On July 17, 1941, United States Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall sat before the Senate Military Affairs Committee. As with previous appearances by this career soldier, the senators were impressed by the blue-eyed, sandy-haired, 58-year-old general who had served as the Army’s head man for almost two years.
General Marshall projected strength and a gravitas that demanded the respect of all who knew him. In France during World War I, Marshall served as the American Expeditionary Force’s (AEF) assistant chief of staff, earning praise from AEF commander General John J. Pershing for his efficiency. After the war, Marshall served as an army instructor at service schools, the staff college, and twice with the National Guard.
In the summer of 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt chose Marshall over many senior officers to lead the U.S. Army in its most challenging hour. Indeed, FDR made the Virginia Military Institute graduate the point man in the administration’s military dealings with Congress. Marshall’s mission on this hot, muggy summer day less than five months before Pearl Harbor was to impress upon the committee the necessity of extending the service time for America’s citizen-soldiers, the majority of the newly expanded two million-man army.
Bolstering America’s Defenses
After the fall of France in June 1940, the United States launched a massive effort to bolster the national defense. For the first time in American history, young men were drafted in peacetime for military service. The draft law required the selectees to serve one year on active duty. The first selectees entered service in November 1940; Marshall had a few months before they would go home. Since the previous summer, Marshall had tapped half the Reserve Officer Corps’ 100,000 members for one year of service. He hoped Congress would extend these mostly junior grade officers who were spread throughout the Army.
But most important to the new army’s growth were the National Guard divisions called into federal service beginning in the fall of 1940. By the summer of 1941, Guardsmen constituted close to two-thirds of General Marshall’s army. The first four of the 18 Guard infantry divisions would complete their one year of service in September and go home unless Congress extended their active duty.
The chief of staff tried to impress upon the senators in Washington, D.C, the dangers of the world situation. The Axis might turn west through Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, and West Africa, menacing the Americas.
“We can’t afford to speculate with our safety,” Marshall said. “Our only hope is to do too much.”
Highlighting Marshall’s fears was that day’s New York Times top headline: “Nazis Approach Smolensk On Road To Moscow.” The Wehrmacht seemed poised to dispose of Hitler’s Soviet enemy, an event that would allow him to turn west. The same newspaper page announced the fall of another government cabinet in Tokyo. The Japanese militarists were working their will.
The 18th Largest Army in the World
General George Catlett Marshall assumed the office of acting chief of staff on July 1, 1939. Marshall was promoted to the rank of full general at his official swearing in as chief of staff on September 1, 1939.
Marshall wrote a friend, “My day of induction into office was momentous, with the starting of what appears to be a World War.” To another friend the general wrote, “I wish … I could feel that my time was to be occupied in sound development work, rather than in meeting the emergencies of a great catastrophe.”
What did Marshall command on that momentous September day? Not much. The U.S. Army ranked 18th in size in the world. Yet proper adherence to the National Defense Act of 1920 would have spared the army from such weakness. Two years after the Great War, Congress, building on the Defense Act of 1916, created a plan that envisioned a three-component system of nine corps areas serving under three separate armies spread across the country. Each corps area contained one Regular Army infantry division, two National Guard infantry divisions, and three numbered Organized Reserve (OR) divisions (HQ troops only). The act specified a Regular Army of 17,700 officers and 280,000 enlisted men backed up by a National Guard of 450,000 officers and men and an Organized Reserve of “as many as would volunteer.”
A Strong National Guard, a Weak Regular Army
In an emergency or a declaration of war, the Guard would be federalized, the reserve divisions filled with reserve officers, volunteers, and, if necessary, draftees. Furthermore, the law mandated the Regular Army to provide not only officers and noncommissioned officers for training new men in both the reserve and Guard divisions, but also to create a small but immediate expeditionary force. The General Staff assumed this three-component system could conceivably create a 2.3 million-man army after two months of relentless mobilization.
Postwar realities quickly transformed this plan to create an inexpensive but trained defense force of professional and citizen soldiers into inflated rhetoric. The reduced congressional appropriations of June 1922 signaled the Army’s long slide from the promise of the postwar years to the poverty of the Great Depression. The Regular Army had to reduce the officer corps to 12,000 and the enlisted strength to 125,000, thus preventing the Regulars from carrying out the Defense Act‘s dual mission “to provide a field force to cover the mobilization of the citizen components … to provide troops for training in various specialized schools and training centers in the nine Corps Areas.” Faced with these cuts, the General Staff scrapped the training centers.
Because of its political influence, the Guard suffered only a 15 percent appropriations cut. The new OR, lacking any political influence other than the colleges sponsoring the Reserve Officer Training Corp (ROTC), suffered a crippling 70 percent cut. These cuts all but gutted the new component. General John McAuley Palmer, champion of the Defense Act, lamented that during World War I, “We had an Army and no policy; now we have a policy and no army.”
By the mid-1930s, a decade and a half of neglect had taken a heavy toll. Many Regular units shrank to shells of their intended strength; some units existed solely on paper. The two National Guard divisions in each of the nine corps areas provided the only encouragement. Although not at full peace strength, the National Guard divisions hovered closer to the ideal than did most Regular divisions.
FDR’s Protective Mobilization Plan
The dramatic events of 1937-1938, from the sinking of the U.S. Navy gunboat Panay in China to the Munich crisis in Europe, convinced President Roosevelt of the vital necessity to rearm. At a November 14, 1938, White House meeting of the president’s military and civilian advisers all but the generals were shocked at the Army’s weakness compared to those of the dictatorships. While the November meeting did more for the Army’s semiautonomous air force than it did for the ground force, the meeting did result in the creation of the Protective Mobilization Plan (PMP). The plan’s core consisted of the Initial Protective Force (IPF), four Regular infantry divisions, 18 Guard infantry divisions, various headquarters troops, reserves, and 400,000 volunteers. The dangerous reliance on the volunteer soldier ideal continued, but at least a mobilization blueprint existed. The Army‘s 20-year slumber had ended.
One week after the Nazi invasion of Poland, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 2352 on September 8, 1939, declaring a limited national emergency and authorizing a modest 17,000-man Regular Army increase, bringing the total to 227,000. The president also authorized National Guard expansion to its full peacetime strength and extended the reserve officers’ active duty. FDR told Marshall these steps were as far as he dared go without creating extreme reaction from the public. Thus, the president demonstrated that politics and public opinion influenced these decisions from the outset.
Nevertheless, everyone within the military welcomed any reinforcements. Earlier that summer, Maj. Gen. Hugh A. Drum took his First Army into the field for maneuvers. Drum called the Army a “collection” of understrength and underequipped individual units with little cohesion. Of the nine authorized Regular Army infantry divisions, only the first three and part of the fourth mustered enough troops to take the field, and these divisions were at less than full peacetime strength. Fortunately, all nine authorized divisions were World War I “square divisions” of four regiments per division, totaling 20,000 men.
Since most of the world’s armies had converted to the more mobile triangular divisions, the War Department followed suit and reduced each division’s manpower requirements by one-fourth.
The president’s manpower authorizations allowed the Guard, constituting 75 percent of the nation’s ground forces, to recruit 126,000 men to reach 235,000—still short of the 450,000 allowed by the Defense Act. Unlike the Regular Army, the Guard could not easily detach regiments and move them to other divisions because of its state and regional nature. Understanding the political and geographic nightmare of triangulating the Guard divisions and fearing what Marshall described as “the confusion of organization” and animosity within the Guard, the War Department spared Guard divisions from triangulation during the pre-Pearl Harbor defense period.