Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

14 May 1917: Secretary of War Baker Announces General John J. Pershing Will Command the American Expeditionary Forces

On the Last Day of Marshal Joffre's visit to Washington, Secretary of War Baker introduced him to Major General John J. Pershing, the recent commander of the Punitive Expedition in Mexico. Baker and Wilson, having agreed to send a small force to France immediately, had selected Pershing to head it. As the Secretary sketched a rundown of Pershing's distinguished career, Joffre caught the names New Mexico, Dakota, Cuba, and the Mexican frontier.  Commenting that Pershing was a "fine-looking soldier," the elderly Frenchman predicted that Pershing would soon be commanding millions of men. ''Please tell him," Joffre said, "that he can always count on me for anything in my power." 

In making this introduction, Baker did not convey the amount of soul-searching that had gone into the selection. It was one of the most important decisions that Baker and President Wilson would ever make, as the officer selected would have to be capable of carrying tremendous responsibility on his own. Secretary Baker could not look over the shoulder of the man sent to command in Europe.

Pershing had not always been Baker's first choice. In early 1917 the most prestigious field officer in the United States Army was Major General Frederick Funston, commanding the Southern Department at San Antonio, Texas. A Medal of Honor recipient and seventeen years a general officer, Funston was expected to lead any force the United States would put into the field. 

It was not to be. The command picture changed drastically during the evening of February 19, 1917. Army duty officers Brigadier General Peyton March and Major Douglas MacArthur received a message disclosing that General Funston had died of a massive heart attack that evening while dining out at a local hotel in San Antonio. MacArthur, the junior of the pair, was detailed to deliver the message to Secretary of War Baker who was with the President at a dinner party.

Wilson and Baker, though somewhat shaken, took the news in stride. As MacArthur waited for instructions, they beckoned for him to follow as they went into an adjacent room. First the President dictated a message of sympathy to Mrs. Funston. Then turning to Baker, he asked, ''What now, Newton, who will take the Army over?'' Baker, perhaps stalling for time, turned to MacArthur, "Whom do you think the Army would choose, Major?" 

''I cannot, of course, speak for the Army, but for myself the choice would unquestionably be General Pershing."

From John Eisenhower's Yanks


  1. What caught my attention in the painting of General Pershing above is lack of decorations on his left chest. Compare the simplicity of the uniform with today's generals and admirals. Decorations and campaign ribbons on pasted their uniforms from the top of their jacket pockets to their shoulders. Certainly, some have been brave and deserve their medals, but most are for doing their duty. I wish we had leadership that was a little more humble and set the example--less is more.

  2. With each major war more decorations have been added. Pershing was coming out of the 19th century where the majority of the medals were for campaigns. The Medal of Honor was the only real medal for gallantry the US had- but in keeping with the military thinking and custom of the times they decided on more lower leveal medals. And then medals for combat and non combat situations and then awards for achievements and for good conduct. And it all grew as time went on until we are in the situation we are in today with a very full set of possible awards.

    As fotr finding General offucers or any number of leaders in the world who propose less is more as their personal leadership policy- that is unrealistic thinking- it will not happen. We live in too complex a world for simplicity. Frankly there was intense complexity in 1917. There just were not so many baubles to collect.

  3. A good officer doesn't need to show every ribbon; the officer corps likes to give them out to each other, especially the rear echelon types. Career enlisted men (lifers), have kind of a square head mentality, loving the fruit salad. I believe MacArthur wore only scant decorations...making up for it with his self designed ornate garrison cap and other uniform accoutrments.