THE most aristocratic creature in the American scone is the Admiral, He may have been born in a small town on the wrong side of the tracks, but by the time he achieves eminence, he has few equals and no superiors except senior admirals and, in the last analysis, the Commander-in-Chief. The admirals belong to a race apart, isolated from the vulgarities of common life by the vastness of the sea. For a time, each one of them commanded a floating world, which he ruled. The more wisely and justly he ruled, and the longer his experience of ruling, the more surely and steadily he advanced in the naval hierarchy.
Admirals are different —from other people and among themselves. In some instances power does not, perhaps, corrupt them; but it blinds them and blocks their thinking, their reactions, and their sympathies. In others the self-confidence of the aristocrat—secure, assured of his position is blended with a certain humbleness of spirit before the shrine of duty, with a profound conviction that no labor is too arduous, no sacrifice too great, no death too painful provided it be met with honor in the service of one’s country.
In this aristocracy of public service, no one stands higher than Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy. Retired in 1930 at the age of sixty-four after serving as Chief of Naval Operations, he was appointed by President Roosevelt as Governor of Puerto Rico. Recalled in the middle of 1940, he was sent by the President as American Ambassador to France; and at Vichy, under the unhappy, vacillating regime of Marshal Pétain, he carried out his duties with great distinction and wisdom until recalled in May, 1942. Shortly afterwards, Mr. Roosevelt created a new office for him, that of Chief of Staff to the Commander-in-Chief. This involved his membership in the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where, as in the meetings of the Combined Chiefs of Staff in this country, he presided as the Senior Officer of all the American armed forces.
His primary function was to keep the President fully advised from day to day of the problems discussed and the decisions submitted by the Joint Chiefs — along with many other matters. As Chief of Staff he attended with the exception of Casablanca — all the important inter-Allied discussions and conferences from that in Washington in May, 1943, through the final Potsdam war council in July, 1945. His appointment, which lasted from 1942 until Roosevelt’s death, was renewed by his successor, and he served for almost four more years as Chief of Staff to President Truman.
In this intimate association, particularly with Mr. Roosevelt, he was requested on many occasions to attend political as well as military conferences, and therefore was present during the historic meetings between Roosevelt, Churchill, Stalin, and Chiang. He knew them all. No one could be more justified than the Admiral in giving his book its title I Was There (Whittlesey House, $4.00).
This sturdy volume does not present a series of reflections after the event. It is assembled from notes made at the time — in the arrangement and editing of which the Admiral acknowledges the assistance of Mr. Charter Heslep. They are certainly not ghost-written, It any author ever left the seal of his own personality on his written words, Admiral Leahy has done so in I Was There. These pages are as salty as the sea, as direct as a gun barrel, terse with the economy of orders given or opinions uttered by a man who regards “talkers as a low breed outside the law.
The views expressed one often uncompromising, sometimes mistaken, as the author freely admits, and, one is sure, always honest. They may not greatly alter the facts of “ History” as written, but they will certainly illuminate them. The Admiral’s opinions on men and things met and experienced during the war years were founded on a lifetime of observation and a character as rugged as a rock. In positions of great responsibility, close to two Presidents, in intimate touch with the civil and military leaders of the United Nations, he was compelled to appraise every person he met and every proposal, however plausibly put forward, by a standard of values which was constant and unfaltering. That he did so is demonstrated in this volume.
It is fascinating to read Admiral Leahy’s assessments of the men of Vichy with whom he had to deal as the American Ambassador — the aged Marshal Pétain, fundamentally a patriot, caught in a cleft stick, without strength or vision to extricate himself; Durlan (Popeye to the irreverent Americans), the complete opportunist, good naval officer, incurably anti-British, whose word, after all, was good in a pinch; de Gaulle, always a pain in the neck, “that vain Frenchman,”talking in London while Giraud was lighting in Africa; the devout, hierarchal Weygand; Laval, and all the rest. None of them deceived the Admiral, and all were judged as tolerantly as possible.
