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.”
In a telling passage of Perry’s book, the author quotes George Patton addressing his troops just before D-Day:
Men, this stuff we hear about America wanting to stay out of this war, not wanting to fight, is a crock of bullshit. Americans love to fight—traditionally. All real Americans love the sting and clash of battle.
The author wisely dissents: “No, actually, we don’t. Americans have traditionally hated war.”
The challenge that confronted Marshall, Eisenhower, MacArthur—and Brooke and Montgomery—was to make the citizen soldiers of their respective democracies fight just hard enough, with the aid of overwhelming material superiority, to overcome Hitler’s legions, the most effective fighting machine the world has ever seen. The British had no grounds whatever for claiming that their commanders or their armies were superior in skill and determination to those of the US. But they were entirely correct in supposing that a D-Day in France in 1942 or 1943 would have been a catastrophe for the Allied forces.
This was the one big thing Marshall got wrong in World War II. Perry writes:
It was only with the passage of time that both Marshall and Eisenhower were able to admit that the British had the better of this debate: the Allies were woefully unprepared for Sledgehammer [the proposed D-Day invasion in 1942]. Alan Brooke, for all his nose-in-the-air dramatics, was essentially right: this was a cross-Channel suicide operation.
Two fine recent books by American writers, Rick Atkinson’s An Army at Dawn and Douglas Porch’s Hitler’s Mediterranean Gamble, have emphasized how vital was the Mediterranean experience in making D-Day a success in June 1944.* There was so much to learn: about the handling and training of large armies; about the merits and shortcomings of commanders and weapons against those of the enemy; about providing enough shipping, an apparently banal and yet fundamental determinant of wartime strategy which still awaits a good book of its own. The Anzio attack of January 1944, so ardently sponsored by Churchill, failed at least partly for lack of sufficient landing ships to throw ashore a force capable of a decisive thrust.
In their books, both Weintraub and Perry are rightly unstinting in their praise for Marshall, the rock upon which America’s ultimate triumph was founded. It would be absurd to hold against him his European strategic misjudgment of 1942–1943. He was correct about fundamentals: the United States must create a big army and ultimately employ it against the Germans in France.
Marshall’s suspicion of British pusillanimity was at least partly justified. Churchill and his commanders, accustomed to fighting a war on shoestring resources, found it hard to adjust their imaginations to the possibilities opened by American wealth—possibilities that emerged much more slowly than Washington anticipated in 1942, but reached an astounding scale in 1944–1945. When Perry writes of “vintage Churchill, nipping and sawing at Europe without going for Germany’s jugular,” he is correct. Senior British officers conceded after the war that without the iron resolution of senior Americans, Churchill’s fears about the price in blood of landing in Normandy might have delayed D-Day until 1945.
Both Marshall and Brooke suffered great difficulties in identifying appropriate leaders for their armies. Few American or British commanders handled large forces with anything like the confidence displayed by their Soviet and German counterparts. The US ultimately produced more first-class corps and divisional generals than Britain. But MacArthur and Eisenhower look today more like men who played great parts than great captains in the manner of Georgy Zhukov and Konstantin Rokossovsky, Erich von Manstein, Gerd von Rundstedt, and even Albert Kesselring.
Yet Eisenhower would become a remarkable manager of the Anglo-American alliance in the field in the latter half of the war. In 1942, he was unequivocally Marshall’s protégé, seeking frequent reassurance that his performance satisfied his mentor, and in early 1943 he was fearful that his mistakes in North Africa might cost him his job.
By 1944, however, Perry observes that the huge fame and popularity that fell upon the genial Kansan had shifted the balance:
While Marshall was still Eisenhower’s senior commander, their relationship had subtly changed. Eisenhower still deferred to Marshall, but during the briefings… that followed…it was the younger man whose views held sway, whose opinions were solicited, whose plans and strategic views were reviewed, critiqued, accepted…. Eisenhower was slowly becoming the senior partner.
Eisenhower’s huge responsibilities as supreme Allied commander in northwest Europe matured him very fast. Wartime generalship is unlike any other career. There is seldom a slow, steady progression toward a professional summit. Once placed in high command, a few months of victories can inflate an officer’s status as dramatically as it transformed Dwight Eisenhower from the obscure brigadier general of New Year 1942 to the warlord of 1944–1945. Contrarily, defeat can as quickly relegate a prominent general to obscurity. The US Army ruthlessly relieved failing leaders, sometimes after a single battle.
