“Political General.” At first glance this title seems to be a contradiction in terms, certainly not something worthy of praise. It brings to mind Courtney Massengale, the self-promoting careerist in the Vietnam War-era novel, Once an Eagle, or, at a darker level of fiction, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman James Mattoon Scott, the villain of Seven Days in May who conspired with right-wing congressmen to stage a coup d’état to prevent the implementation of a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. In real life, George McClellan, by all appearances, fought his Civil War battles in a way that not only promoted his chances to become president (or dictator), but also aimed to restore the Union through accommodation of the South’s constitutional demands, including the retention of slavery.

As a nation where the military is by law and custom subordinate to civilian authority, we might assume that “political generals” are therefore a bad thing. We certainly do not want senior officers leading coups or trying to influence elections (George Marshall, the beau ideal of the non-political general, even refused to vote). In war, we prefer a situation where elected officials and their subordinates set clear political goals, while military commanders salute smartly and devise battlefield strategies and tactics to achieve those objectives. We believe that the military should honestly advise their superiors about what is necessary to achieve desired political goals, and that the civilians should adjust those goals to match available resources. The White House should not select individual bombing targets and the Pentagon should not undermine American policy by deliberately low-balling or over-estimating what armed force can achieve.

The real world is not always quite so neat. We are reminded of Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of policy by other means. If so, then calculations of policy—hence, politics—must enter into the equations of battlefield commanders at some point. But where exactly in the chain of command should this calculation take place, and how should it be made? In a democracy, after all, statesmen do not command armies and political commissars are typically not assigned to military headquarters.

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In modern times, with mass media and weapons of mass destruction, policy considerations can intrude well down the chain of command. An American attack submarine commander during the Cuban missile crisis, or a lieutenant at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin, might have been forced to reconcile operational orders with their sense of what policymakers really wanted them to do were things not to go according to script. They might also have been tempted to substitute their own judgment about what national policy ought to be. Ordinary enlisted men and women in places like Iraq and Afghanistan have deliberately or unintentionally done things that damaged the U.S. image and undermined its policy regionally and globally.

In recent years, we have seen a number of high-ranking officers with advanced civilian academic credentials—for example, David Petraeus and H.R. McMaster—who have tried to bridge the gap, by offering military advice that is sensitive to the political situation at hand, both in the theater of operations and in Washington.

Perhaps the consummate political general was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the subject of an excellent new biography by Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace (see Michael Nelson’s “Eisenhower as Statesman” in the Summer 2012 CRB for a review of Smith’s book and other recent assessments of Eisenhower). Eisenhower eventually reached the highest elective office; in this, he was in good company, with George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant, among other less distinguished former generals. While on active duty, Eisenhower incorporated political factors, high and low, into his concept of military operations. Eisenhower’s sensitivity to policy matters was particularly apparent in how he chose to fight the campaign in Europe after D-Day, which had far-reaching political ramifications for the post-war world.

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Eisenhower’s background was, on the surface, rather ordinary. He did not seem to have had a career blueprint designed to prepare him for greatness. As a boy in rural Kansas, Eisenhower showed no particular genius, academic or otherwise, although he was reasonably bright and personable. He did not play with toy soldiers or imagine himself the next Alexander the Great. He wound up at West Point, as did many young men at the time, rather by accident. He did not particularly distinguish himself at the Academy. Because he did not see combat in World War I, through no choice of his own, he seemed fated to remain well down the officer pecking order, behind men like George S. Patton who had served in France.

