Nearly 70 years after the untimely death of U.S. General George S. Patton, suspicions linger as to the nature and circumstances surrounding the demise of this formidable military genius. On a war-torn, two-lane highway in Mannheim, Germany, Patton's car was struck on December 21, 1945 by a two-ton Army truck less than six months after the end of WWII hostilities in Europe. The accident left Patton clinging to life in a Heidelberg hospital during a crucial period when the Allies were attempting to transition from the ravages of war to a sustained peace in Germany. Within three weeks, Patton would lose his final battle, and the fate of post-war Germany would be sealed for several decades.
At the time of his death, Patton had been relegated to a desk job, overseeing the collection of Army records in Bavaria. That he had been an outspoken critic of Stalin and a vocal proponent of liberating Berlin and the German people from certain communist aggression triggered his sudden removal from the battlefield. In the aftermath of war, the Western powers sought to sideline the mercurial Patton and his incendiary views. But Patton despised the politically driven circus and the media minions that carried out their dirty work. Still, he continued to speak out against the Russians as an American witness to their brutality during and after the war. As Stalin devoured Eastern Europe, Patton remarked, "I have no particular desire to understand them except to ascertain how much lead or iron it takes to kill them... the Russian has no regard for human life and they are all out sons-of-bitches, barbarians, and chronic drunks."
In early May 1945, as the Allies shut down the Nazi war machine, Patton stood with his massive 3rd Army on the outskirts of Prague in a potential face off with the Red Army. He pleaded for General Eisenhower's green light to advance and capture the city for the Allies, which also would have meant containment of the Russians. British Prime Minister Churchill also thought the move a crucial and beneficial one for post-war Europe and insisted upon it, but to no avail. Eisenhower denied Patton's request, and the Russians took the region, which would pay dearly for years to come. Earlier that year, at the February conference in Yalta, President Roosevelt, with Churchill at his side, extended the hand of friendship to "Uncle Joe" Stalin and signed his Faustian pact. In so doing, the destiny of millions was reduced to mass starvation, blood revenge, and distant gulags. At the time, Patton understood the tragedy of this event and wrote, "We promised the Europeans freedom. It would be worse than dishonorable not to see that they have it. This might mean war with the Russians, but what of it?"
Berlin also was given to Stalin's Army as red meat to feed the dictator's appetite for killing Germans. To some, including Patton, this was an unnecessary and devastating concession. In late April 1945, Patton claimed he could take Berlin in just "two days," an assessment shared by the commander of the 9th Army, General William H. Simpson. As with Prague, Patton's request to secure Berlin was denied. Sadly, after Patton finally reached the ravaged city, he wrote his wife on July 21, 1945, "for the first week after they took it (Berlin), all women who ran were shot and those who did not were raped. I could have taken it (instead of the Soviets) had I been allowed."
Conventional wisdom holds that Eisenhower's choice not to capture the eastern capital cities was sober decision-making or that he was bound by the Yalta agreements, though he originally planned for Berlin and Prague. Many would argue that in the spring of 1945 the U.S. was fatigued with war and its military was in no condition to fight World War III. The Americans also needed the Russians to join the fight in the Pacific war, though the Russians never fulfilled that promise. Yet, the "what ifs" of history echo in Patton's words:
The American Army as it now exists could beat the Russians with the greatest of ease, because, while the Russians have good infantry, they are lacking in artillery, air, tanks, and in the knowledge of the use of the combined arms, whereas we excel in all three of these.
Moreover, Patton's notion of meeting the enemy "now, rather than later" in retrospect seems not the mere wiles of a warmonger unable to embrace peacetime, but rather a worthy and prudent strategy of a seasoned tactician, even if a gamble. Stalin's own records prove that he told his leaders to "play down" the Berlin invasion, aware that it was Europe's crown jewel. Eisenhower, for all his discernment and skill at war management, did not see the Russians coming as did Patton and Churchill, who both recognized the wisdom of stopping Stalin in his tracks and perhaps offering Eastern Europe a chance at liberation.
Stalin had promised to liberate the capitals of Eastern Europe -- Berlin, Prague, and Vienna -- as well as Eastern Poland and the Baltic states. In his public broadcast dating back to November 1943 he promised:
The day is not far off when we will completely liberate the Ukraine, and the White Russia, Leningrad and Kalinin regions from the enemy; we will liberate... the people of the Crimea and Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Moldavia and Karelo-Finnish Republic.
Instead, history proves that Stalin was responsible for the murder and/or starvation of some 40 million Russians and Ukrainians during his reign of terror.
In light of the Red Army's 20th century rampage, with unprecedented carnage and devastation and arguably the darkest time in Western history, was Patton not the sober warrior speaking truth to a political expediency or human fatigue? Was he not correct about Russian post-war intentions? Would not his attempt to push back his future foes and prevent further genocide have been worth the risk of another battle to secure the eastern capitals? We know the answer now, but Patton knew the answer then.
By the end of the war Patton was defeated. As Eisenhower prepared for the political stage, every misspoken or emotionally charged word uttered by his greatest fighting general threatened to undermine Eisenhower's credibility and authority, as well as the progress of a post-war order. Patton's outspoken and unsolicited opinions, coupled with his unwillingness to punish all German citizens during the de-Nazification period, caused Eisenhower to sideline the general. Patton believed in the righteous cause of the military and revealed his plans to fight those who were destroying its morale and who endangered America's future by not opposing the growing Soviet threat. As a result, he was silenced. He would later say, "when I finish this job, which will be around the first of the year, I shall resign, not retire, because if I retire I will still have a gag in my mouth..."
Never short on words or the courage to deliver them, one wonders what secrets Patton might have revealed to the world had he not met a premature end. His diaries are littered with criticisms of Eisenhower and General Omar Bradley, and at times he found fault with how the war was executed at what he believed was at the expense of American GIs. Were these convictions enough of a threat to put his own life in danger with his peers? Is it plausible that the Russians, weary of his anti-Soviet rhetoric, might have employed the NKVD for the ultimate dirty job?
In light of those who opposed Patton -- enemies and allies alike -- is it any wonder why 70 years later many still would question his untimely death?
Even today, his silence can be heard.
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