“The difficulties of leadership which existed in 1917-18 have been enormously multiplied today by the increased mobility and fire power of modern armies, and the necessity for vigorous commanders is greater now than it has ever been before.”
– Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall, June 5, 1940
On Sept. 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, plunging Europe into the conflict soon named World War II. On that same day, Gen. George C. Marshall was sworn in as the fifteenth Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. He assumed command of a 190,000-man force ranked nineteenth in the world, behind Portugal and ahead of Bulgaria. With the world beyond America’s shores going to hell in a hand basket, Marshall planned to quickly increase the Army ranks tenfold. To command those new troops and lead them in combat, he needed vigorous, young commanders. Standing between him and that goal was a lot of “dead wood” – officers in their fifties and early sixties, many of them superannuated colonels.
In the interwar years, Army promotions below the rank of brigadier general were made solely through seniority. Because vacancies only occurred through retirement, it was not unusual for officers to remain at one rank for decades. For example, Marshall, who had been a colonel in World War I, was reduced to his peacetime rank of captain following the war and served 15 more years before once again achieving the rank of colonel.
When President Franklin Roosevelt chose Marshall as Army Chief of Staff, he bypassed thirty-three more senior generals. Most importantly, he had rejected Marshall’s major competition for the post, Maj. Gen. Hugh Drum, who had reached that rank in 1930, held almost every top position in the Army below Chief of Staff, and in fact had been regularly recommended for that position since 1930. To those officers content with the existing system, there was no clearer signal that times had changed.
A legend arose during World War II that Marshall kept a “little black book” that had the names of junior officers he had encountered over the years who had impressed him. While it’s been argued that the physical black book itself didn’t exist, what is inarguable is the fact that Marshall did keep tabs on promising junior officers. Many of those, such as Eisenhower, Bradley, Ridgeway, and others, went on to become successful commanders during the war. Marshall’s opportunity to act decisively on the dead wood officer problem occurred when the Second Supplemental Appropriation Act of 1940 was passed. Included in its provisions was the elimination of the seniority-only criteria for promotions. Now vested with the authority to promote deserving junior officers, Marshall acted swiftly to clear the logjam.
He established what was called the “plucking board” or “plucking committee.” It was composed of six retired officers headed by his immediate predecessor and former boss, Gen. Malin Craig. Its task was to review the efficiency ratings of the older officers – particularly colonels in their sixties and near retirement who could not withstand the rigors of combat command – and weed out the worst to make room for younger, more fit officers. In his instructions to the review board he told them to ignore past, peacetime records, as they were irrelevant when it came to the demands of leadership in combat. “Critical times are upon us,” he warned. Only “today’s performance” mattered. In the first six months of its existence the panel removed 195 captains, majors, lieutenant colonels, and colonels. Ultimately 500 colonels were forced into retirement. One who was not was Col. George Patton. Even though his age, 54, placed him in the at-risk for retirement category, Patton had the energy and drive of a much younger man – he survived the plucking committee’s review.
On April 22, 1941, Marshall testified about the progress of his rapid mobilization program of the Army before the Truman Committee, a senate committee responsible for oversight of military expenditures. He made a point of highlighting the success of the new policy of selective promotion based on merit. Marshall said, “If leadership depends purely on seniority you are defeated before you start. You give a good leader very little and he will succeed; you give mediocrity a great deal and they will fail. This is illustrated everywhere I turn. These rapid tours I make around the country disclose that as the most impressive thing. You see the effect of leadership in handling the flu, in the construction of a cantonment, in doing anything.”