The Legacy of George S. Patton

Patton greeting Hal Block, Bob Hope, Barney Dean, Frances Langford, and Tony Romano in Sicily, 1943Patton greeting Hal Block, Bob Hope, Barney Dean, Frances Langford, Tony Romano in Sicily, 1943. (Photo: Library of Congress)

On December 21, 1945, George S. Patton, Jr. died from injuries suffered in a car accident in Germany in the wake of World War II. At the time, Patton had just been relieved of his command of the Third Army largely because of his candid comments about the liberation of Europe. In the wake of his death, most people focused more on his heroism than his recent disgrace. In the ensuing years, the less savory aspects of his character faded from view. In April 1970, Patton, staring George C. Scott in the title role, first appeared in movie theaters across the United States. Few Americans, including President Richard Nixon, would forget the opening scene where the general gave an inspiring speech to his troops in the midst of the war.

Patton was born on November 11, 1885. After a comfortable childhood in California, he decided to follow in the footsteps of the men in his family by choosing a career in the military. Patton graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1909, married Beatrice Mayer in 1910, and competed in pentathlon at the Stockholm Olympics in 1912. Using his family’s connections, Patton secured a post at Fort Bliss in Texas in 1915 where he first met General John J. Pershing. His service in the campaign against Francisco “Pancho” Villa in Mexico the following year led to a plumb position as the head of the army’s first tank division in France during World War I. He won both the Distinguished Service Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal for commanding the tank force while injured. Stories of his escapades won him hero status in many American newspapers.

In the interwar years, Patton served in a variety of staff posts and attended the Command and General Staff College and the Army War College. With the possibility of another war in Europe increasing, Patton wondered if he would receive a combat command should the United States join the war. He was in his early fifties, so the possibility seemed unlikely, until General George Marshall decided the army needed an armored force. Patton’s experience in World War I, as well as his continued study of the use of tanks in battle, led to his command of the Second Armored Division. Early American failures in the North African campaign, which began in 1942, provided Patton an opportunity for advancement. He took over the United States Second Corps, and through his diligent efforts at training, victories soon followed. Then Patton went on to command the Seventh Army in the invasion of Sicily in 1943. His troops liberated Palermo and Messina, further adding to his reputation.

Patton thus seemed poised to play a significant role in the opening of a second front in Europe in 1944. However, revelations about his intolerance of soldiers suffering from fatigue emerged not long after his victories. General Dwight Eisenhower ultimately chose General Omar Bradley to command the ground forces for the Normandy Invasion. Patton took control of the Third Army only after the invasion was well underway. Determined to redeem himself, Patton led his forces in efforts to liberate much of northern Europe, winning praise along the way. Unfortunately, his testy temper once again sidelined his career. His hostility toward the Soviet Union, an American ally, and his seeming sympathy with the Nazis, led Eisenhower to relieve him of his command. On December 9, 1945, as he prepared to return to the United States, Patton suffered severe injuries in a car accident, which led to his death.

The New York Times, in its obituary of the general, called Patton “one of the most brilliant soldiers in American history.” The “audacious, unorthodox and inspiring” nature of his life, including his tradition of going into battle with “two pearl-handled revolvers in holsters on his hips” and his “unprintable brand of eloquence,” helped cement Patton as one of the nation’s great war heroes. His legendary status continued to grow in the postwar years culminating with the 1970 release of the biopic about his life. Winning seven academy awards, Patton highlighted the general’s glories in war as well as struggles in peacetime, and it emphasized his ability to overcome criticism and rejection.

Speculation about the role Patton played in Richard Nixon’s decision to authorize the Cambodian Incursion has peppered the scholarship on the disgraced president for years. Nixon watched the movie several times prior to his decision in late April 1970. Hugh Sidey, writing for Life Magazine in June 1970, reported Nixon used a Patton analogy at a White House dinner party in May. He likened Patton’s efforts at the Battle of the Bulge to following through with the American commitment to noncommunists in Southeast Asia. In White House Years, Henry Kissinger said, “when [Nixon] was pressed to the wall, his romantic streak surfaced and he would see himself as a beleaguered military commander in the tradition of Patton.” Nixon denied the film had any influence on his decision-making during his 1977 interview with David Frost. And yet, given the sense of persecution Nixon felt in office, Patton’s perseverance in the face of great odds likely could have inspired Nixon as it surely did other Americans.

Attempts to understand Patton’s legacy have led to several critical studies of his personal life and his military career. Still, his greatness remains a strong theme. In 2002, David M. Shribman maintained, Patton “was a warrior and an American and, more than that, he was an American original.” In 2012, John D. Eisenhower, who served under Patton in Europe, remembered him as both “professional and eccentric” – qualities that derived from “his total devotion to the military.” His propensity to be both did make Patton an original. Nevertheless, Eisenhower also cautioned his readers not to be too seduced by the film version of Patton’s life. “It did not,” he said, “portray the real Patton, but it was great entertainment.”

About the Author

Sarah Katherine Mergel

Sarah Katherine Mergel is an associate professor of history at Dalton State College in Northwest Georgia. She is the author of Conservative Intellectuals and Richard Nixon: Rethinking the Rise of the Right. She is passionate about researching, writing, and teaching on political, intellectual, and diplomatic history since the end of the Civil War. When not studying history, she loves anything about classical music (especially when it involves playing the oboe).

Author Archive Page

1 Comment

Leave a Reply