There have been countless biographies of the generals of World War II, and many are excellent. This biography of Walter Bedell Smith, Eisenhower’s chief of staff, is one of the best. Smith has never received the attention and the credit that he deserves. A chief of staff is perhaps bound to be an unsung hero, but “Beetle” Smith was far more than just a tough and able administrator. In the words of a fellow officer, he possessed “all the charm of a rattlesnake.” Yet the bad-cop routine—one he used almost entirely with fellow Americans and not with Allies—was forced upon him because Eisenhower, his supreme commander, desperately wanted to be liked by everybody.
In addition to all his operational duties, Smith was also left to handle the press, and political and diplomatic relations, acting as Eisenhower’s “primary shock-absorber.” The politically naïve Eisenhower had suddenly discovered the pitfalls of supreme command, especially when it involved the latent civil war of French politics. His decision to make use of Admiral François Darlan, the head of the Vichy French navy, to defuse opposition to the Allied landings in North Africa produced a storm of condemnation in the U.S. and Britain, especially as Vichy’s anti-Jewish laws were left in place. Eisenhower complained to an old friend of his role as supreme commander: “I am a cross between a one-time soldier, a pseudo-statesman, a jack-legged politician and a crooked diplomat.” These first trials, and especially the failures in the advance on Tunisia, did not constitute Eisenhower’s finest hour. He was close to a breakdown by January 1943, and his weak performance briefing the Combined Chiefs of Staff at the Casablanca conference—Roosevelt thought him “jittery”—nearly led to his resignation. He confided to Patton that he thought “his thread [was] about to be cut.” But the British did not insist on his removal, and with Smith’s steady advice Eisenhower weathered the storm.
Eisenhower and Smith were both caught up in the great strategic debate within the Allied camp. Marshall wanted the invasion of France to have every priority and remained deeply suspicious of British attempts to postpone it by diverting efforts to the Mediterranean theater because of their material and manpower shortages. As in the Napoleonic wars, British strategy was to avoid a major continental engagement until, making use of the Royal Navy, the enemy had been worn down at the periphery. American doctrine was the very opposite: using industrial supremacy to fight a battle of equipment (Materialschlacht) and confronting the enemy in a head-on land engagement. Mr. Crosswell quotes the boast of one U.S. general: “The American Army does not solve its problems, it overwhelms them.”
But Marshall’s plans for an early invasion of Northwest Europe were thwarted by Churchill, who went directly to Roosevelt. As things turned out, Churchill proved to be right to postpone D-Day, albeit for the wrong reasons. He longed to attack the “soft under-belly of Europe” through Italy and into central Europe to forestall a Soviet occupation after the war. (Roosevelt, Marshall and Eisenhower all failed to foresee the Stalin’s ambitions.) Marshall, on the other hand, was wrong because any attempt to mount a cross-Channel invasion in 1942 or even 1943 would have ended in disaster. The U.S. Army was simply not ready, the shipping and landing-craft were not available and the Allies lacked air supremacy.
The stress of Smith’s job, especially dealing with the rival egos of Eisenhower’s army group and army commanders—to say nothing of the constant political interference from Churchill—contributed to his irascibility and ulcers. His infrequent escapes from his desk revolved around needlepoint, fishing and collecting objets d’art. Smith was, in Mr. Crosswell’s words, both “a loner and an inveterate collector all his life.”
Eisenhower has always received the credit for the close Allied cooperation, but in “Beetle” we find that Smith achieved much of it working behind the scenes. Eisenhower knew this and wrote to Marshall about the necessity of promoting him. “Smith seems to have a better understanding of the British and is more successful in producing smooth teamwork among the various elements of the staff than any other subordinate I have.” Yet Eisenhower’s feelings about Beetle seem to have been ambivalent, even though he depended on his abilities to an extraordinary degree. They were never close friends, and Eisenhower failed to give Smith the credit he deserved. Smith’s ability to get on well with the British also often led to accusations that he was prejudiced in their favor. Yet he was brilliant in containing inter-Allied explosions, especially those provoked by the prima donna Bernard Montgomery. Major turf wars were avoided by Smith’s skilled handling of the insufferable British general. When Montgomery came to Eisenhower’s headquarters in Algiers in 1943, he said to Smith: “I expect I am a bit unpopular up here.” Smith replied: “General, to serve under you would be a great privilege for anyone, to serve longside you wouldn’t be too bad. But, say, General, to serve over you is hell.”
Montgomery, however, was not the only senior commander to exploit Eisenhower’s failure to establish firm control and his attempts to compromise. American generals like Omar Bradley and George Patton also played games and threw tantrums, which Smith had to resolve. “The trouble with Ike,” Smith observed, “is that instead of giving direct and clear orders, [he] dresses them up in polite language; and that is why our senior American commanders take advantage.” Eisenhower’s reliance on charm and manipulation all too often failed to work. Patton likened him to a politician running for office rather than a real commander.
This book, which manages to be both brutally honest and fair, does little to bolster the Ike myth, but clearly shows his moment of glory during the Ardennes offensive in December 1944, when he really did at last take a grip. But Eisenhower quickly lost it again during the rest of that terrible winter. And perhaps predictably, it was Smith who had to fire a semi-deranged Patton in September 1945 after his outrageous remarks attacking denazification.
Smith was disappointed not to get Eisenhower’s job after the end of the war. But his talents for tough negotiation were not ignored. He was appointed to Moscow as ambassador, and Eisenhower said that it would “serve those bastards right.” Although in bad health, Smith was called upon again, in 1950, to reorganize the fledgling CIA. He was appalled by the gifted amateurs in covert operations, who clearly were out of their league up against the ruthless KGB. On becoming president, Eisenhower again called on Smith—to serve under John Foster Dulles at the State Department—and Smith dutifully obeyed. His main role was dealing with the collapse of French Indochina and the Geneva conference in 1954. Struggling against ill health, partly due to a diet of cigarettes, “bourbon and Dexedrine,” Smith died in 1961.
Mr. Crosswell’s account both of Smith’s life and of supreme command in Europe is expert and written in good clean prose. Almost a third of it is devoted to logistic problems, which have never received the importance they deserve, especially for the war in Northwest Europe. Although strangely structured, with Smith’s postwar career at the beginning, the book provides a vital addition to our understanding of the politics and problems of allied warfare.
Mr. Beevor is the author of “D-Day: The Battle for Normandy” (Penguin).
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