William Simpson

The Marshall system and the new model American general

If MacArthur (and, among the Allies, Montgomery) presented to Marshall and Eisenhower the antithesis of the sort of generalship they desired, the Battle of the Bulge, during the snowy final two weeks of 1944, gave them the very model of what they wanted. Ironically, the general who personified that model is forgotten today, even inside the Army. But the values he embodied would be those of the U.S. Army for decades.

The Bulge, the major German counteroffensive in response to the Allied invasion of northwestern Europe in mid-1944, was one of the most important battles of Western Europe in World War II. Eisenhower wrote in very Marshallian tones that in battles of this kind it is more than ever necessary that responsible commanders exhibit the firmness, the calmness, the optimism that can pierce through the web of conflicting reports, doubts and uncertainty and by taking advantage of every enemy weakness win through to victory.

Eisenhower did not say so, but the senior commander who best fit that description was not the blustery Patton or the panicky Hodges but William Hood Simpson, a lanky six-foot-four, egg-bald Texan. The son of a Confederate cavalryman, Simpson was a man of quiet, competent, determined optimism, the very model of the modern Army general. Early in the Battle of the Bulge, he was shown a captured plan for the German offensive. He studied it for a bit, then drily commented, “Well, I think from what we have here I don’t feel too much alarmed. We’re going to have to do some hard fighting, but I think eventually we’ll stop this thing.” During this battle, on his own initiative and with little fanfare, he offered and sent five full divisions to the assistance of Hodges in just six days. During the Bulge, notes historian J. D. Morelock, “Simpson actually got more Ninth Army units into combat than did the Third Army [of Patton]—and faster as well.”

Like Patton, Simpson was smart, adaptive, and aggressive. But unlike his better-known peer, Simpson was a team player, plainspoken and self-effacing. He knew how to lay low, having spent fourteen years as a major between the wars. He also knew how to fight, having battled the Moros in the Philippines, Pancho Villa’s band in Mexico, and the Germans in World Wars I and II.

He handled his staff well. His corps commanders enjoyed working for him. Simpson was “pleasant, very personal, understanding, and cooperative,” recalled Alvan Gillem, one of his generals and the grandson of a Civil War general of the same name—who, though born in Tennessee, had fought for the Union. Maj. Gen. Ernest Harmon recalled being pleased to have his 2nd Armored Division assigned to Simpson’s Ninth Army: “Simpson, though little known outside military circles, was one of the truly great leaders of the European theater, a real general’s general. . . . He was a pleasure to fight under.” Simpson liked to have his subordinate commanders publicly accept the surrenders of German generals, giving them the credit and the appearances in newspaper photographs. “Even-tempered and composed, he refrained from interrupting and allowed the briefer to complete his presentation before questions were asked,” wrote Army Lt. Col. Thomas Stone. The smoothness of Simpson’s operation was felt many echelons below that level. Bernard Leu, who had served as a sergeant in the 75th Infantry Division, recalled that once his division joined Simpson’s army, it received orders early enough to allow it to plan, which had not happened when the division was part of two other armies.

But what is most striking about Simpson may be that, in a doctoral dissertation and a book largely about him and the Ninth Army, there was almost nothing to relate about him—no stormy meetings, few revealing anecdotes, almost no memorable phrases. There is just an efficient, low-key headquarters operating under an undemonstrative, steady leader. “Simpson could think ahead of time, and he didn’t talk too much, either; that’s what I liked about him,” recalled Gen. Jacob Devers.

Midway through the Battle of the Bulge, Simpson dispatched a note to Eisenhower reporting that his Ninth Army was working smoothly and cheerfully with Montgomery. “Our chins are up,” he stated. Privately, Simpson found Montgomery “a very pompous guy” who was overly cautious and could have done great damage to the Germans had he committed three available British divisions to pinching off the northeastern corner of the Bulge. But during the war he kept that to himself. Simpson was exactly what Marshall and Eisenhower had been looking for: an optimistic team player with a small ego and a great ability to work with others. In that sense, the forgotten Simpson personified the ideal of generalship that Army leaders would pursue in the postwar years, and indeed for decades to follow. It was not a bad model, but it contained some hidden dangers.

Eisenhower recognized Simpson’s strength and was warmer in summing up this general than perhaps any other individual officer he discussed in his memoirs:

If Simpson ever made a mistake as an army commander, it never came to my attention. After the war I learned that he had for some years suffered from a serious stomach disorder, but this I never would have suspected during hostilities. Alert, intelligent and professionally capable, he was the type of leader that American soldiers deserve. In view of his brilliant service, it was unfortunate that shortly after the war ill-health forced his retirement before he was promoted to four-star grade, which he had so clearly earned.

