General Fox Conner: Pershing’s Chief of Operations and Eisenhower’s Mentor by Steven Rabalais

Summary

  1. Rabalais uncovers the details behind Fox Conner’s background and his influence on military history, including General Pershing and Dwight Eisenhower. “The legacy of this quintessential man-behind-the-scenes indeed endures. As Black Jack Pershing’s chief of operations and Dwight Eisenhower’s mentor, Fox Conner left an unmistakable imprint upon his nation’s military history. Were they alive today, Pershing and Eisenhower, as well as George Marshall and George Patton—all titans of 20th-century American military history—would each offer eloquent testimony that Conner’s memory belongs within their ranks. As Eisenhower said of Conner in a 1964 interview: “In sheer ability and character, he was the outstanding soldier of my time.”

Key Takeaways

  1. As Pershing’s chief of operations for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during World War I, Fox Conner directed the development and successful deployment of American combat forces in France. Pershing considered Conner to have been “a brilliant soldier” and “one of the finest characters our Army has ever produced.” Pershing paid tribute to Conner by telling him: “I could have spared any other man in the AEF better than you.” Fox Conner commanded Dwight Eisenhower when both were stationed in the Panama Canal Zone in the 1920s. Despite having been part of the high command that had helped win the “War to End All Wars,” Conner held the then-unorthodox view that the American Army would fight a second war in Europe within two decades. Conner imparted that belief to his protégé Eisenhower and transformed him from a struggling young officer facing a court-martial into one of the Army’s rising stars.
  2. But as Fox Conner bore his burden in the cotton field, his daydreams carried him to fields of battle far away from Calhoun County. In Fox’s mind, his back carried a soldier’s pack rather than a burlap sack. Instead of stumbling behind a plow, he was marching behind a caisson. Even when raking manure in the Mississippi heat, Fox saw the pungent piles as the opposing lines of two armies; he maneuvered them with his rake as a general would move his divisions upon a map.
  3. Conner believed he could compete academically; those that he could not outthink, he could outwork.
  4. In the fall of 1897, Company A received a new tactical officer to enforce discipline in the company. The new “tac” himself had been the top graduate of the West Point Class of 1886; he knew all the cadet tricks, including the places where men hid to smoke.
  5. Leavenworth’s “applicatory method” drew heavily upon military history to analyze the quandaries faced by an army’s high command and to devise solutions under rapidly changing conditions. Students learned, through map exercises, to plan and control the movement of troops from afar.
  6. Conner also came to understand the shame that permeated the French Army over its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in France’s loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871. Despite the passage of four decades, France’s desire for revenge—and for recapture of the lost provinces—still smoldered.
  7. President Wilson named one of his brightest generals to lead the incursion into Mexico: John J. Pershing. In a controversial move a decade earlier, Theodore Roosevelt had promoted Black Jack Pershing, over 762 superior officers, directly from captain to brigadier general. For the Mexican operation, Pershing selected several of the Army’s most promising young officers to accompany him, including George Patton.
  8. Believing that Conner was “exceptionally well qualified” to carry out the critical planning functions required of the Operations Section, Palmer resolved to “pry him loose” from the Inspector General. Palmer took his request to Chief of Staff Harbord, who warned Palmer of a potential problem with Conner’s transfer to the Operations Section: Conner of the field artillery and the infantryman Palmer each held the rank of lieutenant colonel. Each arm of service, however, controlled its own promotions. If the artillery promoted Conner to colonel first, Palmer would then have to step aside and serve under the higher-ranking officer. “If that should happen,” Palmer told Harbord, “I would be very glad to change desks with Conner.” He added: “I recommended him for the job because I believe that nobody else is so well fitted to serve in that capacity and I certainly would not revoke the recommendation even if it should prove prejudicial to my own fortunes.” Palmer recalled that “Harbord smiled somewhat at my high-minded speech but agreed to let me have the man I wanted.” According to Palmer, “Fox Conner soon proved his worth many times over in the Operations Section.”
  9. To begin lifting French morale, Pershing ordered his staff officers to display a sense of optimism at all times; a positive attitude became “a matter of duty,” as Conner put it.
  10. Conner recognized that the inability of either side to advance on the Western Front had produced a stalemate that “showed most of the characteristics of siege warfare.” Pershing, however, did not intend simply to feed his men into the same trenches that had devoured the young British and French men before them. Instead, the American commander aimed to “force the Germans out of their trenches and beat them in the open.”
