Arthur I. Cyr: Public servants and the public good
General George C. Marshall is what people used to call a dedicated public servant. As Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, he did essential work to get a dangerously unprepared America at least partially ready for World War II, and then led the mammoth organizational effort required for victory.
Later, he served as Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense during the trying post-war years, as the Cold War began. The Marshall Plan, the comprehensive aid and reconstruction program for Europe, began implementation in 1948 — 70 years ago. That year governments created the Organization for European Economic Cooperation to distribute aid, succeeded in 1960 by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a global organization.
Marshall wanted to lead the Allied invasion of Europe at Normandy, but that mission went to protégé Dwight Eisenhower. President Franklin Roosevelt considered Marshall indispensable, and said he could not sleep at night if the general were not in Washington.
Along with remarkable executive ability, Marshall had great diplomatic and political skill. Soon after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese land forces trapped U.S. troops in the Philippines under the command of General Douglas MacArthur. President Roosevelt was emphatic that MacArthur should not become a Japanese prisoner of war, and ordered an evacuation to Australia.
Despite personal dislike and mistrust of MacArthur, a view widely shared, Marshall followed up thoroughly to ensure MacArthur’s escape, that media and public knew this was not MacArthur’s decision, and the government of Australia welcomed him. Marshall also decided MacArthur should receive the Medal of Honor.
We do not discuss Marshall much today. He put little personal information in the public record, and never wrote memoirs. He feared inadvertently revealing details best kept private.
Also — incredibly from a contemporary perspective — he felt strongly that patriotic citizens should not benefit financially from government office. For him, public service was literally just that. Fortunately, Forrest Pogue authored a masterful comprehensive biography of this great leader.
Another such public servant is Charles Bowsher, who 10 years ago this month, visited Carthage College in Wisconsin. For 16 years starting in 1981, he was Comptroller General of the United States, a low-profile but enormously important post that oversees budget management on behalf of the Congress.
Earlier, Bowsher spent a total of a quarter century with top accounting firm Arthur Andersen. In public remarks, he provided a detailed tour of the government horizon. He gave high marks to Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton for impressive budgetary discipline, even in the face of harsh criticism, which probably cost the former leader reelection.
In comments echoing Eisenhower, he emphasized that wars are easy to begin but often hard to end, using Iraq as an example. His presentation was an informative, inspiring history lesson on the vital role of government in averting as well as handling crises, from the economy to war, and the great difficulty of instituting change in the public sector at any time.
Carthage this month hosts former Governor John Baldacci of Maine, a leader who emphasizes bipartisan collaboration. Currently, he chairs the Northeast-Midwest institute, a nonprofit working to improve environment and infrastructure among the eighteen states in the Midwest and Northeast of the U.S.
Today, the intense political partisanship that characterizes Washington, and expressed public hostility to our national government, underscores the importance of state and regional cooperation.
Thanks to Marshall and associates, we can focus on peaceful pursuits.
— Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War.” Contact email@example.com.