Bradley also liked Simpson’s style, praising his command as “uncommonly normal”—a Bradley-esque phrase if there ever was one. Yet for all that praise, notes historian John English, Simpson has since become “the most forgotten American field army commander of the Western Front” in World War II. Marshall might take that as a compliment, and Simpson probably would, too.

In hands less skilled than Marshall’s, the system that produced generals such as Simpson also could result in bland, uninspired, risk-averse leaders. This would be especially true when such leaders were no longer spurred by the prospect of being fired for failure or inaction.

The effectiveness of the Marshall system

After the war, Gen. James Gavin, among others, was critical of the wave of reliefs carried out in the Army in 1944–45, arguing that so many division commanders had been fired that the U.S. Army began to lack plausible candidates for those jobs. Eisenhower, he said, “had to get results. He had to be tough. And he ran out of good commanders, finally, in my opinion.” Gavin was not entirely against firing commanders. For example, on June 7, 1944, when he ordered a battalion to attack along a causeway across the Merderet River, the commander told him “that he did not feel well.” So, continues Gavin without skipping a beat, “he was relieved of command and another officer put in charge of the battalion.” Yet Gavin was especially critical of firing commanders who were leading green units into combat. “Summarily relieving those who do not appear to measure up in the first shock of battle is not only a luxury we cannot afford—it is very damaging to the Army as a whole.”

Gavin made a good point, especially about the removal of new commanders leading untested units. Nor was he alone: Martin Blumenson, one of the Army’s best official historians, concluded in 1971 that most World War II reliefs were “unwarranted if not altogether unjustified.” He believed that commanders were handled more professionally in the wars in Korea and Vietnam. Blumenson does not pause to address a key difference: The Army was victorious in World War II, but the first of the wars he cites with such approval was a stalemate and the second was a loss—though, of course, those two outcomes hardly can be laid at the feet of the military alone, or even primarily.

What Gavin and Blumenson especially did not seem to weigh in their criticisms was the opportunity cost of not ousting failing officers. In the short run, as Eisenhower noted, a relief sometimes will improve morale. And in the longer run, the removals permitted a new generation of officers—Gavin among the most prominent of them—to emerge in World War II. There clearly was unfairness in some of the removals, notably that of Terry Allen, but it did not seem to damage the effectiveness of the concerned division, the 1st Infantry. In other cases, such as the replacement of the 3rd Armored Division’s Leroy Watson by Maj. Gen. Maurice Rose or of the VI Corps’s Lucas by Truscott, there clearly was an improvement in the quality of command. It was only in later wars, when generals were not removed, that the many costs of not relieving would become more evident.

A better question was whether Marshall, Bradley, and Eisenhower, consciously or not, were intolerant of nonconformists, especially among those from branches other than the infantry. Cavalrymen and their descendants in armored units certainly seemed to think so. Ernest Harmon, who commanded the 1st, 2nd, and (briefly) 3rd Armored Divisions during the war, criticized Hodges’s First Army as “a typical infantryman’s operation: slow, cautious and without much zip.” American command was dominated by the infantry branch, home of Marshall, Eisenhower, and Bradley. Some 59 percent of the Army’s four-star generals during World War II came out of the infantry and not the other combat arms—artillery, cavalry, armor, and engineering.

The enemy noticed the sluggish tendencies of its British and American opponents, with one German general commenting that “in contrast to the Eastern theater of operations, in the West it was possible to still straighten out seemingly impossible situations because the opposing armies there . . . despite their enormous material superiority, were limited by slow and methodical modes of combat.” At some invisible point, an insistence on teamwork can combine with cautiousness to produce a plodding force—especially if it lacks among its leaders some people with the passion of a Patton or the drive of a Terry Allen.

The manner in which Eisenhower chose to announce the end of the war is strikingly consistent with Marshall’s expectations of a general. After the German surrender, Eisenhower’s headquarters staff began to compose a wordy message of victory. Eisenhower rejected their lofty prose and instead issued a message simply stating, “The mission of this Allied Force was fulfilled at 0241 local time, May 7, 1945.” It was so plain as to be eloquent—or, to use an Army term of the time, it was “’nuff said.”

The war’s ending also stripped Patton of his shield of combat effectiveness. The next time Patton shot his mouth off, Eisenhower no longer needed him to pursue Germans, and whatever their friendship had meant, Eisenhower removed him from command of the Third Army in October 1945.

The politics of the Marshall system

During World War II, the relief of commanders was also intentionally a political act, making a statement to both insiders and outsiders about the nature and responsibilities of the U.S. military. It was, as FDR once remarked, “a New Deal war.” To Marshall’s eye, being willing to remove an officer signaled to the American people that the Army’s leaders cared more about the hordes of enlisted soldiers than about the relatively small officer corps. Despite his aristocratic demeanor, this was a democratic point he would make to members of Congress who inquired about the fates of generals they liked but whom Marshall had found wanting. In 1943, when queried by Sen. Carter Glass of Virginia about why Col. Robert E. M. Goolrick, commander of Keesler Field in Biloxi, Mississippi, had not been given a shot at generalship, Marshall responded with an explanation of his approach to picking men for top slots. “The only basis upon which we can proceed is that of efficiency without regard to the personalities involved,” he wrote.

