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George C. Marshall: STATESMAN, 1945-1959 by Forrest C. Pogue (Viking: $29.95; 602 pp.)

Collins, a historian and novelist, is the author of "Is Paris Burning?," "Oh Jerusalem" and "Fall From Grace."

It was just 40 years ago this summer that what may properly be considered the beginning of the post World War II era occurred on a lawn outside the Fogg Museum at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. The occasion was the annual convocation of Harvard alumni that traditionally follows commencement and at which those men and women on whom the university has bestowed honorary degrees are called on for a few remarks.

The third speaker of the afternoon was Secretary of State Gen. George C. Marshall. His speech was brief, notably lacking in rhetoric or dramatic flair and, like Lincoln’s at Gettysburg, considered by most of his audience a bit of a dud. How wrong they were! With his fair remarks, Marshall laid the groundwork for the plan that now bears his name, set into motion the political and economic recovery of Western Europe, and what will surely be hailed as the most noble, selfless--and effective--manifestation of U.S. foreign policy in this century.

It is particularly fitting, therefore, that this final volume of Forrest C. Pogue’s monumental four-volume biography of Marshall should now be available for those who prefer something more substantial than sex or thrillers for their summer reading.

Essentially, Pogue’s volume covers just five years--from Nov. 26, 1945, when Marshall retired as chief of staff of the Army (which, at the time, included the Air Force) to September, 1951, when he retired as secretary of defense. But what a five-year period that was! During that brief span of time, the events that have conditioned our international existence for the last four decades and will almost certainly carry us into the next century took place: the fall of Chiang Kai-shek and the triumph of communism in China, the Truman Doctrine, the Marshall Plan, the collapse of the wartime alliance and the beginning of the Cold War, the birth of NATO, the creation of Israel and, for good measure, the Korean War. When else in our history have so many events been packed into so brief a period of time?

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Marshall was at the vortex of all of them, first on its unsuccessful mission to China, then as secretary of state and, after a brief interval in retirement because of his failing health, as secretary of defense. He was not, as Pogue quite justly points out, the initiator or the inspiration for all the U.S. policies at the time. The inspiration for the North Atlantic Treaty came, for example, from a British labor leader, Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, a thought that gives pause in the light of labor’s current defense policies. In Dean Acheson, Robert Lovett, Charles Bohlen, George Kennan, Lucius Clay and others, Marshall was surrounded and seconded by as able a group of leaders as this nation has been able to assemble. Nonetheless, the foreign policy achievements of those five years took place on Marshall’s watch and a substantial share of the credit for them must be his.

Ironically, Pogue’s volume opens with what must be considered the one great failure of Marshall’s career--his mission to China. It came at the dawn of our brief age of omnipotence, of Henry Luce’s short-lived American century when statesmen in Washington sincerely believed American earnestness and good intentions could achieve virtually anything. Of course, they could not. Marshall was sent out to Chungking to reconcile the irreconcilable, to persuade Chiang Kai-shek and the Chinese Communists to cooperate in the governance of China. Neither adversary had any intention of doing so. Marshall might as well have been told to stuff two bobcats into a burlap bag and bring out a pair of purring pussy cats. The handwriting was already on the wall, and there were diplomats in our nation’s service in China clever enough to read it. Prophets in the field, however, are often without honor at headquarters, and those men were ultimately to be persecuted for their prescience, hounded by McCarthyite zealots for having committed the discomforting sin of being right.

Marshall tried with all the patience, earnestness and skill of which he was capable to accomplish his impossible mission, winning as he did the admiration of both Communists and nationalists, but as Pogue notes, he came to the sad conclusion that it was a mistake to even think “coalition was desirable or useful or possible.” Chiang used his mission as a smokescreen to try to accomplish what he had always intended--the elimination of the Communists, something he estimated he could achieve in “eight to twelve months.” Nothing was going to keep him from that goal, and Marshall went home to Washington sadder, wiser, and not a little bitter. Chiang went on to pay for his miscalculations on the strength of his adversaries.

Revisionist historians occasionally attempt to lay the responsibility for the beginnings of the Cold War at Marshall’s feet. Pogue at quiet length makes it quite clear how wrong they are. Indeed, as he takes great pains to point out, Marshall was one of the very last of the leaders of the U.S. wartime establishment to reach the conclusion that cooperation with Stalin in the postwar era was just not possible and that the grand alliance was dead.

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As Pogue thoughtfully and patiently traces out the genesis of the Marshall Plan, he makes it abundantly clear that Marshall was not motivated by a fear of communist expansion in Western Europe so much as he was by a deep concern for the material well-being of the people of that war-ravaged area. There are echoes of that concern in Marshall’s farewell address on leaving the Army in 1945. They show up again periodically, for example after his discussion of France’s plight with Georges Bidault in April, 1947. And George Kennan, who did much of the preliminary planning of the position papers that underlay the plan, emphasizes that his staff did not “regard communist activities as the root of the difficulties in Western Europe.”

If Pogue’s work contains one glaring lesson for our present policy makers, it is Marshall’s determination to form a bipartisan foreign policy, to forge a broad political consensus behind his goals. Upon such stones are enduring churches built. How different from the partisan wrangling we now see over Central America that offers us a different national policy with each changing Congress.

Perhaps the one shortcoming of Pogue’s work for the general reader is his determination to avoid the anecdotal, the small, revealing personal glimpse that often defines a man better than his pronouncements or his letters for the record. And, sadly, his enriching biography does not have a happy ending. This man who served his country so well through so many posts and so many difficulties wound up his public life being vilified by such men as Sen. William Jenner of Indiana who called him a “front man for traitors” and a “living lie”; by Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy and even by my Yale contemporary William F. Buckley--who can perhaps invoke the callowness of youth as an excuse for praising McCarthy’s savaging of the general as “cutting Marshall down to size.”

Giants don’t trim down to their detractors’ dimensions, however, and those words probably disturbed Marshall very little. His goals were elsewhere. Throughout his life, he counted his country’s interests higher than his own, placed his duties before his desires and his honor before all else. Duty, honor, country: a triad more often patronized than esteemed in our Aquarian age. Nonetheless, reading Pogue’s biography provides a suitable reminder that it was just those values that formed the life of perhaps the greatest American our nation has produced in this century.

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