His success in wartime has, over the years, whitewashed the rest of his character. His views on race and America’s role in the world were retrograde even in the 1940s — and so forcefully articulated that it’s hard to understand why contemporary Americans have such an easy time admiring him. His life isn’t just an example of winning — it’s an object lesson in how hard it is to transfer skills from a ruthless campaign to the complex tasks of real governance.
Patton came from a long line of soldiers. He was home-schooled on the classics until age 12. Like Trump, Patton came from money; he lived well off the battlefield, with a string of polo ponies accompanying him on stateside postings. He fought in Mexico, was gravely wounded in WWI, gained fame leading the Allied invasion of Casablanca in 1942, successfully led the Seventh Army invasion of Sicily and swept into Germany as a conqueror at the helm of the Third Army.
Patton, whom reporters dubbed “Old Blood and Guts,” was a happy warrior. At a somber December 19, 1944, command meeting following the massive German attack that began what would be known as the Battle of the Bulge, Patton saw a tactical opportunity. “This bastard has put his cock in a meat grinder and I’ve got the handle!” he said.
Patton’s rescue of cornered GIs at Bastogne erased his most famous blunder of the war, which occurred in two hospital tents in Sicily in 1943 when he infamously confronted two traumatized soldiers and slapped them. Patton had no concept of the disease that was then called shell shock, and we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Wars were about winning and glory, and his subsequent apologies, ordered by his friend and superior, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, were entirely pro forma. He told colleagues that the soldiers were cowards and that the slapping — he also brandished a pistol at one of the soldiers — had saved their souls. “It is rather a commentary on justice when an Army commander has to soft-soap a skulker to placate the timidity of those above,” Patton wrote in his diary.
Eisenhower resisted calls to fire Patton, whom he viewed as a “problem child” who was “indispensable to the war effort and one of the guarantors of our victory.” To Patton’s disappointment, Ike refrained from giving him the highest commands he craved. Still, he had a huge following in the military and among the public, which he stoked with frequent appearances in the press.
The U.S. Army’s mission in Germany was to govern and start rebuilding a former enemy nation, a country gutted by its war machine and deflated by its surrender. Part of the task, President Harry Truman and Eisenhower agreed, was to “denazify” the country, which meant re-education, the fostering of democratic institutions and the punishment of Nazi war criminals to set an example for the would-be Hitlers of the future. Patton was astonishingly indifferent to this mission. He spent much of his time writing his wartime memoirs, hunting and fishing with subordinates, and riding in the countryside with his groom, Baron von Wangenheim, an Olympian equestrian and die-hard Nazi whom remnants of the SS had implanted in Patton’s staff to keep an eye on him and feed his lust for a war against the Soviet Union.
It was hard enough to get the streets cleared and keep Germans from starving to death; Patton wasn’t interested in denazification or creating a lesson for future tyrants. He thought it was “madness” to imprison Nazis, good soldiers who were much more valuable as future allies against the Soviets than the Jewish survivors he was charged with protecting and feeding.
Disturbingly, Patton had zero sympathy for the Holocaust victims living in wretched, overcrowded collection camps under his command. He was unable to imagine that people living in such misery were not there because of their own flaws. The displaced Jews were “locusts,” “lower than animals,” “lost to all decency.” They were “a subhuman species without any of the cultural or social refinements of our times,” Patton wrote in his diary. A United Nations aid worker tried to explain that they were traumatized, but “personally I doubt it. I have never looked at a group of people who seem to be more lacking in intelligence and spirit.” (Patton was no friend to Arabs, either; in a 1943 letter, he called them “the mixture of all the bad races on earth.”)
The orders from above — Eisenhower wanted him to confiscate the houses of wealthy Germans so Jewish survivors could live in them — embittered Patton. His beloved Third Army was decaying as troops decamped for home, discipline vanished, and meanwhile, “the displaced sons-of-bitches in the various camps are blooming like green trees,” he wrote a friend.
He saw journalists’ criticism of his handling of the Jews and the return of Nazis to high official positions as a result of Jewish and Communist plots. The New York Times and other publications were “trying to do two things,” he wrote, “First, implement Communism, and second, see that all business men of German ancestry and non-Jewish antecedents are thrown out of their jobs.”
As reports on the conditions in Bavaria began to alarm Truman, Eisenhower came down from Frankfurt on September 17 to join Patton on a tour of the camps where Jewish refugees were housed. He was horrified to find that some of the guards were former SS men. During the tour, Patton remarked that the camps had been clean and decent before the arrival of the Jewish “DPs” (displaced persons), who were “pissing and crapping all over the place.” Eisenhower told Patton to shut up, but he continued his diatribe, telling Eisenhower he planned to make a nearby German village “a concentration camp for some of these goddam Jews.”
While Eisenhower ordered him to stop “mollycoddling Nazis,” Patton lashed out at journalists and others he viewed as enemies. “The noise against me is only the means by which the Jews and Communist are attempting and with good success to implement a further dismemberment of Germany,” he said.
Patton’s callousness, anti-Semitism and indifference to the job of re-education were bad enough, but what really worried Eisenhower and Truman was Patton’s desire to start another war. The Soviet Union had been a close U.S. ally against the Nazis, but Patton was an early, fervent anti-Communist who loathed “Genghis Khan’s degenerate descendants” and felt Roosevelt had surrendered too much European turf to the Russians. He was obsessed with pushing them back out of Germany.