George Catlett Marshall Memorial Dinner
Washington Convention Center
October 24, 2012
…I’m delighted to join you this evening and proud and honored to receive the George C. Marshall Award.
As with most of you out there, I take pride in the fact that I was able to serve my country and, in effect, give something back to the greatest nation the world has ever seen.
Yes, I am proud of my service in the cabinets of three wonderful American presidents, but frankly I am equally proud of the fact that I am a United States Marine - that my father was an Army Captain in the 90th Division in World War I and that my son, Will, served as an Army Ranger and as a sentinel at the Tomb of the Unknowns.
I want to share an anecdote with you about my service as a Marine.
The day after my confirmation by the Senate as Secretary of State, I was sitting in my office on the 7th Floor of the State Department when an assistant came in and said that the Commandant of the Marine Corps had called.
He had requested an opportunity to pay a courtesy call on me.
Of course I said “yes,” and a couple of days later, into my office strides General Al Gray with four stars on each shoulder. My highest rank in the Marine Corps was Captain, so I was blown away by all of those stars.
We had a brief but nice visit and as he got up to leave, General Gray said: “Mr. Secretary, I have a gift of business cards for you.”
He handed me a box of business cards printed on a background of Marine Corps combat camouflage.
In the middle of the card in very large letters, it said: “James A. Baker, III -- Marine Warrior.”
And at the bottom of the card in very tiny letters, it said: “And Secretary of State.”
Now, Ladies and Gentlemen, that’s keeping things in perspective!
I said a moment ago that I was very proud to receive this award. That’s because General Marshall was one of the most important and admirable figures in the 20th century history of the United States.
And to have my name associated with him in any way is an honor that I will always treasure.
As Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 1939 to 1945, George C. Marshall was, in the words of Winston Churchill, the “architect of victory” in World War II. Indeed, he may have made a greater contribution to our war effort than any other American, with the exception of President Franklin Roosevelt himself. And Marshall did so, moreover, not just as head of the U.S. Army, but as a leader in a grand military coalition that included other great powers like the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union.
Later, as Secretary of State, he would make history yet again. We remember him – rightly – for the Marshall Plan that offered economic hope to the struggling countries of Western Europe. But he was also instrumental in creating the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as a bulwark against Soviet aggression. These two initiatives, taken together, would lay the groundwork for our ultimate victory in the Cold War over forty years later….
…(We can) draw important lessons from the life and legacy of George C. Marshall.
Let me suggest three such lessons:
First, we must keep the United States militarily strong.
Marshall would no doubt be proud of today’s military establishment – not just his beloved army, but our Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps as well. Our service men and women are, beyond dispute, the best trained, the best armed, and the best led in the world. Over the course of the last decade, our officers and enlisted personnel have performed magnificently in combat zones as varied and challenging as Iraq and Afghanistan.
Today, we have no rival in our ability to project decisive force across immense distances. And our potential adversaries are decades, not years, away from matching our global reach. China, for instance, just commissioned its first aircraft carrier, though it lacks aircraft capable of landing on it. The United States Navy, in contrast, has eleven fully-equipped, state-of-the-art carrier groups.
Nonetheless, we cannot become complacent when it comes to national defense. We have paid --- and paid dearly -- for lack of preparedness before. When Marshall became Chief of Staff in 1939, for instance, the U.S. regular army was the 17th largest in the world, trailing such countries as Portugal and Bulgaria. Later, in the wake of the Vietnam War, preparedness again would erode, leading some to describe our military as “hollowed out.” We simply cannot let our military capabilities deteriorate.
Does that mean our military must maintain its current force structure? Of course not.
As challenges change, so must the way we address them. Given the shifting geopolitical landscape, for instance, it makes good sense to shift some of our focus and resources from Western Europe to the Far East.
Moreover, the overall defense budget is not written in stone. Given our current dire fiscal straits, defense will have to be on the table in any discussion of a grand budgetary bargain. This is not only a political reality. It will also be good for the long-term health of our military. Why? Because our ability to field the world’s preeminent armed forces is dependent upon our economic strength. And our debt crisis represents a severe and growing threat to that strength.
Even as we maintain our military strength, we should be prudent when deploying it. This is not the place to argue the wisdom of our invasion of Iraq and of our protracted combat presence in Afghanistan. But these interventions do demonstrate the risk of “overstretch.” The next president, whoever he is, should be very wary of “wars of choice” when our vital national interests are not at stake. Our service women and men deserve no less.
Let me now turn to a second lesson we can learn from Marshall: the importance of alliances.
We didn’t win World War II or the Cold War alone. Indeed, Marshall spent much of his effort as Army Chief of Staff and Secretary of State in creating and sustaining grand coalitions.
He understood that U.S. power, though immense, was still finite. And he realized that alliances could play a crucial role in advancing our national interest. Those alliances, such as our partnership with the Soviet Union in World War II, could be temporary. Or, like our alliances with other NATO members, they could be permanent. But they served the same purpose: leveraging U.S. power through cooperation with like-minded states.
This is no less true today. Of course we must be prepared, if need be, to act alone if our vital national interests are at stake. But we should, where possible, seek allies.
Cooperation can not only reduce the cost of action to the United States by sharing the burden with other countries. It can also serve to bolster support for international engagement here at home. The American people – rightly – have little taste for “going it alone” when plausible alternatives exist.
Thanks to visionaries like George C. Marshall, we enjoy formal alliances of durability and strength. These include, first and foremost, NATO and our bilateral treaties with South Korea and Japan. But we should be prepared to turn to more informal coalitions when circumstances demand them. A case in point is the coalition we assembled in 1990 and 1991 to eject Iraq from Kuwait.
We must also be ready to form new coalitions to counter emerging geopolitical threats. I do not believe that conflict with China is inevitable. And I have little sympathy with “China-bashing,” no matter where it comes from on our political spectrum. But I also know that the future course of China’s domestic politics is uncertain and that, moreover, we have little influence over it. This means that the day may -- and I repeat may -- come when China will emerge as a major threat. And addressing it will require forging a new coalition that includes not just traditional U.S. allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Australia, but other regional powers, including India and perhaps even Vietnam and Russia. Alliances, in other words, are critical to a flexible response to changing events. And they will remain a central element to the effective conduct of U.S. foreign policy.
I now come to the third and last lesson we should take from Marshall’s achievements: the imperative of bipartisanship.
Marshall himself, of course, was a model of non-partisanship. But we would be wise to recall that the two great accomplishments of his life – winning World War II and protecting Western Europe from Soviet aggression – were the products of bipartisan cooperation here in the United States.
Our war effort enjoyed broad support across political lines. And the Truman Administration’s efforts to counter Soviet aggression in Europe were bolstered by internationalist Republicans such as Arthur Vandenberg.
…Whenever I get a little too self-satisfied, the example of George C. Marshall brings me down to earth.
At the outset of my remarks, I spoke of Marshall’s immense contributions to our country. But Marshall was more – much more – than his achievements as historic as they were. He was and is also a model for military officers and, indeed, all who seek a place of leadership in public life.
Marshall was, to use an old-fashioned term, a man of character. His personal integrity was beyond reproach. His sense of duty animated everything he did. And his patriotism – though undemonstrative – represented the true passion of his life. Over fifty years after his death, he remains the standard by which all Americans who claim to serve their country must be judged.
Few – perhaps none – of us can meet that standard. But, as I have suggested, it is imperative that we learn the lessons of George C. Marshall’s historic legacy. And it is just as important that we let his life of “duty, honor, country” serve as a beacon as we navigate a period of uncertainty both abroad and here at home.