Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith – Book Review
Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith (University Press of Kentucky, 2010). 1088 pages, 25 illustrations, 11 maps. $39.95
“They say there’s no such thing as an indispensable man, but Beetle Smith comes very close to being one.” That was how General Dwight D. Eisenhower summed up the value of Walter Bedell Smith to the Allied cause.
It is remarkable that the man who coordinated planning for Operations Torch, Husky, Avalanche and Overlord; who negotiated the end of hostilities with Italy and Germany; and whom Eisenhower, Marshall and Churchill fought to keep for themselves, is so often overlooked among the pantheon of war heroes. Just as remarkable, however, is D.K.R. Crosswell’s long-awaited work on the life of General Smith, entitled Beetle: The Life of General Walter Bedell Smith.
Beetle, as Smith was invariably known, is brought to life by Crosswell with the eye of a man who has spent many years mining archival records, private papers, old newspapers, memoirs, diaries, letters, and telephone transcripts to flesh out a portrait barely known even to most World War II buffs. Crosswell begins his story with Beetle’s postwar career as U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Director of Central Intelligence, and Undersecretary of State. He then traces the beginnings of Beetle’s career, from his modest Hoosier roots in Indianapolis and service as a private in the Indiana National Guard, to his rise to become General George C. Marshall’s right-hand man in Washington. Beetle’s tenure with Marshall’s staff, and his services to the Combined Chiefs of Staff, are precisely yet accessibly chronicled by Crosswell before the crowning era of Beetle’s life – his collaboration with Eisenhower through campaign against Hitler’s Germany – take center stage.
The war years, dominated by Beetle’s time as Eisenhower’s chief of staff at Allied Forces Headquarters (AFHQ) and Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF), placed Beetle at some of the most pivotal moments of the war. He brought order to a frazzled AFHQ during the chaotic North Africa invasion planning. General Bernard Law Montgomery wooed Beetle’s support for his vision of the Sicily landings, which would affect not only the course of the campaign for Sicily, but also the future relationships between Montgomery and General George S. Patton, Jr. Beetle infuriated General Omar Bradley by convincing Eisenhower to take two American armies from Bradley and hand them to Montgomery at the height of the Ardennes crisis, and he infuriated Montgomery by insisting on the American-backed “broad front” approach to Germany. He strong-armed the Italian government into declaring an armistice with the Allies, and he strong-armed Germany’s emissaries into laying down their arms to the Red Army to the east as well as the Allies in the west. Through it all, Beetle left a pronounced imprint on Allied strategy. He shaped and executed the wishes of his commander-in-chief, and his role as a “stabilizer” for the sometimes-inconsistent Eisenhower comes through clearly in Crosswell’s book.
In Beetle, Crosswell has built a monument to the architect of Allied operations in Western Europe. Yet he does so without succumbing to hero worship. Crosswell reaches beyond stereotypes and postwar caricatures to breathe life into a general little known beyond a small cadre of hard-core historians. Oft portrayed as a snarling, cursing, Machiavellian hatchet man, Crosswell shows “Ike’s son-of-a-bitch” to be a thoughtful, insecure, sometimes charming, sometimes vulnerable man whose struggles with poor health were nearly matched by his postwar disappointment over Eisenhower’s indifference as Eisenhower left the Army for the long road to the presidency.
Beetle was, and remains, an intimidating figure, and at 1,088 pages and 3.6 pounds of heft, Beetle appears to match its subject. But Crosswell’s prose, honed by an intimate knowledge of his subject and tempered by an objective yet sympathetic filter, reads beautifully. From Beetle’s childhood ambitions to be a soldier, to his bourbon-laced lament to Vice President Richard Nixon about how he had been badly used by Eisenhower, Crosswell brings this unheralded titan to life like a giant mural rather than a portrait – something to be enjoyed for its movement, its detail, and its intricacy. For the historian, Crosswell’s wealth of accessible information makes Beetle an indispensable work on Eisenhower’s indispensable general.
Jonathan W. Jordan is a contributor to Armchair General and the author of the upcoming book Brothers Rivals Victors: Eisenhower, Patton, Bradley, and the Partnership that Drove the Allied Conquest in Europe, the story of the personal relationship behind three of the war’s greatest American generals. Brothers Rivals Victors, published by Penguin Books’ NAL Caliber, will be released in April 2011.