The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith
By D. K. R. CROSSWELL
The University Press of Kentucky
Copyright © 2010 The University Press of Kentucky
All right reserved.
One pitfall in writing a biography is the risk of becoming too immersed in the topic. You spend so much time with the historic figure you begin to feel like you know the person and those in his or her circle. This project has consumed me—with varying degrees of intensity—since 1982. I first encountered Beetle Smith when acting as Merle Miller's researcher for his biography of Dwight Eisenhower, Ike the Soldier: As They Knew Him
. Smith's career as Eisenhower's chief of staff became the subject of my dissertation; then I worked the dissertation into a book, published by Greenwood in 1991. As a first book, it was not without some merit—it received some solid reviews and commendation by Choice
—but its publication left me with no sense of closure. Blame it on a callow academic too eager to publish his first book, but I fell victim to the temptation of uncritically accepting received wisdom—in this case, the "good cop" (Eisenhower)-"bad cop" (Smith) school. Basically, I took the easy way out and followed a well-worn path, merely inserting Smith into the story. During my first month as a PhD student at Kansas State, my mentor, Professor Robin Higham, invited D. Clayton James, then a scholar in residence at the Command and General Staff College, to present a talk on his experiences writing the biography of Douglas MacArthur. "Some days I wake up and think MacArthur was the greatest general who ever lived," he recounted. "others, I concluded he was the biggest SoB who ever lived." With Smith, it proved all too easy to accept his reputation as a one-dimensional SOB, because that was precisely the persona he labored so hard to project. But his friend Hastings Ismay knew better, noting that Smith "was never the terrible Beetle in [Harry C.] Butcher's book" My Three Years with Eisenhower
, based on the household and headquarters diaries of Eisenhower's naval aide and confidant. The truth is I did not know Smith very well in 1991, and my first book did him an injustice—albeit completely unintended. As it turned out, there were several facets to Beetle Smith. He was much more than advertised, and his boss, Eisenhower, considerably less.
This book's structure is unorthodox. Instead of following a chronological format, I begin with a section on Smith's postwar career serving two presidents: as ambassador to the Soviet Union and director of the Central Intelligence Agency under Truman, and as undersecretary of state and government adviser in the Eisenhower administration. Smith's contributions as ambassador in Moscow when American-Soviet relations entered the deep freeze, as founding father of the CIA, and as number two to John Foster Dulles, especially the parts he played in the Iranian and Guatemalan coups and the Indochina portion of the Geneva conference of 1954, are themselves worthy of serious interest. Essentially, this work is a military biography, and for that reason, I resorted to the device of front-loading Smith's postwar career. Whether this works must be left to the reader's judgment.
Aside from providing an account of Smith's remarkable career and his contributions to the Allied victory in Europe as Eisenhower's chief of staff, this volume has two other objectives. American military biographers tend to shy away from controversial topics; reflecting public tastes, they prefer to cast their subjects in bronze. Political scientists and political historians have engaged in a healthy discourse on Eisenhower and his leadership style virtually since his inaugural, but nothing similar exists in the military history literature. Biographies of Eisenhower still constitute something of a cottage industry. The title of the latest, Michael Korda's Ike: An American Hero, perfectly sums up the popular view: Eisenhower as American Everyman, the poor boy who grew up to be president after first liberating Europe from the scourge of fascism. Even the best of them, Carlo D'este's Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life, portrays Eisenhower warts and all, but it still leaves the reader with the image of Ike as Frank Merriwell, the all-American boy. There is a good reason for this: Eisenhower personified a whole array of cherished American ideals. Another reason is that Eisenhower remains an elusive subject.
Eisenhower's detractors—both during the war and after—portray him as a mere chairman of the Allied corporate board, who, though binding the alliance together and achieving victory in Europe, never wielded decisive leadership. He was prone to maddening bouts of indecision and preferred compromise to affirmative control, and this leadership style left him prey to his fractious and willful senior subordinates. Closing his mind to more ambitious schemes for ending the war, his decisions instead lengthened it. His defenders paint an entirely different canvas. As an American supreme commander of an international coalition, Eisenhower skillfully plotted his course, balancing the need to preserve the support of his political chiefs with the need to buttress Allied public opinion, while selectively employing the formal powers conferred on him to fulfill his mission. Attacks on his reputation as a strategist and organizer—and the impression that he reigned more than he ruled—constitute only one of the personal sacrifices Eisenhower made in preserving Allied unity. The truth is Eisenhower fits both portrayals.
Any treatment of Smith as a chief of staff must center on Eisenhower— his character, his approach to problem solving and people, and his strengths and weaknesses as a supreme commander. Two aspects of Eisenhower's personality lay at the center of his leadership style: his predilection to disassociate himself from his actions, and his lifelong refusal to engage in personal conflict. Eisenhower proved decisive only when the decision was not to do something. A product of the interwar U.S. Army, Eisenhower's hierarchical and conservative bent explains not only the thinking behind his command decisions but also why he failed to confront the perpetual problems historically faced by the U.S. Army in war: manpower, supply of forces in the field, and civil affairs. Ego, ambition, envy, and suspicion were ubiquitous and occasionally decisive, and Eisenhower's penchant for personalized command produced his biggest headaches. Part of the reason for Eisenhower's successful high-wire act of managing personalities was, of course, the character of the supreme commander, but also vital was the role played by Beetle Smith.