Yet Eisenhower was evidently ambitious to do well in the post-war Army. To advance his career he found a number of important mentors—or they found him—including John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, and George Marshall. Under their commands he developed a reputation as a superb staff officer. One could not be around such towering figures without becoming aware of matters outside the barracks and training grounds. Perhaps the most important influence, however, was that of Fox Conner, known as the “brains” of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in World War I. Connor fit the model of a scholar-soldier. While commanding the 20th Infantry Brigade in Panama in the early 1920s, Connor arranged for Eisenhower to serve on his staff. There he introduced Eisenhower to the serious study of history and literature—not only the campaigns of Frederick the Great and Napoleon, and the American Civil War, but also Plato, Tacitus, and Shakespeare. Conner pressed Eisenhower to read Clausewitz closely. He stressed the importance of coalition warfare, based on his experience at AEF’s headquarters, emphasizing what he called “the art of persuasion.” Conner invoked three principles for waging war in a democracy: never fight unless you have to; never fight alone; and never fight for long.

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Another seemingly serendipitous event was Eisenhower’s assignment to serve on the American Battle Monument Commission under the former commander of the AEF, General Pershing. (Or perhaps it was not so serendipitous—the duty was arranged by Conner.) The Commission was tasked to compile and organize the record of the Army’s participation in World War I. Such a posting might seem a diversion for an ambitious young officer but it allowed Eisenhower to learn and reflect upon the geography of Europe, to develop an understanding of the logistical challenges of large-scale continental warfare, and to appreciate the challenges of coordinating Allied armies. Those reflections proved invaluable to Eisenhower as he developed a sense of the problems of high-level command, often overlooked by other officers of his generation who fought in the trenches. Working against a six-month deadline, Eisenhower produced A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe, first published in 1927 (and expanded in 1938), which, as Smith points out, “remains one of the best references to the American effort in World War I.”

Eisenhower’s rapid rise through the officer ranks in the late 1930s and early ’40s, which culminated in his selection to command the invasions of North Africa and Western Europe, is well documented. President Franklin Roosevelt and Army Chief of Staff Marshall selected him because of his demonstrated skills as a planner and organizer. Through his work under Marshall as a strategic planner he also understood the larger geopolitical picture. He demonstrated the inter-personal skills to deal with the British and other national leaders, as well as enough authority and charm to contend with the clashing egos of the senior American commanders (most of whom hated their British counterparts). He was not selected in expectation of his potential greatness as a battlefield commander because that was not what was required.

What Roosevelt and Marshall got, however, was someone who turned out to be far from passive in implementing Washington’s larger political vision for the conduct of the war and its aftermath. Eisenhower received his first hard lesson in the practical difficulties of implementing American policy during the North African campaign, when he faced ticklish questions concerning the present and future of the French Empire. FDR thought that France had forfeited its great-power status by its weak, fractious politics during the inter-war period and its dismal military performance in 1939-1940. The president entertained ideas of breaking up France and its empire after the war. FDR was relatively well disposed to Vichy France, the rump state left unoccupied by the Germans after the invasion, in part because it seemed to smooth the way towards the marginalization of France.

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When the allies invaded North Africa in November 1942, they were initially resisted by the imperial French forces under the authority of the Vichy government. Eisenhower, following the advice of Robert Murphy, the State Department’s man on the scene, cut a deal with various Vichy leaders, notably Admiral François Darlan. Under the agreement, the French forces ceased fighting and granted the Allies access to military facilities and infrastructure. In return, the Allies effectively left the Vichy regime intact—including its anti-Semitic regulations and overtly fascist officials. Eisenhower thought it made perfect sense to maintain the existing political structure so the Allies could get on with fighting the war, without having to deal with the headache of administering local affairs in the rear areas. This policy meant, inter alia, that the United States would marginalize the Free French movement, which was based as much on resistance to Vichy as to the Germans. Eisenhower was persuaded to do to so in part because the Free French leader, Charles de Gaulle, was personally difficult to deal with, but mainly because de Gaulle demanded that France be restored to the great-power table, which ran against the grain of American policy.

