Robert Gates worked for eight American presidents, but the leader who inspired him most, said the former U.S. secretary of defense, was a person he’d never met.
That leader was Gen. George Marshall.
Gates had an opportunity Thursday morning to highlight Marshall’s leadership characteristics in a most appropriate event: the annual Marshall Lecture.
And it was an appropriate spot, not far from the house where Marshall lived in 1936-38 when he commanded troops at Vancouver Barracks.
Marshall can teach us a lot about character and service, Gates told the audience at Hudson’s Bay High School.
“He was the gold standard for character and moral courage,” Gates said.
After the lecture, presented by the Fort Vancouver National Trust, Gates visited students at Marshall Elementary.
Gates had a long career in the Central
Intelligence Agency before serving as secretary of defense under President George W. Bush and then President Barack Obama.
Gates had an inside view of pivotal moments in modern history — including some that were part of Academy Award winner “Argo” and fellow Oscar nominee “Zero Dark Thirty.”
Gates noted that Marshall’s career included history-making moments, where his character helped form wartime decisions.
During World War I, then-Capt. Marshall was on the staff of Gen. John Pershing. He was a hard-nosed general at the best of times, but the war in France was not going well, and “Blackjack” Pershing was in a foul mood. Marshall had some advice for Pershing about how to improve things.
“How courageous, to stand up to Pershing and tell him things he needed to know,” Gates said. His fellow officers figured Marshall was headed for the trenches, but Pershing paid attention.
“There is lots of talk about teamwork and collaboration, and that’s good,” Gates said. “But at some time, you will be called upon to stand alone and do what’s right.”
Marshall faced another one of those moments just before America entered World War II, when he was Army chief of staff.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt proposed delaying an upgrade of the U.S. Army, which at that point had the strength of the militaries of Portugal or Switzerland, Gates said.
Roosevelt wanted to focus on helping Great Britain, which was already at war.
With everybody else nodding in agreement, FDR asked Marshall: “Don’t you think so, George?”
Marshall replied: “I don’t agree with that at all.”
Again, his colleagues figured that Marshall had made a really bad career move.
“But that was an act of ultimate loyalty,” Gates said. “To give an honest opinion.”
Marshall was on active military duty for more than 43 years, Gates said, then found other ways to serve. They included secretary of state and finally secretary of defense, the job Gates assumed 56 years later.
Gates started his CIA career in 1966 as an intelligence analyst, and in 1991 became the only entry-level employee to be named CIA director.
A high-profile moment of Gates’ career came while he was secretary of defense from 2006 to 2011. U.S. Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. A photograph that was taken in the White House situation room showed President Obama and members of his national security team — including Gates — following the drama on TV.
“I’d seen a lot of raids like this,” Gates said. “The one that weighed most heavily on me was the rescue of the embassy hostages in Iran” — part of the plot of “Argo.”
“It ended in disaster,” Gates said, when a helicopter crashed.
The SEAL raid on bin Laden’s refuge succeeded, despite a helicopter crash at the compound.
“While the raid was going down, I remembered Iran 30 years earlier,” Gates said. “When the helicopter crashed, I thought I was going to have an aneurysm.”
After that situation-room photo went public, it didn’t take long for someone to Photoshop it.
“We all were in superhero costumes,” Gates said. That’s when he realized the impact of raid-related images.
“I told the president that we must never release those pictures” of bin Laden’s body, Gates said. “It was one of the few mission things that was not leaked, and I’m grateful.”