He has all but faded from our memory by now. A terse, uncharismatic figure in a drab, old-fashioned uniform. We have become much more infatuated with the war after the war in which he commanded, and few of us were ever sure of exactly what he did anyway. He accepted no unconditional surrenders, invented no famous strategies. He never defied a president, or harbored obvious presidential ambitions of his own. No enduring controversies limn his image. He even denied saying the one, famous line he was credited with saying.
And yet, no other American general ever held significant command positions in so many diverse theatres of war. None held high rank over such a vital transitional period for the army—and in the end, no American general besides George Washington ever held such high rank at all. None ever commanded so many different types of troops, from one of the nation’s last, all-black combat regiments to the first U.S. force to fight in Europe. And probably no serving American officer ever went on so stoically doing his duty after enduring such appalling, personal tragedy.
He was John J. “Black Jack” Pershing, Commander of the Armies, the American Expeditionary Force, and the Punitive Expedition, and one of this country’s very first “planetary soldiers.” Over the course of his 38-year career, he would fight Apaches in New Mexico, Sioux in the Dakota Territory, the Spanish in Cuba, the Moros in Mindanao, Pancho Villa in Mexico, and the Germans in France. Along the way, he would pick up a law degree, a teaching position at West Point, a mistress in Paris, and—eventually—a Pulitzer Prize for his memoirs of the Great War. He had a knack for being at the right place at momentous times—Wounded Knee, San Juan Hill, the Argonne—and for making friends and influencing important people. He would command most of the generals who would shape the American century. Among his aides, and friends, he would number both George C. Marshall and George Patton, and he would find occasion to personally dress down Douglas MacArthur—however unfairly. And in his final command he made critical decisions that would have enormous ramifications for American foreign policy to this day.
He was a smalltown boy, born in Laclede, Missouri in 1860, to a staunchly Unionist storekeeper and his wife. His earliest memory was of a deadly raid on his hometown by Confederate bushwackers. His father survived but was ruined by the Panic of 1873, like so many, smalltown storekeepers. John was left to scratch out an education as best he could, working a farm with his younger brother when he was just 13; teaching first black and then white schoolchildren while he was still a teenager himself. His ambition was to become a lawyer, but when he won an academic competition for the right to apply to West Point, he grabbed the chance, leaving his home state for the first time.
Pershing graduated from the Point in 1886, near the middle of his class academically, but with the highest leadership honors as captain of the Corps of Cadets. It was already obvious that he was a natural officer, both in spirit and appearance. In every picture, at every stage of his life, he looked like the miniature, lead caricature of his profession. Or as biographer Gene Smith put it, “as an immaculate and snappy and severe and disciplined soldier of perfect military bearing, he was unsurpassable.” This severity—a constant emphasis on proper drill, dress, demeanor, readiness, attitude—was demanded both of himself and all he commanded. It would become a hallmark of his career, carried, at two critical junctures, to points that threatened to alienate all those around him. During his year as a tactical officer at West Point he handed out so many demerits that the cadets subjected him to “silencing”—falling silent whenever Pershing set foot in the Academy mess hall—and saddled him with his nickname; not the newspaper-sanitized version, but the infinitely more derisive, “Nigger Jack.” It did not deter him. In World War I, commanding a force that would number over two million men, most of them drafted just weeks earlier, Pershing issued the impossible order that the Point’s standards would apply to everyone: “The rigid attention, the upright bearing, attention to detail, uncomplaining obedience to instruction required of the cadet will be required of every officer and solider of our armies in France.” Even a jilted fiancée—George Patton’s sister—would describe him at this time as “A little, tin god on wheels.”
And yet, the idea of Pershing as martinet is a conundrum, for he was, if anything, a surpassingly adaptable soldier, one who continually saw beyond the parameters of his profession. It was as if his reliance on discipline and drill were a grip he kept on his own, deeply passionate and inquiring nature—and one that he tightened whenever he feared it might fly out of control. This served him best when he had to struggle vigorously to keep his very command—the greatest command in U.S. history to that point—from trickling out of his grasp. His stubborn faith in himself would enable him to see much more clearly into the future than more clever and worldly men.