Some, like Lloyd Fredendall, whom Eisenhower fired as a corps commander following the Kasserine disaster in March 1943, deserved their fates. Others were just unlucky. When a British general lectured to his staff college in 1942 about the principles of war, on his conclusion a Polish officer stood up and accused him of omitting one vital ingredient: “Be stronger.” Allied commanders between 1943 and 1945 possessed a huge advantage denied to their predecessors earlier in the war: on almost every battlefield, they had more of everything than their foes, which flattered their performances.
Eisenhower was the right man in the right job as supreme commander, chiefly because of his inspirational patience in working with his British allies, which the more militarily gifted Patton utterly lacked. Some historians—though not Weintraub or Perry—fail to acknowledge that all alliance relationships are tough and fractious. Marlborough’s campaigns against the French in the early eighteenth century were blighted by his difficulties with the Dutch. Wellington, fighting Napoleon’s armies in the Peninsula, suffered constant grief at the hands of the Portugese and Spanish.
More than sixty years on from World War II, it remains impossible to imagine anyone doing Eisenhower’s job better than he did it. Instead of focusing upon his limitations, which were real enough, what matters is that he kept the alliance working. Montgomery deserved to be sacked for his insubordination as surely as did MacArthur for his megalomania. But Marshall and Eisenhower understood that commanders whom propaganda had made national heroes, deservedly or not, must be endured.
Stanley Weintraub is dismayed by Eisenhower’s rash and undignified dalliance with his driver, Kay Summersby. Yet miraculously, the story was kept out of the papers. Eisenhower escaped the consequences of his one notable personal folly. He, in his turn, was surely right to endure George Patton’s indiscretions, including slapping two hospital patients suffering from dysentery and shell shock, respectively, in return for his abilities as an aggressive commander. Marshall’s backing for Eisenhower in good times and bad represented the model of a command relationship, to which both Weintraub and Perry offer just tribute.
I admire Weintraub’s shrewd grasp of military and political realities. But the structure of his work seems less convincing than Perry’s because of its inclusion of MacArthur. Marshall and Eisenhower enjoyed a close working relationship, even if it grew more distant after 1945. Marshall and MacArthur, however, had no relationship at all. They met only once during the war, coolly and perfunctorily in Australia.
Nobody in Washington felt able to control the Southwest Pacific supreme commander, whose symbolic significance loomed so large in the minds of the American people. MacArthur’s flirtation with a possible presidential run against Roosevelt in 1944 was only the most distasteful among many repugnant actions to be committed by a field commander in the midst of a great war. Militarily, he handled the 1944—though not the 1942–1943—New Guinea operations imaginatively. But his Philippines campaign was a shocking mess, which only superior resources enabled him to redeem.
Weintraub is less brutal about MacArthur’s campaigns than they seem to me to deserve, though he has no delusions about the general’s personality. He quotes the playwright and presidential speechwriter Robert Sherwood, visiting SWPA headquarters, where he identified
unmistakable evidences of an acute persecution complex…. One would think that the War Department, the State Department, the Joint Chiefs of Staff—and possibly, even the White House staff—are under the domination of Communists and British imperialism.
MacArthur achieved a redemption as de facto emperor of Japan after September 1945, which did much to compensate for the gulf between his posturing and performance on the battlefield. He proved an enlightened Mikado, playing a role which suited his thespian gifts. When the Korean War began in June 1950, and so nearly ended in disaster for American arms, MacArthur’s decision to stage a landing at Inchon represented the most inspired stroke of his military career.
Thereafter, of course, his hubris in advancing to the Chinese border precipitated a further catastrophe and, a few months later, his dismissal by Truman. MacArthur lacked the quality so notably possessed by both Marshall and Eisenhower—an understanding of the rightful boundaries of military power in a democracy. Eisenhower was not only the better man, but served the interests of the Grand Alliance much more usefully.
George Marshall began his postwar civilian career with an unhappy and unsuccessful mission to China (1945– 1946), where as Truman’s personal representative he attempted to reconcile the warring factions. Accused by Chou En-lai of favoring Chiang Kai-shek, Marshall expostulated angrily: “I don’t belong to the Kuomintang Party and I do not belong to the Communist Party, and I don’t enjoy my job. I am merely doing the best I can.” Alas, this was not good enough. American objectives in China were unattainable.
