William Leahy

William Leahy

William Leahy was born in Hampshire, Iowa, on 6th May, 1875. Educated at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis he graduated in 1897.

As a member of the United States Navy Leahy saw service in the Spanish-American War (1898), the Philippines (1899-91), China (1900), Nicaragua (1912), Haiti (1916) and Mexico (1916).

During the First World War Leahy was captain of the dispatch boat used by Franklin D. Roosevelt, the assistant secretary of the navy. The two men became close friends for the rest of their lives.

By 1936 Leahy had reached the rank of admiral and the following year he was became chief of naval operations and held the post until he retired from the United States Navy in August 1939.

Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was now president, highly valued Leahy's diplomatic skills and he now appointed him governor of Puerto Rico. Leahy did well in this post and in January 1941, Roosevelt decided to give him the much more difficult task of making him ambassador to the recently formed Vichy government in France.

Leahy's first task was to try to save the French Navy based in Toulon for the Allies. This proved impossible and although he developed good relationships with Henri-Philippe Petain, Pierre Laval and Jean-Francois Darlan he was unable to to reduce the influence that Nazi Germany was having on the Vichy government.

After the United States entered the war Franklin D. Roosevelt decided he needed a senior military officer as personal adviser and point of contact with his three service chiefs, Ernest King, George Marshall and Henry Arnold. The service chiefs resisted this move until Marshall suggested that only Leahy would be accepted in this post.

On 6th July, 1942, Leahy was appointed chief of staff to the commander in chief of the United States. He was a great success in this post and using his considerable diplomatic skills he was able to work effectively with the three service chiefs. Leahy and Harry Hopkins were the only advisers authorized to originate messages from the White House to Winston Churchill.

In December 1944 Leahy was promoted to the five star rank of fleet admiral. After the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt Leahy continued as chief of staff under Harry S. Truman. Leahy, like Dwight D. Eisenhower, was unable to persuade Truman against dropping the atom bomb on Hiroshima (6th August) and Nagasaki (9th August).

Leahy resigned in March 1949 and the following year published his war memoirs, I Was There. William Leahy died at Bethesda Naval Hospital on 20th July 1959.

Primary Sources

(1) William Leahy had great faith in General Maxime Weygand and feared that he would eventually be sacked by President Henri-Philippe Petain. Leahy wrote about this in his autobiography, I Was There (1950)

General Weygand was vigorous, energetic and determined. I felt he was really on our side, although he insisted he would resist to the end any attempt to invade his territory. I was not surprised to be told later that Weygand had said that "if the British come with four divisions, I will fire on them. If they come with twenty, I will welcome them.

General Weygand, now in his seventies, probably was the best soldier in France. He was almost a religious fanatic. He went to church twice every day. He was devoted to his country and had no confidence whatever in either the promises or purposes of Nazi Germany - which was more than could be said for many of the men of Vichy. The British even hoped that Weygand might eventually come to a sufficient disagreement with the collaborationists to hold the African empire by force if necessary. He appeared to have the confidence of the native population there and had maintained friendly relations with the American officials in his area. His growing power had attracted the unfavourable attention of the Axis powers.

The removal of Weygand, when and if it should be accomplished, would force on our Government a decision as to whether or not to continue economic assistance to the North African colonies. If we stopped this assistance, there was no other power except Germany to which the French could turn for supplies. My advice to Washington was that until England and America were prepared to occupy this area with sufficient military force to enable the natives to resist successfully an Axis invasion, it was the better part of wisdom not to interrupt the delaying tactics. It was certain that the departure of Weygand would mean more rapid Axis penetration and that in the absence of a military effort by the Allies, the colonies eventually would come completely under the control of Germany.

(2) William Leahy, letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt on Henri-Philippe Petain and the Vichy government (28th July, 1941)

It seems to me that he is surely, if slowly, being manoeuvred into a position where his only purpose will be to hold the loyalty of the French people and to make speeches to schoolchildren and veterans. It is certain that his popularity is decreasing because of recent approaches to full collaboration, the Syrian fiasco, the failure of Germany to repeat in Russia its performance of last year in France, and the turning over of Indo-China to Japan.

