John J. Pershing

U.S. Army general John J. Pershing (1860-1948) commanded the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in Europe during World War I. The president and first captain of the West Point class of 1886, he served in the Spanish- and Philippine-American Wars and was tasked to lead a punitive raid against the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. In 1917, President Woodrow Wilson selected Pershing to command the American troops being sent to Europe. Although Pershing aimed to maintain the independence of the AEF, his willingness to integrate into Allied operations helped bring about the armistice with Germany. After the war, Pershing served as army chief of staff from 1921 to 1924.

A mediocre student but a natural leader, John Joseph Pershing was president and first captain of the West Point class of 1886. Returning to the military academy as a tactical officer in 1897, he was nicknamed “Black Jack” by cadets who resented his iron discipline. The second of these nicknames, derived from his frontier service with the African-American Tenth Cavalry, stuck. In 1898, he went up San Juan Hill with his Black troopers, proving himself “as cool as a bowl of cracked ice” under fire from Spanish sharpshooters who killed or wounded 50 percent of the regiment’s officers. Next came three tours in the Philippines, mostly in Mindanao, where Pershing displayed an ability to combine force and diplomacy to disarm the island’s fierce Moro warriors.

In 1905 Pershing married Helen Frances Warren, daughter of the chairman of the Senate Military Affairs Committee. Pershing’s friendship with President Theodore Roosevelt combined with this marital connection to vault him from captain to brigadier general in 1905, over the heads of 862 more senior officers. Eleven years later, his Philippines experience made him a natural choice to command the Punitive Expedition that President Woodrow Wilson dispatched to Mexico in 1916 to pursue Pancho Villa and his marauding army after they attacked American border towns along the Rio Grande. Although Pershing never caught Villa, he thoroughly disrupted his operations. Thus he became the president’s choice to command the American Expeditionary Force when Wilson’s neutrality policy collapsed in the face of German intransigence and America entered World War I in April 1917.

In France, Pershing rejected French and British demands to amalgamate his troops into their depleted armies. He insisted on forming an independent American army before committing any U.S. troops to battle and stuck to this position in spite of enormous diplomatic pressure from Allied politicians and generals–and awesome gains made by the German army in the spring of 1918. In June and July, however, he permitted his divisions to fight under French generals to stop the Germans on the Marne. But on August 10, Pershing opened First Army headquarters, and on September 12, 500,000 Americans attacked the St.-Mihiel salient and quickly erased this bulge in the French lines, which the Germans had already planned to abandon.

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The Meuse-Argonne offensive of September 26 was a very different battle. There, Pershing’s doctrine of “open warfare,” which was supposed to break the Western Front’s stalemate with the American rifleman’s superior marksmanship and rapid movements, collided with the machine gun, a weapon Pershing badly underestimated. The battle became a bloody stalemate, compounded by massive traffic jams in the rear areas as green American staffs floundered. On October 16, Pershing tacitly admitted failure and handed over the First Army to Hunter Liggett, who revamped its tactics and organization. Renewing the offensive on November 1, the Americans joined the advancing British and French armies in forcing the Germans to accept an armistice on November 11. Pershing was the only Allied commander who opposed the armistice, urging continued pressure until the Germans surrendered unconditionally.

In France, Pershing remained a disciple of iron discipline and constantly tried to shape the American Expeditionary Force to West Point standards. He ruthlessly relieved division officers who faltered under pressure. In a toast on armistice night, he paid honest tribute to how he had emerged from the cauldron of the Argonne a victorious general. “To the men,” he said. “They were willing to pay the price.”

Pershing served as army chief of staff from 1921 to 1924. He assisted in making his prot[eacute]g[eacute], George C. Marshall, chief of staff in 1940. “If he was not a great man,” wrote one journalist who knew Pershing well, “there were few stronger.”

The Reader’s Companion to Military History. Edited by Robert Cowley and Geoffrey Parker. Copyright © 1996 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

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