(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Coalition warfare is the most difficult kind to wage. Alliances, no matter how close the partners or deadly the common enemy, are inevitably strained by disputes over how the war should be conducted. Superiority in numbers is frequently offset by diversity in goals, and every member of the coalition sometime must have the fear that it bears the brunt of the struggle, while its partners preserve their forces, perhaps in anticipation of the next war—the war against their present allies.

The most recent example of the stress of martial alliances comes from World War II, but the history of combat is filled with instances. Napoléon’s long mastery of Europe was certainly a result not only of his military genius but also of his skill at keeping the coalitions formed against him confused, suspicious, and bickering among themselves. On several occasions, the inability of his opponents to cooperate allowed the Emperor to defeat overwhelming numbers by fighting them in separate campaigns.

Coalition warfare and its attendant problems entered the contemporary age during World War I. Ostensibly the battle lines were drawn between two groups, the Allies and the Central Powers; actually, Germany so dominated its weaker partners that unity of purpose and command was substantially accomplished. (This would prove to be much the same in World War II.) On the Allied side, no such unanimity prevailed. The British and the French found cooperation difficult and could not agree on a mutual strategy; the entry of the United States into the war only increased the confusion over methods and suspicion over goals.

The difficulty of coalition warfare is one major theme of Donald Smythe’s biography of America’s World War I commander, John Pershing. The second theme, suitably enough, is how Pershing and the United States responded to this difficulty, and finally meshed into the Allied struggle against Germany, largely on their own terms—terms very different from those expected by France and England.

When the United States entered the war in 1917, the conflict had been raging for three slaughterous years, and the Allies were in desperate shape. Allied strategy had led to massive casualties but no break in the German trench line; worse, no new plans were being advanced to end the stalemate, and there seemed to be a grim acceptance of an inescapable war of attrition. It was not necessarily a war the Allies could win. Allied troops were exhausted; units of the French army had mutinied and had to be held in line at gunpoint. The British had put so many eligible men into the army that there was literally no pool of reserves from which to draw. To the Allies, the Americans represented manpower—untrained, unbloodied, but apparently unlimited—which would be integrated into existing French and British units and led by French and British commanders. Pershing consistently and successfully fought this amalgamation of his troops, refusing to abandon the concept of an independent American army led by an American commander—Pershing himself.

In retaining the separateness of the American troops, and in his conduct of the war in general, Pershing was blessed with apparently unlimited confidence from the Wilson Administration. Although relatively obscure when the United States declared war, Pershing had been appointed commander of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) because of his outstanding military record and because he was the best qualified general available. Newton Baker, Woodrow Wilson’s secretary of war, told Pershing after his selection: “I will give you only two orders—one to go to France and the other to come home. In the meantime your authority in France will be supreme.” Remarkably enough, Baker and Wilson honored this promise. As Smythe notes, “perhaps no field commander in history was ever given a freer hand to conduct operations than was Pershing by Wilson.”

Because of this virtually unlimited authority, it was Pershing, more than the government in Washington, who fought the battles of coalition warfare, and his initial decisions ensured his final victory. He adamantly refused to yield to Allied pressure to amalgamate American troops into British or French units, even though this meant that American forces did not engage in serious combat with the Germans for almost a year after war was declared. This decision was bitterly assailed by the Allied staffs, but Pershing had the determination to stand fast. Smythe’s account of this struggle—apparently as fierce as the war against the Germans—is well handled and revealing.

Pershing’s first task upon assuming command was to answer an essential question: What was to be the role of the AEF in the struggle? This role would determine the size of the force, its organization, and its ultimate requirement—the methods of transport and supply.

Since the Americans were determined from the first to fight as a separate national army, naturally they would have to fight on a front of their own. Pershing thought that a successful effort would require an AEF of between four and five million men; this was an overestimate on his part, no doubt stirred by the caution so prevalent among many great commanders. In the end, the AEF totaled not quite two...

(The entire section is 2154 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

Best Sellers. XLVI, September, 1986, p. 224.

Booklist. LXXXII, April 15, 1986, p. 1167.

Library Journal. CXI, April 1, 1986, p. 147.

National Review. XXXVIII, July 18, 1986, p. 52.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, September 28, 1986, p. 27.