The French people are still friendly with America and practically all of them look to you as their one and only hope for release from Nazi rule. However it is impossible to guess what will happen in France tomorrow or the next day, and almost as difficult for me to point to any useful accomplishment that we have made here since my arrival six months ago. From this point of view to-day, it appears that only a very apparent Axis setback somewhere will sufficiently discredit the collaborationists to hold France even to its present neutral position.

(3) William Leahy, letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt on the removal of General Maxime Weygand (22nd November, 1941)

With the removal of General Weygand from Africa in obedience to a German dictat, and the beginning of a British offensive in Cyrenaica, which two occurrences presumably are closely related. I pointed out to him [Petain] very clearly that the heretofore friendly and sympathetic attitude of the American Government was based on an assumption that he would not, in his relations with the Axis powers, go beyond the requirements of the Armistice Agreement, and that a removal of General Weygand under German pressure cannot be considered by anybody to be necessitated by the Armistice Agreement.

I told him that in my opinion such an unnecessary surrender to Axis demands would have a definitely adverse effect on the traditional amity between our two peoples that it would probably bring about immediate suspension of the economic assistance that is being given to the French colonies, and that it might very possibly cause America to make a complete readjustment of its attitude toward his government of France.

I requested that his decision be reconsidered. He replied that since last December (1940) Germany had constantly exerted increasing pressure to remove Weygand. That their demands included everything - among other things the bases and the fleet to which he refused to accede. Yesterday, however, the Germans sent him a 'brutal dictate" threatening in event of refusal to occupy all France, to feed the army

of occupation with French foodstuffs, and to permit the native population to die of hunger.

While the great inarticulate and leaderless mass of the French people remain hopeful of a British victory and continue to hope that America will rescue them from their present predicament without their doing anything for themselves, the Government of France today, headed by a feeble, frightened old man surrounded by a group which probably for its own safety, is devoted to the Axis philosophy.

(4) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

At 6.30 p.m. (Vichy time) of December 8, the National Broadcasting Company short-wave station reported President Roosevelt's request that the Congress declare war on Japan. The voice and words of the President formed a dramatic picture of the most powerful nation of the world embarking on an all-out war to destroy the bandit nation of the Orient.

The war formally declared that day would in my certain opinion result in the destruction of Japan as a first-class sea power, regardless of how much time and treasure might be required to accomplish that end. I knew that the President was thoroughly familiar with the Navy's plans to defeat Japan.

Later in the evening of December 8, the radio reported that casualties at Pearl Harbor probably numbered 3,000. This created anxiety for our relatives and friends stationed there, but we later learned that most of them came out of it all right. Later, when the details were available, I found that there were four ships seriously damaged upon which I had served. They were the Nevada (executive officer, 1917), the ancient Oglala (flagship when I commanded Mine Squadron One, 1921), the cruiser Raleigh (flagship when I was Commander of Destroyers, U.S. Fleet, 1931), and the battleship California.

I think now, in retrospect, that we overestimated the power of the Japanese Navy and Air forces. We had pretty good information while I was Chief of Naval Operations (1937-39) that the Japanese were comparatively inefficient in gunnery However they had good ships, good guns and a lot of air. The whole world in those days was afraid of the air. There was a fear that if we sent our ships near enough to Japan to be attacked by land-based air, it would be very bad for us. It turned out that when we did go there, we took our excellent Naval Air Force with us, and that was bad for the Japs.

The wrecking of our fleet in this unanticipated attack gave the Japanese a terrific advantage they did not have before, but their campaign developed pretty much along expected lines. We thought they would strike down the coast of China and the Dutch East Indies to get oil and rubber, which they had to have to win the war. When we were able to stop that, Japan started to lose the war.

(5) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

The figure of Pierre Laval hung like an evil shadow over Vichy as the year opened. The former Prime Minister was a shrewd and able politician who staked his own future and that of France on an Axis victory. He was favoured by the German occupation authorities. A test of strength between Germany and the United States in Vichy was in the making as 1942 opened. It was to result in April in a temporary

victory for Laval when the Germans forced the Marshal to take him back into the Government, which event necessitated my recall to Washington.

