John Joseph Pershing

John Joseph Pershing (1860-1948) was commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force in Europe during World War I.

John J. Pershing was born at Laclede, Mo., on Dec. 13, 1860. He graduated from West Point in 1886 with an outstanding record. Assigned to the cavalry, he campaigned against the Apache Indians in the Southwest. From 1891 to 1895 he was a military instructor at the University of Nebraska, where he earned a law degree in 1893. During the Spanish-American War he served with great distinction in the campaign around Santiago, Cuba. In 1899 Pershing went to the Philippines. He served in Mindanao for 4 years during the Philippine insurrection, and his help in suppressing the Moro revolt earned the praise of President Theodore Roosevelt. The President then recommended his promotion to brigadier general despite his low seniority; the appointment, delayed for 3 years, was finally confirmed in 1906.

Meanwhile, Pershing gained valuable experience as military attaché in Tokyo and as an observer of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). In 1906 he returned to the Philippines, holding important commands there until 1914, when he assumed command at the Presidio in California. In 1915, while he was away on special assignment, his wife and three daughters perished in a tragic fire; only his son survived.

Pershing's next assignment, intensely difficult and frustrating, made the general an important public figure: he commanded the "punitive expedition" sent into Mexico during 1916 to chastise the Mexican bandit Pancho Villa. Despite his failure to capture Villa, Pershing gained considerable public commendation for his careful adherence to instructions and his dedication to duty. The expedition was withdrawn early in 1917, just prior to the American entry into World War I. Pershing was now a thoroughly experienced troop commander, although he had never held an important staff position in the War Department. A reserved and hard-bitten soldier, known as "Black Jack" to his troops, he gained their respect if not their affection.


Service during World War I

In May 1917 President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker chose Pershing to command the American Expeditionary Force going to Europe in support of the Allies. Arriving in France during June, Pershing immediately began planning the organization and employment of a large American army. Pershing decided to create an independent American force commanded by its own officers with its own support echelons in a distinct sector in France. In choosing this course, he challenged various European leaders who favored "amalgamating" American troops by small units into European armies as replacements.

For over a year, despite ever-growing military crises in France, Pershing single-mindedly pursued his idea of an independent American army and in this process gained the support of the War Department and President Wilson, overcoming efforts by Allied leaders to force various forms of amalgamation. Pershing argued that national pride dictated the formation of an independent force. He also claimed that the United States could make its most effective contribution to victory by following his course.


Western Strategy

Pershing also committed himself to the "Western strategy"—the view that the Western coalition should concentrate most of its military power in France against the principal enemy, Germany, rather than expend energy in secondary theaters such as Mesopotamia or Macedonia against lesser foes such as Turkey or Bulgaria. Pershing looked with jaundiced eye upon diversionary projects in Russia and elsewhere because such endeavors seemed certain to vitiate the effort in France, where he believed the war would be won or lost.

Pershing's plan required a huge program of mobilization and training for American troops in the United States. Several million men would have to be transported to France where, after additional training, they would be maneuvered as a separate force under his command. One drawback was the limited supply of shipping, a consequence of the need to supply the Allies in the face of Germany's great undersea campaign against noncombatant vessels. In late 1917 the British and French sought to trade shipping for amalgamation, but Pershing successfully resisted, even after Germany's great "end-the-war" offensive in March 1918. The Allies helped provide shipping sufficient to transport over 2, 500, 000 American troops to France. Still, Pershing's force had to depend heavily on European arms and equipment.

Although some American units participated in battles under French or British command during the summer of 1918, it proved impossible to employ the American army as an independent unit until September, when it attacked and reduced the great German salient at Saint-Mihiel. Pershing wished to attack ahead from that position, but French marshal Ferdinand Foch, who had become generalissimo, persuaded him to shift his forces northward into the Meuse-Argonne sector in order to participate in the final assault against the crumbling German army.

For some 47 days, beginning on Sept. 26, 1918, Pershing sustained the offensive in exceedingly difficult terrain. Eventually the battle was won, but heavy casualties, problems of command, and logistical difficulties lent some substance to earlier European doubts about the Americans' ability to develop optimal combat efficiency in a relatively short time. The bravery and determination of the American "doughboys" ultimately compensated for lack of experience and proper organization. When Germany sought peace in October, Pershing advocated unconditional surrender, but President Wilson overruled him and supported an early armistice. The sudden end of hostilities on November 11 deprived Pershing of the opportunity to prove the full mettle of the American army and to vindicate his policies in battle.


Last Years

In 1919 Pershing returned to a hero's welcome and to the rank of general of the armies, the highest title ever accorded except to George Washington. In 1921 he became chief of staff and presided over important reforms in the War Department. He left active service in 1924 but continued to perform important duties, first as chairman of the commission to South America to administer the Tacna-Arica plebiscite (1925) and then as chairman of the American Battle Monuments Commission that cared for military cemeteries in France. In 1931 he published a two-volume work entitled My Experiences in the World War, which earned a Pulitzer Prize (1932). He died in Washington, D.C., on July 15, 1948, one of the most honored soldiers in American history.


Further Reading on John Joseph Pershing

Biographies of Pershing include Richard O'Connor, Black Jack Pershing (1961), Harold McCracken, Pershing (1931), and Frederick Palmer, John J. Pershing (1948). See also Army Times, ed., The Yanks Are Coming (1960).