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Category:  General History
Published:  October, 2009

George C. Marshall: Soldier, Statesman, Native Son

The enormity of the footprint our George C. Marshall left on the 20th Century should never be underestimated.

When he died 50 years ago, on October 16th, 1959, the long list of his lifetime accomplishments were the very definition of greatness.

He’d served as: aide to U.S. Gen. John “Black Jack” Pershing during WWI between 1919 and 1924; U.S. Army Chief of Staff between 1939 and 1945; special Ambassador to China in 1945; Secretary of State between January of 1947 and January of 1949; the author of the most important document of the 20th Century – the Marshall Plan; head of the American National Red Cross for one year starting in September of 1949; as U.S. Secretary of Defense from September of 1950 until September of 1951; as special American representative for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June of 1953; as a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate in December of 1953.

Marshall, whose consistent achievements seemed to be in conflict with his calm and even humble demeanor, obviously knew that acclaim would follow.

His image would grace the covers of TIME and LIFE magazines a total of six times. Twice, in 1944 and 1947, he was named TIME Magazine’s Man of the Year.

But through all of the prestige that comes with greatness, all of the impact he had around the world, until his death – I am happy to report – George C. Marshall was still a proud native of Uniontown, Pennsylvania.

Oh, I know there are those people who don’t believe that. There are those who claimed he’d forgotten his Fayette County roots when he left as a young man, and he never looked back.

That simply isn’t true.

George Marshall reveled in his youth. His three visits back home helped reinforce his fond memories of the town and the areas around it.

And two of those three visits came when he had an important part of the world stage.

In early September of 1939, for instance, the small front page story about him in the Uniontown Daily News, said he’d officially assumed his duties as the Army Chief of Staff. That story was small, because the Germans had invaded Poland and most of the rest of the front page that day carried stories of the start of WWII in Europe.

Just seven days later, Marshall came to Uniontown.

The news account of his speech at his homecoming banquet at the White Swan Hotel, mentioned little about his feelings regarding the raging war overseas.

I’ve discovered the reason for his lack of specifics. One of his biographers, historian Forrest C. Pogue, conducted a series of extensive interviews with Marshall between 1956 and 1957. Marshall simply claims that he’d been so new in his job, that he thought it would be better if he largely avoided any details about America’s sentiments toward Germany’s march across Europe.

Instead, he regaled his admirers with stories about growing up in Uniontown. Pogue’s published interviews, by the way, are full of Marshall’s splendidly vivid self-portrait of his life as a kid growing up in 1890’s Uniontown.

He, and his best friend, Andy Thompson (the son of coal baron and banking giant J.V. Thompson) were full of childhood adventures.
They’d fashioned a small, flat-bottomed boat – sold tickets to their fellow young riders - and sailed across the tiny creek behind Marshall’s house.

They’d built their own bar, where they sold corn-silk cigars and cans of beer.

They’d started their own little vegetable garden in which they’d taken their wares up Main Street and sold them. It was something in which Marshall took great pride.

On Marshall’s second trip back to Uniontown, in September of 1953, it was – as during his 1939 trip – a very momentous time in his life.

On June second of that year, he’d served as President Eisenhower’s special representative for the coronation of Queen II in England. That was something of a turnaround for Marshall. Eisenhower had served under him during WWII.

A few days after Marshall left Uniontown during visit (in late October) it was announced he’d been awarded with the Nobel Peace Prize.

But while he was in town, it was another opportunity for Marshall to relive some of his earlier exploits.

He was taken to Fort Necessity, which wasn’t rebuilt when he was a child. It was a place, however, that his father used to take him to and give him history lessons, while they hunted together.

He rode along the old National Road - and past Braddock’s grave - both of which were places he would later recall with relish.

“I am always surprised now when I think of the various places I showed up in Uniontown when I was a boy. As far as I can figure out I seem to have stuck my nose in everything,” he told his biographer.

When Marshall returned to Fayette County the following year, in 1954, it was for the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Ft. Necessity. There were those people who spoke, who remarked on the ironic significance of Marshall’s presence there that day.

That he, one of the greatest American generals, was coming back home to honor a place once occupied by another great American general, who just happened to have the same first name – George Washington.

It wasn’t like Marshall had any particular inclination toward greatness while he and his young friends gleefully romped along the streets of his hometown.

In fact, he realized early on that his horizons, both in the classroom and on a global scale were limited. “I was very poor in school,” he remarked. “I never learnt to study until I left school (in Uniontown) and went away to school,” he said.

He also realized that his world, as a child, was limited to his occasional trips to the mountains, a shopping trip or two to Pittsburgh and his bicycle rides to New Geneva – or with some trepidation – to Brownsville.

Yet, there is a story about him that reveals his clear understanding that horizons – even his own – can be broadened.

He says that while he was U.S. Secretary of State, and after he’d formulated the Marshall Plan, he was visited by a group of Cub Scouts in his office.

He didn’t know what they wanted at the time.

So, they sat down and they told him about their plans to borrow a movie from a local theatre and show it to children and their parents.

They planned to take the proceeds so they to help feed the starving children of post-WWII Europe.

They had, in short, come up with a “Junior Marshall Plan.”

Marshall was quite impressed by them. “Then I got to thinking – just at that moment – what a contrast that had been to my own youth,” he said.

The boundaries of his own world had primarily stopped at the banks of the Monongahela River.

These thoughtful children had humanitarian interests that stretched across the world.

His deepest thoughts, the ones that helped him see the realities of our interconnected world, still took him back to Uniontown.

Edward A. Owens is a three time Emmy Award winner and 20 year veteran of television news. E-mail him at freedoms@bellatlantic.net