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General George C. Marshall: Strategic Leadership and the Challenges of Reconstituting the Army, 1939-41

Authored by COL John T Nelson II.

June 28, 1993

77 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The study of strategic leadership as a formal, analytical concept is relatively new. Therefore, concrete, historical examples of leaders who have wrestled with the width and breadth of strategic-level challenges are of inestimable value. Marshall's contributions were no accident of history. They resulted from the exercise of effective strategic leadership, consciously and consistently applied across a broad spectrum of activities and interests. This study analyzes the nature and effects of that leadership and captures the magnitude of Marshall's achievements as a strategic leader during what were frequently regarded as the unglamorous prewar years.


George C. Marshall formally assumed the duties of Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, on September 1, 1939. Earlier that same day, Germany had invaded Poland, triggering war in Europe. Marshall subsequently served over 6 grueling years as Chief of Staff, becoming a popular American hero for his role in the war effort. Winston Churchill's praise of him as "the true organizer of victory" for the Allies has found an enduring resonance over the years. Intuitively, he remains regarded as one of the greatest strategic leaders of this century. In this connection, his performance during the war years, 1942 to 1945 in particular, gets by far the bulk of historical attention for obvious reasons.

Yet, his actions during the prewar years, 1939 to 1941, offer equally valuable insights into the exercise of strategic leadership in a democratic society. The challenges Marshall faced in 1939 seemed monumental. In later years, Marshall himself admitted that the prewar years were his toughest. As he assumed his new duties, he felt an urgent need for massive improvement in the Army's preparedness to conduct modern, mobile warfare. He could easily imagine that America might eventually be drawn into a European war, as it had been in 1917. The U.S. Army in 1939 ranked 17th in the world in size, consisting of slightly more than 200,000 Regular Army soldiers and slightly less than 200,000 National Guardsmen--all organized in woefully understrength and undertrained formations. The Army possessed only 329 crude light tanks and only a handful of truly modern combat aircraft within a total inventory of just over 1800 planes. It was a force equipped with the leftover weapons, materiel, and doctrine of the last war. It had a grossly overage officer corps, in which advancement was largely a function of seniority. Captains, for example, were usually in their late thirties or early forties. War-related industries were infinitesimal. Congress and the public were united in their staunch opposition to any increased military expenditures or involvements abroad. The mood of the country was distinctly isolationist. Extremely sensitive to this mood, President Roosevelt was very reluctant to sponsor sizable military increases. The potential political costs were too great. Against this political backdrop, Marshall was a relatively unknown and uninfluential figure in Washington. As Deputy Chief of Staff (October 1938-June 1939) and as Acting Chief of Staff (July-August 1939), he had appeared before Congress several times and had interacted with the President from a distance. But he had acquired no real personal leverage to shape the larger issues which confronted him. Roosevelt had appointed him on the recommendations of others; thus, Marshall had to start almost from scratch to build a working relationship with the President.

The situation inside the War Department painted an equally unpleasant picture. The Secretary of War, Harry Woodring, was in a continual feud with his primary civilian assistant, Louis Johnson, who coveted his boss' job. With strong political influence of his own, Johnson felt his position completely secure; at the same time, he thought he had already secured assurances of being Woodring's eventual successor. The two seldom agreed on anything, and Marshall was caught squarely in the middle of this dysfunctional situation. The War Department had great difficulty speaking with a single voice on any issue. Marshall walked a tightrope to keep from alienating either man. At the same time, the War Department was locked into an antiquated organizational setup by long-standing congressional legislation. With multiple, semi-independent power centers and no clear coordinating authority below that of the Chief of Staff personally, the Department's structure was fundamentally inefficient, unresponsive, and ponderous in decision making and in following up on matters.

By the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Army's overall situation had changed dramatically for the better. By then, over 1.4 million men were serving in the Army, organized into 36 divisions and 64 air groups. War industries were in high gear, making America the "arsenal of democracy." The Army as a whole was experienced in army and corps-level maneuvers, well along the way in preparing for mobile warfare. The officer corps had been invigorated. A selective service system was in place. America's leaders had made great strides in laying the foundation for wartime strategy, and the War Department had been reorganized to run more efficiently and effectively.

Marshall cannot be credited solely for these accomplishments; however, his role was pivotal at the highest levels of government, in the halls of the War Department, and in the field. He emerged with enormous influence in Congress, in the government bureaucracy, and in the White House. He had become a respected and trusted public figure who had placed his personal stamp on America's preparation for war. Thanks to his efforts, America entered the war with a running start and was able to launch a large-scale offensive less than one year later. In short, Marshall's accomplishments were gigantic. The depth and breadth of his leadership were awe-inspiring.

That leadership will serve as the focus for this study, with Marshall's actions from 1939 through early 1942 being analyzed from the perspective of strategic leadership. The intuitive notion of strategic leadership long pre-dates World War II; however, as a formal concept, it is relatively new. Examining Marshall through this prism will provide useful illustrative insights and shed light on what has been for most an unglamorous period overshadowed by the more dramatic events of the war. Interestingly enough, Marshall's situation during the prewar years has much in common with that of any strategic-level leader in peacetime attempting to achieve what he considers to be an adequate military force in the face of significant public opposition. Many of the insights are timeless. Apart from this, Marshall's leadership serves as an inspiring example in itself.

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