15 Stars: Eisenhower, MacArthur, Marshall: Three Generals Who Saved the American Centuryby Stanley Weintraub
In the closing days of World War II, America looked up to three five-star generals as its greatest heroes. George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur personified victory, from the Pentagon to Normandy to the Far East. Counterparts and on occasion competitors, they had leapfrogged each other, sometimes stonewalled each other, even supported and… See more details below
In the closing days of World War II, America looked up to three five-star generals as its greatest heroes. George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Douglas MacArthur personified victory, from the Pentagon to Normandy to the Far East. Counterparts and on occasion competitors, they had leapfrogged each other, sometimes stonewalled each other, even supported and protected each other throughout their celebrated careers. In the public mind they stood for glamour, integrity, and competence. But for dramatic twists of circumstance, all three -- rather than only one -- might have occupied the White House.
The story of their interconnected lives opens a fascinating window onto some of the twentieth century's most crucial events, revealing the personalities behind the public images and showing how much of a difference three men can make. Marshall and MacArthur were contemporaries and competitors. Eisenhower was MacArthur's underling, then Marshall's deputy, before becoming MacArthur's counterpart as a supreme commander, Ike in Western Europe, MacArthur in the Pacific. Each of the three five-star generals would go on to extraordinary postwar careers: MacArthur as a virtual viceroy of Japan, overseeing its transition to a new constitutional democracy, and then leading the UN forces in the Korean War; Marshall as secretary of state, author of the Marshall Plan, and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize; Eisenhower as president.
Fifteen Stars presents the intertwined lives of these three great men against the sweeping background of six unforgettable decades, from two world wars to the Cold War. It is history at its most dramatic yet most personal -- a triumph for Stanley Weintraub, our preeminent military historian.
The much-published Weintraub (arts & humanities, emeritus, Pennsylvania State Univ.; MacArthur's War: Korea and the Undoing of an American Hero) provides a detailed and absorbing gloss on the relationships among three extraordinary leaders. MacArthur dreamed of glory and expected the presidency; Marshall refused to plead for the battle command that would have made his name a byword; the gregarious Ike outstripped his former mentors. Fascinating reading; for all libraries.
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Not since the immense fame of Grant, Sherman, and Lee at the close of the Civil War have three generals become such household names as Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, and Dwight D. Eisenhower by the climax of World War II. Colleagues, and on occasion competitors, they had leapfrogged each other, sometimes stonewalled each other, even supported and protected each other, throughout their celebrated careers.
They were each created five-star generals when that super-rank was authorized by Congress in December 1944. In the public mind they appeared, in turn, as glamor, integrity, and competence. Presidential talk long hovered about them. But for the twists of circumstance, all three -- rather than only one -- might have occupied the White House.
MacArthur, Marshall, and Eisenhower were each featured on the covers of Time, when that accolade, in a pre-television era, confirmed a sort of eminence.* All three would appear on postage stamps evoking their signature traits. Their immediately recognizable faces were remarkable indices of personality. MacArthur's hawklike granite gaze conveyed his headstrong, contrary tenacity. Marshall's seamed, inscrutable look suggested the austere middle America of portraits by Grant Wood. Eisenhower's ruddy, balding head and familiar grin brought to mind less the Kansas of his boyhood than the Everyman which admirers always saw in him.
Collectively they represented twentieth-century America at its crest. MacArthur was always City: Washington, Manila, Tokyo, and finally New York, where he retired to the thirty-seventh floor of the Waldorf Towers. Marshall was Suburbs, with a small-town upbringing in western Pennsylvania and an unpretentious home twenty miles from the capital in Leesburg, Virgina, where he was devoted to his vegetable garden. Eisenhower was Country, out of the rural Midwest, and ended his years on his manicured swath of model farm near Gettysburg.
Their trajectories, however upward, reflected their differences. Harry Truman's last secretary of state, Dean Acheson, once said of General Marshall, "The title fitted him as though he had been baptized with it." MacArthur, son of a general, was born and bred to be one. However ambitious, Eisenhower had his stars thrust upon him. Yet their military lives intersected for decades. MacArthur and Marshall were young officers in the newly captured Philippines, seized from declining Spain. Eisenhower emerged later, as a junior aide to MacArthur in Washington and again in Manila, until World War II erupted in Europe. The flamboyant MacArthur and the unpretentious Marshall were both colonels in France during World War I, the career of one taking flight there, to brigadier general and beyond, the career of the other plunging afterward to mere postwar captain, then agonizingly creeping back up, but seemingly never far enough. Despite MacArthur's four early stars -- at forty-nine -- when chief of staff, he would keep the future of his contemporary, who still had none in the early 1930s, in frustrating limbo.
