The Press and General Patton

by Jeffrey St. John

 

British writer George Orwell maintained that throughout World War II there existed in the Allied press a "self censorship" on stories that cast the Soviets in a negative light.

Forty years ago this month, on December 9, 1945, General George S. Patton Jr. was gravely injured in an auto-truck collision near Mannheim, Germany. Paralyzed from the neck down, he lived until December 21st. The death of one of the most successful U.S. military commanders in World War II overshadowed the fact that General Patton's military career had been ended shortly before, for he had been relieved of his Third Army Command. At a press conference before being relieved, he had expressed his views to reporters that U.S. plans for post-war Germany were "foolish and stupid" and would lead to Soviet attempts to take over Western Europe. "I was intentionally direct because I believed that it was time for the people to know what was going on," he recalled before his death.

Press reports of the news conference, however, ignored General Patton's core concern and concentrated instead on a statement that was taken out of context, implying that he was pro-Nazi. This was an extraordinary distortion since General Patton's Third Army had killed, wounded, or captured more Germans in Europe than any other Army command under U.S. military officers.

In his 1964 book Before The Colors Fade, Fred Ayer Jr. provides considerable details on the press conference and concludes that the distorted press accounts were used by key U.S. officials to justify removing General Patton and ending his anti-Soviet campaign. Ayer, a nephew of the general, reveals that Patton contemplated retiring on his return to the United States and was formulating plans to speak out against the plans of the U.S. and the Soviets. "What seemed to him our national blindness to Russian intentions, plus rapid and thoughtless demobilization, would soon have forced him to violent public speech," Ayer observes.

Once before, during World War II, General Patton had been the victim of a campaign in the press involving his slapping with his gloves two enlisted men in field hospitals because he believed they were using "battle fatigue" in an effort to avoid combat. "There exists sufficient evidence to show that a small handful of reporters did, in fact, try to make George Patton look either evil or stupid. Whether this was done on their own, or at the instigation of others, I still cannot say," Ayer observes.

In his 1983 book The Unknown Patton, Charles M. Province maintains that the slapping incident was initially thought by most American correspondents not worth reporting. It was only after three months had elapsed that columnist Drew Pearson (predecessor to and sponsor of Jack Anderson, his son-in-law) printed the story and caused a sensation. The incident led to General Patton being relieved in 1943 as Commander of the Seventh Army.

Province provides considerable evidence that Drew Pearson used the "slapping incident" as a way of diverting attention away from President Roosevelt's calling Pearson in public a chronic liar. "Pearson was pro-Communist, pro-Chinese, and pro-Russian. As a friend of Russia, he demanded in 1943 that the Allied Command create a second front in Europe to assist our Russian 'friends.' When Pearson's demands were not met he immediately became angry," observes Province.

In both incidents involving the press, then-General Dwight Eisenhower refused to defend his longtime friend from what clearly were efforts to discredit Patton. The intellectual cowardice of Eisenhower led Patton to the conclusion that the Supreme Allied Commander was running for the presidency as early as 1943. "Ike is bitten with the presidential bug and is yellow," General Patton wrote in his diary.

The late syndicated newspaper columnist George E. Sokolsky, after the "pro-Nazi" news conference leading to Patton's relief, dug deeply into the events surrounding the press conference and concluded that, indeed, a left-wing cabal in the press and in the U.S. government had set out to destroy the general. "I should like to see the heads of the three American news agencies, the Associated Press, the International News Service, and the United Press, investigate this situation thoroughly and make a public report concerning it," Sokolsky wrote.

No investigation was ever made and General Patton's subsequent death provided justification for not pursuing it. Forty years after his death, the story of the victimization of one of America's most brilliant World War II commanders remains largely untold. It was a victimization not only at the hands of the press. but from U.S. military and civilian leaders at the highest level.

If an examination were to be conducted of all the relevant facts of the campaign to discredit General Patton, it would require in the process a re-examination of the role of Eisenhower and his military and political decisions that benefited the Soviets. Forty years after Patton's death the conclusions he drew shortly after the end of World War II have been vindicated by events.

If we have to fight them, now is the time," General Patton wrote in his diary of the Soviets. "From now on we will get weaker and they will get stronger."