Lessons of Leadership: How World War II Commanders Shaped Today’s Army

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

World War II dominated the Army’s identity for most of the half-century that followed the surrender of the Axis Powers. The American armed forces were led by veterans of that war through the 1970s. The decade-long war in Vietnam diminished the apparent value of the model but in the aftermath, the influence of World War II re-emerged through a younger generation of World War II veterans. The last of that breed, they played an important role in reconstructing and reorienting the post-Vietnam Army that closed out the Cold War. The legacy of that influence is felt today.

Because armies are hierarchies including several generations, wars leave a succession of leaders marked by their experience who exert a defining influence on their institutions for decades afterward. The contributions of Gens. Dwight D. Eisenhower and George C. Marshall are sufficiently well-known that they need not be recounted here. Others remained in the Army and grappled with different kinds of military challenges than they had found on European and Pacific battlefields. World War II left a bench of leaders who would direct and inspire the institution through the 1980s and beyond.


Maj. Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway, second from left, commanding general of the 82nd Airborne Division, and staff near Ribera, Sicily, in July 1943. (Credit: U.S. Army Military History Institute)

The Cycle Begins
Back at the Army Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Lt. Gen. Manton S. Eddy, who had been a World War II division and corps commander, laid out the model for professional education that remains in place today. The small-group seminar focusing on a combination of education and practical application is the central pillar of Eddy’s reform. Eddy believed education and practical application would produce officers who could solve problems presented by any condition.

Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway succeeded fellow World War II corps commander Walton Walker as commander of a dispirited Eighth Army in Korea in the winter of 1950, after Walker died in a vehicle accident. Among the steps Ridgway took to restore morale was a message he sent his troops answering the question, “Why are we here?”


Lt. Gen. Manton S. Eddy (Credit: U.S. Army)


Gen. Matthew B. Ridgway (Credit: U.S. Army)

Ridgway’s answer was simple and to the point: “We are here because of the decisions of the properly constituted authorities of our respective governments. … The answer is simple because further comment is unnecessary. It is conclusive because the loyalty we give, and expect, precludes any slightest questioning of these orders.” He went on to explain his personal commitment to the mission in Korea.

As a rule, Ridgway believed that soldiers should advise on the “military aspects of the problems referred to him,” but he went further. He believed that if “unrestricted advice is solicited,” the military adviser “should give his considered opinion, for in today’s climate national security planning is broad and encompasses many aspects.” He also believed a military adviser “should be neither expected nor required to give public endorsement to military courses of action against which he has previously recommended.” After Ridgway retired, he remained prominent, not least as a spokesman and exemplar for professional ethics.

Vietnam: A Watershed Era
The U.S. Army came home from Vietnam stung by defeat and lacking public and political credibility. As an institution, it understood it needed desperately to reform and reorient on modern mounted land combat—and reform it did.

Gens. William C. Westmoreland and Creighton W. Abrams Jr., both members of West Point’s Class of 1936, led battalions in World War II. Both commanded U.S. ground operations in South Vietnam. Both rose to the office of Army Chief of Staff and began putting the Army back together after the termination of the U.S. efforts in Southeast Asia. Westmoreland led the formation of the all-volunteer Army and promoted the resuscitation of the officer corps. Abrams made the “golden handshake” with the defense secretary permitting a 16-division active force. He also promoted the “Big 5” acquisition projects recapitalizing the heavy force that had been neglected during the decade-long excursion in Southeast Asia, ultimately fielding a new tank, infantry combat vehicle, air defense missile system and two helicopters.


Gen. William C. Westmoreland (Credit: U.S. Army)


Gen. Creighton W. Abrams Jr. (Credit: U.S. Army)


Gen. William E. DePuy (Credit: U.S. Army)

Gen. William E. DePuy led a revolution in training, doctrine and combat development that produced nothing less than a renaissance of the U.S. Army. With the focus on fighting the Soviets, the Army found World War II history relevant once more, particularly the history of German defense on the Eastern Front. In some ways, the approach the Army took was didactic rather than analytic, with the attendant risks of missing context and presuming lessons learned where only insight was possible. Arguably, DePuy’s view was overly concerned with the tactical and neglected the operational or strategic, but the tactical domain is where most of the Army lives. For a numerically weaker force, unless tactical capability is ensured, all the operational elegance in the world is unlikely to be productive.

