General George C. Marshall

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In the Sunday Roanoke (VA) Times this past week was a piece, by John Winfrey, a professor emeritus of Washington and Lee University,  about General George C. Marshall, a man prominent before, during and after World War II, and best known for the Marshall Plan, which helped European countries begin reconstruction after the war. The latter is perhaps the wisest single act of foreign policy the USA has ever undertaken, since it helped millions of people, including those in formerly enemy countries, survive and eventually have comfortable lives. That contributled mightily to peace in the post-war world, and prevented Communist Russia and China from claiming new adherents. Had our country simply allowed most of Europe to starve because they didn’t have the resources to feed their people, the consequences wouldn’t have been bad just for Europe, but for us, and the rest of the world too, in my opinion.

Marshall had been a commander in Europe during World War I, and had become an aide to General John J. Pershing, who oversaw the entire American military effort there. After the war he bacame prominent again, first in organizing the training of US troops, then later in Washington DC. He arrived there in 1939, was rapidly promoted, and was called upon to do all the testifying in Congress about why it was necessary for this country to prepare for war. Winfrey emphasizes that most of Congress knew and agreed that this was necessary, but that didn’t prevent them from playing political games with the issue. Democracy isn’t the greatest system for getting urgent issues realistically addressed, because of the separation of powers built into our system of government (one reason why some have favored authoritarian or totalitarian governments). Separation of powers is meant to assure that no one branch of government gets so strong as to be able to override the other branches, but it can also be an invitation to political game-playing, which, as Winfrey points out, has been the historical norm in this country.

How did George Marshall make his contribution before, during and after World War II? Winfrey says it’s because he had developed a reputation for being strictly nonpartisan. His interest seems to have been in getting necessary work done, the people he dealt with seem to have recognized that, and his view of things was realistic enough to enable enough people to agree, so that the USA could prepare for, and eventually play a major role in winning World War II. Winfrey says that had preparations for war been characterized as Roosevelt’s suggestion, they would probably have been defeated. Since they were seen as Marshall’s suggestion, they passed.

Of course we can debate whether World War II is something we as a country should have been involved in, but I don’t think there’s much question that it was the most popular of our wars, and seen by most people as necessary. Things weren’t perfect after the war, but consider what the world might be like now had the Germans and Japanese won. Probably few of us would be happy with such a world.

Marshall retired after the war, but was recalled to Washington by President Truman to be Secretary of State. He agreed to go, and before taking the job, promised that he would never run for office. He knew, Winfrey says, that his lack of partisanship would be more important than ever. He then negotiated the Marshall Plan, which I suspect was an unprecendented piece of diplomacy. Has any other country helped countries it has defeated in war to recover, and left them relatively independent? I can’t immediately think of any. Winfrey says that had the plan been called the Truman Plan, it would never have been enacted. Calling it the Marshall Plan made it politically acceptable to most of Congress.

Contrast that act of statesmanship with the situation in Congress today. When Mitch McConnell said, two or three years ago, that his overriding goal was to make President Obama a one-term president, he was essentially saying that he would do nothing to help improve the economy for the average American, because if he did, President Obama would get the credit, and might win a second term. McConnell may or may not sincerely believe that getting rid of Obama is in the country’s best interest, but is it in the interest of all of his constituents (and not just some) for the economy to fail to improve or get worse? He certainly seems to be saying that the welfare of average Americans is unimportant to him, certainly in the short term, and arguably in the long term too.

Winfrey points to the administration of Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression as paralleling what is happening now. During his first term Roosevelt used economic stimulus to give out-of-work Americans jobs, to rebuild the country’s infrastructure, and push the economy towards recovery. According to Winfrey, there was so much resistance to economic stimulus that during Roosevelt’s second term policy shifted to balancing the budget–and the economy started going downhill again. It took the economic stimulus of World War II to pull us out of the Depression entirely, and create the relatively broad-based wealth that characterized this country after the war. General Marshall didn’t create that vibrant economy, but he did make major contributions to our winning the war, and then sharing the fruits of our economy with other countries in a way that promoted peace and freedom rather than poverty and tyranny.

It seems clear to me (not that I’m unbiaseed) that the lack of cooperation in today’s Congress is adversely affecting a whole lot of Americans. Who does that benefit? It seems to benefit those in a position to direct government policy for their own benefit, but not the American people as a whole. I think President Obama may aspired to a role like Marhall’s, but he’s obviously been unable to succeed at that. So the question is, is there anyone who can or wants to? I believe there’s a great need for impartiality in our government, as well as in our daily lives, if this country is to retain its high position in the world, not only as a powerful country, but as a country that inspires people in the rest of the world because of our ideals and our success in carrying them out. This country has never been perfect, but we’ve done some very good things, and it would be nice to think that we will again. But without impartial leaders, as well as ordinary people, trying their best to do what is best for all, rather than what is best only for some, or only for themselves, recovering a moral vision and acting effectively on it seems less and less likely.

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