  11. Summerall made enemies that day, but he also developed a much more important ally. Just as Pershing had not allowed the personal affront of a West Point cadet to affect his judgment as to Fox Conner’s suitability for duty on the AEF staff, he also looked past Charles P. Summerall’s arrogance. Impressed with the colonel’s abilities, Pershing asked the War Department to transfer Colonel Summerall to France for service in the AEF.
  12. Six months earlier, Conner had been on mundane duty as an inspector. The combination of Palmer’s misfortune and Conner’s own perseverance placed Fox Conner in position to direct the development and deployment of an army that would number in the millions and play a decisive role in the deadliest war humankind had fought to that time. In James G. Harbord’s opinion, Conner “probably had no superior as an operations chief in the Allied armies. How much he contributed to the success of the AEF has never been adequately stated.” In time, historians would label Conner “the genius of operations,” and “the brains of the AEF.”
  13. Eisenhower recalled that he mostly worked to “prevent the dry rot of tedious idleness.”
  14. “Conner had long had his eyes on Marshall.” On July 13, 1918, George Marshall reported for duty in Conner’s Operations Section. Marshall faced an adjustment to what he termed the “strange atmosphere” of Chaumont. As his new colleagues discussed the broad details of planning an army of millions, Marshall found himself in a “different world” from divisional headquarters, which concerned itself much more with how Chaumont’s directives affected soldiers in the field. Marshall wrote of the different viewpoints of the GHQ and field officers: “Each man was living in his own little world, ignorant to a surprising degree of all that occurred elsewhere.”
  15. Fox Conner had long-recognized the importance of Allied “unity of action.”
  16. Among the American casualties on the first day of the attack was Lieutenant Colonel George Patton. With his tanks unable to advance, Patton located some lost infantrymen and began to lead them forward when a bullet from a German machine gun tore into his left thigh. The upward trajectory of the slug left an exit wound “just at the crack of my bottom,” as Patton described it to his wife Beatrice. Patton also relayed his doctor’s amazement that the bullet had not damaged any nerves or arteries in the area. He attributed his survival to “fate.”
  17. By late October, as the French and British offensives to the west continued to succeed, Pershing and his staff began to recognize that Foch’s strategy to end the war in 1918 might actually work. Acutely aware of the AEF’s poor showing—and that jockeying among the Allies for postwar influence had begun—Pershing dispatched Fox Conner to meet the press and to tell the AEF’s side of the story regarding its contribution to the Allied cause.
  18. “You can’t let up,” Conner argued. “In order to keep up the push constantly, all the time, you have got to keep divisions in longer than we would like to.”
  19. At the war’s outset in April 1917, Fox Conner had been an undistinguished major, in one of the least glamorous bureaus of the War Department, whose primary battles had been against health problems. Nineteen months later, he wore a general’s star and sat in the inner circle that surrounded America’s most powerful soldier since Ulysses S. Grant. At age 44, Conner was only midway through his career. With Pershing’s sponsorship behind him, and another 20 years of military service ahead, Fox Conner stood poised to reach the pinnacle of his profession.
  20. Conner stressed the war’s “one great lesson”—which he feared was “soon to be forgotten” as the nation returned to peace: “The unprepared nation is helpless in a great war unless it can depend upon other nations to shield it while it prepares,” a lesson he thought had been borne out by “every scrap of the history” of the AEF. The highlight of Conner’s postwar service in France came on June 28, 1919, when he had accompanied Pershing to the Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles to witness the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. Among other provisions, the peace treaty required Germany to pay billions of dollars in reparations and to cede Alsace-Lorraine and other industrial regions to France. The terms also limited Germany to an army of 100,000 with no conscription or air force or submarines. Germany accepted sole responsibility for starting the war. The treaty also created a new League of Nations to establish the principle of collective security to maintain world peace. Amid the smiles and congratulations exchanged among the victors that day, Fox Conner felt uneasy. Having witnessed how the shame of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 had fueled the desire for revenge in his French comrades, Conner doubted how long the words of a treaty would quell the warrior spirit of the militaristic—and humiliated—German nation.