We have to be continually on guard against too much emphasis being placed on the honor attached to the rank of general and too little to the choice of leaders who enjoy the confidence of the men in the ranks and who have the skill and physical endurance to bring this war to a successful conclusion without needless sacrifice of American lives. Every contact with the enemy has emphasized anew the importance of dominant and skillful leadership. All other considerations are of minor importance.

Looking out for the common soldier was not an insignificant consideration in a war being fought for democracy, a point Marshall made repeatedly in his biennial reports on the state of the military. In his 1941 report, discussing his prewar housecleaning of aging officers, Marshall explained, “In all these matters the interests of the soldier and the nation, rather than that of the individual officer, have governed.” In the next report, he justified selecting enlisted men to become officers as consistent with “democratic theory.” And indeed, that became practice. Two-thirds of the Army’s combat officers in World War II were promoted from the ranks. Marshall, in his final wartime report, composed between V-E and V-J days, would begin by stating that “never was the strength of American democracy so evident.”

Likewise, when the draft was being designed, Marshall told its planners that it had to be constructed in such a way that it would be supported by the American people. “Those of us who had spent our lives on Wall Street were mainly concerned with solving problems,” recalled Paul Nitze, who had been brought to Washington to work on the Selective Service Act of 1940.

We rarely found it necessary to give much thought to how our actions might impinge on our democratic system. Marshall educated us. Draft selections and deferments were a case in point of how problem-solving had to deal with much more than mere numbers and mechanics. Marshall’s point was that men should be selected or granted deferments on a basis that was not only fair and equitable in fact, but that was seen to be so as well.

Once those men were drafted, Marshall insisted that the need to fight the war be explained to them. Disappointed with the pamphlets that were designed for this purpose, Marshall asked Frank Capra, a leading Hollywood director of the time, to make a series of films to educate Army recruits, titled Why We Fight.

Marshall did all this not just to have an effective fighting force but also to protect the future of the U.S. Army. He believed that the antimilitarism he had seen in American society in the 1920s and ’30s was spurred in part by the harshness with which officers had treated American soldiers during World War I. “They were embittered in a way that they never forgot,” he said. So he was determined that, as much as possible, the Army would give decent, rational treatment to these temporary soldiers, or, as he called them, “future citizens.” As a lieutenant colonel in China after World War I, Marshall had instructed an officer who was berating a soldier that “you must remember that man is an American citizen just the same as you are.” During World War II, this consciousness was reflected in a variety of ways, but it was perhaps captured best in the cartoons of Bill Mauldin, which often mocked the pretensions of officers. (“Beautiful view,” one says to another as they gaze at an Alpine sunset. “Is there one for the enlisted men?”) Mauldin’s work was first carried in the newspaper of the 45th Division, commanded by Maj. Gen. Troy Middleton, who defended the free-spirited cartoonist because he believed it boosted morale and also attracted readers to the division newspaper, which he used to kill unhelpful rumors. When Middleton’s commander, George Patton, told Middleton to “get rid of Mauldin and his cartoons,” Middleton parried by asking for that order in writing. Patton dropped the subject, Middleton recalled.

It is worth considering whether Marshall’s insistence on grooming a certain type of general might have had a less direct political effect: that of encouraging the decline in American life of the caudillo, the “man on a white horse” tendency of military leaders to move from the armed forces into political life. There was a strong tradition of elevating a general to the presidency in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century America, beginning with George Washington. All told, thirteen Americans with notable military records have become president: Washington, Eisenhower, Grant, Andrew Jackson, William Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, and the first President Bush. The first nine in that list actually held a general’s rank. In addition, another four generals were losing candidates for president. But since Benjamin Harrison, who for a few months at the end of the Civil War was a brigadier in the Army of the Cumberland and who won the White House in 1888, only one general has been elected to the presidency, and that last general to become president was the least coup-prone of officers: Eisenhower, Marshall’s protégé.

