a lengthy memorandum for the Americans explaining and supporting his views.8

Marshall did not voice any objections to British strategy at the ARCADIA Conference, perhaps because he was then too busy trying to stop the massive Japanese offensive in the Pacific. But the General clearly did offer his alternative approach to Churchill’s in March and April 1942 via the so-called “Marshall Memorandum.” This plan, drafted by then-unknown Brigadier General Dwight D. Eisenhower, proposed the immediate concentration in Great Britain of Anglo-American forces (code-named BOLERO) for a massive 1943 cross-Channel assault (ROUNDUP) or a much smaller operation in the fall of 1942 with forces then available (SLEDGEHAMMER) if Germany weakened or the Soviet Union appeared to be on the verge of collapse. Churchill and the British Chiefs of Staff agreed during Marshall’s visit to London in April in order to get US troops into Great Britain via BOLERO and prevent a possible US shift to a Pacific-first strategy, but they had no intention of carrying out what they considered a suicidal SLEDGEHAMMER in 1942. And Churchill in June and July convinced FDR to back instead Operation GYMNAST, the invasion of French North Africa. “This has all along been in harmony with your ideas,” Churchill wrote Roosevelt on 8 July. “In fact it is your commanding idea. Here is the true second front of 1942.”9

Marshall and US naval chief Admiral Ernest J. King tried to prevent this by proposing to Roosevelt on 10 July a formal shift to a Pacific-first strategy should Churchill continue to refuse to launch SLEDGEHAMMER. FDR angrily rejected the idea as exactly what Hitler wanted the US to do, as well as the equivalent of “taking up your dishes and going away” and “something of a red herring, the purpose for which he thoroughly understood.” In short, it was an obvious bluff. Instead the President sent his two commanders along with Hopkins to London with orders to reach agreement with the British on some offensive action in the European theater in 1942. SLEDGEHAMMER remained his first choice, but if the British maintained their refusal to cross the Channel in 1942 then his emissaries were to agree to launch GYMNAST instead. That is exactly what they were forced to do a few weeks later, with the operation renamed TORCH.10

Marshall was humiliated by this episode. His own Commander-in-Chief had chosen Churchill’s approach over his own. And as he and his staff had predicted, this first “false step” destroyed any possibility of launching a 1943 ROUNDUP, since Anglo-American forces remained tied down in Tunisia until May. Consequently he was forced to agree at the January 1943 Casablanca Conference to the British proposal to follow eventual victory in Tunisia with the invasion of Sicily instead. “We lost our shirts,” wrote the then-Brigadier General Albert C. Wedemeyer of Marshall’s staff. “One might say we came, we listened and we were conquered.”11

After the Casablanca Conference, Marshall and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson spent the rest of 1943 convincing FDR to back a 1944 ROUNDUP over any further activity in the Mediterranean after the invasion of Sicily.  They also tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to convince Churchill, who in turn tried to convince Marshall to support more activity in the Mediterranean instead. A compromise was reached at the May TRIDENT Conference in Washington, whereby Marshall agreed to additional Mediterranean actions designed to knock Italy out of the war, but only if the British agreed to a 1944 cross-Channel attack with a specific target date of 1 May and the transfer of seven Mediterranean divisions to Great Britain for this purpose. The British chiefs of staff were willing to agree to this compromise. Churchill changed his mind and refused to do so, however, because of Marshall’s refusal to agree to the actual invasion of the Italian mainland. When Roosevelt backed Marshall, the Prime Minister conceded only on condition that Marshall accompany him to Algiers to meet with Eisenhower, where he hoped to convince both American generals to invade Italy.

Scheduled to go with Admiral King to the Pacific after the TRIDENT Conference ended, Marshall objected to “being traded around like a piece of baggage.” Still, he agreed to go. To fend off another attack of Churchillian rhetoric regarding Italy before having a chance to confer with Eisenhower, Marshall on the flight to Algiers distracted the Prime Minister with questions on a variety of historical topics including the impeachment trial of Warren Hastings, the flight to England of Rudolph Hess, and the abdication of Edward VIII. According to Marshall’s official biographer Forest C. Pogue, this proved “the perfect red herring,” as it kept Churchill talking until lunch!12