He could not have anticipated any such challenges at the beginning, of course. Lieutenant Pershing graduated into a U.S. Army that consisted of fewer than 25,000 men, most of them assigned to desolate forts throughout the rapidly vanishing, Western frontier. Its office corps, two thousand strong, was hopelessly stymied; it would take Pershing himself 15 years just to rise to captain. An inordinate amount of his career would be spent fruitlessly chasing various hostiles across one part or another of the empty, Western landscape—Chief Mangus’s Apaches, through the hills and mesas of New Mexico; Chief Big Foot’s Sioux, across the Dakota Territory, during the Ghost Dance rising; Pancho Villa, through the dust of Chihuahua; a band of Cree who attempted to return to Montana from Canada. It was one more proof of the transformative era in which he served that Pershing, a cavalryman, would do almost all his actual fighting on foot, while riding countless miles in the pursuit of phantoms.
In between, he duly provided the other quaint, eclectic services expected of an American officer at the time, spending four years teaching and drilling student cadets at the University of Nebraska. He never complained about any of it. Not the loneliness and isolation of the distant forts; not the daunting extremes of weather, or the hopeless and trivial nature of so many of his duties. He remained, instead, doggedly self-reliant, adjustable, and observant—all qualities that would serve him well in the years ahead. He not only adapted to the West, he seemed to love it, including its native peoples. The treatment of the Indians, he would write, constituted “the most cruel, unjust, blackest page of American history”—even as he pursued them relentlessly. Later, he would fight a remarkably successful campaign against Islamic insurgents, in a complex civil war halfway around the globe. He was a romantic without illusions, always eager to study, understand, and even sympathize with the dizzying array of peoples he was supposed to fight with and against.
Everything seemed to fascinate him. In a time when an officer’s career promised neither riches nor glory, only the chance to escape the drudgery of agrarian or industrial life, Jack Pershing made the most of it. Sent the long way around to fight the Moros in the Philippines, he visited with Parisian art students in the Latin Quarter; perused the Louvre, and Versailles—where he would one day have to battle for the independence of America’s greatest army. Returning from his post as military attaché in Tokyo, he took his young family on the newly completed, Trans-Siberian railroad all the way to Moscow; then toured St. Petersburg, Berlin, and the Waterloo battlefield, and lived for several months in Tours while he tried to improve his French. A ladies’ man, he enjoyed (successively) a loving marriage and a loving, decades-long affair with a French-Romanian painter—and possibly some briefer, more exotic affairs that threatened to ruin his career and his reputation.
They did not, in part because Pershing was also adept at making the right connections, the right impression. Much like Dwight Eisenhower, he was a consummately political general who advanced by not indulging in the petty, spiteful politics of a peacetime army. It was no coincidence that he won the two biggest promotions of his career from two presidents—Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson—who could not have been more different in temperament, or have loathed each other more. But even before maneuvering into position to absorb these lightning strikes, Pershing was always able to make the best of a situation. Stuck in Nebraska, teaching military science to farmboys for four years, he took the opportunity to get his law degree, pass the Nebraska bar, lead his charges to a national drill championship…and make friends with a congressman named George Meiklejohn, whose ambition of becoming assistant secretary of war Pershing helped to fulfill.
Thirty-five-years-old by the time his stint in Lincoln ended, still a bachelor, still a lieutenant nine years after leaving the Point, Pershing seems to have seriously considered taking up his first ambition, the law. Instead, he accepted what a lesser man might have seen as yet another demeaning assignment, command of a troop of the Tenth Cavalry—the all-black regiment the cadets would later deride—out at Fort Assinibboine, Montana. His troops seemed to like him, respect him, gave him their own nickname of “Old Red” during his two years there. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, Pershing, stuck in his miserable tenure at West Point, begged for a chance to see action.