A political firestorm ensued. Eisenhower had followed what he thought to be administration policy, and his sense of military necessity, only to find that he was criticized widely in the American and British press for cynically cutting deals with collaborationists and for losing the moral high ground against the Nazis. FDR publically ran the other way, issuing a statement that “no one in our Army has any authority to discuss the future government of France or the French Empire.” Eisenhower recognized that it would be easy—perhaps necessary—for civilian authorities to sacrifice a mere general, even the commanding officer, under such circumstances to save their collective hide, and he was determined to not put himself in that position again if he could help it.

The Americans were let off the hook somewhat when Darlan was assassinated (under murky circumstances), but FDR was still strongly opposed to dealing with the Free French leader or to recognizing de Gaulle as the provisional political leader of France. Eisenhower, however, soon came to understand that de Gaulle was the most powerful figure of French resistance to Germany and the man best able to control things in North Africa. In the future, the Western Allies would need the French Resistance to aid them in their forthcoming landings on the continent and particularly to relieve Eisenhower of the need to govern a liberated France. In his memoirs, de Gaulle described how Eisenhower subtly worked thereafter around his government’s policy, without directly challenging Washington: “If occasionally he went so far as to support the pretexts which tended to keep us in obscurity, I can affirm that he did so without conviction. I even saw him submit to my intervention in his own strategy whenever national interest led me to do so.”

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The issue of the governance of France emerged acutely after the Allied breakout from the Normandy beachheads in the summer of 1944. Eisenhower paid lip service to the policy that Roosevelt insisted upon but with the tacit sympathy of the War Department (another lesson in politics) he treated de Gaulle effectively as France’s legitimate head of state. By backing de Gaulle, he minimized the possibility of a civil war in France. Eisenhower originally planned to bypass Paris in pursuit of the German Army but changed his mind when de Gaulle insisted, on political grounds, that the city should be taken quickly and exclusively by French troops. De Gaulle warned that the alternative was a repeat of the Paris Commune of 1871—and, in de Gaulle’s mind, it preempted the possibility that the Roosevelt administration might seek to undercut him by negotiating an arrangement with Vichy authorities to restore the Third Republic. Eisenhower also had information that the German commander in Paris was prepared to ignore Hitler’s orders to destroy the city, but that the window to prevent such a catastrophe was closing.

“Eisenhower’s decision [to take Paris] was political and moral, but not military,” Smith writes. In conventional military terms, according to the American way of war, Eisenhower was ignoring the lesson taught by Grant, that the enemy’s army, not his cities, should be the object of the campaign. “His cable to the Combined Chiefs informing them of his decision is one of the most important he ever wrote: a masterpiece of subtlety and insinuation,” Smith concludes. Eisenhower claimed to his superiors that “[i]f the enemy tries to hold Paris with any real strength he would be a constant menace to our flank. If he largely evacuates the place, it falls into our hands whether we like it or not.” Both points were stretchers, as Mark Twain would say. And Eisenhower could have occupied the city instead with American forces first, had he pushed the point.

When he visited the city a few days later, Eisenhower paid a formal call on de Gaulle. “I did this very deliberately as a kind of de facto recognition of him as the provisional President of France…. That was of course what he wanted and what Roosevelt had never given him,” Eisenhower explained years later. As Smith concludes:

On his own authority, without seeking the approval of the Combined Chiefs of Staff, the British war cabinet, or Washington, he had installed a new government in France, saved Paris from destruction, and received the adulation of the French people. By providing de Gaulle the opportunity to occupy the Palais de l’Élysée, he outmaneuvered FDR and the State Department so skillfully that he left no fingerprints…. Whereas de Gaulle made his way by forcing his iron will on others, Ike moved by subtlety and indirection. His amiable personality and avuncular enthusiasm concealed a calculating political instinct that had been honed to perfection.


