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Longest-serving Army secretary John O. Marsh Jr. dies at 92

John Otho Marsh Jr., Secretary of the Army, speaks at the funeral for Major Arthur D. Nicholson at Arlington National Cemetery on March 30, 1985. (Department of Defense/Released)
February 06, 2019

John O. Marsh Jr., a Virginia Democrat who later turned Republican, died on Feb. 4 from complications of a stroke at the age of 92.

Marsh wasn’t very well-known in the public eye, but was the longest-serving Secretary of the Army after eight years in the post, the Washington Post reported.

Marsh’s roles during the 1970s and 1980s at the White House and the Pentagon were monumental.

Marsh was raised in the Shenandoah Valley and had an extensive military career beginning at age 19. He became a paratrooper and served in the Virginia National Guard for 25 years.

He retired as a lieutenant colonel from the National Guard in 1976, and later received the Defense Department Medal for Distinguished Public Service.

Marsh served in various positions during the Nixon, Ford, and Reagan administrations. He represented Virginia in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1963 to 1971.

While serving his second term in Congress, Marsh offered to go to Vietnam during the war and serve for a month. He never told any of the soldiers that he was in the Congress.

A Vietnam advocate, “Marsh co-sponsored the bill that created the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission in 1966,” according to the Post.

Marsh decided not to seek a fifth term in 1970. He said, “They required candidates for office to sign an oath that they would support the national ticket, which I refused to do. I was not putting up with that.”

Nixon named Marsh the Pentagon’s chief lobbyist to Congress in 1973, which led him to a top assistant position on national security under then-Vice President Ford.

Following Nixon’s resignation, Marsh became a Cabinet-level counselor to President Ford.

Presidential historian Richard Norton Smith said, “Marsh was regarded as one of Ford’s most influential aides — the president’s ‘conscience’. He was the wise man of the Ford administration, someone who was steeped in the traditions of the House, someone who enjoyed the confidence of both sides of the aisle, someone seen as not primarily thirsting in ambition. He’d walked away from the House.”

Marsh was assigned to an investigative committee that studied CIA abuses, including illegal domestic spying by Ford.

During the time just before and after Nixon’s resignation, the subject arose regarding a full pardon to Nixon for his role in the Watergate scandal.

When Marsh found out that Ford and Lt. Col. Alexander M. Haig Jr. were having discussions about pardoning Nixon, he stepped in and ordered that there wouldn’t be a pardon because he feared it would ruin Ford’s character.

Ford later granted a full pardon to Nixon, which led to a Democrat uprising that played a role in his 1976 defeat against Georgia governor Jimmy Carter.

This was around the time that Marsh changed political parties and served two terms under Reagan, becoming the Army’s “longest-serving civilian administrative leader in modern times,” the Post said.

Other significant roles Marsh played were helping to deploy Pershing II missiles to Western Europe, increasing the Army’s budget, and contributions that led to the murder of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In 2007, Marsh was asked to assume co-chair of an independent review group tasked with confronting issues at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, which resulted in its eventual closure and relocation to the National Naval Medical Center campus in Bethesda, Md.

Marsh is survived by two children, Rebecca Whitener of Pulaski, Va., and Scot Marsh of Winchester; and seven grandchildren. Marsh lost his wife of 65 years in 2015 and later his son, who was a combat surgeon for the Delta Force in Somalia.