In Algiers, Churchill pressed for an invasion of the Italian mainland, including the capture of Rome, as the only “worthy objective” capable of drawing German forces from the Eastern front and creating favorable conditions for the 1944 cross-Channel assault. Marshall in turn insisted that the final decision on the matter await the results of the invasion of Sicily (HUSKY), then scheduled for early July, and Eisenhower’s future recommendations, as well as the looming major confrontation on the Eastern front that led to the Battle of Kursk. Marshall also refused to engage in prolonged debate with Churchill, a refusal that apparently convinced the Prime Minister that the Americans would support the Italian invasion if HUSKY proved to be an easy operation. That turned out to be the case, and Marshall did agree to the Italian invasion, albeit with limited forces and subject to agreement at the August QUADRANT, conference in Quebec to transfer seven divisions for the May 1944 cross-Channel assault, now codenamed Operation OVERLORD and labeled the “primary” Anglo-American operation for 1944.13

But whereas Marshall saw the invasion of Italy as a way to knock that country out of the war and close down the Mediterranean in preparation for OVERLORD, Churchill viewed it as part of a continuing Mediterranean campaign, including the seizure of Rhodes. To make matters worse, Hitler’s decision to send major German forces into Italy led to a military stalemate in that theater. Churchill consequently pressed for a delay in both OVERLORD and the scheduled transfer of the seven Mediterranean divisions and landing craft, as well as a summit meeting with Roosevelt and his military advisers in Cairo to review and revise Anglo-American strategic plans before their meeting with Soviet leader Josef Stalin in Teheran.

Roosevelt agreed to the Cairo meeting, but invited Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek to the conference in order to focus on strategy for the war against Japan rather than Germany, and refused even to meet privately with Churchill. The frustrated Prime Minister vented his rhetoric on Marshall, keeping him up until 2 AM with pleas for a delay in OVERLORD. The next day Churchill pushed his plan for taking Rhodes, telling Marshall “his Majesty’s Government can’t have troops standing idle. Muskets must flame.” A harassed Marshall shot back, to a shocked Churchill that “not one American soldier is going to die on [that] goddamned beach.”14

The issues were finally resolved at Teheran, when Roosevelt and Stalin in effect “outvoted” Churchill and forced him to agree to OVERLORD on schedule. Everyone had assumed that Marshall would command the operation, but for months Roosevelt had been warned that his army chief was running the entire US war effort and simply could not be spared for a theater command, no matter how large and prestigious. FDR had avoided making a final decision, but at Teheran Stalin pointedly asked who would command OVERLORD and, when FDR said he had not yet decided, the Soviet leader bluntly shot back “then nothing will come of this operation.”15 At Cairo immediately after the conference FDR called Marshall in and asked him point-blank if he wanted the command. When the army chief refused to respond directly, insisting that the president had to do what was best for the country rather than George Marshall, Roosevelt responded that it would be Eisenhower, because “I feel I could not sleep at night with you out of the country.”16

Despite the Teheran accords, strategic disagreements between Churchill and Marshall continued into 1944 and 1945. First they focused during the spring on whether to invade southern France from Italy as agreed at Teheran (Operation ANVIL) or instead to strike eastward into the Adriatic and the Ljubljana Gap, as Churchill desired. Supported by Roosevelt, Marshall insisted on staying with ANVIL, which was launched in August 1944. Its renaming to Operation DRAGOON led an angry Churchill to mutter that he was being “dragooned” into the operation.

After the successful invasion of Normandy in June 1944, the British raised objections to Eisenhower’s assumption of command of all Allied ground forces from British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, who would then command only one largely British-Canadian Army Group. There was also disagreement over Eisenhower’s insistence on a “broad front” approach, as opposed to Montgomery’s “single thrust” into Germany. Marshall strongly supported Eisenhower’s approach, with a heated “off the record” response to British objections during a Combined Chiefs of Staff session in Malta, just before the February Tripartite summit conference at Yalta. This merged with a final disagreement over whether to attempt to take Berlin before the Russians did, with Marshall as well as Roosevelt backing Eisenhower’s decision not to do so.17

The advent of the Cold War soon after World War II led many to accuse Marshall and others of political and strategic naiveté regarding the Soviets for their stands on these issues, as opposed to the supposed political and strategic wisdom of Churchill.18 Marshall forcefully rejected such charges in his oral history interviews with Pogue, noting on one occasion that with the exception of the landing craft shortage, nothing “came to our minds more frequently than the political factors. But we were very careful, exceedingly careful, never to discuss them with the British, and from that they took the count that we didn’t observe those things at all. But we observed them constantly, with great frequency, and particular solicitude, so there is no foundation in that. We didn’t discuss it with them because we were not in any way putting our necks out as to political factors which were the business of the head of the state—the president—who happened also to be the commander in chief.”19