The Marshall template, with its studied distance from politics, may have put a stake through the heart of the general as politician. Since Eisenhower, generals who have toyed with running for president have been humiliated in the primaries, emerging from the experience somehow diminished in the public eye. This has been true in both major American political parties, as evidenced by the fizzled presidential campaigns of Gen. Alexander Haig Jr. as a Republican in 1988 and of Gen. Wesley Clark as a Democrat in 2004. In 1968, retired Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay also ran for national office but had no chance of winning as the running mate on the independent ticket of Alabama’s former segregationist governor, George Wallace. At the state level, generals also have fared poorly. In 1962, Maj. Gen. Edwin Walker, having resigned from the Army after getting in trouble for indoctrinating his troops in the 24th Infantry Division with literature drawn from the John Birch Society, ran for governor of Texas but came in sixth and last in the Republican primary. (Early in 1963, he was slightly wounded in a sniper shooting by Lee Harvey Oswald, who according to the Warren Commission used the same rifle he would use later that year to kill President Kennedy.) In 1974, Gen. William Westmoreland lost in South Carolina’s Republican gubernatorial primary. In 2011, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez entered the campaign for the Democratic nomination for senator from Texas but, after raising few funds, dropped out before the primary vote.

The legacy of the Marshall system

George Marshall set the template, and Dwight Eisenhower implemented it, but it may be Omar Bradley’s personality that emerged dominant in the postwar Army. Not long after the war ended, the first two men moved on, with Bradley succeeding Eisenhower as chief of staff of the Army in 1948 and then becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a year later. This was a mixed blessing. Even if he was never quite the beloved “GI’s general” presented by wartime journalist Ernie Pyle, Bradley was an even-tempered man with a reputation for decency in his personal interactions. Yet during the war he had run an unhappy headquarters, one that during 1944–45 had developed a reputation for “irritable suspiciousness,” as the military historian Russell Weigley put it.

Looking back from a perspective of several decades, Weigley judged Bradley to have been “merely competent.” In 1944–45, Bradley presided over a force enjoying extreme advantages. He had more men than his foe, and his force was largely a model of tactical efficiency, with trained and disciplined teamwork between the combat arms. The West Wall, or Siegfried Line, was breached by skilled attacks in which, Weigley noted, “forward observers would bring down artillery on a pillbox to clear the enemy from subsidiary positions; tanks would then blast entrances and apertures with armor-piercing ammunition; infantry would close in, at which point the Germans frequently surrendered.” Bradley enjoyed a twenty-to-one advantage in tanks. He had even more overwhelming air superiority, with some 13,000 Allied fighters and bombers flying against just 573 serviceable Luftwaffe aircraft.

Despite his advantages, Bradley took months to force his surrounded, outnumbered foe to capitulate. Lt. Gen. Daniel Bolger, who has commanded the NATO transition forces in Afghanistan since 2011, wrote that the Army under Bradley had scored many successes, but also recorded

a disturbing number of botched battles and, especially, missed chances. The hellish butchery in the Normandy bocage, the incomplete Falaise encirclement, the costly confusion before the West Wall in the autumn, the bloody fumbling about in the Huertgen Forest, the shocking initial surprise in the Ardennes and the eventual unwillingness to pinch off the forces in that German salient, the backing and filling in the face of the Remagen bridgehead opportunity—together form a distressing litany that spans the entire length of the campaign.

For Eisenhower, the lesson of the war was that cooperation was more important than anything else. He emphasized this in the introduction to The True Glory, a joint British-American documentary about how the European war had been waged, of which he was essentially the producer. “Teamwork wins wars,” stated a visibly tired Ike, the skin under his eyes lined and sagging, with no sign of his customary grin. “I mean teamwork among nations, services, and men, all the way down the line, from the GI, and the Tommies, to us brass hats.” It was not merely a historical observation, because he made that statement after V-E Day but before the end of the Pacific War, which some military planners thought might continue for several more years.

In the afterglow of victory, the potential pitfalls of this capable, somewhat corporate model of generalship were less noticed. The flaws, when they emerged, largely would be of the kind that George Patton saw in Bradley. “I wish he had a little daring,” Patton wrote in October 1944. The nature of American military leadership in 1944 and 1945, Weigley agreed, amounted to “unimaginative caution. American generalship by and large was competent but addicted to playing it safe.” As Martin Blumenson, a World War II veteran who became a specialist in the history of the European theater in that conflict, would put it, the record of American leadership in Europe “is essentially bland and plodding. The commanders were generally workmanlike rather than bold, prudent rather than daring.” James Gavin concluded that the war could have been ended months earlier, “at considerably less cost in blood and resources, if they were willing to take more chances.”

It was a mixed legacy. Under the sort of leadership favored by Bradley, Bolger concluded, “one avoids losing, but one can also avoid winning by playing it safe.” That is an ominous sentence, given the risk-averse approach often taken by American generals in Korea, Vietnam, and Iraq in subsequent decades and the record of stalemates and worse that they tended to produce.

Perhaps those who rose highest in World War II were organization men. But for the most part they were members of a successful organization, with the failures among them weeded out instead of coddled and covered up. That would not be the case in our subsequent wars, in which it would be more difficult to know what victory looked like or even whether it was achievable.

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