According to Charles M. Province, founder of The George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society and author of several books about General Patton under whom he served with great pride, George Smith Patton, Jr. (1885-1945) was a man of many—even self-contradictory—ways: “He was a noted horseman and polo player, a well-known champion swordsman, and a competent sailor and sportsman . . . an amateur poet . . . a rough and tough soldier, . . . a thoughtful and sentimental man. Unpredictable in his actions, [yet] always dependable . . . outgoing, yet introverted.” Hailing from a military family that traced its lineage back well beyond the American Revolution, Patton was determined already during childhood to become a hero. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1909, he received a commission in the United States Army and never left it. He began as a cavalryman and swordsman, but soon became aide to General John J. Pershing, first in Mexico and then in World War I in Europe. There he became an early expert in a new form of battle machine—the tank—which he later used to full effectiveness as commander of the Third Army during World War II.
Though they often referred to him as “Old blood and guts” (a description he disliked), most of the men who served with Patton regarded him as a charismatic leader and, despite—or, according to some, because of—his copious use of profanity, an inspirational speaker. He commanded respect not only for his technical expertise, but also for his keen understanding of the human psyche (especially in wartime) and his prodigious knowledge of history and warfare. The much-celebrated movie Patton (made in 1970) makes evident his complex character, his competence, and his view of history as coherent and contiguous. It begins with the famous speech to the troops—in a much cleaned-up version.
Watch editors Amy A. Kass and Leon R. Kass converse with guest host Eliot A. Cohen (Johns Hopkins SAIS) about the story. For a discussion guide and more, visit whatsoproudlywehail.org/curriculum/the-meaning-of-america/courage-and-self-sacrifice-part-2