Assistant Secretary of War Meiklejohn found an opening back in his previous posting, commanding a troop of the 10th Cavalry. The 10th was one of four, African-American regiments at the time, commanded entirely by white officers and stationed at Western outposts, as far as possible from any major, white population centers. Simply getting them into position to invade Cuba was almost a war in itself. The black troops found that the cheering that had greeted their troop train at every station stopped abruptly once they crossed into the South. Bivouacked at a hastily organized staging point outside of Lakeland, Florida, they had to endure the animosity of local whites who alternated between coming out to gawk openly at the sight of armed, black men in uniform, and vehemently denying them access to restaurants, bars, stores, and brothels. Brawls, shootings, and even a full-scale riot broke out between black regulars, and white citizens and volunteers, before the troops were finally embarked. Once in Cuba, they had to endure the same poisonous rations, the archaic weapons, and erratic leadership the rest of the invasion force had to put up with, in this most precipitous and chaotic of all the nation’s wars.
Pershing himself would pick up a case of malaria in Cuba, was nearly killed in a stream by a Spanish artillery shell that landed close enough to leave him soaking wet. He led his men on through the jungle, then in the in the desperate, improvised rush up San Juan Heights on the left of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.
“If it had not been for the Negro cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated,” one of Teddy’s men claimed later. “We officers of the 10th Cavalry could have taken our black heroes in our arms. They had again fought their way into our affections, as they had fought their way into the hearts of the American people,” Pershing himself exulted.
In this, he could not have been more wrong, but he had won a Silver Star, a captaincy—at last!—and a command in the savage, ensuing war in the Philippines. There, Pershing fought a strikingly modern, counter-insurgency campaign against the fiercely independent, Islamic, Moro peoples. He alternated patient negotiations with the ruthless reduction of Moro strongholds, and even allowed himself to be made a datto, or datu, a sort of Moro prince. He openly admired the intelligence, customs, and even the cooking of the peoples he fought in the Philippines.
He may have enjoyed one cultural exchange too well. Pershing’s work in Mindanao won him the public praise of now-President Roosevelt, the man he had gone up Kettle Hill with, who was intent on instituting military promotions based on merit rather than time served. In 1906, he raised Pershing from captain to general over 862 senior officers, making him military governor of Mindanao. Soon after a story broke in the press that Pershing had kept a querida, or “sweetheart,” while on that first posting in Mindanao; fathered two children by her, and subsequently offered her hush money not to expose him. It would not be the last time that accusations concerning an affair threatened Pershing’s career (the second concerned an heiress who would become MacArthur’s first wife), and he never quite denied the charges, but the War Department dismissed them out of hand. True or not, they were too transparently the work of officers jealous of both Pershing’s promotion—and his latest patron.
In 1905, Pershing had finally married one Helen Francis “Frankie” Warren, the daughter of a wealthy, powerful, U.S. senator from Wyoming. It was another propitious connection, but it also seems to have been a love match. Frankie, who was nearly twenty years his junior, seemed devoted to him, bearing him three daughters and a son in the first seven years they were married, while following him literally around the world without complaint. Spirited, loyal, and intrepid, she was living with the children in the dilapidated officer barracks of San Francisco’s Presidio on August 27, 1915, just a week from joining Pershing at his latest post, at Fort Bliss in El Paso. In the early morning hours, a fire swept through their rooms, smothering Mrs. Pershing and the couple’s three girls, ages three to nine. Only their son, Warren, survived, carried to safety while still unconscious by a servant.
It was a devastating blow, one made all the worse by the fact that Pershing blamed himself for the suspected cause of the fire, a dining room floor that he had recently had re-varnished, and which had caught fire when some coals fell out of a grate. This supremely self-controlled officer was reduced to screaming and weeping openly before friends and junior officers, exclaiming, “I can understand the loss of one member of the family, but not nearly all!” Those around him feared he might go mad.
