Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen
The Virginia Military Institute (Marshall ROTC Seminar)
Wednesday, April 16, 1997
Shortly after becoming Secretary of Defense just over two
months ago, I was confronted with my first big decision: I had
to decide which of my predecessors' portraits I wanted to hang on
the wall of my office at the Pentagon.
For me, it was not a hard
call: I chose to retain the portrait of George Catlett Marshall,
Jr., the third Secretary of Defense and someone who has long been
a personal hero of mine.
Today, I can think of no better hero for outstanding young
soldiers than George Marshall.
Marshall's varied career -- as
soldier, Chief of Staff of the Army, Secretary of State,
Secretary of Defense, and, finally, Nobel Peace Prize winner --
provides a prism through which we can see the varied colors and
best traits of the United States Army and, indeed, America
Marshall was a towering figure of the 20th Century, and
his life provides a legacy that can guide our military and our
nation into the 21st.
I want to focus today on three aspects of Marshall's legacy:
His vision of a globally engaged America;
His insistence on military preparedness;
And his example of leadership, both military and civilian.
Fifty years ago this June 5th, at commencement ceremonies at
Harvard, George Marshall, by this time Secretary of State,
received an honorary degree.
The citation accompanying the
degree called Marshall:
An American to whom Freedom owes an enduring debt of
gratitude, a soldier and statesman whose ability and
character brook only one comparison in the history of the
Most in the audience that day and, I am sure, Marshall
himself must have assumed the citation was comparing Marshall to
Of course, any VMI alumnus would have told
you that the citation must have been referring to Stonewall
But the content of Marshall's speech that day -- and the
content of the remaining years of his career -- would elevate the
words of that citation from graduation day hyperbole to
For on that June 5th, Marshall articulated the
idea for which he is best remembered -- the Marshall Plan to
rebuild the economies of Europe following the devastation of
World War II.
George Marshall offered assistance to all the nations of
Europe, but Joseph Stalin slammed the Iron Curtain down upon the
fingers of that helping hand and prevented Eastern Europe from
participating in an unprecedented humanitarian effort.
In Western Europe, the Marshall Plan was phenomenally
It gave hope to millions.
It helped rebuild the
economies of these nations and is credited with saving half of
the European continent from falling under communist domination.
The Marshall Plan displayed a deep understanding of the vital
link between prosperity and peace: That if you have hungry
stomachs and idle hands, you are unlikely to have charitable
But the plan also displayed Marshall's deep understanding
that America needed to be engaged in the world -- not just
because the world needed America, but because America needed the
Marshall understood that America had become a European
nation -- that what happens in Europe affects American security.
He understood that in the flush of our victory in the Second
World War, the United States could not merely walk away from the
mantle of world leadership -- as we had done after the First.
Instead, as he declared in his Harvard speech, America must face
up to the responsibility which history has placed upon our
country. Thus, the Marshall Plan was not just about helping
others out of the kindness of our hearts.
Instead, it was
fundamentally about protecting American security through a
strategy of leadership and engagement.
Today, in the flush of our victory in the Cold War, America
must again shoulder the responsibility that history has placed
We must accept that with the benefits of being the sole
superpower come daunting responsibilities.
And we too must
understand that protecting American security requires an America
that is actively engaged in the world.
We must seek to shape
world events in ways favorable to our interests, instead of
letting events shape us.
Those of us responsible for our
national security must not only ensure that we have the military
capabilities to protect our national interests in the event of
We must also seek diplomatic and security strategies
that prevent future conflicts from erupting.
I'm familiar with the expression that if you have ideals
without technique, you have a mess.
But if you have technique
with ideals, you have a menace.
The same is true as far as
diplomacy is concerned.
If you have diplomacy without military
power, you have a situation where you have endless conversation
without decision; and if you have military power without
diplomacy, you have the potential for arrogance and
See we need both.
