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In 1960, Henry Steele Commager, a professor of history at Amherst, wrote an article that asked why America had failed to produce a generation of leaders to rival the country’s founding generation. It’s true that the Civil War had given rise to a great president and two generals of unusual military gifts, but Commager saw in his day no leaders of comparable distinction. I’d like to talk about a group of men in living memory whose leadership skills rivaled those of the makers of the Revolution and the architects of the Constitution. These were men who saw the country through the Second World War and especially through the early years of the Cold War—all of whom worked at one time or another for George Marshall. One cluster in this cohort included the American Army’s and Navy’s most senior officers during the war. Their actions constituted a pillar of liberty during a time of world crisis.
From 1941 until 1945, the United States Army was led by the ablest cohort of military leaders in American history—the men who led the Greatest Generation, none of whom survives into the twenty-first century. With rare exceptions, they were men born between 1890 and 1900, and to the larger culture they were essentially unknown until the last year or two before the attack on Pearl Harbor. As a group, their achievements were by any measure extraordinary. The force they built and led grew from 190,000 (in 1939, the American Army ranked in size alongside Portugal’s) to 8.3 million in the summer of 1945. Its deployments and campaigns were global. In aggregate, the combined naval and military establishments enrolled more than sixteen million men and women at one time or another during the period of active conflict: this from a national population averaging about 135 million.
In the realm of familiarity, the ranking generals still remain close to household names: MacArthur, Eisenhower, Marshall, Patton, Bradley, Stilwell, Truscott, Bedell Smith, Ridgway, Gavin. Immediately beneath them, colonels who would attain divisional commands or prominent positions in the Army Air Forces before war’s end are still remembered: Curtis LeMay, Leslie Groves, “Tooey” Spaatz. The list might be prolonged indefinitely. Whence had they come? How were they raised? How educated? How were they employed, as soldiers, during the long military silence in America during the interwar period? Who identified those with strong aptitudes for “active service,” and by what evidences and criteria? For there is perhaps no profession in which aptitude for leading, in roles and positions of large authority, is less readily identifiable among its young associates than in the wartime military. Henry Stimson, the man FDR appointed Secretary of War, congratulated the uniformed head of the Army, George Marshall, on having selected “good war men” in the latter’s list of recommended brigadier generals. The inference was plain: you have promoted those who will be good in the leading and management of campaigns and battles.
Some generalizations are safe. There has never been a military caste in the American Army, no tradition of sons following fathers and grandfathers into uniformed service, West Point, “smart” regiments, etc. Overwhelmingly, this cohort of prominent generals were children of the American outback; many were raised on farms; few were sons of successful professional men or socially prominent families. Most were children raised in stable families and most attended church. Many were read to at night, often from well-known volumes of imaginative literature or history (in which “ancient” history and the history of the United States—biography being a staple—were most prominent). Secondary education was implicitly rooted in notions of emulation and inculcation. The historical novels of G. A. Henty, for example, were a staple of evening readings in the Marshall household in Uniontown, Pennsylvania. And at school, boys born into late Victorian (American) families were taught by, or often in the company of, veterans of the Civil War, veterans who were still relatively young men themselves. A soldier like Joseph W. Stilwell (West Point Class of 1904, born in 1883), would have known soldiers who had served in the Union Army—say, veterans of Gettysburg or Antietam, men in their early 50s. And they would have seen parades, as Marshall did, of veterans returning from the Spanish-American War (1898) marching through their home towns.
For most of these future generals, West Point was a way out of Dodge: a place of growing prestige, known as a sound engineering school, but not particularly appealing on the grounds of its preparing young men to fight. “Although a mediocre student at West Point” must be the most common sentence in every military biography of World War II graduates of the Academy who became famous general officers. By and large, no academic flourescence or brilliance distinguished them—Douglas MacArthur, first in the West Point class of 1903, was an exception.
Yet for MacArthur and Marshall—and for those a half-generation younger, like Eisenhower, Bradley, Mark Clark, and J. Lawton Collins—the experience of the country’s mobilization for its participation in World War I and their service as young officers in that war was critical to their development as leaders. That service, interestingly, tracks closely with the service of a prominent and earlier generation of officers: those who led Northern and Southern forces in the Civil War. Many had fought as lieutenants and captains in the war with Mexico (1846). For both generations, these early conflicts were their initiation into battle and campaigning, their initial testing of themselves in the crucible of war, and their first chance to demonstrate to their superiors their aptitude for continuing development in military service. For many—Leslie McNair, Joseph Stilwell, George Patton, and George Marshall among them—the First World War brought rapid promotion, typically through the grades of colonel and brigadier general. Equally abrupt was their reduction, again typically three full grades, at war’s end, to captain or perhaps major. And for the following two decades, the long interwar period, a shrunken officer corps offered few peacetime commands or opportunities to “practice” the profession of leadership in arms. The military establishment was tiny, its “posts” generally remote, its few divisions “little sketchy things” scattered about.
