To become a famous general and enter the annals of history, you must have skill, stamina, courage, connections — and luck. And that luck has to take many forms. It’s the kind of luck that keeps you from getting killed before you reach senior ranks. But also more fundamentally, the type of luck that causes you to be born at the exact right time, roughly half a century before a major war.
Dwight D. Eisenhower, born 1890, had that luck. So did George Patton, born 1885. Bernard Law Montgomery (1887), Erwin Rommel (1891) and Georgy Zhukov (1896), where other examples, although the latter two on the young side. Albert Coady Wedemeyer, born in 1897, was a borderline case, which may be one reason why, unlike the other commanders listed above, he is not a household name.
This is both ironic and tragic, since Wedemeyer was a pivotal figure in World War II and a main architect of Allied victory. Now, nearly 70 years after the war and a quarter century after his death in 1989, Wedemeyer has finally received the biography that he deserves. It is General Albert C. Wedemeyer: America’s Unsung Strategist in World War II by John J. McLaughlin, published by Casemate. Meticulously researched and entertainingly told, it explains why Wedemeyer was great, and indirectly why his greatness is not known to a larger post-war audience. It does so in a way that is unlikely to be bettered for decades to come, if ever.
Wedemeyer was an unusual asset for the American armed forces as they went to war in the early 1940s. In the period from 1936 to 1938 he attended the Kriegsakademie, the German war college, one of very few US soldiers to do so. It gave him valuable insights into the ruthless and single-minded military thinking that was soon to bring most of Europe under Nazi dominance.
But as McLaughlin makes clear in his book, luck eluded Wedemeyer in different ways as he shipped across the Atlantic to fight the Third Reich. By being a staff officer, he missed out on the glory showered on frontline commanders. His zeal for a combat role was such that when he met General Patton in North Africa in the early stages of the US participation of the war, he offered to be demoted to the rank of colonel so he could lead a regiment into battle. Patton, a connoisseur of the dramatic gesture, was duly impressed. But nothing happened.
Perhaps more crucially, Wedemeyer’s career was stymied by the maneuverings of people more powerful than he, especially British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill advocated attacking the German Fortress Europe via its soft underbelly in the Mediterranean, while Wedemeyer was strongly in favor of a more direct approach straight across the British Channel as the shortest way to Berlin. It is very likely that it was an annoyed Churchill that got Wedemeyer shipped off to Asia, despite his priceless expertise on Germany.
This is where Wedemeyer’s fades out of the picture as far as specialists on the European war are concerned. But for those with an interest in World War II in Asia and China, it is at this exact point that Wedemeyer’s story becomes seriously interesting.
Wedemeyer was sent to China to take over command of US forces there from General Joseph Stillwell. It was a tough assignment, since Stillwell, who had spent years making himself worthy of the nickname “Vinegar Joe”, had done much to disrupt Sino-American relations with his cultural insensivity. Wedemeyer was to change all that with his polite and unassuming style.
Wedemeyer, states an article quoted in McLaughlin’s book, “shunned pomp and circumstance, kept his headquarters simple. If nobody else had beer or Coca-Cola, neither did headquarters.” At the same time, he stepped up social interaction between senior US and Chinese officers, which, while often time-consuming and wasteful from an American perspective, was necessary to establish rapport.
In this way, he was many years ahead of his time, understanding the meaning of “hearts and minds” before the expression became fashionable. A supreme example is how he modified procedures, established under Stillwell, that allowed US advisors to overrule the Chinese officers they were serving in times of disagreement. It often caused tremendous embarrassment to the Chinese side, and Wedemeyer understood the procedure had to be altered.
His solution was “for the American commander to accept the disagreement without rancor, and for the (American and Chinese) commanders to jointly institute a rapid oral appeal process going up the line of command… and then back down again to the local commander. The command then would have the appearance of the full force of the Chinese army.” Again, a time-consuming procedure that, however, probably ultimately saved time by taking into account the need to save face in a highly face-conscious society.
All this and much more is described in detail in McLaughlin’s biography. His book is particularly important because of one last piece of bad luck that befell Wedemeyer long after the war. In 1970 celebrated American historian Barbara Tuchman wrote a biography of Stillwell, Stillwell and the American Experience in China 1911-45. Given its subject, it was almost inevitable that Wedemeyer, as a sort of antithesis to Stillwell, would get a less than kind treatment. The need faced by the popular historian to impose a narrative structure on often messy historical facts dictated that.
Needless to say, Wedemeyer ways extremely annoyed by the publication, but he was also ultimately helpless. Tuchman’s book became highly influential and was to determine what many westerners thought they knew about American involvement in China in the decades before the communist revolution. Prior to McLaughlin’s book there has been no equally comprehensive effort to counterbalance the posthumous image of America’s unsung strategist.
McLaughlin’s book also belongs in any World War II library because of the exciting account it provides of China in the latter stages of its struggle with Japan, where legacies of the past and premonitions of the future combined to produce one of the most complex theatres of the entire war. It’s a must-have!