  21. “From the beginning,” Eisenhower recalled in his 1967 memoirs, he and Patton “got along famously.” The two officers shared similar views concerning the potential of armored warfare. Although prevailing Army doctrine limited the tank’s role—and speed—to the support of advancing foot soldiers, Patton and Eisenhower each foresaw the tank’s potential to become the spearhead of an independent and rapid-attack force. According to Eisenhower, Patton predicted in 1919: “I’ll be Jackson, you’ll be Lee. I don’t want to do the heavy thinking; you do that and I’ll get loose among our – – – – [sic] enemies, and really tear them to pieces.” Patton and Eisenhower also became close personal friends. In their spare time, Eisenhower distilled gin while Patton brewed beer, which they enjoyed at “Club Eisenhower,” their name for Eisenhower’s quarters. Eager for advancement, the two officers also studied the exercises given students at the Leavenworth staff college. Mostly, though, Patton and Eisenhower talked tanks with “the enthusiasm of zealots,” as Eisenhower put it. Dwight Eisenhower had found a good friend in George Patton— as he would learn in the coming year.
  22. In a 1967 monograph, Chynoweth recounted a conversation in which Eisenhower acknowledged his “guiding philosophy” for serving under Conner: “I forget my own ideas and do everything in my power to promote what he says is right.” Chynoweth asked: “Right or wrong?” Eisenhower purportedly replied: “The Commanding Officer is never wrong with me.” 
  23. Conner also interacted with his men on a daily basis as he made his rounds through the post on a horse named Old Bill. As Eisenhower put it, Conner “never abandoned the position—and no senior officer ever should—of being an instructor.” Once, Conner encountered some Puerto Rican soldiers on a work detail who did not know how to use a scythe to cut grass, so he dismounted and gave a demonstration. When a team of horses got a wagon stuck in jungle mud and would not move, despite the cursing and beating of their teamsters, Conner took the reins and calmed the horses; according to Eisenhower, Conner “just talked to them and they went right out of the mud.” Similarly, Betsey Conner’s 1987 letter recalled an instance in which her father worked with his troops to tame a gun-shy mule that bolted each time any cannon fired. Conner had the mule hitched to a sled loaded with rocks. When the guns resumed fire, the frightened beast kicked up a whirlwind of dirt as it tried to run but could not move. Eventually, the mule, like the men of the 20th Brigade, settled down under Conner’s firm leadership.
  24. In Betsey Conner’s estimation, “Daddy really knew mules and horses and men.” Conner briefly discussed his views on the relationship between a commander and his troops in the foreword to a 1922 book, titled Principles of Command, by Major Ralph Jones. Conner began with the premise, borrowed from an Alexander Pope poem, that “the proper study of mankind is man.” He then addressed the importance, to a military commander, of a basic understanding of human psychology. Despite his view that “the usual text on psychology is so abstruse as to be understandable only to the professor,” Conner nonetheless believed that “the motives which control the majority of men and the mainsprings which actuate those motives are comparatively simple and few in number.” He then referred his readers to Major Jones’s book to learn the fundamental principles of applying psychological principles to command of troops.
  25. Fox Conner did not speak to Eisenhower about Napoleon or any other great commander of the past, nor did he discuss the importance of history to the development of a well-rounded military officer. Instead, Conner drew three novels from the shelves of his collection and handed them to his assistant. “You might be interested in these,” Conner suggested in his quiet Mississippi drawl. Thus began what Eisenhower described in At Ease, as a three-year “graduate school in military affairs and humanities.”In his 1986 work, The Challenge of Command, former West Point history professor Roger Nye cited the examples of what “Eisenhower had in Fox Conner, Napoleon in de Guibert, and Philip of Macedon in Socrates,” as examples of how “a great teacher” can impart to a young officer the “insights and values” necessary for later success in high command. Professor Nye also lauded Fox Conner as “the most celebrated” example of a mentor—one whose “chief function is to cause his people to become better learners.” Eisenhower said as much of Conner, but in simpler terms: “He was my teacher.” As Eisenhower phrased it, his commander was a “smart, patient man, and he decided that I ought to amount to something; so he was going to see if I would.”
    1. 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 of the same name.)
    2. Conner gradually led Eisenhower to a more advanced level of military study. The general introduced his assistant to the writings of the 19th-century Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, whose On War remains an influential treatise on warfare. Eisenhower struggled to grasp the military maxims set forth by Clausewitz, so Conner had Eisenhower read the book three times to drive home the lessons. 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. George Patton recounted one World War II debate over strategy in which Eisenhower became “very pontifical and quoted Clausewitz to us.”
