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George C. Marshall Award

As Delivered by Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, Washington, D.C., Friday, October 16, 2009
     Well Brent, thank you for that gracious and mostly factual introduction. I’ve known Brent for more than three and a half decades – since I first went to work for him at the National Security Council in the early summer of 1974. As I recall, at that time President Nixon’s final appeal in the Watergate case was being heard by the Supreme Court. Working for Brent in the White House at that time was sort of like being a deckhand on the Titanic.
     As you can also imagine, Nixon’s NSC wasn’t exactly a hotbed of admiration for the Department of State. Foggy Bottom was viewed as a bunch of guys in striped pants with last names for first names, who occasionally took time out of their busy days to implement the president’s foreign-policy. As they say in Washington, my views have “matured” over the years.
     So on that note, let me also thank Secretary Clinton for her kind words and for her strong leadership of the Department of State. It is a real pleasure working with her.
     And, of course, my gratitude to all those who has made today’s celebration of George Marshall’s life possible – and especially his family members who are with us.
     And my apologies for not being able to stay with you for lunch. President Obama is visiting Texas A&M this afternoon and I think felt he needed some cover.
     Receiving this award is a true honor. The placement of my name anywhere near that of George Marshall is also incredibly humbling. That said, I will admit that we share at least one trait: our repeated failures to retire from public service. Army chief of staff was to be Marshall’s final job in the government. Then President Truman called him at his beloved farm in Leesburg and asked him to be special envoy to China – mere days into a much-deserved retirement. After that came secretary of state. And when Marshall later agreed to be secretary of defense, it was pitched as a six-month deal. He stayed twice as long. And it sounds familiar.
     You know, in some ways, the United States Army has trouble with General Marshall’s legacy. Last year I told the graduating class at Virginia Military Institute – General Marshall’s alma mater – that I enjoy teasing West Pointers about the lack of a statue of Marshall at West Point. I tell them that surely an Army General widely acknowledged to be the architect of victory in World War II deserves more than a plaque at one of the entrances to the football stadium.
     George Marshall is one of my personal heroes for many reasons beyond his inability to retire. His portrait hangs behind my desk in the Pentagon. When I speak to students at our war colleges or the military academies, I invoke him as an example of the kind of leader everyone should aspire to be: the apotheosis of unshakeable loyalty combined with the courage and integrity to tell superiors things they didn’t always want to hear – from General “Black Jack” Pershing to President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
     Secretary Clinton told us about General Marshall’s accomplishments as secretary of state, and after lunch General Casey will talk about his role as Army chief of staff. In brief, I suppose it was a noteworthy accomplishment that he expanded the Army from less than 200,000 soldiers to more than 8 million in only a few years and crushed the Nazi and Japanese war machines. And, perhaps it was also noteworthy that he managed to save Berlin, advocate the creation of NATO, and rebuild an entire continent’s economy. But I might suggest that one of his tasks as secretary of defense was even more daunting – a challenge that has eluded a number of secretaries and led to untold frustrations and complications throughout the decades: and that of course is getting the Departments of State and Defense to work together.
     Marshall’s skill in navigating the bureaucratic trenches probably had its root in his austere personality. Marshall once said, “I cannot afford the luxury of sentiment, mine must be cold logic. Sentiment is for others.” When FDR once called him “George,” Marshall corrected him: “General Marshall.” His biographer said he was “impatient of verbiage, of protocol, and of the polite palaver that often lubricates the wheels of administration.” And in a city that has, on rare occasions, elevated showmanship over substance, Marshall eschewed pomp and circumstance. The journalist Alistair Cooke once described him as performing his duties “with all the ardour of a certified public accountant.”
     That mien was, in many respects, a manifestation of his intellect – of his deeply, contemplative nature. This is not say that he was always correct, even when he had thought through an issue. Some of his early views on efforts to save Britain at the expense of arming America were flawed. And, as in all wars, there were mistakes and setbacks, both strategically and operationally.
     But, more often than not, on the big things – those that really mattered – Marshall’s strategic vision yielded profound wisdom: about his country, about the world, about the nature of man. In the immediate aftermath of World War I, he knew already that the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month signified only an interlude between great and furious storms. So he started writing down the names of all competent officers he met in his various posts. Years later, those officers would lead the American Army in World War II.
     Then, only three months after the guns had fallen silent in 1945 and that great tragedy had ended, he warned that “maintaining the peace” required addressing, in his words, “the pittance of food, of clothing and coal and homes” in Europe – the intellectual seeds that would in time grow into the Marshall Plan.
     His foresight was, I believe, rooted in his acceptance of man as a flawed creature, and an international landscape that reflected that stark and unfortunate reality – truths we can still absorb today. There were no holidays from history for Marshall. As he noted, “tragic consequences” followed wherever humanity “walked blindly” or “ignored the lessons of the past.”
     That was never George Marshall’s course in life. His was, thankfully, a life of action driven by purpose. In a special convocation speech to Princeton students in 1948, Marshall exhorted them: “The development of a sense of responsibility for world order and security, the development of a sense of the overwhelming importance of the country’s acts, and failures to act in relation to world order and security – these, in my opinion, are the great ‘musts’ for your generation.” And I would add, for future generations as well. In his willingness to serve America and the world throughout the great travails of the 20th century, George Marshall more than affirmed the worth of these ‘musts’ and the purposes to which he devoted himself. And in persisting in this affirmation for all his living days, he made of himself an ideal that we should all aspire to emulate.
     Thank you very much for this high honor.

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