The Herculean Effort to Build an American Army


THE RISE OF THE G.I. ARMY, 1940-1941
The Forgotten Story of How America Forged a Powerful Army Before Pearl Harbor
By Paul Dickson

Paul Dickson’s “The Rise of the G.I. Army, 1940-1941” recounts the remarkable story of how the United States built its Army from scratch before World War II. In 1939 the Army comprised fewer than 200,000 poorly trained and equipped troops and officers. By October 1941, the country’s newly refurbished Army had over a million and a half soldiers in uniform and was led by a revitalized officer corps. Dickson’s goal is to explain how this feat was accomplished — before Americans knew they were going to war.

Dickson’s book reveals some little-known history about the Army and American society in the 1930s and early 1940s. Some readers may be surprised to learn that a New Deal program, the Civilian Conservation Corps, known as the Tree Army, was run by the Department of War. The men recruited for the C.C.C. never received military training, but Army officers supervised their camps, which they ran with military efficiency. The Army learned valuable lessons from the experience, including how to manage a large influx of recruits. Many of the Tree Army’s leaders later became noncommissioned officers in the service. The experience also demonstrated to the Army chief of staff, Gen. George C. Marshall, the virtues and potential of a citizen force.

Also pivotal in the making of the new Army was the establishment of a peacetime draft in September 1940. The legislation was fiercely opposed by many isolationist groups wary of being pulled into a European war, and its passage was a hard-fought victory for the draft’s advocates. That political fight was then revisited a year later when it was time to extend the draft’s initial 12-month term of service. In Dickson’s telling, the peacetime draft was essential to readying the Army for war. Without it, the United States and its allies’ experience in World War II would have been dramatically different, with many more lives lost.

Major sections of the book discuss a series of “maneuvers” in the American South in 1940 and 1941, including the important Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941. Involving hundreds of thousands of men, the exercises allowed the growing Army to test new formations and equipment and to expose its soldiers to the drudgery and physical challenges of deployments under difficult conditions. Among the most important lessons learned by the military leadership was how to move and supply a large number of soldiers. After observing one of the maneuvers in late 1941, the famed columnist Walter Lippmann quipped that the previous year the Army “reminded him of garage attendants out of a job,” but now it had the character of a serious fighting force.

Marshall plays an especially important role in Dickson’s story as someone who both understood and embraced the effort to expand the Army through draftees. Under his leadership, the Army established basic training for all new soldiers. Marshall also pushed for the creation of officer candidate schools, which enabled the best of the Army’s enlisted personnel to become officers. During the war, the schools generated more than 150,000 officers a year. Marshall’s keen appreciation for his soldiers’ well-being also inspired the creation of the Morale Division to provide the men entertainment and spiritual sustenance. Under Marshall’s watch, the U.S.O. was established in February 1941, bringing movie stars like Bob Hope to military audiences around the country.

This is an American story in several respects. Dickson, the author of more than 50 nonfiction books, recounts how the impetus for the peacetime draft came not from the military, but from a private citizen named Grenville Clark, a wealthy New York attorney who agitated for the draft with his many contacts in the business world and Congress. President Franklin Roosevelt and Marshall joined the effort only after it was well underway. Various pro- and anti-isolationist groups maneuvered to influence the legislation, in dynamics evocative of American politics at its best and worst.

Meritocracy is also a persistent theme, especially in the tactics Marshall employed to ensure that only worthy officers would lead the troops. In the course of the maneuvers, over 1,000 officers were fired or reassigned. The first significant officer to go was a major general who was the Army’s senior division commander. Of the 42 corps and division commanders participating in the Louisiana Maneuvers, 31 were removed.

The press also contributed to building the new Army — and not by accident. Journalists were prized guests at the maneuvers. At one, the military provided a space with tables and typewriters that spanned three-quarters of a city block. Marshall and others hoped they would write stories that would both generate pride in the new Army and encourage Americans to spend more to support it. Many of the journalists did just that.

Marshall also relied on popular culture to seduce the public, as well as to encourage camaraderie in the ranks. He solicited help from Hollywood to make films about the Army’s needs to be shown in theaters around the country. In early 1941, the service disseminated a new field manual that included a glossary of military slang, including an entry for G.I., or government issue. The narrative even includes a bit of celebrity. In July 1941, Gen. George S. Patton appeared on the cover of Life magazine, providing, as Dickson puts it, a face for the new Army.

Also deeply American is the story of the discrimination African-Americans suffered. In segments scattered throughout the book that mirror the segregated units in which Black Americans then served, Dickson tells of efforts by civil rights leaders, members of the African-American press and the soldiers themselves to ensure equal treatment. Dickson has a long history of Jim Crow to draw upon in these passages.

In one particularly poignant vignette, he relates the experience of Charles Young, who in June 1917 was so talented an officer that he was forced to resign as a colonel, so as to avoid threatening the hierarchy of white officers should he be promoted. Dickson also writes about an incident in 1941 in which a division of African-American soldiers led by a Black officer, rather than the customary white officer, was disinvited to participate in a maneuver. Army leaders apparently were uncomfortable with junior white officers and enlisted personnel having to salute a Black superior. All of the progress made in building up the Army did not include addressing the endemic racism within it.

Throughout, the book evokes the ethos of the World War II era, with subtle notes of can-do attitude and pugnacious spirit. It also in some measure reinforces the mythology surrounding World War II’s “greatest generation.” Many Americans have come to believe that there was something intrinsically valorous about the generation that fought the Germans and Japanese. Dickson’s narrative does little to disabuse us that these men indeed were better Americans.

Dickson also approaches the story with perhaps an overabundance of faith that it will end well. He details numerous obstacles in building the Army, but at no point does the narrative veer too far from what the reader knows will be a happy ending. The book might have grappled a bit more with the unsolved problems and failures of character that plagued the effort along the way.

Still, reading about the birth of the country’s citizen Army before World War II is a profoundly heartening experience. With all they are facing today, Americans need Dickson’s reminder of this momentous accomplishment.

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