Politics and policy also informed Eisenhower’s decision to continue the western campaign against Germany on a broad rather than a narrow front. Eisenhower rejected one alternative, proposed by Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery and the British, of a concentrated thrust in the north, towards the Ruhr, Germany’s industrial heartland; and also a second alternative, proposed by General Omar Bradley, of an American-led thrust farther south, towards the Saar and Frankfurt. Eisenhower was following what he regarded as the lessons of the First World War and the Civil War, that of the advantage of putting continuous pressure on the enemy at all available locations. But the choice also reflected Eisenhower’s proclivity to compromise, to avoid choosing the British over the Americans, or vice versa. It may also have reflected a personal desire to be certain that Eisenhower himself, not one of his subordinates, would receive full credit for the victory.

Eisenhower’s choice of strategy was questionable on strictly military terms. Smith is of the view that Montgomery’s plan was the most feasible and likely would have ended the war sooner and with fewer casualties. The logistical challenges of supplying a broad front slowed the advance and left the Allies vulnerable to a German operational riposte, such as that which took place in the Ardennes in December 1944. But there was a high-level political dimension to Eisenhower’s decision as well. A concentrated northern thrust, if successful, would have put the Western allies in a position to beat the Russians to Berlin and potentially to have a greater say in the post-war disposition of northern Europe, including Poland. Churchill and the British made no bones about their political objectives.

Eisenhower (and the senior U.S. political leadership) had earlier frustrated Churchill’s efforts to mount a significant campaign in the Balkans, which, if successful, would have also improved the Western Allies’ post-war bargaining position with Stalin. Eisenhower rejected the strategic logic behind the British plans in both north and southeastern Europe, which he thought to be politically self-serving and strategically untenable. The Balkans, in his view, was a cul-de-sac that would drain vital manpower from the central theater of Western Europe. American political and military officials, including Eisenhower, were convinced that the British were really fighting to preserve their empire in the Middle East and Asia.

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Concerning the western front, Eisenhower outmaneuvered London by dispatching his deputy, Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, to Moscow to consult with Stalin about the eventual link-up of the two sides in Germany. Eisenhower clearly wanted to signal the Soviets that he was uninterested in prestige objectives (read: Berlin) and that he would focus on the defeat of the German Army. (When it suited him to divert forces to gain a prestige object, such as Paris, Eisenhower of course was perfectly willing to do so.)

Despite these military agreements with the Soviets, and the political demarcation lines agreed upon at Yalta, Churchill continued to push the Western Allies to advance as far east as possible. The British prime minister maintained that Britain and the United States needed as much leverage as they could to ensure that the Soviets kept their agreements, especially after FDR indicated to Stalin that the United States would rapidly withdraw its forces from the continent after the war. Eisenhower again refused to budge. He argued that the United States should not risk getting into a shooting war with its eastern Allies because American and Soviet field units stumbled into each other. Soviet cooperation, Eisenhower believed, was necessary to establish a workable administration of occupied Germany. Eisenhower also insisted on the need to divert American forces to the south to preempt a potential “Alpine redoubt” strategy by Hitler and his fanatical supporters (which, as it turned out, was a phantom threat).

Eisenhower was reflecting the views of the Roosevelt Administration—and more broadly, of informed American public opinion—that the most likely post-war threat to be guarded against was the revival of German (and Japanese) militarism, and that U.S.-Soviet cooperation was the best means to deal with that threat and otherwise maintain world peace. One major political advantage of the broad front strategy was that it brought the war to all of Germany and left no doubt that the Third Reich had been defeated. If the war had ended in the fall of 1944 due to a drive towards Berlin that led to a collapse of the Hitler regime, probably through a military coup, German nationalists might have created another “stab in the back” legend similar to that which plagued Germany after World War I.

But when it came to dealing with the Soviets Eisenhower was not merely a good soldier dutifully “following orders,” as Stephen Ambrose and others have argued. Nor was he simply channeling the good feelings of his fellow citizens towards the brave defenders of Moscow and Stalingrad. As we have seen, Eisenhower was perfectly capable of finding military justifications for politically-oriented decisions, and otherwise obfuscating his intentions, as he grew increasingly confident in his judgment about larger matters. He had sufficient domestic and international prestige to pull off a major change of military strategy-on putatively military grounds—or at least to make his case for a change of strategy strongly to his superiors, if he wanted to do so. Eisenhower’s decision to minimize any possible friction with the Soviets, therefore, must have been based on serious personal convictions about the immediate and long-term political requirements of U.S. national security.