Many years ago Toby Graham offered sage advice. He said nobody would read logistics history unless it was related to operations. Acting on this caveat, the other goal of this book is to make the connection between command decisions and the limitations imposed by logistics broadly defined. Military historians generally ignore logistics—the economics of warfare—in part because it is difficult to research and write about, but mostly because nobody cares about such arcane topics as organizational theories, manpower policies, and the functioning of incredibly complex supply organizations. There are long, densely written discourses on these admittedly not very interesting subjects, but in my view, Materialschlacht— the war for materiel but also for manpower—rests at the core of any explanation of why American forces eventually triumphed in North Africa and northwestern europe, as well as why opportunities for ending the war sooner and at less cost miscarried. The first Allied invasion— operation Torch in northwestern Africa—was nearly postponed or even canceled owing to the near breakdown of American logistics in the United Kingdom during the buildup and mounting phase. Allied efforts in Tunisia initially failed in large part because of the chaos in American supply. A succession of crises in 1944—first fuel and then ammunition and winter clothing, climaxing in the debilitating manpower crunch—left enervated American forces stalemated and vulnerable astride the French-Belgian-German frontiers, giving rise to serious concerns about the war's outcome. Other than Roland Ruppenthal's two-volume official history, Logistical Support of the Armies, and the odd book or article dealing with a particular campaign, there is no major treatment of this crucial aspect of war making covering the span of American participation in europe during World War II. Much of the blame for this operationssupply disconnect rested in Eisenhower's obstinate refusal to alter the headquarters structure. Smith fought and lost numerous battles with Eisenhower over this issue. By examining command decisions through the prism of logistics, a different picture emerges of both Eisenhower as commander and the conduct of operations in North Africa, Italy, and Europe.
Several bromides exist about the roles played by chiefs of staff. Behind every great commander stands his chief of staff. Other than commander, no position in a large, modern bureaucratic military organization is as vital as chief of staff. Chiefs of staff, the linchpins of all military staffs, toil in the shadows, performing the meticulous and anonymous work that wins campaigns. Chiefs of staff translate the will of the commander into practical plans; they harmonize and integrate the actions of headquarters, issuing succinct guidance to their principal staff subordinates while coordinating actions with higher, lateral, and lower staffs. Chiefs of staff must possess not only intelligence and a thorough grasp of detail but also tact and diplomatic skills. Despite the instrumental role played by chiefs of staff, military historians write surprisingly little about them.
Smith discharged all these functions as chief of staff and more. A study of Smith reveals the evolution of the institutional machinery for the higher direction of combined and joint war. If Smith had never served under Eisenhower, he would still command attention for his pivotal role in forging the Combined and Joint Chiefs of Staff apparatuses in Washington in 1942. Enjoying a wide grant of authority from Eisenhower, Smith fashioned and ran Allied headquarters in the Mediterranean and northwestern Europe. Through Smith we observe the inner workings of the complex and rarely smooth relationships among these headquarters and the political heads (Roosevelt, Churchill, and de Gaulle), the uniformed chiefs who stood above (the Combined Chiefs of Staff; the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, principally Marshall; and the British Chiefs of Staff, principally Brooke), and the operational commanders below them (chiefly Alexander and Montgomery for the British and Bradley, Devers, Patton, and Hodges for the Americans). Smith always backstopped Eisenhower in his military decisions and in his dealings with senior American and British politicians and officers. Except when he could not avoid it, Eisenhower delegated to Smith responsibilities for handling Allied and associated entities, most importantly the French. In the absence of direction from above, and exceeding the authority normally vested in a chief of staff, Smith frequently made key policy decisions in areas Eisenhower would not deign to touch, mostly related to military government and civil affairs programs. In effect, Smith acted as the headquarters "general manager" and as Eisenhower's foreign minister; in the latter role he conducted negotiations and signed the surrenders of Italy and Germany.
Higher command in war is a team activity. The commander-chief of staff relationship works best when the two personalities are complementary but not wholly congruent. Although little separated Eisenhower and Smith in terms of their respective professional outlooks and prewar experiences, the two possessed widely divergent personalities. Smith's primary value lay in compensating for Eisenhower's deficiencies. Smith could not play the faceless staff officer because Eisenhower's command style required a proactive chief of staff. If Eisenhower hoped to dodge unpopular decisions and the personal culpability that came with them, if he hoped to evade personal altercations, then as Allied supreme commander, he was in a very strange business. What he needed was a junior partner who was not afraid to go out on a limb, who never avoided a fight, and who at least gave the appearance of having a thick skin. Eisenhower may have stretched the truth when he described Smith as "the best chief of staff ever," but in Beetle he possessed the perfect foil.
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