For those who remained in the service, however, if their ambition was tested—ambition for advancement, recognition, money—its accompaniment was the strengthening of vocation, of professionalism. This was accompanied by a growing realization that—as the best-known of the interwar generals, Fox Conner, reminded them—there would be another war, most probably in Europe, and the United States would be a participant as a member of a coalition. General Conner was mentor to a number of those who later attained the highest commands in World War II, Eisenhower and Marshall among them. Their generation of military men became the best, most professionally educated in our history. The average officer of this period spent nearly half the interwar period either teaching or being taught at the Army’s principal schools: The Infantry School at Fort Benning (mainly first lieutenants and captains); the Command and General Staff College (at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas); and the National War College in Washington. Of the thousand young officers to pass through the first of these, including exchange officers, some 200 would become generals in the war that began, for the United States, in 1941. Not only were they learning and reflecting on the responsibilities and the nature of their duties that lay in the near future; they were also being watched, carefully, by the most senior among them, men already general officers or colonels—including Marshall. During the same time, at the Command and General Staff College, Eisenhower, who had been a mediocre student at West Point and was now a major, graduated first in his class of 245. Again, academic acuity of the kind demonstrated in undergraduate courses by smart youngsters had only a marginal utility as predictive evidence of future intellectual development.
Above all, this small cohort—it is almost a cliché to remark it—hung in there throughout this period. Eisenhower’s class at West Point (1915) reconvened at the Academy in the summer of 1940 for its twenty-fifth reunion: only 5 percent had left the Army. Of those remaining, fifty would become generals by the end of the war in 1945.
Hew Strachan, a Professor of War Studies at the University of Oxford, when asked about the British Army’s generals in the war, said about the likes of Alanbrooke, Montgomery, Wavell, and others that “They had time to think, leisure was not begrudged.” It was the same for the American generation. Since the army was so small, opportunities for command—to which all soldiers aspire—as well as other avocational instincts and aptitudes could be answered and indulged. Eccentric career paths were carved and followed. Stilwell’s is not an untypical example: He learned Mandarin and served in four assignments, all entailing different roles, aggregating almost ten years in China. Brehon Somervell, the Army’s chief logistician in World War II, worked under Harry Hopkins at the Works Progress Administration; several senior colonels, near to their promotions before the war began, managed district administrations of President Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps.
By the late spring of 1940, when the probability that a new war would not end without American participation became obvious, George Marshall had served as Chief of Staff of the Army for seven months. Years later, the management guru Peter Drucker called him, along with Alfred Sloan of General Motors, one of the two greatest managerial executives of the twentieth century—as well as the best picker of leaders for his organization: the United States Army. Most wars must move through an early period of failure in tactical and strategic leadership before finding those apt for the new challenges. The Union experience in the Civil War is powerfully illustrative of this—Kenneth Williams even called his five-volume history of the Union Army Lincoln Finds a General. Franklin Roosevelt, a former Assistant Secretary of the Navy whose own cohort of admirals was by any measure the ablest and most distinguished in our history, found a cadre of general officers—senior and some quite junior—equally talented. They were present, if not at the creation, at the beginning.
A week after Pearl Harbor, George Marshall’s Secretary of the General Staff, Walter Bedell Smith, put through a call to an officer, then serving as Chief of Staff, Third U.S. Army in San Antonio: “That you, Ike? The Chief of Staff says for you to get up here right away.” Within a year, Eisenhower, Bradley, Walter Bedell Smith, Mark Clark, Lucian Truscott, and George Patton were commanding the American contingent—in Eisenhower’s case, the Allied force in toto. As they say, the rest is history.
This was an extraordinary group of people who came along at the right time. They had—I don’t really have the words for it. There must be a word for that hinterland between brains and character. These men seemed to subsist in that particular place. Occasionally, I’ll read a book that says something like “George Marshall, although not the intellectual equal of the men who worked for him . . .” I always wonder exactly what that means. That cohort developed a way of thinking seriously about things at the same time that they were required to execute them and to lead soldiers. We have never been better served.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 31 January 2013, on page 38
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