MARSHALL AND HIS GENERALS
By Stephen R. Taaffe
University Press of Kansas, $37.50, 426 pages
The U.S. Army entered World War II with distinct assets and liabilities. On the debit side, it was small in terms of personnel. Much of its equipment was inferior to the Germans’ in both quality and quantity. And its senior officers had no combat experience to compare with that of the enemy.
At the same time, the Army had a cadre of senior professionals who had stayed with their chosen career through two decades of fiscal austerity and stagnant promotion. There was deadwood, too, but a new chief of staff, Gen. George Marshall, had pressed for the retirement of the old and infirm. In the opinion of Texas historian Stephen R. Taaffe, this was the way to go. “The Army did not need brilliant generals who performed miracles on the battlefield, but rather competent men capable of taking advantage of American economic power [to achieve victory] with minimal losses.”
The Army’s indispensable man was Marshall, whom Gen. Omar Bradley called “one of the greatest military minds the world has ever produced.” Rigidly self-disciplined, Marshall dominated official Washington by means of his integrity, the force of his personality and his keen intelligence. At the same time, he was not the easiest person with whom to work. Mr. Taaffe describes him as “distant, austere, formal and humorless. … Almost no one addressed him by his first name, and he rarely called anyone by theirs.”
He had problems with surnames, too. This reviewer’s father, who rose from Marshall’s outer office to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tells how one of his colleagues named Young met Marshall and his wife at Bolling Field at a very late hour and saw them and their baggage to the chief of staff’s quarters at Fort Myer. When Young started to leave, Marshall turned to him and said, “Thank you, Taylor.”
Looking back, Marshall told Dwight D. Eisenhower, “I wasn’t so much interested in … [generals’] tactical skills as I was in having sturdy, aggressive fighters who would stand up during moments of adversity.” Marshall had one great advantage. Whereas Hitler interfered constantly with military appointments, President Franklin D. Roosevelt let Marshall run his own show.
Marshall controlled key appointments in the European theater, and, in theory, did so in the Pacific as well. But the Army commander there, Douglas MacArthur, was accustomed to promoting from among his own staff. Marshall often let him have his way. After all, the war was going to be won in Europe.
A key factor in the Allied campaign was the close relationship between Marshall and Eisenhower. For all his ability, Ike was new to high command. After the flawed campaign in North Africa at the end of 1942, Marshall called at Eisenhower’s headquarters and urged him to leave mundane matters to his staff and relax more. One observer considered their relationship close to that of father and son.
In “Marshall and His Generals,” the author outlines the careers of 38 three-star and four-star officers from Pearl Harbor to the collapse of Hitler’s empire. He does not hesitate to make judgments. Mark Clark, for all his virtues, “craved the limelight and was a shameless self-promoter.” John Lucas was “an intelligent man who recognized immediately the untenable position into which he had been placed” at Anzio. Ernest Harmon was a “colorful, tough and energetic man … inclined to talk back to his superiors.”
The elephant in the room was George S. Patton. Bradley would later write, “Patton was a superb field general and leader - perhaps our very best - but a man with many human and professional flaws. … Marshall and Ike felt Patton had to be continuously watched and tethered.”
Of the remaining 37 officers who led Army groups, field armies or corps into significant actions, Mr. Taaffe concludes that just five were relieved because of failure on the battlefield. The most conspicuous failure was that of Lloyd Fredendall, a protege of both Marshall’s and Eisenhower’s, who commanded the 2nd Corps against Erwin Rommel in North Africa. In the debacle at Kasserine Pass, Fredendall quarreled with his fellow officers and rarely left his isolated headquarters to assess the fighting. In due course, he was returned to the United States and replaced by Patton.
What quality of leadership should be expected from generals, however competent, whose units were in action for the first time? Bradley set a high standard, writing, “Many a division commander has failed not because he lacked the capacity for command but only because he declined to be hard enough on his subordinate commanders.”
The volatile Patton, however, thought forbearance was sometimes in order. He wrote in his diary, “[J. Lawton] Collins and Bradley are too prone to cut off heads. This will make division commanders lose their confidence. A man should not be damned for an initial failure with a new division.”
The author concludes that, except for Patton, “American World War II generals tended to be cautious men who sought to use their military power to win with minimum risk and loss.” This was a worthy goal.
John M. Taylor’s books include a biography of his father, “An American Soldier: The Wars of General Maxwell Taylor” (Presidio, 2001).