Team America: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the World They Forged

From a Wall Street Journal review by Jonathan W. Jordan of the book by Robert L. O’Connell titled “Team America: Patton, MacArthur, Marshall, Eisenhower, and the World They Forged”:

Like an aging superhero-film franchise, World War II biographies have morphed from single-subject works into wine-and-brie superstar pairings. By last century’s end, historians such as William Manchester, Forrest Pogue, Carlo D’Este and Stephen Ambrose had produced monumental biographies of Gens. Douglas MacArthur (“American Caesar,” 1978), George C. Marshall (4 volumes, 1963-1987), George S. Patton (“Genius for War,” 1995) and Dwight Eisenhower (“The Supreme Commander,” 1970), among others. What could top these biographical landmarks? Multileader blockbusters, that’s what.

In 1994, the author Norman Gelb traced the rocky military marriage of Eisenhower and Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery in “Ike and Monty.” In 2007, the historian Stanley Weintraub brought together Eisenhower, MacArthur and Marshall in “15 Stars.” And in 2015, Winston Groom teed up MacArthur, Marshall and Patton in “The Generals.”

Often these books are a combination of stories whose independent heroes are connected by little more than the flag they fought under. Eisenhower and MacArthur, stationed on opposite sides of the globe, never met during World War II. Marshall and MacArthur did not meet until the war’s end was inevitable. And to Patton, the Washington-bound Marshall remained his boss’s boss’s boss. (Patton and Eisenhower, genuine friends since 1919, were an exception in the rarefied air of four- and five-star command.)

If lumping four A-list names into a single volume seems like a Marvel Avengers formula, Robert L. O’Connell embraces the vibe in “Team America” as he tells the personal stories of Marshall, MacArthur, Eisenhower and Patton from their beginnings through to the Cold War. Mr. O’Connell’s previous books include “Fierce Patriot: The Tangled Lives of William Tecumseh Sherman.” What makes his latest work stand out is not the facts he presents, or his angle in recounting them, but the voice he employs.

Patton practically sprang from the womb in helmet and jodhpurs. As a young lieutenant, he redesigned the Army’s obsolete cavalry saber, studied fencing and acquired the quixotic title “Master of the Sword.” “It was pure Patton, in every way prophetic of his misguided nature, both astute and idiotic,” Mr. O’Connell writes. “Patton was in his own mind the universal soldier, or a reincarnated version; he would fight with anything you gave him. But by having himself designated master of the sword, this second lieutenant had turned himself into something larger, exactly the illusion that made the mask of command work.”

Nurtured by Caesar, Napoleon and Pershing, Patton stubbornly remained an old-school cavalier into the nuclear era. In one revealing scene, Marshall meets Patton at Hitler’s Berchtesgaden retreat and informs him that an atomic bomb would soon be dropped on Japan. “I don’t think we will need more than two,” he tells Patton. “Patton was not inclined to agree,” writes Mr. O’Connell. Patton “believed he had personally observed every stage [of warfare], and was equally ready to wield this new cudgel in a brave new world of nuclear war. Fortunately, it seems both he and industrial warfare were headed instead for a dead end.”

Marshall emerges as the republic’s stone-faced guardian. “In the politico-military environment, he operated at a Zen-like level of awareness, one based on an uncanny ability to prioritize any problem however large, and then to delegate its solution. It didn’t always work out,” Mr. O’Connell explains, “but in an era nearly devoid of computers, it was the only way forward, and Marshall was the master navigator.”

As in most Marshall biographies, in “Team America” the navigator grudgingly reveals his human emotions in late 1943, around the time President Franklin Roosevelt selected Eisenhower, not Marshall, to lead the invasion of France in Operation Overlord. Marshall “had been Overlord’s champion from the beginning, and not to have been chosen as its leader had to hurt,” Mr. O’Connell tells us. Yet “even in his darkest hour he remained a consummate team player. He was an ambitious man, always had been, but his ambition perpetually remained in the context of the state and its well-being.”

MacArthur collected sycophants the way Patton collected polo ponies. “As with his women, he wanted worship and obsequiousness from his subordinates, and [Maj. Richard] Sutherland and the others he gathered around him were perfect,” Mr. O’Connell writes of MacArthur’s prewar years in the Philippines. These men “got things done, and they bathed him in praise, but they were hardly idea men. From this point, for better or worse, all the big thinking would be done” by MacArthur.

Eisenhower, who would eventually outrank all his colleagues, grows in stature with each challenge. At a moment of crisis during the Battle of the Bulge, he snatched two American armies from one of his oldest chums, Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley, and gave them to Bradley’s hated rival, Bernard Montgomery. The move worked and the bulge was erased. “His solution tells us a lot about the real Dwight D. Eisenhower,” Mr. O’Connell concludes. “When pressed, he could be ruthless to his friends and reliant on those he despised—anything to get the job done.”

In the wake of the bloody Bulge, Mr. O’Connell writes, “it was Eisenhower who held Team America together when things were most grim on the field. His mask of command never blinked, never showed any sign of the loss of nerve that signals defeat. Instead, he shifted seamlessly to Patton’s plan B, and maintained the steadiest of hands at the wheel.”

Eisenhower was the teammate most affected by the terrible new power of nuclear weapons. Mr. O’Connell writes: “It would be Ike’s destiny to lead America in an arms race that, step by irrefutable step, would build twin US and Soviet arsenals so potentially destructive that any major war between the two, or maybe anywhere, would be suicidal—the terrifying edifice of deterrence that keeps us all safe.”

Mr. O’Connell’s story is written more like a sardonic summer read than a solemn chronicle. He sprinkles sports metaphors liberally through his book: Patton was “the cleanup man in the batting order,” and chapters like “First Base,” “Spring Training” and “Halftime” keep the metaphor running through the end of World War II. The author gets close and casual with “Georgie,” “Doug” and “Ike”—though the austere Marshall gets to keep his last name—and we see in each man titanic strengths offset by tabloid-style flaws (except, again, for Marshall).

At times Mr. O’Connell slashes through episodes—particularly those involving love affairs, eccentricities or lapses of judgment—with the irreverence of a Monty Python knight skewering a famous historian. Regarding MacArthur’s Manila affair in the 1930, the author writes, “there may have been more to the Eurasian movie starlet Isabel Rosario Cooper than history remembers, but in the case of Douglas MacArthur she played her role as kept kitten with considerable authenticity—even calling him ‘Daddy,’ appropriate since he was almost fifty and she not yet eighteen.” But Mr. O’Connell’s cheeky tone disguises a serious attitude toward research. He dutifully dives into footnotes of biographers such as Jean Edward Smith, and does a creditable job mining his protagonists’ published papers and memoirs.

While his approach sometimes begets sweeping conclusions subject to interpretation or dispute, Mr. O’Connell does a solid job delivering the details faithfully. A delicious blend of insight, wit and history, “Team America” is a punch-packed introduction to four great military minds and the zeitgeist that produced them.

Jonathan W. Jordan is the author of “Brothers Rivals Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and the Partnership that Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe.”

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