A Fateful Friendship
Eisenhower dreamed of serving under Patton, but history reversed their roles. Their stormy association dramatically shaped the Allied assault on the Third Reich
April 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 3
They never had much in common. George Patton was a conceited, spoiled child from an extremely wealthy, snobbish family. He dressed as he pleased, said what he liked, and did as he wished, he cursed like a trooper and told off his inferiors—and sometimes his superiors—with profane eloquence. Although he moved easily in America’s highest society, main people, soldiers included, thought Patton vulgar. Dwight Eisenhower came from the wrong side of the tracks in a tiny midwestern town. He had to support himself while in high school by working nights in a creamery: he wanted to be well liked, and he obeyed his superiors. The only thing he did to attract attention was to do his duty quietly and efficiently.
Patton was an erratic genius, given to great outbursts of energy and flashes of brilliant insight. He was capable of sustained action, but not of systematic thought. A superstitions man, he was much taken by his own déjà vu his sensation of having been somewhere before; he devoutly believed that he had fought with Alexander the Great and with Napoleon, among others. Eisenhower had a steady, orderly mind. When he looked at a problem he would take everything into account, weigh possible alternatives, anil deliberately decide on a course of action. Patton seldom arrived at a solution through an intellectual process; rather, he felt that this or that was what he should do, and he did it.
Patton strutted while Eisenhower walked. Both were trim, athletic, outdoor types; but Eisenhower was usually grinning, Patton frowning. Patton indulged his moods, while Eisenhower kept a grip on his temper.
Despite the differences, the two soldiers shared a friendship that survived two decades and (according to Eisenhower) “heated, sometimes almost screaming arguments.…” Their common West Point training—Patton graduated in 1909, Eisenhower in 1915—helped hold them together; other factors were, however, more important. Both had a deep interest in tanks and armored warfare. Patton, five years Eisenhower’s senoir, had led tanks in battle during World War I; Eisenhower had trained tank crews in Pennsylvania. After 1918, when the War Department almost ignored the new weapon, Patton and Eisenhower, like those junior officers in England, France, and Germany who believed that the tank would dominate the battlefield in the next war, naturally drew together. But beyond this mutual interest, they respected each other. Patton’s dash, courage, and recklessness complemented Eisenhower’s stubborn, straightforward caution. Each admired the other and benefited from the relationship.
The two young majors met in 1919, and almost immediately they began an argument that would last until Patton’s death. Patton thought that the chief ingredient in modern war was inspired leadership on the battlefield. Eisenhower felt that leadership was just one factor. He believed that Patton was inclined to indulge his romantic nature, neglecting such matters as logistics, a proper world-wide strategy, and getting along with allies.
A letter Patton wrote to Eisenhower in July, 1926, illustrated the difference between the two men. “Ike” had just spent a year at the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth. He had applied himself with almost monastic diligence to his studies, and had graduated first in his class. Patton, fearful that his friend had concentrated too hard on such subjects as transportation, staff functioning, and how to draft a memo, decided to set him straight. After congratulating Eisenhower on his achievement, Patton declared, “We talk a hell of a lot about tactics and stuff and we never get to brass tacks. Namely what is it that makes the Poor S.O.B. who constitutes the casualty list fight.” Leadership was Patton’s answer. Officers had to get out and inspire the men, keep them moving. One or two superheroes would not do; Patton thought any such notion was “bull.” Finally, he concisely summed up the difference between his and Eisenhower’s approach to battle. “Victory in the next war will depend on EXECUTION NOT PLANS .” By execution, Patton said, he meant keeping the infantry advancing under fire.
Eisenhower disagreed. Plans, he said, meant that food and ammunition and gasoline would continue to reach the men in the front lines, that pressure would be applied where it hurt the enemy the most, that supreme effort would not be wasted. The most difficult tasks in the next war, Eisenhower believed, would be raising, training, arming, and transporting the men; getting them ashore in the right places; maintaining good liaison with allied forces. Execution would matter, of course, but it was only one part of the total picture.
During the thirties their Army assignments kept the two men apart, but they stayed in touch. It was a bad time for armor advocates: the army had practically no tanks. Patton, disgusted, joined the calvary, where he could at least play polo, while Eisenhower worked patiently through a series of staff jobs. Patton lived expensively—entertaining, racing around in sports cars, keeping his own string of polo ponies, and travelling by private yacht and private plane. This was in an army that was, for most practical purposes, poverty-stricken. During the Depression, Congress cut officers’ salaries and introduced annoying economy measures on army posts. Most career men tightened their belts, entertained frugally, and associated only with their fellows. Patton’s ostentatious display of his wealth was offensive to most of his colleagues, especially his superiors; they could not begin to compete with him.