In the Pentagon today, we call this shaping the security
environment, and we are practicing it around the world.
In Europe, the collapse of the Soviet Empire has given us
the opportunity to complete Marshall's dream of a continent
united in peace, freedom and democracy from the Atlantic to the
Today, the United States and Europe are taking advantage
of this opportunity.
NATO is reaching out to the east, preparing to take on new
members, forging a new charter of understanding with Russia, and
conducting military exercises with the militaries of former
Eastern Bloc nations as part of the Partnership for Peace
In Garmisch, Germany, at the aptly named Marshall Center,
officers and senior defense officials from the East are studying
at a school run by the US European Command to learn about how
militaries operate in a democracy and under civilian control.
In Bosnia, NATO and 17 other nations are bringing the hope
of peace and reconstruction to people wracked by long years of
war, privation and ethnic cleansing.
And in the former Soviet Union, America is assisting in
eliminating the nuclear legacy of the Cold War by helping to
dismantle missiles, warheads and nuclear infrastructure.
In the Asia-Pacific region, from which I just returned last
Friday, American leadership and American security policies are
fostering peace, stability and prosperity -- the product of our
strong system of alliances with nations such as Japan, Korea and
It is also the product of approximately 100,000 American
troops who serve forward-deployed throughout the region.
It is the product of the Framework Agreement negotiated by
the United States to freeze and dismantle the nuclear weapons
program of North Korea -- a hungry nation that still poses a
dangerous threat to the region.
The peace and stability of the region is also the product of
America's strategy to engage China -- which seeks to build
cooperation and understanding with that nation in areas where our
interests overlap, even while we seek to modify its behavior in
areas where they do not.
On the other side of the world, in the Persian Gulf,
American engagement and leadership are essential to protecting
lines of commerce and energy sources that are vital to our
There, American air crews patrol the skies
over Iraq, living in heavily fortified camps to protect them from
American ships patrol the murky waters of the
Army units rotate in and out of the theater,
falling-in on pre-positioned equipment and conducting exercises.
Together, they form a mighty military force that contains
aggression and protects our interests.
In each of these regions of the world -- Europe, the
Pacific, and the Persian Gulf -- America has made huge
But in each instance, the payoff is a demonstrably
safer world and a safer America.
And in each instance, we are
bearing witness to the truth of George Marshall's insight that
protecting America's security depends on our engagement with the
rest of the world.
Marshall knew that we are not the world's policemen, but we
can never afford to be a prisoner of world events.
The second aspect of Marshall's legacy I want to focus on
this morning is his insistence on military preparedness.
Marshall assumed command of the Army in 1939, it was small, ill-
trained and ill-equipped.
With just 200,000 in uniform, it was
only the 17th largest army in the world.
It was saddled with an
officer corps that was grossly overage -- captains were often in
their late 30s or early 40s.
And it was equipped with leftover
weapons, materiel and doctrine from World War I.
By the end of 1941, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor just
over 2 years later -- our Army was 1.4 million strong, new
equipment was coming on line, and the Army as a whole was gaining
experience in large-scale and corps-level operations, thanks to
numerous training exercises, including the famous Louisiana
Maneuvers which brought together more than 400,000 soldiers to
test new warfighting strategies and tactics.
By 1945, the United States Army, and our military as a
whole, were the most powerful in the world.
Marshall was not the composer of all these achievements, but
he was the maestro who brought them all together in harmony.
Today, America is carrying forward Marshall's legacy by
insisting that our military forces are prepared for whatever
challenges lie ahead.
We understand that we live in a world
where we will have even less time to prepare than Marshall had
before World War II.
Indeed, conflicts today often will be not
only come as you are, but come as you are on a moment's
That's why we are committed to keeping our forces in a very
high state of readiness, and giving them challenging training
where the scrimmage is tougher than the game itself.
