Biography of World War II's modest, unsung hero: Admiral Leahy

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Witness to Power: The Life of Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, by Henry H. Adams. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press. 391 pp. $22.95. To most Americans during World War II, the top war heroes were George Patton and ``Bull'' Halsey. ``Ike'' came in for a large share of glory before it was all over. Douglas MacArthur had a coterie of worshipers, balanced off by an equal number, mostly from the Navy, who were vehemently ``anti.'' And in the upper echelons of command and government there was deep respect for George Marshall, who, as Army chief of staff, planned the great invasion of Europe.

But who ever heard of William D. Leahy, then or later? In late 1944, with Allied armies driving deep into Germany and Japan reeling toward inevitable surrender, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was authorized by Congress to grant five-star rank to his top eight military leaders. The first name on his list, hence senior in rank to all the others, was William D. Leahy.

Marshall was second on the list. MacArthur was No. 4. Ike was No. 6, and Halsey brought up the rear at No. 8. Halsey's commission was dated nearly a year after the others. Omar Bradley was added to the list in late 1950.

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Victory was in clear sight at the time of this appraisal of contributions to the war cause. It is time that a full biography be offered to the public of the man who, in the opinion of his peers, deserved to rank at the top of the list of America's military leaders in World War II.

The reason he was so honored is clear from this handsomely printed and scholarly work by Prof. Henry H. Adams. It lies in the remarkable impersonality of this naval officer. He was trusted by two presidents in turn, because they learned that they could count on him always to give an objective and impersonal opinion on any matter in his competence.

Most of the top contemporaries were flawed characters. Halsey was rightly known as ``Bull.'' He charged off like a bull after a nonexistent Japanese fleet, and nearly lost the battle of Leyte Gulf for doing so. Patton with his pearl-handled revolvers and MacArthur with his corncob pipe -- displayed in public, never in private -- were self-conscious actors as much as they were soldiers.

Eisenhower had sycophants and political ambitions. Marshall and Nimitz were freer of personality, but sometimes showed touches of pride. Leahy was respected by all for his unique freedom from personal ambition, service jealousy, and emotionalism. Of course, as a young naval officer, he was ambitious to get to the top of his career. He did. He became chief of naval operations, the highest a man can go in the United States Navy.

From the time he reached that pinnacle he sought nothing other than to do the job assigned to him to the utmost of his ability. His mature career after that began with assignment to Puerto Rico as governor, then to France as United States ambassador at the most difficult possible time, after the French surrender in 1940.

France had been defeated. The northern part was occupied by German troops. A makeshift government was set up by Marshal P'etain at Vichy. Admiral Leahy was sent there to keep what was left of France as neutral as possible. His efforts to this end make one of the more important chapters on the diplomatic sidelines of World War II. He was remarkably successful, considering the fact that at that phase of the war Hitler's armies were winning all the battles.

Having proved his wisdom, judgment, and persuasiveness in Puerto Rico and Vichy, besides his professional competence as chief of naval operations, Leahy was called back to Washington by Roosevelt, who made him his own principal military expert and adviser. This included the job of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Roosevelt ran the war through Admiral Leahy. It was a unique position, unique to those times. One of the measures of his success is that he did it so quietly that few outside the higher r anks of command in Washington were aware either of the man or his vital role in the war.

That role during the war and the opinions he expressed at various times about projects and policies have largely been set forth in Leahy's own memoirs, published by McGraw-Hill in 1950 under the title ``I Was There.'' But today, as the decision to drop nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki is still being debated, it is particularly interesting to note that this key military figure believed consistently that Japan was on the verge of defeat and would soon have surrendered regardless of the bombs. He wr ote in his memoirs:

``A large part of the Japanese Navy was already on the bottom of the sea. The same was true of Japanese merchant shipping. There was every indication that our Navy would soon have the rest of Tokyo's warships sunk or out of action. The combined Navy surface and Air Force action even by this time had forced Japan into a position that made her early surrender inevitable.'' (``I Was There,'' p. 245.)

Admiral Leahy never changed his opinion. He deplored the use of the nuclear bomb.

Joseph C. Harsch is a senior columnist who writes on diplomatic relations for the Monitor.

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