Yet within weeks Pershing was back on duty at Fort Bliss. He was needed there—and unbeknownst to him he now stood at the cusp of a dizzying chain of events that shoot him to the top of his profession. It all began with the Punitive Expedition, the campaign against the famous bandit chieftain, Pancho Villa, that must have seemed to Pershing yet another hopeless pursuit mission. For months, Pershing had conducted his patient brand of diplomacy to keep the revolution that had been raging for years in Mexico from crossing the border. He had had particular success cultivating Villa, who posed grinning for pictures with Pershing, and kept hands-off American interests.
That changed when President Wilson, without consulting Pershing, allowed troops of a rival Mexican faction to cross American soil by rail, outflank Villa, and largely annihilate his army. Vengeful and desperate, Villa responded by trying to widen the war, pulling 19 American engineers off a train in Chihuahua and murdering them by the railbed, then launching a bloody night raid against the garrison town of Columbus, New Mexico. Pershing was now ordered to bring Villa to justice. In this, he would become the first but far from the last American officer over the course of the century ordered to pursue a hazy objective, under an even cloudier set of restrictions. He was authorized by the deputy chief of staff to attack Mexican towns if Villa and his men were there, but he was not to use the Mexican railroads to re-supply his force. His troops were to “do as soldiers in the circumstance must do,” and if Villa’s troops broke up into smaller bands, “our people must more of less scatter in order to follow him.”
Somehow, Pershing was able to “more or less” decode these exquisitely equivocal directions, and to conduct a campaign that adroitly avoided setting off a full-scale war, but satisfied the administration’s need to save face. The Punitive Expedition punished its way 350 miles into Mexico, diligently pursuing Villa for 11 months and dodging several ambushes. Pershing’s command eventually reached a total of 11,000 men, almost a tenth of the country’s standing army, which gave him a chance to study firsthand just how short even its best units were of the latest arms, vehicles, planes; how unprepared it was to fight a real modern war.
It was information he would need. Within two months of his return to El Paso, the U.S. had declared war on the Central Powers. Pershing was clearly the only senior officer young enough, fit enough, and experienced enough to lead the planned American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), and he had impressed his superiors with his handling of his delicate assignment in Mexico. Yet the appointment was probably an even better choice than Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker realized, for it would be as much a diplomatic mission as a military one. Pershing shipped out almost immediately, arriving in England on June 8, 1917. There and in France he was greeted by giddy, cheering mobs, and in response he made all the right gestures; kissing the sword of Napoleon, laying a wreath on Lafayette’s tomb (where, as Pershing always insisted, it was his paymaster, Major Charles E. Stanton, who actually uttered the words, “Lafayette, we are here!”)
The only trouble was that he had no one with him, beyond a hastily assembled staff of some 187 officers, men, and civilians. Nor was there an army ready to follow anytime soon. Despite all the lobbying for preparedness over the past three years by Teddy Roosevelt and others, the country had largely chosen to ignore the possibility that it could be dragged into the most terrible war in human history. Months, maybe a year, would still be needed before any sizable American force could be assembled, trained, equipped, and shipped to Europe—and it was not at all clear the Allies had that much time.
Even as Pershing arrived in France, the feckless Nivelle offensive was grinding to a halt. The traumatized French army had suffered another 200,000 casualties in the course of two months, and mutinies were sweep through 54 combat divisions. Only the strictest military secrecy kept the enemy from realizing this and breaking through to Paris. That fall, Russia capitulated to the Bolsheviks and then to the Germans, and the Italians collapsed at Caporetto. Some 265 German and Austrian divisions, Pershing feared, might now be massed on the Western Front for one last, overwhelming offensive as soon, as the weather dried.
By the winter of 1918 there were a quarter-million doughboys in France, but for the most part they lacked artillery, planes, transport. They were, in short, not an army. The British and French argued that they didn’t have to be. The Americans could be fed into the Allied armies as they arrived by the battalion, platoon, or company, some 50 to 150 men at a time. The Europeans would supply all munitions and any officers above the rank of captain, or even lieutenant.
