As a young officer in World War One, George S. Patton was part of the newly formed United States Tank Corps of the American Expeditionary Forces. He then commanding the U.S. tank school in France before being wounded while leading tanks into combat near the end of the war. During the interwar period, Patton remained a central figure in the development of armored warfare doctrine in the U.S. Army. He served in numerous staff positions throughout the country. It is here that he struck up a friendship with another young officer, Dwight David Eisenhower. The two men bonded over their shared military enthusiasm and love of strategy. But it was mostly over their love of tanks.
Patton’s return from the conflict in Europe was marked by the “hangover” of war familiar to many veterans. The sudden transition from the highly-charged experience of combat, where one is com-manding men in life-or-death situations, to domestic tranquility can be jarring and difficult. Patton felt the loss of camaraderie and sense of purpose. He also faced uncertainty about his career in peacetime. For a man driven by a belief in his own destiny to lead troops in war-fare, peace was more frightening than war. Making the situation even more painful, it was the practice in the U.S. Army to reduce returning officers to the rank they held before the war. Patton lost his rank of colonel and reverted to captain.
During these interwar years, Patton met another officer whose destiny would be bound up with his own. In the autumn of 1919, he was introduced to Eisenhower, known to his friends as Ike. Both men were commanding tank units. Eisenhower had not been sent off to France during the war but had established and run the largest tank training center in the United States—Camp Colt, at Get-tysburg, Pennsylvania. In many ways Patton and Eisenhower were strikingly different. Patton could be painfully direct. At times he was an insufferable egotist, and he often sought to intimidate with a well-practiced scowl. His wealthy background allowed him to enjoy an upper-crust way of life in a hardscrabble army. Eisenhower was self-effacing and came from dirt-poor beginnings. His disarming smile charmed everyone who met him. Those who knew both men at this early stage of their military careers had the feeling that George Patton would achieve greatness. Eisenhower, on the other hand, was usually underrated, his easygoing manner masking a burning ambition. Few would have predicted that Eisenhower would become the most brilliant star of the West Point class of 1915—the “class the stars fell on.”
While Eisenhower was attending the army’s Command and General Staff College from 1925 to 1926 at Fort Leavenworth, Patton sent him his own very detailed notes from the course. Eisenhower graduated first in his class, presumably with some help from his friend’s insights and notebook. Patton sent Ike a congratulatory note , remarking that while he was pleased to think that his notes had been of some assistance, “I feel sure that you would have done as well without them.” It is likely, though, that Patton felt that his notes were the primary reason for Eisenhower’s success at the college.
Years later, recalling his relationship with Patton, Eisenhower wrote, “From the beginning he and I got along famously. Both of us were students of current military doctrine. Part of our passion was our belief in tanks—a belief derided at the time by others.” The two men shared a detailed knowledge of the mechanical workings of tanks and an appreciation of their potential strategic uses beyond mere assistance to the infantry.
There was a massive and rapid demobilization of the United States Army at the end of the World War I. By June 1920, the regular army was reduced to only 130,000 men. The American public embraced a pacifism inspired by a vision of the future in which war was a relic of the barbaric past. The League of Nations, which emerged from “the war to end all wars,” embodying President Woodrow Wilson’s idealistic hopes for international understanding, would peacefully settle future disputes among nations. America settled into a period of inno-cence and isolation. In 1922 the United States military ranked seventeenth in size among nations with a standing army.
Patton decried this national mood and the dismantling of the army in a letter to his sister dated October 18, 1919:
The United States in general and the army in particular is in a hell of a mess and there seems to be no end to it . . . . We disregard the lessons of History—The red fate of Carthage; the Rome of shame under the Praetorian guard—and we go on regardless of the VITAL necessity of trained patriotism—HIRING an army . . . . Even the most enlightened of our politicians are blind and mad with self delusion. They believe what they wish may occur not what history teaches will happen.
In this eviscerated post-war army, trying to build support for the tank proved an impossible task. The leadership had no interest in making room for a new weapon in the shrunken army. Nor was there any enthusiasm in Congress, given the country’s isolationist mood, for appropriating funds for the military. In 1933 General Douglas MacArthur noted that the few tanks that the army had were “completely useless for employment against any modern unit on the battle-field.”
Like their fellow junior officers, Patton and Eisenhower suffered post-war reductions in rank, deplorable living conditions, and miserable pay. They both contemplated leaving the service, but they both stuck it out, just as a later generation of officers, in the post-Vietnam era—men like Norman Schwarzkopf and Colin Powell—would again rebuild the army into the world’s greatest military force. A passionate belief in the crucial role that tanks could play in the future and the will to make it happen seemed to sustain both men during this period. “George and I and a group of young officers thought . . . [t]anks could have a more valuable and more spectacular role. We believed . . . that they should attack by surprise and mass . . . . We wanted speed, reliability and firepower.”
The two men once took a tank completely apart, down to the nuts and bolts, and reassembled it, apparently to satisfy their curiosity and to understand every detail of its intricate assembly. Over endless dinners and drinks they would debate and discuss tank tactics and strategy, expanding their discussions to include a small but growing circle of like-minded men. Winning converts was not easy, but Patton and Eisenhower were zealots.
Decades later, in a February 1, 1945 memo, Eisenhower ranked the military capabilities of his subordinate American generals in Europe. He ranked Bradley and Army Air Force General Carl Spaatz at number one, with Walter Bedell Smith number two. Patton was number three. Ike revealed his reasoning in a 1946 review of the book Patton and His Third Army: “George Patton was the most brilliant commander of an army in the open field that our or any other service produced. But his army was part of a whole organization and his operations part of a great campaign.”
This quote is a good encapsulation of their friendship that began in the late 1910s. Ike thought Patton to be a leader of men exemplar. But he was only as good as the company in which he fought. Better yet—the tank company in which he fought.
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