15 Stars: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century


Mr. Weintraub is Evan Pugh Professor Emeritus of Arts and Humanities at Penn State and the author of, among many books, 15 Stars: Three Generals Who Saved the American Century (Free Press), from which the following article is excerpted.

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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.

*Marshall and Eisenhower would each be "Man of the Year" twice. MacArthur appeared on the cover of Time on December 29, 1941, in the week usually fixed for that accolade but it went the next week instead to President Roosevelt.

Excerpted from 15 Stars by Stanley Weintraub. Copyright © 2007 by Stanley Weintraub. Reprinted by permission from Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/7/2007

Alanbrook also reveals Churchill was under pressure from FDR to commence the North African landings prior to the U.S. election of 1942--to help the Democrats. (It was necessary to postpone the landings, however, until just after the election, and the Democrats lost seats in 1942). While easy to guess FDR engaged in this questionable activity, it is important to have the Alanbrook evidence. I don't think Eisenhower or Marshall ever confirmed or denied it. Alanbrook does not allege the 1942 election was a big factor in the decision to invade North Africa in the first place, but it might well have been.

douglas w jacobson - 7/4/2007

Of these three great generals, Eisenhower stands out. It was Ike who was thrown into the breach with no previous field commands. It was Ike who had to hold together the coalition of egos (Churchill, Patton, Montgomery). It was Ike who shunned the limelight and focused on the most difficult task in the history of warfare. For an excellent look at this most remarkable of American military figures, I suggest Stephen Ambrose's THE SUPREME COMMANDER.
Doug Jacobson

George Robert Gaston - 7/2/2007

William Manchester in American Caesar describes the first friction between McArthur and Truman.

Oddly, it was not over Korea, but rather about Truman’s decision to provide American ships to move French forces back into Vietnam. McArthur threatened to resign as a result of the decision. Truman, facing election in 1948, dispatched Marshall to convince McArthur to stay in Japan.

Does your research verify this? Are there more details concerning Truman’s reasons for supporting the French in reacquiring their Asian colonies?

I am always taken by the degree of anti-colonialism that existed in the U.S. Army during the period of American empire.

George Robert Gaston - 7/2/2007

Alanbrooke seemed to constantly complain about Marshall and Eisenhower, and their “lack of strategic vision”. I’m sure Marshall had a fairly good handle on competing British and American interests.

From my reading Eisenhower did not seem to get caught up in grand strategy. His emphasis was in planning the invasion of Europe. In this planning he did not seem to pay too much attention to the tactical details of operations. He did however; pay a great deal of attention to logistics, which is the art of the possible.

There is a maxim in military circles: “Professors study strategy, Amateurs study tactics, Professionals study logistics”. Eisenhower was preparing the most difficult military operation ever undertaken. The key factor to getting winning the war in Europe was to move an enormous mass of men and material onto and through Europe. Making such an operation work within a coalition framework is about as close to genius as it gets. He left strategy to his civilian boss.

Vernon Clayson - 7/2/2007

I looked him up but it appears he was basically a faceless presence in the shadow of Churchill despite having a military record of consequence. It also appears he had to work around Churchill's ego, a monumental task for any man, so didn't get the credit he deserved. Whatever their relationship and worth we need men like that today.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/2/2007

Alanbrook was at Churchill's elbow, selecting and dismissing people like Montgomery. Thanks for calling me studious!

Vernon Clayson - 7/2/2007

Alanbrook? The world heard of Montgomery's disagreements with Eisenhower and, by association, with Marshall, but only the most studious of historians would even recognize the name Alanbrook - Alanbrook's beef may have been that it didn't gain the credit he sought. Not to worry, who recalls the names of generals under Napoleon or, a bit more recent, Pershing in WWI? Alanbrook, we hardly knew ye.

Lawrence Brooks Hughes - 7/1/2007

General Alanbrook, Marshall's counterpart in the UK, shows contempt for the skills of both Eisenhower and Marshall in his recent unexpurgated diary. Most of his interesting wartime opinions were cut from the diary's first printing many years ago.