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Not that Eisenhower was naïve or pro-Soviet. We can with some confidence identify what those convictions were, especially when viewed in light of their more explicit development in Eisenhower’s later public career.

Above all, Eisenhower believed that World War II must be made the last great war of human history. The tragic global struggles of the first half of the 20th century had brought civilization to the brink of physical and moral destruction, and the military technologies just coming on line meant that things would only get worse. (Eisenhower recommended against use of the atomic bomb against Japan, the only senior U.S. official to do so. He believed that the war in the Pacific was already won, and that use of the bomb would unnecessarily increase post-war international tensions and suspicion of U.S. intentions). Human energy should be put into constructive, not destructive, purposes. Eisenhower doubted that the Soviet leadership wanted war with the West or that Stalin planned military aggression. The Soviets, in his opinion, had suffered too greatly to have any appetite for further conflict. The West would be foolish to provoke the Bear by racing for Berlin or trying to obtain transient advantages of territory. As of May 1945, Eisenhower judged that U.S. relations with the Russians were at about the same state as those with the British in 1941:

As we dealt with each other, we learned the British ways and they learned ours. Now the Russians, who have had relatively little contact with the Americans and British, do not understand us, nor do we them. The more contact we have with the Russians, the more they will understand us and the greater will be the cooperation. It should be possible to work with Russia if we will follow the same pattern of friendly co-operation that has resulted in the great record of [Anglo-American] unity…. Only now, in peace, the motive for co-operation is the betterment of the lot in life of the common man. If we can create singleness of purpose on this theme, as we did to win the war, then peace should be assured.


In Congressional testimony in November 1945 Eisenhower remarked that “Russia has not the slightest thing to gain by a struggle with the United States. There is no one thing, I believe, that guides the policy of Russia more today than to keep friendship with the United States.”

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By adopting a military strategy that was relatively accommodating towards Moscow’s political sensibilities Eisenhower also thought he was hedging against the possibility that Stalin would reject post-war cooperation. If there was going to be a breakdown in East-West relations Eisenhower wanted to be sure that the Soviets were perceived to be the party at fault by American and European opinion. When the Cold War did indeed erupt, Eisenhower still believed that the Soviet threat was political, not military, in character. The dangers of atomic war, added to the destruction of World War II and the Soviets’ relative economic weakness, made full-scale military aggression a non-starter for any rational regime in Moscow. When Eisenhower was later named NATO’s first Supreme Allied Commander he maintained this perspective and worked to build up the confidence of the West European nations against Soviet intimidation and subversion. President Eisenhower’s New Look (massive retaliation), the Atoms for Peace proposal, and the warning against the “military-industrial complex” all flowed from these deeply held assumptions that guided General Eisenhower in 1943-1945.

What should one make of Eisenhower, the political general? We can argue about the substance of his strategic views and the acuteness of his geopolitical judgment. Historians and biographers, as a rule, now give him relatively high marks for those, including his time as president. They have come to appreciate his “hidden hand” style of presidential leadership and his mastery of the paradoxes of the nuclear age. There is something troubling nonetheless in a democracy about a general who exercises political judgment that clearly goes against—or at least goes beyond—that of his duly constituted superiors, without making it clear what he is doing. To be sure, that is a very fine line, as we have discovered again in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade. The line nevertheless needs to be established, or reestablished, through the constant interaction of politicians and military commanders, operating above board. One cannot simply be results-oriented, as the poker players say—because Eisenhower won the hand, all is forgiven. The hidden hand can be a dangerous thing in civil-military relations. Perhaps it is noteworthy that President Eisenhower famously kept his own generals and admirals on a very short leash and typically had little regard for their political judgment.