That's why we are committed to equipping our troops with the
modern weaponry that will give them not just an edge, but the
And that's why we are committed to developing the doctrine
and the tactics to get the most out of today's high-tech
One month ago, I was out at Ft. Irwin in California where
the Army is field testing what it calls Force XXI.
harnesses the power of information technology.
It has the
potential to give our soldiers almost complete, real-time
knowledge of the battle field.
If knowledge is power, then Force
XXI is going to make our Army even more powerful and dominant
than it is today and that's saying a lot.
Over 20 years ago,
the futurist Alvin Toffler warned that unless you tame
technology, you will encounter future shock. Today, our Army is
taming technology, and it is turning future shock into future
The final aspect of Marshall's legacy that we can all profit
from is the example of his leadership both as a soldier and as
As a military leader, Marshall understood the vital
importance of matching strategy and resources.
During World War
II, America faced two powerful enemies: Germany in Europe and
Japan in Pacific.
We knew that we could not defeat both enemies
simultaneously -- even America did not have the resources for
So we had to make a choice.
Public sentiment undoubtedly
favored fighting Japan first -- after all, it was Japan that had
launched the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
But Marshall had
studied the situation dispassionately and was an early advocate
the Europe first strategy that ultimately prevailed.
It was a
tough call, but it turned out to be the right call.
Today, we too have the challenge of matching resources and
At Pentagon right now, we are in the middle of what is
called the Quadrennial Defense Review, or QDR.
The QDR is
nothing less than a comprehensive review of our national defense
And it is forcing the Pentagon and America to ask
ourselves very basic questions about who we are and who we want
to be as a nation.
Does America wish to remain a world
superpower? What does that require in military terms? What kind
of military forces do we need to guard against the very real
dangers of today and the uncertain dangers of tomorrow? How
ready should our forces be? And for what? What kind of weapons
do they need and how many? Can we do everything we want under
current fiscal realities? Or do we need to make tough choices
and trade-offs among desired capabilities?
The QDR report will say, where I think we have to go, how we
intend to get there and how we can achieve that particular
But at the end of the day, I can guarantee to you that
we will not be able to do everything that we would like to do.
We will have a plan to do what we have to do, what we need to do.
And we will say to the Congress and the American people this
is our plan, here are the potential tradeoffs, and here are the
risks involved in each, because if we are being asked to do more
with less, we say it's not possible.
If we're asked to do the
same with less, maybe that's achievable.
But we might be forced
to say we have to do less with less and are the American people
willing to accept that particular risk, because every time we
talk about cutting back or downsizing or restructuring in order
to achieve certain goals, it means that we must give something
And when you give something up, it means you have to accept
And so the American people will have a choice at
that point in terms of whether we are willing to accept higher
risks in different categories.
As I ponder some of the tough calls that are part of this
QDR, I must tell you there are some evenings I look up at
Marshall's portrait simply for inspiration.
I also look to
Marshall's portrait for guidance on another topic that's
important in today's military and that has to do with the need to
ensure dignity and respect for each other.
And I'm talking, of
course, about harassment and hazing.
Throughout his entire career, Marshall demonstrated a
commitment to the core values of honesty, humility and respect
for others and he understood that the keys to military success,
whether at the platoon level or at the national level involve
trust and teamwork.
And whether based on sex or race or just
general respect, harassment and hazing destroy trust.
down morale and they break down the cohesion of the team.
And so I hope that everyone in the military and throughout
the country take inspiration from the example of Marshall's
military leadership and re-dedicate ourselves to the core values
that he sought to live by and to instill in others.
And I also hope that we can re-commit ourselves to follow
Marshall's civilian leadership examples.
As a civilian leader,
Marshall understood that the American security policies should
not only be bipartisan, they really ought to be non-partisan.
other words, they shouldn't be the result merely of compromise
between two political parties, they should be above party
politics all together.
After he retired as Chief of Staff of the Army at the end of
1945, Marshall and his wife were looking forward to a period of
relative inactivity, if not actual retirement.
