But For……

The future could/would be different?

When we think about the past, present and future, and their connections –which we should all do from time to time more than we do today—we often assume that there may be repetitive patterns, or cause and effect, or (yes) effects and causes of other mysteries.

Reading a recent and fabulous new biography [Defender of the Republic -David Roll] of General George Marshall, Franklin Roosevelt’s Military Chief of Staff for all of WWII, the foregoing thought came to mind.

Marshall was FDR’s right arm for the five years of WWII. Among the most important things he did was bring Eisenhower to FDR’s attention based on their service together in the Philippines. And, when FDR finally had to decide on the commander of all allied forces for the crucial invasion of Europe in 1943, the President was pressured from all sources to either elevate Eisenhower or ‘demote’ Marshall. It became clear to most people that if Marshall had asked FDR for the assignment (which he refused to do on principle, which was consistent with his lifelong characteristic of always doing the right thing the right way), it now appears in the most reliable sources that FDR would most likely have named Marshall.

The argument not to change a winning team apparently won the day for Eisenhower. Marshall himself, always the obedient general, NEVER, before or later, uttered a word on the subject.

We all know what happened after that.

Eisenhower managed the fall of Germany with a minimum of mistakes and kept USSR east of Berlin.

And Marshall, with Admiral Leahy, effectively accomplished the same goals in the Pacific.

Subsequently, Truman asked Marshall to save China (impossible!). Then, Truman made Marshall Secretary of State, where he crafted what became known as the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and avoid another China.

 In the meanwhile, Eisenhower became a pleasant and comfortable “hidden hand” President for two terms.

OK, but where does the ‘but for’ come into play?

Likely, if FDR had ‘demoted’ Marshall to be head of the invasion of Europe, Eisenhower would never would have become President, a position which history shows has been the just reward of a grateful nation to the General who won on the field a BIG war (as with George Washington, of course and then Ulysses  Grant after the Civil War).

If that had happened, there might never have been a Marshall Plan, which was born largely from Marshall’s China experiences as well as his earlier strategic involvements with Europe, which set the course of post-war history for half a century.

There is no rational reason to believe that anyone at the time –including FDR— might have thought about the but-for in making the decision on Eisenhower v Marshall in 1943.

 But, it is clear today that Eisenhower’s post-heart attack, weak second term lessened Republican leadership at the time and opened a door to a political turnover in 1960. In hindsight, the Kennedy/Johnson years led to major Pacific issues which continue to haunt us today. [That should NOT be taken as blaming them.] Indeed, the world today likely would have been quite different, if Marshall had been President.

There is a case to be made that more fore-thoughted decision making at that time might have/ could have/ should have taken all those possibilities into consideration. One can speculate along many and varied lines. But reasons for thinking along those lines should be encouraged.

The unfolding of events after World War II, while perhaps not ideal, were generally beneficial to America’s interests, and it is not necessary to criticize Eisenhower’s execution of the war effort and post war efforts,  whatever his subsequent shortcomings in political office.  BUT it does serve to illustrate the utility of ‘but-for’ thinking in making major, important decisions with potentially very long term implications.


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