America has always enjoyed two antithetical traditions in its political and military heroes.
The preferred style is the reticent, sober, and competent executive planner as president or general, from Herbert Hoover to Gerald Ford to Jimmy Carter.
George Marshall remains the epitome of understated and quiet competence.
The alternate and more controversial sorts are the loud, often reckless, and profane pile drivers. Think Andrew Jackson of Teddy Roosevelt. Both types have been appreciated, and at given times and in particular landscapes both profiles have proven uniquely invaluable.
Both Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman were military geniuses. Grant was quiet and reflective — at least in his public persona, which gave scant hint that he struggled with alcohol and often displayed poor judgement about those who surrounded him.
Sherman was loud. He was often petty, and certainly ready in a heartbeat to engage in frequent feuds, many of them cul de sacs and counter-productive.
Sherman threatened to imprison or even hang critical journalists and waged a bitter feud with the secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.
Too few, then or now, have appreciated that the uncouth Sherman, in fact, displayed both a prescient genius and an uncanny understanding of human nature. Whereas Grant could brilliantly envision how his armies might beat the enemy along a battle line or capture a key fortress or open a river, Sherman’s insight encompassed whole regions and theaters, in calibrating how both economics and sociology might mesh with military strategy to crush an entire people.
For all of Grant’s purported drinking and naïveté about the scoundrels around him, his outward professional bearing, his understated appearance of steadiness and discretion, enhanced his well-earned reputation for masterful control in times of crises.
The volatile and loquacious nature of Sherman, in contrast, often hid and diminished appreciation of his talents — in some ways greater than Grant’s. To the stranger, Grant would have seemed the less likely to have had too much to drink and smoked too many daily cigars, Sherman the more prone to all sorts of such addictions.
Harry Truman talked too much. He swore. He drank. He played poker. He was petty to the point of stooping to spar with a music critic who dismissed his daughter’s solo performances. His profanity was an open secret, as well as his temper. His advisers constantly cautioned him to tone it down.
As a Missourian who had once gone bankrupt and recouped with a political career though the help of the corrupt Prendergast machine, Truman carried a chip on his shoulder throughout his political career on the East Coast.
In some sense, Truman was an accidental president — a workmanlike senator appointed as running mate in the 1944 reelection campaign to the sure fourth-termer FDR — out of justified fears that an ailing Roosevelt would soon die in office and his socialist vice president, Henry Wallace, would soon become wartime president.
“Give Them Hell” Harry’s fiery and often grating personality and infamous feud with General Douglas MacArthur helped to explain why he left office with the then-lowest presidential ratings in modern history. His Internal Revenue Bureau (the precursor of the IRS) was scandal-ridden, and many of his aides were buffoonish.
Yet “plain-speaking” Truman proved a great or at least a near-great president. He precluded either a horrific ground invasion of Japan or a murderous escalation of LeMay’s incendiary air war, by controversially dropping the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Truman soon jettisoned the Democratic party’s institutional naïveté about Joseph Stalin’s postwar ambitions. Truman was mostly responsible for saving Berlin and South Korea, integrating the military, ensuring the Marshall Plan, NATO, the birth of Israel, and the entire postwar policy of deterrence and containment against Soviet-sponsored global Communism.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was likewise a successful president, though his foreign-policy achievements, derivative of Truman’s, were never as path-breaking.
The beloved Ike’s signature trait was competent administration. It was honed by a professional willingness to listen and compromise, with assurances to all parties that, while capable of temper, Ike was discreet and would never lose his head when those around him might. Ike avoided a major war with the Soviets abroad, continued deterrence, and oversaw general prosperity and relative calm at home.
It is hard to envision any other comparable figure herding together all the Anglo-American three-star and four-star egos during the race across France and Holland into Germany in 1944–45. Whereas Truman’s bouts of uncouth candor tended to alienate potential admirers and mask his landmark accomplishments, Eisenhower’s sobriety only enhanced his arguably less monumental achievements.
&Ike left office as popular as Truman did despised.
Omar Bradley today is still known as “the GI general” and “a soldier’s general.” “Brad” was steady if not, on occasion, obsequious to his superiors in public and haughty to his inferiors in private.
Ike relied on Brad’s predictable discretion in promoting him over his former superior, the volatile George S. Patton. It is difficult to cite any major military decision that Bradley made in the critical year 1944 that proved either inspired or shrewd.
The failure to close the Falaise Gap was largely his own. Bradley appeared resentful of and inconvenienced by, rather than supportive of, Patton’s wild advance of August 1944. Bradley never foresaw the problems waiting for his subordinate, General Courtney Hodges, in the Hürtgen Forest.
He seemed bewildered by German thrust in the first few hours of the Battle of the Bulge, and initially had little idea of how to repel the assault. Bradley’s general feeling of inferiority prevented him from appreciating the genius of the cruder Patton, much less the valuable professional competence of the otherwise egomaniac and abrasive British General Bernard Montgomery.
Again, however, Bradley was a loyal and professional general. He could be trusted to administer military affairs competently and to explain to associates and the public questions of strategy and policy carefully and prudently — projecting a Gary Cooper or Jimmy Stewart “aw-shucks” simplicity and earthiness that did wonders in cloaking his considerable strategic and tactical limitations.
Little need be said about the iconic Patton. Whereas Bradley was a faithful husband, plain-spoken, and reserved, Patton was a philanderer, profane, mercurial, bombastic, unsteady — and perhaps the most gifted American field general in U.S. history.
His genius for war saved thousands of lives. Patton’s instincts, cunning, and prescience might have saved even more had he been listened to.
Objectionable abrasiveness is strictly in the eye of the beholder. The left, who prided themselves of being the “peaceful” ones, celebrate fascist thugs when they act on their behest. The forgiving and respectful left doesn’t mind shouting down opponents or banning their speech when backed into a corner. Those who periodically call for civility excuse and applaud prominent personalities that call for violence or death upon those they are defenseless to prevent from speaking THEIR thoughts.
It’s all a matter of perspective.