Serving fourteen of his thirty-seven years in the army under both men, Eisenhower was an assistant to MacArthur -- invisible, and painfully aware of going nowhere -- and then deputy to Marshall, who rocketed him to responsibility and to prominence. In seven years with MacArthur, laboring in the arid peacetime vineyards, Eisenhower earned a promotion of one grade, from major to lieutenant colonel, changing the oak leaves on his collar from gold to silver. In seven months under Marshall -- under the vastly altered circumstances of global war -- he earned a constellation of stars and a major command.
Each of the three might have coordinated D-Day in Normandy, the most complex and consequential Western military operation in World War II. All three would be army chiefs of staff, Marshall and then Eisenhower becoming in turn the ostensible superior of their onetime boss, MacArthur, who brooked no bosses.
While MacArthur was sweepingly imperial in manner, the ideal viceroy for a postwar Japan where its humiliated emperor was reduced to a symbol, Eisenhower, genial and flexible, proved the exemplary commander of quarrelsome multinational forces. The self-effacing Marshall possessed such intense respect worldwide that when he entered Westminster Abbey, unannounced, to take his seat at the coronation of young Elizabeth II, the entire congregation arose.
One often remembers people for their associations. In the cases of the three generals, these reflect and magnify their differences. One kept his court; the second kept his own counsel; the third found confidants ranging from his wartime lady chauffeur to his peacetime bridge partners. MacArthur's style was as a monarch to his minions. His closest associate since the 1930s was his erratic but devoted intelligence chief, Major General Charles Willoughby, a Great War veteran born in Germany who claimed a Prussian pedigree but discarded the unhelpful surname of Tscheppe-Wiedenbach. He affected the airs of an English officer, took an English name and what passed for an English accent, and wore a pince-nez on a silken cord. Always onstage himself, MacArthur prized an actor as much as he valued utter loyalty.
Nearly parallel in fidelity was Major General Courtney Whitney, an early army pilot who, between the wars, practiced brokerage and law in Manila and belonged to the same Masonic lodge in Luzon as did MacArthur. Recalled to duty in 1940, he landed on MacArthur's staff and accompanied him to Australia, then back to the Philippines and on to Japan. An efficient organizer, he ran, remotely, several liaison operations with guerrillas in the Philippines, but, since he commanded an office in Brisbane, he first returned to the islands with MacArthur only in a photo of the landing in Leyte, which he had doctored for his purposes by pasting his large head atop another aide's slender body. George Marshall would tell MacArthur that he had a court, rather than a staff, and Courtney Whitney, known as "Court," embodied it. Displaying his evidences of devotion to duty, he would reminisce to visitors about slogging ashore at MacArthur's side. Yet that duty was authentic even if the heroics were not. When he directed MacArthur's Government Section in the Japanese Occupation, Whitney oversaw efficiently the crash-course preparation of a democratic constitution for Japan. A fantasist himself, MacArthur appreciated kindred spirits.
MacArthur arranged for both generals, neither of whom ever commanded anyone in combat, but whom MacArthur lavishly bemedaled, to write and publish hagiographic postwar biographies of him which he freely and imaginatively dictated. Later he wrote his own lucrative memoirs, much of it drawn from their books, which were in effect his. Eisenhower sold outright, for a substantial six figures, his own World War II memoir, then dictated it, for further editing, to a stenographer employed by his publisher. Marshall refused a million dollars for his war memoirs -- at a time when a million was real money.
Marshall eschewed flattery as well as fame; yet even he needed advocates. His first abettor in the White House, when Marshall was still a Depression-era colonel whose dreary, seemingly dead-end job was in part to oversee New Deal make-work projects that worked, was a reform-minded Midwestern social worker, Harry Hopkins, whose health at best was chronically frail, and income marginal, but who loved racetracks and nightclubs. (Neither venue interested Marshall in the least.) Hopkins rose from deputy director of emergency relief in Albany when Franklin Delano Roosevelt was governor of New York, to administrator of his Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Washington, then to secretary of commerce. Yet his real job was as troubleshooter and practical legs for the wheelchair-bound FDR.
Hopkins became Marshall's informal link to the White House and, although he never wore a uniform or earned a medal, was the most courageous man the general had ever known. Roosevelt's shadow, often traveling on missions with Marshall, Hopkins sometimes required blood transfusions on arrival. Not a man to employ first names easily, even for his protégé Eisenhower, Marshall called the dedicated Hopkins "Harry."
