At Last, Honor for Albert Wedemeyer, a Great American Soldier
Thomas Fleming is a former president of the Society of American Historians and is on the advisory board of HNN
Shortly after the Allies established a beachhead in Normandy in June 1944, George C. Marshall, the U.S. Army’s chief of staff, sent a cable to General Albert C. Wedemeyer telling him: “Your plan has worked.” Marshall was referring to the 147-page Victory Program that Wedemeyer and a small staff had written in 1941. It had been expanded and elaborated by Wedemeyer’s War Plans successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower and renamed Overlord. But Marshall still regarded the original plan as the key to the Allied success.
This is a sample of the astonishing forgotten story that historian John J. McLaughlin reveals in his new book, Albert A. Wedemeyer, America’s Unsung Strategist in World War II.
If the United States had listened to Wedemeyer, World War II might have ended in 1943, with Soviet Russia’s armies still within her own borders, sparing the nations of Eastern Europe their forty year nightmare in the grip of Soviet communism. Even more relevant to our own times, China would not be the stew of communist -- or pseudo-communist -- wealth and power it is today. In 1945, Wedemeyer urged President Franklin Roosevelt to give Nationalist China the military and financial aid it deserved. Alas, Roosevelt’s declining health left him too addled to make a decision of that magnitude. Wedemeyer’s advice was as ignored as it had been when he declared that a massive invasion of Europe could end World War II in 1943.
How did Wedemeyer become World War II’s forgotten prophet? The answer to that question is a tale of the perils of coalition warfare combined with ideological bias, treachery, and treason. McLaughlin tells the story in calm matter-of fact prose, which makes it even more astonishing.
Omaha-born Albert Wedemeyer was a star athlete who graduated from West Point in 1916 and served in the Far East for ten of his next twenty years in the Army. In the Philippines he married the daughter of Colonel (later General) Stanley Embick, a military scholar who made his son-in-law aware of the importance of history and economics in a soldier’s world. Posted to the Army’s Command and General Staff School in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1934, Wedemeyer graduated first in his class and was sent to the Kriegsakademie, the German war college in Berlin, as an exchange student.
Wedemeyer’s report on his two years in Berlin won the attention of Brigadier General Marshall, soon to be the U.S. Army’s chief of staff. He saw that the report not only revealed the German army’s new equipment and tactics, emphasizing battlefield speed and concentrated impact -- it also provided a strategy for defeating them. In the spring of 1941, after Germany had smashed the French army and flung the remnants of the British Expeditionary Force back to England, Marshall put him to work on creating a Victory Plan for a war both men were convinced America would soon have to fight.
When Marshall cabled Wedemeyer in 1944, he was in China. A malicious Winston Churchill had persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt to send him there. Churchill and his British cohorts had loathed Wedemeyer’s proposal for a 1943 invasion of Europe. Later they would claim that they considered it premature. But McLaughlin demonstrates convincingly that they originally hoped to avoid an invasion entirely. Churchill predicted it would create “a river of blood” that would have catastrophic effects on British morale, barely recovered from the million dead of World War I.
Instead, the British persuaded FDR to agree to an invasion of North Africa, followed by invasions of Sicily and Italy. This attack on the Nazis’ supposedly soft underbelly, coupled with a massive bombing campaign, was their formula for defeating Germany. This approach presumed that the Red Army would continue to inflict huge casualties on the Eastern Front. But Stalin’s threat to talk peace forced Churchill to agree to the 1944 invasion. By that time Wedemeyer was an obscure second-in-command to British Admiral Lord Mountbatten in the China-Burma-India theater of the global war.
Wedemeyer soon found himself in the middle of a crisis with huge implications for America’s role in the Far East, both then and now. The man Roosevelt had sent to China, General Joseph Stilwell, was the worst imaginable choice for a job that called for a delicate mix of diplomatic and military skills. Stilwell’s military thinking was primitive, biased by a fondness for leading troops personally on the battlefield. This won him the admiration of his soldiers. But his Western and Western-trained Chinese troops were only a handful and his heroics gave him little or no time to think strategically about how to prevent a looming defeat from the experienced Japanese army. The situation was not helped by Stilwell’s consuming hatred for the leader of Nationalist China, Chiang Kai-shek. He filled his diary and dispatches home with abuse of Chiang as hopelessly corrupt and portrayed the Nationalists as worthless allies, literally and morally bankrupt.
