To become one of history’s great commanders, the first essential is to be born at the right time, around half a century before a big war. Countless aspirant Washingtons and Marlboroughs, Lees and Wellingtons, have moldered away their lives on obscure military posts, for lack of opportunity to display their capabilities on a battlefield.
Between 1918 and 1941, a generation of majors and colonels in the US Army anticipated that this would be their own fate. Few Americans of those days had ever heard of George Catlett Marshall, though fortunately Franklin Roosevelt got to do so. Dwight Eisenhower endured a torrid spell of servitude under Douglas MacArthur, who described him as the “best clerk I ever had,” a contemptuous verdict that MacArthur declined later to revise.
By inspiration and a miracle of good fortune, when the then Army chief of staff retired in 1939, FDR leapfrogged fifty-nine-year-old Brigadier General Marshall over the heads of thirty-three more senior officers to become first acting chief, then permanent incumbent. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Marshall in turn plucked Brigadier General Eisenhower from obscurity, summoning him to Washington initially to take the second spot in the War Plans Department, two months later to head it.
Marshall barely looked up from his desk when Eisenhower reported for duty, according to Mark Perry in Partners in Command:
He spoke in clipped sentences: The US military position in the Pacific was dire. American forces in the Philippines were in danger of being overrun and at least half of the US Navy was at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The US lacked men and matériel. Training facilities were in short supply and America’s supply lines were stretched to the breaking point. Everywhere, the powers of Germany and Japan were on the march. The situation was bad and bound to get worse. “We have got to do our best in the Pacific and we’ve got to win this whole war,” Marshall said. He looked bluntly at Eisenhower, unsmiling, his face set. “Now, how are we going to do it?” Eisenhower hesitated for only a moment: “Give me a few hours.”
In the course of the months that followed, Eisenhower’s success in mobilizing America for war convinced Marshall that he was capable of remarkable things. Eisenhower was clear-sighted, decisive, as dedicated as the chief of staff himself, and possessed of notable persuasive powers. Eisenhower was sent first on an exploratory mission across the Atlantic, then placed in command of US troops in Britain. Thereafter, he became FDR’s and Marshall’s choice for the big jobs, not least because he was one of the few senior American officers who did not proclaim from the rooftops his disdain for the British.
MacArthur’s was a very different story. He assumed command in Manila in 1941 because he was there already, as chief adviser to the Philippines armed forces, having retired as US Army chief of staff in 1935. Eisenhower, who knew the general …