Sometimes the Admiral’s nose is lifted a little higher in the air and his eyes are frostier than usual. When Dr. Herbert V. Evatt, then a member of the Australian War Cabinet, complained that his government was having political difficulties owing to its failure to obtain American planes, the Admiral wrote: “ I don’t think I gave [him] much encouragement. We were not giving away planes for votes. . . . He spoke with an Australian accent that, made it difficult for me to understand despite my having been familiar, forty years before, with t he colloquial speech of uneducated inhabitants of Australia.” No, I doubt if the Australian politico derived much encouragement from the interview.
Occasionally a good deal is implied with a minimum of effort. “ Wallace made a short address that was said to be in the Russian language.”At Potsdam “Churchill injected the religious issue to defend the rights of the Catholics in Poland. Stalin reflected a moment, stroking his moustache, and then asked the Prime Minister in a hard, even tone, ‘How many divisions has the Pope?'”
A few random remarks may be quoted, not as epigrams, for the Admiral is rarely, if ever, epigrammatic, but as typical of his blunt, dead-pan comment. There is sometimes a touch of acerbity in his criticism of ineffective performance or of untrustworthy characters, but in general he does not waste time in expressing anger or annoyance. He merely states that they were thus and so. Those judgments are not pontifical, but they are important elements in the self-portrait which the Admiral unconsciously I think — painted so successfully. Thus when he received at Vichy a young assistant naval a attache whose knowledge of seafaring was conspicuously lacking, he wondered bleakly what the Navy was coming to. Shortly, however, he learned that the young man had other functions, and he dismissed him with a brief accolade: “Cassidy was a very good spy —capable and discreet.” “The Yugoslav Minister, M. Pouritoh,” on the other hand, was “a confirmed gossip and usually in error — an attractive person but he made up his stories as he went along.” “I saw Soviet Ambassador Bogomolov often. He probably" lied glibly because he was a Russian diplomat, but he was a very intelligent man compared to other members of his mission.” “Pétain was eighty-five on April twentyfourth. I sent him greetings although I did not know what that lonely old man should have been congratulated for.”“Anthony Eden knew what Britain wanted. There were times when I felt that if I could find any body except Roosevelt who knew what America wanted it would be an astonishing discovery.” “Churchill thereupon made a long talk. . . . Such long addresses were tedious because of the necessity of their being translated into Russian, if not for many other good reasons.” “The Combined Staff held its final 1944 meeting on Saturday, December thirtieth. It was followed by a reception with eggnog. Not much business was transacted.”
Such quotations are manifestly unfair to the wise and generous attitude the Admiral assumed when he felt it deserved, and to the careful consideration he gave to difficult military and political problems. They are, however, indicative of his character and personality. It must have been an extremely arduous task to try to pull his leg.
ADMIRAL LEAHY not only served President Roosevelt loyally but he fell a sincere admiration for the President’s abilities; he respected his knowledge of the world and its affairs, his statesmanlike vision, and his skill in handling difficult men and situations, He was the great war loader. He respected Mr. Churchill, too, though at times annoyed at his persistent, implacable insistence on divagations from established policies. Churchill was to the Admiral first, last, and all the time a great Englishman. “I was certain that the Prime Minister sincerely believed that in serving England he was best serving peace.” It would be hard to find a briefer, better summary. President Truman he found admirable in his manly Americanism, and “one of the nicest men" he ever knew.
At Teheran and at Yalta, Stalin had seemed to the Admiral an able leader, courteous m his manners and amenable to argument on most subjects.
Certainly he stood firm when his country’s interests were concerned, but no one could blame him for that. The Admiral had never believed in the necessity or the desirability of Russian coöperation in the war against Japan. The “military ” insisted on it, and both the President and the Admiral bowed In this insistence. Hence the broken promises made to the Chinese, the controversial secret clauses of Yalta, and at the last the frustrations of Potsdam. At that conference the Russians presented faits accomplis: Poland under Russian puppets, the Polish Government-in-Exile sold down the river; Bulgaria, Rumania, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Russian satellites, precious agreements for free elections ignored; Stalin no longer the smiling comrade but the head of the Great Power of the Continent, content to act while others talked and protested; all controversial questions referred to face-saving, impotent committees— “How many divisions has the Pope?”
