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Image Regional Cultures in World War II

When the Second World War began, many Americans wished not to be involved in quarrels of the Old World. But as the fascist juggernaut crushed the infant democracies of Europe until only Britain stood alone, America slowly awakened to a mortal danger. All doubts were removed when Japan launched its surprise attack against Pearl Harbor, and Germany and Italy declared war against the United States. Americans forgot their differences, and rallied together as never before—or since—on any public question.

Each American culture had its own motives for supporting the war. Northeastern liberals joined it as a crusade against fascism and militarism—an idea that gained strength as the full horror of German and Japanese regimes was gradually revealed. Southern conservatives, always more internationalist than the nation as a whole, were drawn into the conflict by their kinship with Britain. The backcountry, bellicose as ever, fought for national honor—and also for the joy of fighting. Even Quakers and pacifists non-violently supported a war against the warrior spirit.

These various cultures also contributed in different ways to the conduct of the war. The behavior of the nation’s major military leaders reflected the regional origins. A case in point was George S. Patton, Jr., America’s most brilliant field commander. Patton was descended from North British immigrants who had settled in the backcountry during the eighteenth century, and whose progeny had found their way to southern California. They thought of themselves as a warrior race. George Patton as a little child was told the hero tales of the borders and the martial deeds of his forebears. Many Pattons had fought in the Revolution, and at least fourteen had served in the Civil War. “Men of my blood … have ever inspired me,” he once remarked. “Should I falter, I will have disgraced my blood.” Patton believed that his ancestors literally hovered over him on the battlefield. Of combat during World War I he wrote, “I was trembling with fear when suddenly I thought of my progenitors and seemed to see them in a cloud over the German lines looking at me. I became calm at once, and saying aloud, ‘It is time for another Patton to die,’ called for volunteers and went forward to what I honestly believed was certain death.”

Patton’s method of making war was also true to the customs of his ancestors. Even in an age of mechanized war he led from the front. American prisoners of war at Mooseberg, Germany, were astounded when an armored spearhead fought its way into their camp, and General Patton himself emerged from one of the lead tanks. The victories of his Third Army owed much to Patton’s aggressive spirit and brilliant battlefield improvisations. Behind the front, however, his volatile emotions and uncontrollable rages nearly led to his removal.1

Patton’s long-suffering superior was a soldier of another stripe. Dwight David Eisenhower, born in Abilene, Texas, was descended from Swiss Mennonites and German Pietists who had settled in Quaker Pennsylvania before 1733. His forebears had refused to bear arms in the Revolution and the Civil War, and his parents were of a pietist sect called River Brethren who raised their children to believe in hard work, simplicity, decency and strict self-discipline. Eisenhower remembered his mother quoting the Bible: “He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.”2 He went to West Point primarily for a free education, rose in the army as a staff officer and never served in combat during his entire military career. As Allied commander, Eisenhower rarely ventured even as far forward as army group headquarters, and preferred to toil at his desk far in the rear. He was a soldier who hated fighting and thought of war as a business in which the object was to succeed with all possible economy of human life.

Eisenhower’s boss, General George Catlett Marshall, came from yet another Anglo-American culture. Though Marshall had been born in Pennsylvania, he was by breeding a gentleman of Virginia. The first Catletts and Marshalls in America were Royalist officers who had settled in the Chesapeake about the year 1650. George Marshall graduated not from West Point but from the Virginia Military Institute; his first wife was a Virginian, Lily Carter. Those who knew him testified to “terrific influence and power” which flowed mainly from a force of character that reminded others of Washington and Lee. The same words were invariably used to describe him—honor, dignity, integrity, character. Even the intrepid George Patton once declared that he “would rather face a whole Nazi Panzer army single-handed than be called to an interview with General Marshall.”3

Marshall’s commander-in-chief was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had still a fourth style of leadership. Roosevelt was Dutch only in name. By birth and breeding he was a Yankee. More than three-quarters of his ancestors were New Englanders, and he had been educated in New England schools (Groton and Harvard). As President, Franklin Roosevelt contributed a special quality of leadership which combined high moral purpose, clarity of vision, toughness of mind, tenacity of purpose, flexibility of method and an implacable will to win. That pattern of leadership was not only a set of personal attributes. It was also a cultural artifact which owed much to the folkways of New England. So also were his statements of war aims and his vision of the future—which expressed an ideal of ordered liberty that owed much to the freedom ways of his ancestors. Even phrases such as “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” had appeared in the records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

America’s regional cultures made a difference not only in styles of leadership, but also in the substance of command decisions, sometimes in a way that caused trouble for the Allied war effort. In 1944, for example, while American soldiers and Marines were fighting the Japanese on the island of Saipan, Marine General Holland M. Smith relieved the army’s General Ralph C. Smith for

“lack of aggressiveness.” That decision caused a “war of the Smiths” which is remembered by military historians mainly as a clash of personalities and institutions, and also conflict between Marine doctrines of frontal assault, and army tactics of fire and envelopment. But it was also a collision of cultures. General Holland M. Smith was a product of the southern backcountry, born and raised in rural Alabama. In battle he was brave, aggressive, violent and profane. Fellow Marines called him “Howlin’ Mad” Smith.

The army’s Ralph Corbett Smith came from old New England stock. His ancestors had arrived in the Puritan great migration, and his grandparents had moved to the middle west where he became a national guard officer. After a distinguished record in World War I he made the army his career. Smith was quiet, calm, serious, soft-spoken and exceptionally self-possessed. An aide recalled, “I have never, never seen him angry. … I have never heard the level of his voice go up any more than in normal conversation. As a matter of fact, I don’t recall the old man ever saying even a ‘God Damn.’” General S.L.A. Marshall, who knew him well, wrote that “his extreme consideration for other mortals would keep him from being rated among the great captains; he is a somewhat rarer specimen, a generous Christian gentleman.”

This affair was more than merely a tactical dispute between soldiers and Marines. The “war between the Smiths” was also a clash of cultures. But strife of that sort was fortunately rare in the American war effort. The regional pluralism of the United States was on balance a source of strength rather than weakness.

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