And then one day
just before her nap, Mrs. Marshall heard the phone ring and she
heard her husband answer it, speak briefly and then hang up.
she awoke from her nap to find that in a very short telephone
call her husband he accepted an assignment from President Truman
to act as his envoy to China.
Marshall later said he didn't have
the heart to tell her before her nap.
He also said that when the president asked him, it never
occurred to him, not for a second, to say no.
called and he answered the call.
He answered the call again in 1947 when the president asked
him to be his Secretary of State and again in 1950 when Truman
asked him to be his Secretary of Defense.
And this sense of duty
and service to country, it permeated Marshall's being,
irrespective of party politics.
In fact, I don't know if anyone,
General Goodpastor or anyone else in this audience, can tell you
this day whether Marshall was a Republican or a Democrat at
heart, because it really didn't matter to him.
In his line of
work, it didn't matter at all.
His job as a soldier and a
statesman was to do the very best for America.
But I must say unfortunately this tradition of non-
partisanship has been somewhat eroded over the past few decades
and as a Republican serving in a Democratic administration,
serving as President Clinton's Secretary of Defense, I think I
have a unique opportunity and, yes, a unique responsibility to
try to reinvigorate that tradition.
As a student, George Marshall -- I guess it would be easy
for me to say he was not known as a history scholar.
Josiah (Superintendent of VMI) is a scholar and many of you have
found that out, but he was not known as a history scholar.
When he was at VMI almost a hundred years ago, he steeped
himself in the Institute's traditions and military lore.
Marshall's day, even then, there was an annual tradition to
commemorate the deaths of the ten young VMI cadets who died in
the Civil War at the Battle of Newmarket, the so-called Baby
And all the cadets were forced to learn something about
that battle, about the heroism and the sacrifice that took place
And Marshall sought to know everything about that battle
and it's been said about him that he would diagram for his
roommates the positions of all the troops engaged in battle.
described every detail, every maneuver, and hound them for days
on end about the battle's history and the tactics involved.
And one of Marshall's biographers described the roommates'
reactions: "At first, astounded; then aghast; then dismayed.
For years afterward, the mere mention of Newmarket was enough to
make anyone of them look furtively for a route of flight."
I hope all of you in this audience will find some piece of
history to feel as passionate about as Marshall felt about the
battle of Newmarket.
Another one of my heroes, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes,
Jr., once said that life is action and passion and one must
share in that action and passion at the risk of being judged not
to have lived.
Well, of course, Marshall shared in the action and the
passion of his times and he has given great definition not only
to his life but to this entire country.
The commencement speaker at Marshall's VMI graduation
He said, "When the time comes that another
Stonewall Jackson is demanded, the Institute will furnish him."
Well, he had no way of knowing that the Institute would go one
better and produce a George Marshall.
And when the time comes
that another George Marshall is demanded, I suspect that he or
she will come from your ranks.
I'll tell you it's been a great honor for me, number one, to
have been invited here to see so many fine candidates for the
role of a future Stonewall Jackson or George Marshall.
Let me conclude with an observation made by Allister Cooke
who wrote a book some years ago during our bicentennial.
book called America, he had a chapter comparing us to Rome, the
inevitable comparison to Rome.
And he pointed out that liberty
is the luxury of self-discipline.
Liberty is the luxury of self-
discipline, that those nations historically who have failed to
discipline themselves have had discipline imposed by others.
He said, "America is a country in which I see the most
persistent idealism and the blandest of cynicism and the race is
on between its vitality and its decadence."
And then he paraphrased Benjamin Franklin and he said, "We
have a great country and we can keep it, but only if we care to
When I look out into the faces of the young people who are
here today, I am reaffirmed in my belief that we have a great
country and each and every one of you are going to see to it that
indeed our spirit and our idealism triumphs and prevails over any
sense of cynicism or decadence.
Thank you for inviting me and God bless.