On policies the Admiral states his opinion when they came before him for consideration. He was not at Casablanca, and the policy of Unconditional Surrender was a surprise to him. Later it became inconvenient. He was unhappy about China throughout. We weren’t doing a good job in China. The British were defeatist in India. Everything hung fire; there were divided councils among our representatives and advisers. It was all unshipshape and unsatisfactory. He never believed that an invasion of the Japanese home islands was necessary for victory, nor Russian help, nor the atomic bomb. In fact he didn’t believe the atomic bomb would amount to much — an opinion which he ruefully admits was erroneous.
The institution of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Combined Chiefs of Staff reporting directly to the Commanders-in-Chief was the happiest and most successful innovation of the war. The Admiral refers in only rare instances to the work of the Civilian Secretaries — Stimson, Knox, and later Forrestal. There is almost no gossip or secondhand information in the book. There are, however, some curious omissions. The Admiral, both from his Vichy experiences and from his position on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was intensely interested in the Allied political as well as military actions in French Africa. He must have been aware of the President’s preoccupation with Dakar, but nowhere in the book is there a reference to Admiral Glassford’s mission there as the President’s personal representative. He dismisses the final break between Secretary Hull and Sumner Welles in three or four lines. His chapter on Yalta is interesting as comment but unsatisfactory its history. In short, the book is uneven in emphasis and lacks the kind of discrimination in news or historical values which is possible, perhaps, only in retrospective summation. Its great merit lies in the clear, intermittent light it flashes on the men and things the Admiral knew firsthand.
And it is a beautiful self-portrait. This good and faithful public servant shows himself without and above affectation or self-interest. He served his country and his Commander-in-Chief day and night, irrespective of fatigue, illness, or private, grief. Admiral Leahy was a professional naval officer, retired, and called back to serve — the oldest of them all, the Senior Officer of all the armed forces. As such he brought to his work both the professional sense of duty and the tradition of older days, of honor and decency and integrity. It hurt him intimately that promises made to China should be broken in the name of military necessity. It was bitter in his mouth that victorious America could not make good its commitments to Poland or ensure freely chosen governments in the Balkan states. He did not understand politics or politicians, but he knew they had to do things that were not things which he would do. Nor did he understand why Christian men should fight a total war in imitation of the heathen and the damned.
His book ends with the conclusion of the Japanese war. It is not a happy ending. The Admiral saw too clearly the ominous clouds of cold war or worse with Russia. He could not shake off a feeling that there was something wrong, something vile, about our use of the atomic bomb. That the United States should make war on helpless women and children! This was not the action of the America he knew. In these final short, hurried paragraphs the deep perturbation of his spirit speaks: —
“It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender. . . .
“My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had joined the barbarians of the world. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. We were the first to have this weapon in our possession, and the firsl to use it. . . .
‟That is why, as a professional military man with a half century of service to his government, I come to the end of my war story with an apprehension about the future. . . . These new and terrible instruments of uncivilized warfare represent a modern type of barbarism not worthy of Christian man.”
Alas, for many of us, with the atomic bomb came the denial of our beliefs and the ending of our dream. Future commentators may trace the new Dark Ages back to America’s adoption of the ethics of total war and official endorsement of ways to increase the slaughter of civilians — almost to the point of annihilation. That hideous decision, however plausibly defended, may mark one of those turnings in our yesterdays where our feet left the path marked out for us and wandered down towards dusty death. So, at least, it must have seemed to this good soldier of the sea. If that decision helped to win a war, it also left us with little honor and a future no sane man can contemplate without moments, at least, of despair. And if, in writing of Admiral Leahy’s I Was There, I have quoted his lighter comment and referred to his book as a sell portrait, that portrait would be wholly inadequate unless we knew that this survivor from a more decent world held the massacre of Hiroshima to be no better than a barbarous and useless infamy.