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George C. Marshall: Building Trust in Government

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Terry Newell
April 7, 2015

Barely a day goes by without a new charge that government cannot be trusted. Role models are needed to show us how to build trust. One such role model is George C. Marshall.

A Reputation for Telling the Truth

In 1938, Marshall was relatively unknown in Washington when he arrived to lead the War Plans division. Within a year, he was selected by President Roosevelt (FDR) over 33 more senior generals to be the next Army Chief of Staff. FDR respected integrity. Marshall had publicly disagreed with him when FDR thought he was wrong. When offered the post, Marshall said he would take it only if he could speak his mind. “Is that all right?” “Yes,” Roosevelt replied, to which Marshall retorted: “You said ‘yes’ pleasantly, but it may be unpleasant.”

Marshall’s biggest challenge was preparing an isolationist nation for war. He spoke forcefully about its lack of preparedness. He became so respected that Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau told FDR in May 1940, “Let General Marshall, and only General Marshall, do all testifying in connection with the bill you are about to send up for additional appropriations for the Army.” Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn would say of Marshall that, “When General Marshall takes the witness stand to testify . . . We know we are in the presence of a man who is telling the truth  . . . He would tell the truth even if it hurt his cause.”

Senator Harry Truman, in charge of oversight of the War Department, said of Marshall, “I got to know that you could depend on every word he said; that he just never would lie to you and that he always knew what he was talking about.” It was that trust which later propelled Truman to ask Marshall to become Secretary of State (launching the Marshall Plan) and then Secretary of Defense (ramping up the depleted military, again, to fight the Korean War).

Building Honor into Public Service 

Much of Marshall’s success with elected officials was due to his unwavering devotion to duty and his commitment to his oath of office. Realizing that many generals were too old or too unfit to lead a modern army, he told FDR that he needed to retire them. He set 60 as the mandatory retirement age, and in 1940 sent a list of those to be let go to the president. He put his own name on the list. He would be 60 by the end of the year. FDR kept him on.

Marshall also insisted on honorable behavior among subordinates. In early 1943, he called Gen. John Hilldring into his office. Marshall had just established a civil affairs section in the War Department and began training people to handle civil administration in conquered territories – even though there were no conquered territories yet. The State Department had declined to take on this critical task. Years later, Hilldring reported what Marshall said to him:

I’m turning over to you a sacred trust and I want you to bear that in mind every day and every hour you preside over this military government and civil affairs venture. Our people sometimes say that soldiers are stupid. I must admit at times we are. Sometimes our people think we are extravagant with the public money that we squander it, spend it recklessly. I don’t agree that we do … But even though people say we are extravagant that in itself isn’t too disastrous.

But we have a great asset and that is that our people, our countrymen, do not distrust us and do not fear us. Our countrymen, our fellow citizens, are not afraid of us. They don’t  harbor any ideas that we intend to alter the government of the country or the nature of this government in any way. This is a sacred trust that I turn over to you today … I don’t want you to do anything, and I don’t want to permit the enormous corps of military governors that you are in the process of training and that you are going to dispatch all  over the world, to damage this high regard in which the professional soldiers in the Army are held by our people, and it could happen, it could happen, Hilldring, if you don’t understand what you are about, and how important it is that this reputation we have is of enormous importance, not only to the Army but the country. This is my principal charge   to you, this is the thing I never want you to forget in the dust of battle and when the pressures will be on you and the pressures will be on you.”

Truthfulness and honor were the guiding stars for George C. Marshall. His oath of office meant his primary loyalty was to the Constitution. With more like Marshall, public servants will earn the trust we need.

Author: Terry Newell is president of Leadership for a Responsible Society and former dean of faculty at the Federal Executive Institute. He can be reached at: [email protected]

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