    3. Conner told his protégé: “In all military history, only one thing never changes—human nature. Terrain may change, weather may change, weapons may change … but never human nature.”
    4. Eisenhower frequently used-two particular sayings he had learned from Conner: “Always take your job seriously, never yourself ” and “All generalities are false, including this one.”
    5. “There is no question of his molding my thinking on this from the time I was thirty-one,” Eisenhower said in a 1964 interview. Eisenhower similarly recalled, in other interviews, that Conner “kept dinning into me that I had to prepare myself for command because the future of the nation depended on my readiness and that of men of my time.” According to Eisenhower, “the necessity of being prepared for war was a product of something that just seeped into me from the teachings of this man.”
  26. Fox Conner also viewed Woodrow Wilson’s concept that the nation had actually fought a “war to end all wars” as a “mere slogan of propaganda.” In contrast to the isolationist sentiment then prevalent in the United States, Conner repeatedly told Eisenhower that American participation in another large-scale European war was “almost a certainty.” Again reflecting his admiration for the defeated Germans, 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.
  27. Regarding the necessity of junior officers being subordinate to their superiors, Chynoweth wrote: “There is a lesson in it. I never learned the lesson.”
  28. Conner also addressed the inadequacy of military spending in a 1928 article titled “The National Defense.” True to form, Conner grounded his thesis in history, beginning with the War of 1812 and proceeding through the Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish–American War, and the recently concluded Great War. Conner quoted each era’s leading lawmakers, who had all argued—shortly before the outbreak of war—that military spending constituted an unnecessary waste. Conner pointed out that the same views prevailed in the America of the 1920s, again imperiling the nation’s defense.
  29. In France, Eisenhower studied the areas of the Western Front he had written about in 1927; he then revised his guidebook. According to historian Carlo D’Este, “Eisenhower’s sense of history had been so well honed by Fox Conner,” that he was able to fully grasp the significance of the sites.
  30. Fox Conner soon learned that he, as a high-ranking military officer during the 1930s, was almost as removed from the American mainstream as were his monastic neighbors. As noted in historian Russell Weigley’s History of the United States Army, a “gloomy, negative kind of pacifism, automatically hostile to any measure which might improve the Army” prevailed in the nation during the Great Depression. Bug recalled that when her husband opened a bank account, the teller “eyed him with great suspicion” and “was not impressed.” Despite a number of public appearances by Conner that were covered by the The Boston Daily Globe newspaper, Bug wrote that “the Proper Bostonians [did] not even know we were there.”
  31. According to one newspaper article, Conner kept a schedule that “would have exhausted many a younger man.” He inspected each of the camps, several of which required treks into remote forest locations. Conner ate with the men to assure the quality of their rations; he also took the time to ask questions and listen to answers.
  32. Marshall offered encouraging words: “With your literary ability, your general military knowledge and your comprehensive knowledge of affairs in France, coupled with your ability to reduce things to simplicities, you are better prepared to write such a book than anyone else I know in the Army.”
  33. “Division, corps, and army commanders must be capable of sitting in front of a map and dictating a complete field order,” Conner proclaimed.
  34. The president heeded their advice. On September 1, 1939—the day Germany invaded Poland to trigger World War II in Europe—George Marshall became the Army’s chief of staff. Marshall’s appointment reflected the president’s selection of yet another general in the mold of Fox Conner lead the Army.
  35. Letter from Eisenhower to Fox: Dear General, More and more in the last few days my mind has turned back to you and to the days when I was privileged to serve intimately under your wise counsel and leadership. I cannot tell you how much I would appreciate, at this moment, an opportunity for an hour’s discussion with you on problems that constantly beset me
  36. Eisenhower wrote in 1948: “Allied unity, and the ways and means of attaining it, constituted the principal war lesson”—as Fox Conner had told him it would be. In a 1967 interview with historian Stephen Ambrose, Eisenhower credited his many discussions with Conner, as well as his own reading on the history of coalition warfare, as the keys to his success in effective allied unity.

What I got out of it

  1. I had hardly heard about Fox Conner before reading this book but his influence on military history is profound. He was a mentor to Pershing and Eisenhower, impacting how WWI and WWII were fought and prepared for. “He operated behind the scenes, so to speak,” Mac Conner wrote. “The general public was and is unaware of his value to the military and to the country … his true legacy stretched far beyond his own wonderful military career.”