Churchill and Marshall remained professionally active and in touch with each other after the war. “It gives me great confidence in these days of anxiety,” Churchill informed then Secretary of State Marshall on 24 September 1947, in a handwritten note, “to know that you are at the helm of the most powerful of nations, and to feel myself in such complete accord with what you say and do.” The following year he sent Marshall a copy of the first volume of his memoirs of the Second World War; Marshall responded that he was “tremendously impressed” with the volume and that in his opinion Churchill’s closing paragraphs “are among your finest efforts.” The two also dined together when each visited the other’s country.20 And when President Eisenhower sent Marshall to represent the United States at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, Churchill, according to Marshall, “dignified me in the [Westminster] Abbey by turning out of the procession to shake hands with me after he had reached the dais.”21

Six years later Churchill and Eisenhower visited Marshall in Walter Reed Army Hospital as he lay dying and unable to recognize either of them. Churchill, according to Pogue, “wiped tears from his eyes.”22

Actually, Churchill had delivered what may have been the most appropriate eulogy years earlier. At the Potsdam Conference in July of 1945, he dined with Marshall and said afterwards to his physician, “That is the noblest Roman of them all.”23

Dr. Mark A. Stoler is Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Vermont and editor of the George C. Marshall Papers. This text is based on his presentation to the Thirtieth International Churchill Conference held in Washington, D.C., in 2013.


1. Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall, 3: Organizer of Victory (New York: Viking Press, 1973), p. 585 (hereafter cited as Pogue, Marshall, with volume number and subtitle.)

2. Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., pp. 140–41; and Sketches from Life of Men I Have Known, pp. 147 and 154.

3. Larry I. Bland, ed., George C. Marshall: Interviews and Reminis cences for Forrest C. Pogue (Lexington, VA: George C. Marshall Research Foundation, 1991), pp. 108–09 and 197–98; to their credit both Pershing and Roosevelt promoted Marshall rather than fire him.

4. “When Churchill gets oratorical,” Hopkins explained, “Marshall just listens quietly and then brings the conversation back to earth with just the right facts and figures to destroy the P.M.’s case.” Ralph Ingersoll, Top Secret (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1946), pp. 48–49.

5. Henry L. Stimson Diary, 22 June 1941, Stimson Papers, Yale University, New Haven, CT.

6. Larry  I. Bland, ed., The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, 2: We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), p. 616 (hereafter cited as Marshall Papers with volume number and subtitle).

7. Bland, Marshall Interviews, p. 358; Pogue, Marshall, 2: Ordeal and Hope, 1939–1942 (1966), p. 280.

8. U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States: The Conferences at Washington, 1941–1942, and Casablanca, 1943, hereafter cited as FRUS (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1968), pp. 21–37.

9. Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols.(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 1: 494 and 520.  For a detailed analysis of this debate, see my The Politics of the Second Front: American Military Planning and Diplomacy in Coalition Warfare (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1977).

10. Marshall told his authorized biographer that while King was serious about the Pacific-first proposal, he was not. However, evidence shows he was deadly serious, since he and his staff believed that the failure to cross the Channel would lead to a Russian collapse and with it eliminate all possibility of defeating Germany.  See Mark A. Stoler, Allies and Adversaries: The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Grand Alliance, and U. S. Strategy in World War II (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000), pp. 79–97.

11. Wedemeyer to Handy, 22 Jan. 1943, National Archives, Record Group 165, OPD Exec. 3, item 1A, papers 5, quoted in ibid., p. 103.

12. Pogue, Marshall, 3: Organizer of Victory, pp. 212–15.

13. See my Politics of the Second Front, pp. 97–99 and 112–14.

14. Bland, Marshall Interviews, p. 622; Pogue, Marshall, 3: Organizer of Victory, pp.  306–07.

15. FRUS: The Conferences at Cairo and Tehran, 1943, p. 541.

16. Bland and Stoler, Marshall Papers, 6:54.

17. See Pogue, Marshall, 3: Organizer of Victory, for each of these controversies.

18. See, for example, Hanson W. Baldwin, Great Mistakes of the War (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), and Chester Wilmot, The Struggle for Europe (New York: Harper and Row, 1952).

19. Bland, Marshall Interviews, pp. 414-15.

20. Bland and Stoler, Marshall papers, 6: 222–23, 279, 494–95, and 678–79.

21. Pogue, Marshal, 4: Statesman (1987), 502.

22. Ibid.,  p. 510

23. Sir Charles Wilson, Churchill: Taken from the Diaries of Lord Moran, The Struggle for Survival, 1940–1965 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1966), p. 292.

A tribute, join us




Get the Churchill Bulletin, delivered to your inbox, once a month.