The Good Soldiers
Two senior officers who guarded the American Century.
Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By ALONZO L. HAMBY
Partners in Command
One week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, just off a train he had boarded in Texas two days earlier, reported for duty at the War Plans Division to Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall. Ordered to develop a strategy for dealing with the disintegrating situation in the Pacific, Eisenhower found a desk and paper. He returned to his new chief a few hours later. First, Australia had to be secured. Then there had to be a good-faith, albeit likely unsuccessful, attempt to relieve General Douglas MacArthur and his troops in the Philippines.
Marshall listened, approved, and said: "Eisenhower, the Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done."
Thus began one of the most important collaborations in American military history.
Mark Perry's readable account of the subsequent relationship between these two giants gives us little in the way of new facts but nevertheless is worth reading because of its focus on military staff and command decisions. Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill occupy their rightful places as ultimate decision-makers, reacting to disputes among their senior commanders.
Perry, a much-published foreign relations analyst, demonstrates that the Eisenhower-Marshall relationship was strictly professional. A hard task-master convinced that familiarity with superiors and subordinates was unprofessional, Marshall always maintained a frosty distance. He addressed Eisenhower by his last name, never socialized with him, and never hesitated to take him to task. Wasting no time with pleasantries, he could be painfully blunt. Years later Eisenhower recalled an early exchange between the two:
Marshall's admonition notwithstanding, Eisenhower's moves and promotions were rapid. By mid-1942 he was in London as commander of U.S. forces in the European Theater of Operations. That fall he was Allied commander of the U.S.-British invasion of North Africa; next he oversaw the 1943 Sicilian campaign. By the end of 1943 he had been designated Supreme Commander of Allied Forces for the invasion of Western Europe.
Ike, as almost everyone other than Marshall called him, was smart, hard-working, astute at public relations, an instinctive diplomat, and an attractive personality. He drove himself through 18-hour days, smoking three packs of cigarettes, dealing tactfully with British counterparts who all but openly considered him a simpleton. He won both the American and British publics with his infectious smile. Usually, he enjoyed Marshall's unwavering support, but from time to time felt the sting of his superior's rebuke. (It did not help that Marshall had expected to command the decisive northern European campaign, but wound up, by Roosevelt's orders, in Washington.) Still, Perry avers, Marshall developed a "parental" attitude toward his younger subordinate, and he was in fact the least of Eisenhower's problems.
Both men spent the war handling difficult colleagues. At times, Marshall must have thought the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest King, a more serious enemy than King's German counterpart, Admiral Karl Dönitz. Eisenhower had to deal with, among many others, General George Patton. Command must often have seemed a matter of juggling difficult personalities and raging egos.
The most durable challenges came from the British. Generals Alan Brooke, Bernard Law Montgomery, and Harold Alexander all possessed inbred feelings of superiority and scarcely concealed their sense that the Americans were provincial amateurs. Their attitudes were rooted in the experience of World War I, for the British a four-year trench warfare horror. So were those of the Americans, for whom the Great War had been a brief and triumphal experience. American planners advocated a direct attack into the heart of Europe as the logical means of defeating Nazi Germany; they believed mobile armored tactics would overwhelm the Germans and avoid a prolonged slaughter. The British favored attacks around the periphery of German power.
Marshall and other officers who had witnessed squabbling and lack of coordination between British and French forces in World War I were convinced that an effective alliance required a unified command--which inevitably would be led by the United States. The British agreed, in principle, but throughout the war resisted in practice. Even after the D-Day landings of June 1944, with V-1 and V-2 rockets launched from German bases in northwestern Europe devastating London, British leaders from Churchill down pressed for the diversion of resources to Alexander's Italian campaign. Loss of leadership, one senses, was only slightly less painful for British elites than loss of the war would have been.
Only Roosevelt could resolve the differences. He emerges from this book as a leader of greater strategic vision than either the U.S. or British generals. Seemingly understanding better than Marshall or Eisenhower the serious consequences of British loss of control over the Mediterranean, he dictated the North African campaign of 1942-43. By 1944, realizing that the allies had mustered the power to knock out Germany, he backed a single-minded concentration on the invasion of northern Europe. Perry makes less of this pivotal role than he should.
Churchill gave in to the inevitable. "There's only one thing worse than undertaking a war with allies," he told Eisenhower. "Waging a war without allies."
Perry, writing with an eye to our own times, concludes that Churchill was right. Democracies inherently recoil from warfare, reject protracted conflict, and need alliances. There is much to be said for these judgments; but how do we realize them in an era of faint-hearted friends, shadowy foes, and our own moral irresolution?
Alonzo L. Hamby, distinguished professor of history at Ohio University, is the author, most recently, of For the Survival of Democracy: Franklin Roosevelt and the World Crisis of the 1930s.