Wedemeyer drew starkly opposite conclusions. A reader of history, he saw that eight years of war against a superior Japanese army had left China demoralized. Inflation, that destroyer of civilian morale, was rampant. Much of the Chinese army had lost confidence in Chiang’s leadership. But Wedemeyer saw China’s potential if Chiang could be persuaded to make some basic reforms in the army and America gave him decent support. Thanks to Stilwell’s smears, China had received only 1.3 percent of the billions of dollars of Lend-Lease aid America had shipped overseas.
When an exasperated Chiang demanded Stilwell’s removal, Wedemeyer accepted an appointment as his replacement. He was immediately battered by reporters who admired Stilwell. Worse, Wedemeyer found himself up against so-called “Chinas hands” in the U.S. State Department, most of whom were Communist sympathizers who eagerly bought Stilwell’s denunciation of Chiang.
It is painful to read the words of these once admired gurus. Here is John Patton Davies in 1943. “The Communists, with the popular support which they enjoy and their reputation for administrative reform and honesty, represent a challenge to the Central Government and its spoils system.” Here is John Stuart Service, a year later. “The Communists base their policy toward the Kuomintang on a real desire for democracy in China.” Pause for a moment and recall recent New York Times headlines about the way modern Communist Party “princelings” can demand a slice of the profits of a profitable Chinese corporation with a phone call.
In the U.S. Treasury Department sat Harry Dexter White, whom we now know, thanks to the VENONA transcripts, was a full-fledged Soviet agent. In 1943, the U.S. agreed to commit two hundred million dollars in gold to stem the inflation that was wrecking the Chinese economy. White never sent more than a fraction of the money. In 1944, he told his boss. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau. “We have succeeded in limiting gold shipments to 26 million this past year.” White repeatedly assured Morgenthau that there was no conflict between Communist Chinese war aims and American interests.
President Roosevelt died only a few weeks after Wedemeyer appealed to him. China became interwoven with personal pain when President Harry Truman asked General Marshall to broker a deal that would persuade the Nationalists to join forces with the Communists against the Japanese. Exhausted by the eighteen-hour-days he had devoted to the global war for the previous four years, Marshall had neither the time nor the energy to grasp Communist Chinese intentions. He was dismayed to find that his protégé, General Wedemeyer, disagreed with his attempt to be evenhanded with the two antagonists.
In 1947, as the Communist armies began defeating the Nationalists in a civil war that grew rapidly ominous for Chiang's forces, President Truman asked Wedemeyer to return to China and find out what if anything, could be done. Wedemeyer wrote a long detailed report, arguing that there was still time to reverse the Nationalists’ slide toward collapse. But the State Department suppressed it, adding one more frustration to the general’s experience in the complexities of global politics. Even more painful was a statement by General Marshall, by now the secretary of state, that he personally approved the suppression. Although their long friendship had obviously cooled, Wedemeyer continued to speak admiringly of Marshall for the rest of his life.
As long as he was in government service, Wedemeyer remained publicly silent about his dismay at the way the U.S. government lost China. Not until 1954, when he had retired, did he publish Wedemeyer Reports, which unsparingly detailed his experience in dealing with the American government. By this time, the U.S. had learned in Korea that the Communist Chinese were lethal enemies.
Is Wedemeyer still a significant thinker? McLaughlin thinks his definition of strategy remains meaningful: The art and science of developing and employing all the political, economic and military resources of a nation together with its armed forces in the ongoing struggle to insure the security and well being of the people. How to persuade the politicians to listen to its soldiers’ hard-earned wisdom remains a problem that can only be answered by each generation. This book is a cautionary tale for those who undertake that large task.
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