Sir John Dill, a field marshal fired as chief of the Imperial General Staff because Winston Churchill as prime minister wanted to run his own show, was marginalized overseas as liaison with the American Joint Chiefs of Staff. Despite his Sam Browne belt and British swagger stick, and a more authentic English accent than Willoughby could manage, Sir John became irreplaceable in Washington. His masterly tact, and covert conspiracies with Marshall to share confidential information from London, kept the Grand Alliance, often at cross-purposes, functioning when mutual suspicions abounded and Marshall would not suffer fools easily. Once, during the war, Dill's recall to limbo in England was rumored. Immediately, Marshall plotted a newsworthy award for him from Yale to dramatize Dill's unique transatlantic reputation, and Churchill drew back. During Dill's last illness late in the war he asked to be buried at Arlington, although the sacred premises were restricted by law to Americans. Marshall arranged for an overriding joint resolution of Congress, a state funeral, and interment as the dying Dill had wished. George Marshall would not violate a regulation, but he could make things happen.
Eisenhower was the most gregarious of his five-star peers. He needed close companions to whom he could unburden himself, unlike his remote and exacting mentor, George Marshall, who only once in their close, almost father-son relationship inadvertently called him "Ike." When Eisenhower assumed his first overseas command he took with him a CBS publicist he and Mamie knew, Harry Butcher, who, thanks to a naval reserve commission, became Eisenhower's "naval aide" -- an anomaly never explained other than for its technicality. Butcher's actual tasks were to be a public relations flack, the keeper of the general's appointments, mixer of his drinks, and a spare hand at bridge. His key assignment became the maintenance of the general's "diary" -- often not a list of appointments but a litany of rationalizations for why Eisenhower did whatever he thought he had to do. Eventually, the general knew, he would have to account for his actions, perhaps by becoming his own historian. But "Butch" was also ambitious. If Ike were to do great things, Butcher wanted to gain by them, and he became a personal compendium of command gossip, which Eisenhower did not know until Butcher published his mildly indiscreet My Three Years with Eisenhower -- a Book-of-the-Month Club selection which the general cautiously refused to read in advance, and quietly disowned. In the case of his lady chauffeur, Eisenhower claimed -- and that only privately -- to have read only the first and last chapters of her gossipy and intimate postwar memoir.
Eisenhower also needed, as do many commanders, an efficient chief of staff: a shrewd, calculating careerist, content to rise only on the tide of his boss. In Walter Bedell ("Beetle") Smith, who had been in Marshall's stable of comers in Washington, Eisenhower found his man, and insisted on taking Smith with him on each new assignment. He was much more than a fourth at bridge. Post-Ike, "Beetle" would rise to be ambassador to Russia, and director of the CIA. Yet he never had as much power as when he ruled on Eisenhower's authority and kept his confidences -- except when Eisenhower confessed that he wouldn't trade Marshall for fifty MacArthurs. "My God!" he found himself thinking aloud to Bedell Smith, "That would be a lousy deal. What would I do with fifty MacArthurs?"
Confidants who could be counted upon were hard to find, and keep. Eisenhower, who cultivated the myth of the barefoot farmboy from Abilene, Kansas who made good, always needed them and sometimes found them wanting. Not Beetle, who was the model of efficiency, if not tact. MacArthur confided in no one, and Marshall seemed beyond such need, but for a single, wistful, late letter to a beautiful young queen on a tottering European throne.
Their differences only make the intertwined careers of the three iconic generals more poignant. Of their complex intersections over more than five decades, many were dramatic while only a few seem, in retrospect, somewhat deplorable. Marshall would write -- and even fabricate, for effect -- an unearned Medal of Honor citation for MacArthur, who had given him no end of grief and would continue to do so. The American public, anxious for a larger-than-life hero at a time of accumulating bad news, needed one. A midwar Marshall exchange with a reluctant Eisenhower about his returning home to Mamie suggests much more about Marshall's intense investment in Eisenhower's future than meets the eye. MacArthur would allegedly disparage Ike, when he was his five-star peer, as "the best secretary I ever had," while Eisenhower retorted, in kind, that he had once studied dramatics under MacArthur. Yet the remarkably intersected lives of three generals who were never friends evoke a memorable American saga while encapsulating two-thirds of the twentieth century, when the world seemed always at war. The nation needed all three men, and each needed the other two. Would any of them have achieved as much without the others? Only one would become president, but it is hard to resist speculating about the other two in the White House.
Despite the remarkable confluence of disparate personalities, and their fifteen stars, these were men, not figures in bronze. Perfection eluded them, as it eludes the rest of us. They are the more real for their flaws. They did their nation proud. I salute them here for themselves, and for their interlocking lives and achievements.
Copyright © 2007 by Stanley Weintraub
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