As plans for the George C. Marshall Plaza in Uniontown went forward in the early 1990s, it occurred to some of us that a representation of the man himself — a Uniontown native — would be appropriate. Thus was born seated Marshall, situated on the north side of Main Street.
It’s not clear how many people know the statue is there, although it has attracted some attention: I’ve spied people sitting down next to Marshall on the bench we provided for just such occasions.
Pretty much simultaneously, another Marshall likeness was going up at the corner of Pittsburgh and Main in Uniontown. Paid for by the wealthy investor and local philanthropist Robert Eberly, it shows General Marshall on horseback. At his side trots a dog.
Both of these joined a longtime bust of Marshall that sits atop a pedestal on Church Street, near the municipal parking garage.
The three works of art were designed as tributes to Marshall: five-star Army general, hero of World War II, secretary of state, Nobel Peace Prize winner. Hands down, George Marshall is the most renowned citizen Uniontown, Fayette County, or western Pennsylvania ever produced.
Few others even come close.
Now, let me tell you two things about Marshall that maybe you did not know. The first of these is that he didn’t think much of the idea that the United States Army could both fight the war and integrate its ranks.
The U.S. Army of World War II was officially segregated.
As Army chief of staff, Marshall bears, next to the president of the United States, the principal responsibility for the Jim Crow army that Uncle Sam sent around the world to fight and defeat Japanese imperialism and Nazi Germany.
Secondly, George Marshall, a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute, was an admirer of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. “General Lee dominated an army and led it in a magnificent manner,” he said. “... I was greatly influenced by the traditions [at VMI] concerning General Lee and General [Stonewall] Jackson.”
Marshall’s cool stoicism stemmed, in part, from Lee’s example, which he studied closely.
Do these factors make Marshall a bad man - a man unworthy of honor - a man unworthy of a statue of three?
A recent photo was snapped of a young black man standing next to a statue of Winston Churchill in London’s Parliament Square. The man was holding up a sign. It said, “Your Democracy is Hypocrisy.”
On the pedestal of the statue, someone wrote the words, Churchill “was a racist.”
Was Churchill a hypocrite? Was he a racist? The same might be asked of Marshall.
It’s impossible to defend the statues of Confederate leaders, including the granddaddy of all Rebel monuments: the majestic General Lee statue in Richmond, the former Confederate capital.
At minimum, they are offensive to an ordered society. At worst, they are racist. In any event, they have worn out their welcome in the emerging multiracial society of 21st century America.
As for the rest: University of Pittsburgh scholar Kirk Savage, in his book Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves, writes that the “impulse” behind most public monuments derives from the “impulse to mold history” into congenial patterns. Under the influence of the monument-makers, “American history was suppose to be a chronicle of heroic accomplishments” instead of what it is - “a series of messy disputes with unresolved outcomes.”
George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson were slave owners who led messy, consequential lives. Woodrow Wilson was a racist who led the world in the embrace and defense of democracy.
Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson, and, yes, figures like Marshall and Teddy Roosevelt were flawed individuals who strove to mold from the clay of American self-government “a more perfect union.”
I’m with columnist Bret Stephens, who recently said that those four words - “a more perfect union” - can “guide our choice” as to which monuments and tributes to keep and which to jettison.
As commemoration, statues are fine things; otherwise, they can be peculiar: they frequently say as much, or more, about the statue-makers as they do about the subjects themselves.
They are not history. Statues are often static while history can and should be dynamic. Statues speak to the past, at least the poorly executed ones do. The very best of history is about the past speaking to the present and future.
History is uncertainty, nuance, shades of gray. Very infrequently is history triumphal. Often as not, statuary champions nostalgia instead of facts. And as filmmaker Ken Burns has said, “It is the history, not the mythology, we must remember.”
Richard Robbins lives in Uniontown. He can be reached at email@example.com.