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How They Won

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 intimately and hated his guts, favored leaving him on Bataan with his forces as the Japanese closed in. With remarkable prescience, Eisenhower anticipated that if MacArthur escaped, with a war to fight his exhibitionism would become an embarrassment.

Instead, of course, MacArthur assumed command of US forces in Australia and became the most famous American of the Pacific war. In 15 Stars, Stanley Weintraub largely shares Eisenhower’s view that MacArthur’s celebrity transcended his abilities. In the spring of 1942, the US press and people were desperate for heroes. They made one of MacArthur, though in truth his battlefield performance on Luzon had been no more impressive than that of British commanders in Malaya, during that same season of defeats.

MacArthur was a poor picker of subordinates who dismissed intelligence that did not mesh with his own desires. Despite his undoubted intellect, he lacked generosity of spirit toward all save his court favorites. He was, however, a darling of the American right, and especially of Colonel Robert McCormick, proprietor of the Chicago Tribune. In the months following his flight from Corregidor, MacArthur received a torrent of adulatory publicity. There were calls for him to be made the nation’s supreme warlord. The general became an almost impossible man to sack, unless he committed some conspicuous military folly.

This he did not do. His worst offense was to devote the rest of the war to promoting his own return to the Philippines, a dubious strategic objective, but one that found plenty of emotional support back at home. His long contest with the Navy for resources and primacy in the Pacific was never resolved. America was so absurdly rich that it indulged parallel campaigns by Admiral Chester Nimitz and MacArthur, the former’s notably better conducted.

MacArthur’s public relations staff became the most effective arm of his war machine. If he was not one of history’s great commanders, he acted the part with such conviction that most of the American people accepted his self-image. By 1944–1945 his command possessed such overwhelming resources by comparison with the Japanese that it could live with his limitations as a field commander. To this day, many Americans perceive him as a titan, whereas in truth he was half the man Eisenhower was, and a figure of straw by comparison with Marshall.

As Army chief of staff, Marshall never matched the national fame of MacArthur and later Eisenhower, but he earned the profound respect of Congress and the American press. Marshall was not close to the President, whose deviousness irked him, but FDR always recognized his quality. A cool, lonely, austere officer who possessed a certain dry wit but made no jokes, Marshall’s commitment, dignity, focus, and ironclad integrity command the awe of posterity. An inspired picker of men (though not infallible—the name of the notably incompetent General Lloyd Fredendall was among the officers in his famous “little black book”), he backed to the hilt those to whom he delegated commands. Churchill called him the “organizer of Victory,” and so he was.

Yet relations between Britain and the United States in 1942 were characterized by dissension and bitterness, of an intensity well described by both Weintraub and Perry. In 1941, until Pearl Harbor, the British had wooed the US, as a neutral party, with oriental patience and courtesy. Every important American visitor to Britain was wined and feted, often by the prime minister in person. When Roosevelt and Churchill met at Placentia Bay in Newfoundland in August, the British chiefs of staff were shocked by how unprepared their American counterparts seemed for war, but hid their emotions.

After Pearl Harbor, however, the gloves were off. In Churchill’s gleeful words, now that Roosevelt’s people were in the harem, they could be spoken to quite differently. At the first big Anglo-American summits in December 1941 and June 1942, the British showed their disdain for what they perceived as American amateurishness.

In particular, they recoiled from Marshall’s proposal, which he advanced with fierce determination until the autumn of 1942, that the Western allies should land in France that year. The British, bleeding in a hundred places from successive maulings at the hands of the German forces since May 1940, thought it madness to contemplate returning to the Continent, when the German army mustered some 240 divisions—albeit most in Russia—while British forces were still woefully ill-equipped, and the US Army could offer only five or six raw formations to such a venture.

Alan Brooke, Britain’s chief of the Imperial General Staff, wrote dismissively of Marshall:

a pleasant and easy man to get along with, [but] rather over-filled with his own importance…. I should not put him down as a great man…. In the light of the existing situation his plans for September of 1942 were just fantastic!

Marshall, in his turn, found the dour, abrupt Northern Irish general unsympathetic. He had no patience with British assumptions of superiority, founded chiefly (as many Americans saw it) on the frequency of their experiences of defeat at the hands of Germany. At a time when he was struggling to build and equip America’s army, he resisted Britain’s insatiable demands for weapons and equipment for its own forces. He was alarmed by Churchill’s ability to engage in tête-à-têtes with the President, at which high strategy was discussed in the absence of America’s service chiefs.

The British preoccupation with the Mediterranean found no friends in Washington outside the White House. “For Marshall,” Weintraub writes, “suspicion of British imperial designs under Churchill underlay every war-time scheme.” The US Army—and Eisenhower for much of 1942 echoed his master’s voice on this issue—wanted to land in France and fight the German army on the only battlefield that mattered.

Marshall argued that it was so urgent to divert German forces from the Russian front, where Stalin’s forces seemed close to defeat, that it was acceptable to risk the likely destruction of an Allied beachhead in France. As Weintraub puts it, “Marshall conceded that a premature Second Front in Europe was basically a ‘desperate’ contingency to counter, if necessary, German thrusts…toward Stalingrad that could impel Russia toward a separate peace.” But the British were horrified by the recklessness, as they saw it, of such talk.

To the enduring chagrin of America’s generals, Churchill won this argument. He persuaded FDR to make his most important personal strategic intervention of the war, and commit US forces to land in North Africa in November 1942. The unexpectedly long and difficult campaign which followed, ending only in May 1943 with the surrender of 275,000 Axis troops in Tunisia, effectively precluded a D-Day in northwest Europe for that year also. US forces were instead lured into Italy, again contrary to their commanders’ deepest instincts.

The British got their way not because America’s generals accepted their argument, which they certainly did not, but because the British in 1942–1943 dominated overall force strengths in the European and Mediterranean theaters, while the US Army conducted its slow buildup. If the British would not play in a given game, it could not take place. Marshall, in a rare moment of small-mindedness, responded by threatening to advocate a shift of American troops and landing craft to the Pacific.

Roosevelt, however, like Churchill, grasped political imperatives which their respective commanders were reluctant to acknowledge. It was essential that the American and British peoples should see their armies in action against the Germans. Once Operation Torch, the North African landing, was agreed on, FDR “put up his hands [prayerfully]” to Marshall and said, “Please make it before Election Day.” In the event, Operation Torch was launched on November 8, just after the 1942 congressional elections, but these were much in the President’s mind.

The North African campaign did nothing to make America’s soldiers like or respect their British counterparts any better. Mark Clark said sourly that “it was better to fight Allies than be one of them.” But it served the vital purpose of obliging the US Army to accept that it had a long, long way to go before being ready to face the Wehrmacht in northwest Europe. Eisenhower wrote to Marshall after the defeat at Kasserine in Tunisia in February 1943 that his army now recognized that war was not “a child’s game.”

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