In January 1947, however, he accepted the role that enabled him to make the last great contribution of his life. As secretary of state, he became the initiator of the Marshall Plan, one of the most enlightened measures ever adopted by a democracy. He recognized that if Europe in its postwar plight was to be saved from the Communists, mere military preparedness was not enough. Economic assistance was needed, on a huge scale. What followed was decisive in transforming the fortunes of Western Europe—the Soviets and their satellites declined America’s cash.
Modern American statesmen and commanders would do well to heed Marshall’s example. Committing soldiers is the easy part of any intervention abroad. At least as important, and so often neglected, is the civil component. Until the West can master the indispensable follow-up, its commitments of armed forces will continue to fail in their objectives.
George Marshall possessed a breadth of vision which no nation can expect to find in its great men more than a handful of times in a century. His final achievement was to devise the NATO alliance, in partnership with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin. It then fell to Eisenhower and Montgomery to transform this into a military reality.
Marshall’s reward for these achievements was to suffer a persecution by the McCarthy camp which greatly distressed him in the last years of his life. Indiana Republican William F. Jenner said on the floor of the Senate:
George Marshall is not only willing, he is eager to play the role of a front man for traitors. The truth is this is no new role for him, for General George C. Marshall is a living lie.
This was the Korean summer of 1950, and Marshall was up for confirmation as Truman’s secretary of defense.
Many prominent Americans leaped to support the general. Conspicuous by silence, however, was Dwight Eisenhower. The mind of Marshall’s old protégé was by then fixed upon the presidency. In his eagerness to reach the White House, Eisenhower had no desire to antagonize even the most disreputable of Republicans. A popular tide appeared to be flowing their way.
In this last phase of the two men’s relationship, Eisenhower displayed a ruthlessness quite at odds with his public image, and with the ironclad integrity of his old mentor. Nothing in Eisenhower’s conduct after 1945 matched the wisdom and nobility which he displayed as wartime supreme commander. Marshall came through it all, to be sure. But he was tired, sick, and deeply wounded by the slights hurled against him. He died in 1959.
Mark Perry asserts that even after the passage of so many years, the dynamics of the Marshall-Eisenhower command partnership remain “elusive.” In part, this is because Marshall kept no diary comparable with that of Britain’s Alan Brooke, whose innermost thoughts are thus known to us. Although Marshall gave a series of long historical interviews in 1957, it was implausible that he should reveal his real view of Eisenhower, by then tenant of the White House.
No modern nation has ever been entirely satisfied with its wartime commanders. Few generals are cultured men, possessed of the highest intelligence. Those who display notable intellect, like the British Archibald Wavell, often fail in the leadership of armies, because they lack the elemental strength of purpose which is indispensable to high command. Marshall had this, and so did Eisenhower to a greater degree than most of his contemporaries allowed. So too did MacArthur, but in his case it was misdirected toward fulfillment of his personal destiny, rather than satisfaction of national objectives.
Both Perry and Weintraub understand the difficulties of mobilizing for war armies of citizens, most of whom are willing to do their duty, but lack ambition to become heroes. In World War II, once it became clear that Hitler would not invade Britain, while the mainland United States remained immune from both German and Japanese assault, the Western allies possessed the luxury that they could choose their own times and places to fight.
The basis of Soviet resentment toward the British and the Americans, which persists to this day, was that the Russians had no such options. They had to sustain a continuous front, and suffer unspeakable casualties, while the Western allies trained men, built ships and weapons, conducted minor operations, and did a lot of bombing before embarking upon their big campaigns.
As both of these useful books show, the highest leadership of the wartime United States was characterized by staunch good sense, which did better service to the nation than erratic brilliance in the Patton manner would have done. It seems mistaken to expect sensational disclosures from new studies of this period. Most supposed revelations prove to be fallacious, and there are none here.
Instead, historians such as Weintraub and Perry seek to improve our understanding of personalities and events. Marshall and Eisenhower led the Grand Alliance to victory without any extraordinary display of strategic genius, but at acceptable cost in American lives. MacArthur achieved a celebrity which should more properly belong to his fellow Pacific commander Admiral Nimitz, the other great American of the war. The Allies could narrowly afford MacArthur, but it is good that posterity has found him out.
November 22, 2007
Rick Atkinson, An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942–1943 (Henry Holt, 2002; revised 2007); Douglas Porch, Hitler’s Mediterranean Gamble: The North African and the Mediterranean Campaigns in World War II (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2004). ↩