When I was in graduate school in 1984, I took a class that assigned Michael Walzer’s book, Just & Unjust Wars for class discussion. It was around the same time that I took note of an article in the American Legion magazine that General Albert C. Wedemeyer wrote discussing the ethics of warfare. Wedemeyer was one of the last surviving generals of World War II and a man who was regarded as one of the chief planners of the D-Day Invasion. Reading that article provided me with a great opportunity that I will never forget.
Wedemeyer graduated from West Point in 1919 and had been sent to Germany before World War II to study at the Kriegsademie in Berlin. He also observed the German military maneuvers in 1938 that gave him great insight into Hitler’s plans for the war in Europe. Wedemeyer was the U.S. Army’s most informed authority on German military tactics, an expertise that gained him the respect of General George C. Marshall.
Besides sharing his knowledge with General Marshall, Wedemeyer’s skill in military operations paid off in his development of the Victory Program – the strategic plan adopted in 1941 that made Europe the focus of American military involvement. In addition to his role in the D-Day planning, Wedemeyer also was one of the chief architects of the military operations in China, Burma and India.
In 1984 I wrote to General Wedemeyer about my interest in World War II and mentioned his article in American Legion. I also mentioned the Michael Walzer book and provided some thoughts about Walzer’s theory of just and unjust wars. My letter must have interested the General. About a week later, I received a phone call at home. The voice on the other end asked for my name and then said, “Please hold for General Wedemeyer.”
I was stunned, but within a few seconds a voice barked on the other end, “A.C. Wedemeyer here, Is this Bill?” I could have about fallen over, but after that hard charging introduction I stumbled through a brief conversation with the General and even offered to send him my copy of the Walzer book. He declined the offer and indicated that he would obtain a copy from the local bookstore so he could “mark it up”.
In retrospect, there are hundreds of questions I would have liked to have asked General Wedemeyer: What did he think of the men he worked so closely with, Eisenhower, Patton and Clark? What about George Marshall, the only non-West Pointer to have his portrait in the grand hall at the USMA? Can we discuss the tensions in China as the Nationalist Chinese forces were defeated by a rag-tag lot of Communists guerillas? So many questions; so many missed opportunities to confront history.
Still, thirty-one years later, I am fascinated to think that when I was 24 years old the phone rang, and a gruff voice that had briefed FDR, Marshall, and called Eisenhower “Ike,” had a conversation with me about war and peace and the ethics of pre-emptive strike. Who knows what he thought of a young grad student? That all matters nothing today. In 2015, as I wade through middle age, I recall how I shared a few minutes with a distinguished general from World War II who had been born at a time when Native Americans still battled cavalry on the western plains. The world that bracketed the life of A.C. Wedemeyer was a far different place and I am better for having been privileged to share a few minutes in his shadow.