RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–The big 50th anniversary observances related to World War II have come and gone — Pearl Harbor, D-Day, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
But one of the most important passed quietly last summer. Almost as quietly as the person responsible for it has faded from the national memory.
On June 5, 1947, a man of war stood to speak about peace during commencement ceremonies at Harvard University. Dignified, taciturn, somewhat melancholy by nature, he resembled another leader who had spoken some four score years before of healing after a great conflict.
Like Abraham Lincoln, this man had led great forces to victory in a terrible war. Like Lincoln, he was acquainted with grief, weary of the weight of all the lives lost — including his own stepson. But on this day in 1947 he stood to propose the building of a generous, humane peace, the kind Lincoln might have built if he had escaped an assassin’s bullet.
“I need not tell you that the world situation is very serious,” he told the Harvard assembly. But “the people of this country are distant from the troubled areas of the earth and it is hard for them to comprehend the plight … of the long-suffering peoples.”
Much of Europe and Asia lay in ruins. Millions of soldiers and civilians were dead, and millions more — victors and vanquished — were hungry and cold.
“It is logical that the United States should do whatever it is able to do to assist in the return of normal economic health to the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace,” this military man urged. “Our policy is directed not against any country or doctrine but against hunger, poverty, desperation and chaos.”
Logical, yes. But he had to fight hard for such a policy. Many Americans had been reluctant to enter the war before Pearl Harbor forced it upon them. When it finally ended and the survivors came home, many were even more reluctant to spend additional resources to help former enemies like Germany.
Yet this visionary demanded it. The European Recovery Plan, known through the years as the Marshall Plan in honor of its architect, helped feed, clothe and rebuild Europe while reconstructing its economies.
Has America produced a greater leader in this century than George C. Marshall? He won the war, and he won the peace.
Marshall wasn’t flashy, like Patton and MacArthur. He didn’t become president, like Eisenhower. But no other single man — not Franklin Roosevelt, not Winston Churchill — did more to lead the Allies to victory after a woefully unprepared beginning. Churchill himself said Marshall, as American military chief of staff and later General of the Army, was “the true organizer of victory.”
Marshall desperately wished to lead the Allies personally in the D-Day invasion. But Roosevelt knew that without Marshall at his side in Washington, the wider war effort might unravel.
After the war, this aging soldier, who first served in the Philippines in 1902 and later as First Army chief of operations in World War I, wished only to return to his beloved home and family in Leesburg, Va. But duty, several presidents — and the world’s desperate condition — called him back. He served as secretary of state while the Marshall Plan unfolded, as secretary of defense after the Korean War broke out. He helped develop NATO, which defended Western European democracy.
In 1953, Marshall received the Nobel Peace Prize — the only professional soldier so honored. He died in 1959.
Churchill paid this tribute to the quiet general: “In war he was as wise and understanding in counsel as he was resolute in action. In peace he was the architect (of restoration). He always fought victoriously against defeatism, discouragement and disillusion. Succeeding generations must not be allowed to forget his achievements and his example.”
The man who had led his own nation from near-certain defeat to “their finest hour” recognized his equal.
Christians serious about world missions face a far greater conflict than Marshall ever confronted. Our enemies are invisible principalities and powers. When we are tempted to retreat from the world because of opposition, fear, exhaustion, complacency, selfishness or simple disobedience, we must look to the Lord and his great servants through the ages for renewed strength and inspiration.
But we also would do well to remember the example of a quiet soldier named George Marshall, who refused to turn away from the world in one of its darkest hours.
Reprinted from the November 1997 issue of The Commission, magazine of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.