Essays & Reviews

Military Education and Mentorship: Fox Conner and Dwight Eisenhower

A recently published collection of essays, Pershing’s Lieutenants, catalogues important figures who served under General John J. Pershing in World War I, ranging from Marshall, Patton, and MacArthur to Captain Harry Truman. My initial impression is that the essay authors don’t always demonstrate the way in which the experience of the individuals in World War I affected their particular approach to and during World War II — which would have been of the most interest; however, this judgment is admittedly not based on a full read of the book.

Incidentally, Douglas V. Mastriano and David T. Zabecki’s introductory essay gives a nod to Pershing’s skill as an organizer, but eviscerates his performance as a military commander.

 One of the figures featured in the volume drew my especial interest — General Fox Conner—because of his well-known role in mentoring younger officers, Dwight Eisenhower in particular. Conner was, in his day, the embodiment of a soldier-scholar (a type either praised or criticized today, depending on one’s point of view), although he had not received formal graduate academic training. Unfortunately he left no memoirs, and his private papers were destroyed.

Mentoring future officers in the higher realms of strategy is a topic of much discussion within the military community, especially in terms of the applicability of the Classics, and literature more generally. This essay highlights a classic instance of this in examining the personal and professional relationship between Clausewitz and Gerhard von Scharnhorst, the great Prussian military reformer. Scharnhorst was a product of the German Aufklärung (Enlightenment), and deeply committed to the ideal of Bildung, where an individual’s character and intellect were to be perfected through education and self-development.

 To return to Conner — Conner had served as Pershing’s deputy chief of staff for operations (G-3) of the American Expeditionary Forces in France, and was the principal planner for the AEF’s Saint-Mihiel and Meuse–Argonne offensives of 1918. Eisenhower himself does not merit a chapter in Pershing’s Lieutenants as he was held stateside during the war. But the two men met in Panama in the early 1920s, where Eisenhower served under Conner, then in command of the 20th Infantry Brigade at Camp Gaillard in the Canal Zone. From sources such as the biographies authord by Edward Cox and particularly by Steven Rabalais, we can get a good picture of how Conner mentored and educated Eisenhower during these years.

 During one casual conversation, Eisenhower mentioned to Conner that he had lost interest in a former passion—the study of history. As a young student, the subject had captivated him: “Hannibal, Caesar, Pericles, Socrates, Themistocles, Miltiades, and Leonidas were my white hats, my heroes.” West Point’s emphasis on rote memorization of names and dates, however, had caused Eisenhower to develop an “intense dislike” of history. Conner showed him his extensive personal library, including works written in French and German. One shelf held nothing but works on Napoleon. But Conner chose to begin Eisenhower’s reintroduction to history through novels that told the compelling stories of fictional characters against the backdrop of historical events. This began what Eisenhower later described as a three-year “graduate school in military affairs and humanities.”

 Conner loaned Eisenhower three works of historical fiction—The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (of Sherlock Holmes fame), The Long Roll by Mary Johnston (granddaughter of Confederate General Joseph Johnston), and The Crisis by American author Winston Churchill (no relation to the more famous Briton).

 In The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, Eisenhower read of the adventures of Etienne Gerard, a cavalry officer in Napoleon’s army.  As Conan Doyle spun the tales of Gerard’s daring feats, he not only traced the arc of Napoleon’s rise and fall but also provided vignettes of Napoleon, his generals, and his enemies. Conner then asked Eisenhower: “Wouldn’t you like to know something of what the armies were actually doing during the period of the novels you’ve just read?” When Eisenhower expressed interest, Conner went through his shelves and found detailed histories of the Napoleonic Wars.

 Conner then introduced Eisenhower to Clausewitz. Eisenhower struggled to grasp the maxims set forth by Clausewitz, so Conner had Eisenhower read the book three times. Conner would quiz Eisenhower as to what each Clausewitzian principle meant. In a 1966 letter, Eisenhower identified On War as the book that had most profoundly influenced his military career. Patton recounted one World War II debate over strategy in which Eisenhower became “very pontifical and quoted Clausewitz to us.”

 Eisenhower continued to explore Conner’s military library. He analyzed, and refought on paper, the campaigns of Napoleon and of Frederick the Great of Prussia. Having read Churchill’s fictional accounts of Ulysses S. Grant and William T. Sherman in The Crisis, Eisenhower read the memoirs of both generals. Additionally, Eisenhower read the leading scholarly works of the time on the Civil War, including those of Matthew Forney Steele. Eisenhower then studied the recently fought World War. Conner and Eisenhower “war gamed” the battles of World War I to analyze mistakes made by the war’s commanders. They debated the effectiveness of the delaying actions of Lee at the end of the Civil War and of Ludendorff at the conclusion of the Great War. Conner thought Ludendorff’s strategy had been superior.

 Conner focused Eisenhower’s attention on the decisions—good and bad—that history’s great commanders had made. Why was a particular decision made? Under what conditions? What were the alternatives? How might a different decision have affected the outcome?

 The two discussed what Eisenhower termed “the long history of man, his ideas, and works.” In their discussions, Conner sometimes quoted from Shakespeare, to relate passages from the bard’s plays of kings and conquests in earlier centuries to more contemporary conflicts and characters. Conner told Eisenhower: “In all military history, only one thing never changes—human nature. Terrain may change, weather may change, weapons may change … but never human nature.” Not surprisingly, Conner also introduced Eisenhower to the works of Plato and other philosophers, including Nietzsche.

 In his lessons to Eisenhower, Conner stressed important lessons of modern warfare: 1). Never fight unless you have to; 2). Never fight alone; and 3). Never fight for long. Eisenhower frequently thereafter used two particular sayings he had learned from Conner: “Always take your job seriously, never yourself; ” and “All generalities are false, including this one.”

 Looking to the future — Conner particularly praised George Marshall for his skill in working within the Allied wartime coalition, which Conner believed would eventually have to be reconstituted. “One of the most profound beliefs of General Conner,” Eisenhower recalled, “was that the world could not long avoid another major war.” Conner believed that another major European war, in the same place against the same enemy, was “written into the Treaty of Versailles,” because it “carried within it the seeds of another, larger conflagration.” Conner repeatedly told Eisenhower that American participation in another large-scale European war was “almost a certainty.” Conner told his assistant: “You can’t take the strongest, most virile people in Europe and put them in the kind of straitjacket that this treaty attempts to do.” According to Eisenhower, Conner also foresaw a future German–Japanese alliance, which he thought the Soviet Union might join as well. Conner and Eisenhower discussed in detail the techniques of managing a multinational military coalition.

 Conner explained to Eisenhower that any future allied commander would face the same resistance Marshal Foch had encountered during the Great War—such as Conner’s own strong opposition to amalgamation of American soldiers—when attempting to control troops of a foreign nation. Conner stressed the need for allied nations to develop a command structure that vested the supreme commander with stronger powers than Foch had held. Conner thought that the general atop the international coalition would need to be as much a boardroom conciliator as a battlefield commander. Therefore, Conner stressed the need for a future supreme commander to be skilled in the “art of persuasion.” Eisenhower recalled that Conner would “get out a book of applied psychology and we would talk it over … How do you get allies of different nations to march and think as a nation?”

 Another seemingly serendipitous event was Eisenhower’s later assignment to serve on the American Battle Monument Commission under 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 war, 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—something perhaps not appreciated by other officers of his generation who fought in the trenches.  Working against a six month deadline, Eisenhower produced A Guide to the American Battlefields in Europe, first published in 1929 (with expanded version in 1932), which remains one of the best references for American efforts in World War I.