The attack on the foreign flags at the George C. Marshall Memorial Plaza at Uniontown’s Five Corners – the suspect in the case told police the national emblems had no business flying in the good old U.S. of A. – brings to mind this fact: General-of-the Army Marshall was a nationalist in an internationalist setting.

Or maybe that order should be reversed: He was at heart an internationalist who wore the uniform of his country.

In any event, he was a realist. He knew America’s well-being relied on others playing a constructive role in the competition among nations for peace, power, and influence.

In the embroidered floor of the Plaza, located across Main Street from where Marshall grew up (he was born in Uniontown in 1880), are his own words: “We are a strong nation. But we cannot live to ourselves and remain strong. The cause of liberty cannot have too many friends.”

Marshall as both general and secretary of state (he also served as secretary of defense under Harry Truman) was fiercely protective of U.S. interests. Nothing illustrates this better than the exchange General Marshall had with Britain’s World War II prime minister, Winston Churchill, about a possible invasion of the Island of Rhodes, off Greece, then under German occupation.

The Americans, led by Marshall, had for a long time viewed an Allied invasion of northern France as the surest and quickest road to Berlin and victory against the Nazis and Adolf Hitler, whereas the British preferred a more round-about route, through occupied Europe’s “soft underbelly.”

At an Allied conference in Cairo, Egypt, in 1943, months before the successful Normandy invasion of June 6, 1944, Churchill renewed his demand for an attack on Rhodes.

The prime minister thundered at Marshall, “His Majesty’s Government can’t have its troops standing idle. Muskets must flame.”

Marshall just as fiercely replied, “Not one American soldier is going to die on that goddamn island.”

Churchill, well aware of the emerging U.S. preeminence in the council of war, never broached the subject of Rhodes again.

But neither was Churchill put off by the vehemence of Marshall’s reply. (Churchill is the one, after all, who coined the epigram, “The only thing worse than allies is no allies.”)

Following the war Churchill paid tribute to Marshall, declaring that the general was the “architect” of Allied strategy, the undoubted “organizer of victory” around the world.

Whether or not Marshall believed the hyperbole has gone unrecorded, but it’s doubtful. He was a realist and knew full well the critical role that other individuals and nations played. For instance, the Russians.

Cold War enemies and present-day adversaries, the Russians during the Second World War were indispensable to the defeat of Hitler, as Marshall well knew.

He would have done somersaults to keep Russia in the fight, thus Lend-Lease, against Germany.

Marshall, along with presidents Roosevelt and Truman, were gaga over the Russian decision – carried out precisely as promised – to enter the war against Japan soon after the Nazi collapse: No one in Washington was then certain that the Los Alamos scientists would actually crack the codes of atomic weaponry, in time at least to save a million U.S. lives, the estimated loss in a prospective invasion of the Japanese homeland.

For that matter, Marshall knew how important the British were. He and others admired Britain’s brave resistance to Hitler in the early days of the war, even as their patience was tested later in the war by the lead British general, the haughty Bernard Law Montgomery.

Marshall was so close to Britain’s John Dill that the generals kept each other informed about the secret deliberations of each man’s government. When Dill died in Washington in the middle of the war, Marshall arranged burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the nation’s most hollowed ground.

Marshall was the chief proponent of unity of command: one general in overall charge of one theater of war at a time. That meant, because the U.S. carried the heaviest load, Dwight Eisenhower had overall command in Europe, with Brits in important subordinate roles.

The unity of command concept is the perfect expression of the Marshall method of allied warfare. The general from Uniontown was a nationalist internationalist.

We are passing through strange times in this country; the attack on the Capitol and the attack on the flags at Marshall Plaza are more or less flip sides of the same coin: Ignorance is in the saddle and riding high. It’s the return of the know-nothings.

George Marshall would be perplexed. Having lived through a period of real danger – the rise of Hitlerism and its defeat – he would be appalled by these attacks on democracy and common sense.

Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at dick.l.robbins@gmail.com.

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