GENERAL OF THE ARMY

George C. Marshall,

Soldier and Statesman

By Ed Cray

Norton. 847 pp. $35

EISENHOWER, MacArthur and Patton. These are the generals that Americans remember from World War II. Eisenhower, of course, served two terms as president while two movies made MacArthur and Patton more memorable. George C. Marshall's name, however, usually puzzles the average college student who might make the guess that he had something to do with the Marshall Plan. He did -- but there is much more about Gen. Marshall that should be remembered.

As chief of staff of the Army from 1939 through the end of World War II, he oversaw the mobilization, equipping and training of the largest American army in history. His responsibility did not end once this tremendous force was committed to battle. As the leading American military strategist, he played a key role in shaping the course of the war.

With victory accomplished and demobilization well under way, President Truman assigned the frustrating role of peacemaker between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists. He failed in that mission but, in all likelihood, no one could have been successful. Then, as secretary of state for the two critical years of 1947 and 1948, he bolstered the Free World's cause in the Cold War with actions that resulted in his being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Finally, in the early days of the Korean War, he took the office of secretary of defense and supervised a military build-up as well as set the terms for a defense policy that went far beyond the Korean peninsula. Here, indeed, was a great man.

Ed Cray, a journalist turned academic, spent 14 years preparing this large book. While the result certainly does not replace Forrest C. Pogue's monumental, definitive biography that Viking Press brought out in four volumes between 1963 and 1987, it is a well-written, balanced and effective full length coverage of the general's life.

Although his focus is naturally on the years from 1939 to 1951, Cray does not neglect the earlier years when his subject matured and worked his way to the top. After all, by the time Marshall became chief of staff in 1939, he was 58 and had spent more than 37 years in the Army.

They were years in which he advanced with success from one assignment to another. In particular, he established a reputation while still a lieutenant as a student at Fort Leavenworth's School of the Line and Staff College. In the American Expeditionary Force during World War I, he performed brilliantly as a staff officer and attracted the attention of Gen. John J. Pershing whose close adviser he became in the early postwar years. Throughout his service but particularly when he was assistant commandant at the Infantry School at Fort Benning from 1927 to 1932, he kept a sharp eye on subordinates. His astute judgments of those who became known as "the Marshall Men" -- Omar Bradley, J. Lawton Collins and others -- paid off when the ones he chose for high command turned in such exemplary performances in World War II.

The author gets across the character and personality of the man as well as details of his personal life to balance the description of his professional activities. Reserved, aloof, Marshall seemed to thrive in situations where there were no easy decisions. His willingness to make those hard decisions, his integrity, his demeanor, his command of relevant facts and the ability to present them tersely and effectively impressed Presidents Roosevelt and Truman as well as many others including Winston Churchill. Then, in the great tasks which he faced, he demonstrated vision and the ability to continue to learn.

CRAY WORKS his way skillfully through the intricate issues of wartime strategy and explains the decisions hammered out by the American military chiefs and their Allied counterparts. In controversial matters -- such as those strategic debates, the retention of segregation in the wartime Army, the Pearl Harbor disaster, the problems of China during the war and into the postwar period, and Marshall's relations with Douglas MacArthur -- he presents the evidence and arrives at conclusions generally sympathetic to Marshall.

Scholars -- indeed, any reader -- deeply interested in the subject should turn to Pogue's magisterial work and "The Papers of George Catlett Marshall" (two volumes of which are in print) while anyone looking for an excellent brief -- 200 or so pages -- biography should pick up Mark Stoler's "George C. Marshall: Soldier-Statesman of the American Century" which came out last year. Cray's book fills the need, then, of the reader who wants to read more about Marshall than Stoler offers but less than is available in the Pogue biography. In any case, it is time well-taken to gain knowledge not only of Marshall but also of the American army throughout the first half of this century, World War II and the first years of the Cold War.

Edward M. Coffman, a professor of history at the University of Wisconsin, is the author of "The Old Army: A Portrait of the American Army in Peacetime, 1784-1898."