In the 1980s, the Army was fortunate to be led by officers with diverse experience including in Korea and Vietnam. Perhaps because of this, many thought about war more critically—even as there was a rebirth of interest in the tactical and operational history of World War II. Arguably, DePuy—a regimental officer in World War II who later became known as the first commander of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command—had an even more pervasive influence on the development of the post-Vietnam Army than his Army Chiefs of Staff. DePuy established a tactical foundation for AirLand Battle, and more importantly, a system of rigorous, mission-oriented, collective training at the National Training Center.

Other veterans of World War II went on to accomplish great things for the Army during this period as well. Gen. Paul F. Gorman was DePuy’s right-hand man in the training revolution. Incidentally, Gorman served in the Navy during World War II and afterward received an appointment to West Point, where he graduated in 1950. Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., a first sergeant at the Anzio Beachhead, served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1982 to 1985. Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen, contributing editor to ARMY, was a World War II lieutenant who went on to become Vice Chief of Staff of the Army.

What Shaped Today’s Training and Doctrine
In the spring of 1980, a signal event took place that acquired a symbolic value probably exceeding its actual worth. The BDM Corp., working for Andrew W. Marshall’s Office of Net Assessment in the Pentagon, hosted a conference “to examine twentieth century German military experience in battle against Russian forces with the intent of developing insights useful in aiding our understanding of the challenges NATO faces today in Europe as it prepares to confront the Soviets in any future conflict.” A remarkable set of players met to look at German tactical operations on the Eastern Front and play a turn-based war game. The players included two Americans and two Germans. Gorman and then-Lt. Gen. Glenn K. Otis represented the Americans; the German participants included two World War II Wehrmacht generals, Hermann Balck and Friedrich von Mellenthin. The often-quoted seminar influenced the way the Army thought about combined-arms operations against the Soviet Union but perhaps more importantly, it stimulated genuine critical analysis of the history of World War II in Europe and, to a lesser extent, the Pacific.


Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. (Credit: U.S. Army)


Maj. Gen. Paul F. Gorman (Credit: U.S. Army)


Gen. Frederick J. Kroesen (Credit: U.S. Army)

When Lt. Gen. John H. “Jack” Cushman was commandant of the Command and General Staff College, he made the World War II Battle of Schmidt in the Hürtgen Forest the central case study of the college’s tactical instruction. Eight years later, in the early years of the School of Advanced Military Studies, the faculty and students traveled to Europe. They visited various NATO military headquarters and participated in an annual Central Army Group map exercise. The trip concluded with a staff ride in the Hürtgen Forest and the Ardennes.

Several hundred young officers destined to become planners and commanders trudged through the snow, sleet and mist of the late winter. These students saw for themselves the Kall Trail in the Hürtgen Forest, the Losheim Gap and Bastogne. Most of the officers who participated in these staff rides came away with an appreciation for what happens at the sharp end, when planners are unable to perceive the challenges at the tactical level.

The creation of the School for Advanced Military Studies reflected another post-Vietnam development that drew heavily on World War II history: the notion of campaigning, and the realization that tactical virtuosity was of little account if it was not related progressively to the achievement of strategic goals. Then and now, the school curriculum drew heavily on World War II’s campaign history to discover how successful commanders connected and sustained individual actions into strategically productive ensembles.


Lt. Gen. Glenn K. Otis (Credit: U.S. Army)


Lt. Col. John H. Cushman (Credit: U.S. Army)


Lt. Gen. David E. Grange (Credit: U.S. Army)

The influence of World War II veterans lasted well into the 1990s. Lt. Gen. David E. Grange was an enlisted soldier in Europe during World War II. He had carried then-Lt. Col. Richard J. “Dick” Seitz’s radio as Seitz led his battalion of the 517th Parachute Infantry Regiment in a successful counterattack to retake the town of Manhay, Belgium. Grange, whose many awards include the Combat Infantryman Badge three times from three wars, was still training and inspiring senior staffs into the 1990s as a senior mentor of the Battle Command Training Program.

World War II shaped how its veterans thought about professional military education, how to generate forces, and whether and how to engage with foreign armies. Ridgway and others of his generation accepted the premise of expanding to meet the threat but urged a larger standing Army than the U.S. had ever tolerated. Further, they argued for a high level of readiness and forward basing in areas of tension.

The World War II veterans who went on to lead the Army sailed against the wind when they thought it right to do so. They proved flexible and adaptable as policy changed in the 30-plus years they led the Army. Apart from achievements during the war, the greatest military generation’s legacy resides largely in their reform of professional education, convictions on readiness, and their willingness to change in face of evolving circumstances.