Pershing was adamant from the start. “The United States will put its troops on the battlefront when it shall have formed an army worthy of the American people,” he had announced soon after coming to France, and he stuck to his guns—and his troops. One by one, they came to remonstrate with him, first the generals, Haig and Foch and Petain; then the premiers, Lloyd George and Clemenceau, then even King George V, traveling to Paris especially to tell Pershing that he had to give his men over.
“I should have liked to argue with the king and set him right,” Pershing joked later, but the arguments grew more urgent and ferocious as the German offensive neared. Pershing was visiting Petain at his headquarters at Compiegne when he heard it coming, a low, ominous rumble of artillery that shook the furniture and rattled the maps in the French general’s office. Some 64 German divisions went over the top, driving a wedge 45 miles wide and 55 miles deep into the Allied lines, wrecking an entire British army and taking 90,000 prisoners. Another 65,000 poilus surrendered along the Aisne at the end of May, their retreating comrades crying out “La guerre est finie!” as they streamed back from the front. German planes and artillery were now bombarding Paris.
The Allies raged at Pershing, appealed over his head to Washington; confided in each other, in their diaries, and in their memoirs that the American was an egomaniac, an incompetent. Pershing was “unable properly to train or command his troops,” the head of the Imperial General Staff, Sir William Robertson, reported to the British War Cabinet. Marshal Foch, the newly anointed, Supreme Allied Commander, warned Pershing that the British would be pushed into the sea and the French to the Loire, while the Americans would be left trying “in vain to organize on lost battlefields over the graves of Allied soldiers.” Prime Minister Lloyd George found Pershing’s stand “maddening,” seethed over his “invincible obstinacy” and “professional egotism,” and later claimed that “he [Pershing] could see no further than the exaltation of his own command, the jealous maintenance of his own authority.” Matters came to a head at a heated conference at Versailles, on June 1-2, 1918, when Lloyd George finally told Pershing to his face that, “we will refer this to your President.”
“Refer it to the President and be damned,” Pershing answered. He later argued more judiciously to Foch that “the time may come when the American army will have to stand the brunt of this war,” and insisted that meanwhile he would not “fritter away our resources.”
Pershing could be confident of his own standing thanks to the unwavering support of Wilson and Baker. But he and he alone still bore full responsibility for what was, in the words of biographer Richard O’Connor, “one of the most prolonged and coldly calculated gambles in military history.” Militarily, this was based on several critical assumptions, one of them naïve, the rest highly perceptive. The American commander was understandably wary of British and French, trench-warfare tactics, which through 1917 had cost the Allies over 2.5 million more casualties than they had inflicted along the Western Front. Conversely, he believed that no matter how many troops the Germans amassed along the Western front, they would be unable to break through using such established methods. Where Pershing was naïve was in maintaining that long-range rifle training and “fire and movement” tactics could replace trench warfare. The Great War was the war of the machine gun, and the hand grenade—something his European allies had learned years before and that would be proven again, at great loss of life, during the Americans’ own experience in battle. Finally, Pershing constantly reiterated that the freshness and “morale” of U.S. troops—fighting together, under their own flags and commanders and uninfected by French and British pessimism—would also be instrumental in winning the war. In this, the fighting would bear him out, as inexperienced but enthusiastic American troops were finally able to break through against exhausted and demoralized German veterans.
Politically, Pershing’s position was unassailable. The U.S. position in the First World War is one that must seem incomprehensible to many Americans today. The first American expedition on European soil was also the last time U.S. forces would fight as a sort of junior partner, at least formally under the direction of supreme commander who was a foreign officer. To do more than this would have been to seriously endanger the integrity of the AEF’s mission. The French and British generals, for all their experience, had been reckless to the point of obscenity with their men’s lives. Who could know what they would do with a limitless supply of other people’s sons—and the consequences could have been enormous. The slaughter of vast numbers of doughboys at the behest of foreign officers might well have destroyed American support for the war. Even if it had not, the bitter memory of such losses could well have tipped the scales against intervention in World War II, and even made the United States a permanently isolationist nation.
Yet as successive German offensives thundered on through the spring and summer of 1918, Pershing realized he would have to make some sort of compromise. If the Americans did not yet have an army in place, Pershing at last conceded, they could at least fight in division strength, in coordination with the Allies. Starting on May 28, ever-increasing numbers of American troops—commanded by their own officers—swung into action. Throughout the rest of the spring and summer of 1918 they fought, and fought with considerable skill and elan, blunting the German thrust at Chateau-Thierry, counterattacking at Belleau Wood, and Soissons.
Names of these battles and others soon became household words back in the States, but the claims of American newspapers that they had “saved” France were exaggerated; at Chateau-Thierry, the AEF had provided only two of the 45 Allied divisions used to stop the German advance. Ironically, the results bore out Pershing’s contention that the French and British could hold out until an American army was ready, but the pressure to hand over his men piecemeal continued, unrelenting. As many as 250,000 doughboys were arriving every month now, and the logistical problems alone were overwhelming.
Pershing responded as he always had, by working all the harder at his Chaumont headquarters, constantly touring the U.S. positions and encampments; paying more attention than ever to detail and discipline. He was equally unsparing of anyone under his command, lambasting or replacing some of his oldest friends from the regular army when he felt they were not up to their tasks. This could become excessive. Running across the disheveled, weary Rainbow Division just after it served a punishing, 82 straight days in the front lines, followed by a sixty-kilometer march through the mud, he bellowed at Col. MacArthur that his troops were “a disgrace!” and “just about the worst I have seen.”
To the men, Pershing was someone who might leave them standing in formation for an hour before he showed up for inspection; “that sonuvabitch [who] roared past our column in his staff car, spattering every one of us with mud and water from head to foot.” He seemed always cold and unbending, even uncaring. Pershing contributed to this image, worked hard to maintain his imposing aura as commander, posing ramrod straight for all photographs and even keeping his pockets empty to emphasize the trim of his uniform. But at the same time, he was willing to listen to junior officers or men who had a legitimate complaint or suggestion; retained both his temper and a sense of humor; worried constantly over the state of his soldiers. It was as if he were trying to physically impart to them his own, immeasurable pride, self-control, self-confidence.
“When you stumbled upon a lost American doughboy in a God-forsaken Lorraine hamlet,” the journalist Frank H. Simonds wrote, “his bearing, the set of his tunic, his salute, all authentically recalled the general who sat in Chaumont.”
By September he finally had an army, the First American Army—at 550,000 men the largest in U.S. history, even if its supporting artillery and planes were still supplied by the French. It quickly crushed the Germans’ Saint-Mihiel salient, then turned within two weeks to assault the Meuse-Argonne sector, an area the enemy had made, in the words of Pershing’s chief-of-staff, James Harbord, “the most comprehensive system of leisurely prepared field defense known to history.” Here, Pershing’s remaining illusions about the murderous nature of trench warfare were largely shattered. The Argonne was a bloody, debilitating, 47-day slog, one in which Pershing committed close to 1.2 million troops and absorbed 117,000 casualties fighting a much smaller force.
In the end, though, the Germans broke—and it was the end. By the end of the battle, they were left without a single reserve division in the sector, and Hindenburg himself later wrote that the Meuse-Argonne was “our most sensitive point” and that “the American infantry in the Argonne won the war.” It may have been more a coup de grace than the decisive blow, but the war was over within days, much to Pershing’s chagrin. Alone among the Allied war councils, he had insisted throughout on winning an unconditional surrender from Germany, not merely an Armistice.
“We shouldn’t have done it,” he commented at the time. “If they had given us another ten days we would have rounded up the entire German army, captured it, humiliated it…The German troops today are marching back into Germany announcing that they have never been defeated…What I dread is that Germany doesn’t know that she was licked.”
It was a prescient insight, one that most of the world would come to share. In 1944, while living out the final years of his long, pleasant retirement at Walter Reed Army Hospital, his annual birthday message from another President Roosevelt would include the lines, “None of us will forget that in 1918 you wanted to go through to Berlin. How right you were!” Such was the vindication of a leader who had always taken care to understand both his allies and his enemies.