He was a small man, swarthy-complexioned, careless in his personal appearance, but with a pleasing manner of speech. In a very frank discussion of his policies, Laval gave the impression of being fanatically devoted to his country, with a conviction that the interests of France were bound irrevocably with those of Germany. One's impression necessarily was qualified by persistent reports that he had used his political

offices to advance his private personal fortune. It was true that, starting with nothing, he had advanced from a poor delivery boy in a provincial town grocery to become a very rich man and a power in his country.

He convinced me that his Government was fully committed and might be expected to go as far as it could to collaborate with Germany and assist in the defeat of what he termed Soviet-British Bolshevism. Pierre Laval definitely was not on our side in this war.

(6) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

The third figure, also ambitious and a capable politician, was Admiral Francois Darlan, the "heir apparent" to the Marshal's dictatorship. Darlan was a complete opportunist. He endeavoured to walk a tight-rope between the warring powers Since the military situation during most of my service at the French capital was highly favourable to the Axis, Darlan usually was my diplomatic opponent, although we maintained cordial personal relations. Before the year was out, Darlan had decided that the power of the United States eventually would overcome Hitler, and he came over to our side at a critical moment. Any hope of political reward he may have entertained for that action was ended by an assassin's bullet.

(7) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

British propaganda was advertising the prospect of fatally injuring Germany's morale by bombing attacks. This presupposed a lack of courage on the part of the Germans not justified by either past German history or their present performance, or by the reaction of Englishmen to the destructive Blitz of England the preceding year.

British bombers made a destructive raid on the Renault auto works in the northern suburbs of Paris on the night of March 3, killing 500 and injuring 1,200, mostly non-combatants. Violent anti-British feeling flared immediately in both the occupied and unoccupied zones of France.

(8) Letter from Jean-Francois Darlan to William Leahy following the bombing of the Renault factory on 3rd March, 1942.

I told you, a few months ago, that since June 25, 1940, the British had accumulated error upon error. They have just committed a greater one still which we shall never forgive them. To murder, for political motives, women, children and old people is a method of Soviet inspiration. Is England already bolshevized?

(9) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

Edouard Herriot came to the Embassy on Thursday morning, April 23. Herriot was hopeful of going to the United States to discuss with President Roosevelt future relations between France and America, but since he and the President of the French Senate were the only two effective political leaders still anxious to preserve representative government in his country, he did not feel he should leave at that time.

He declared he would not undertake work of any kind for the Laval Government. Herriot and his followers did not believe that de Gaulle or his movement had committed any offence against France, but, on the contrary, were fighting for French survival and for French ideals.

This veteran leader of the Radical-Socialist Party impressed me as a very able and courageous French patriot-a type not often met in Vichy. He advised me that America must not have confidence in anything that Laval promised or said. Herriot spoke convincingly, but when speaking did not look at his hearer.

(10) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

Regular meetings of the Joint Chiefs took place on Wednesdays, beginning with luncheon. Special sessions were held at any time, often on Sundays or even late at night. No one other than the Chiefs of Staff was present at the meetings, except that when an important theatre commander was in Washington he would usually be asked to discuss with us the situation and problems in his area. From time to time representatives of our allies - China, Australia, the Netherlands and the exiled Poles, for example-would ask to be allowed to present their case to the Joint Chiefs. On occasions, these requests were granted.

Throughout the war, the four of us - Marshall, King, Arnold, and myself - worked in the closest possible harmony. In the post-war period, General Marshall and I disagreed sharply on some aspects of our foreign political policy. However, as a soldier, he was in my opinion one of the best, and his drive, courage, and imagination transformed America's great citizen army into the most magnificent fighting force ever assembled.

In numbers of men and logistic requirements, his army operations were by far the largest. This meant that more time of the Joint Chiefs was spent on his problems than on any others - and he invariably presented them with skill and clarity.

(11) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

Admiral King had an equally difficult task. His fleets had to hold Japan at bay while convoying millions of tons of supplies across the Atlantic to our allies in order to build up the stockpiles for the Second Front. He was an exceptionally able sea commander. He also was explosive, and at times it was just as well that the deliberations of the Joint Chiefs were a well-kept secret. The President had a high opinion of King's ability, but also felt he was a very undiplomatic person, especially when the Admiral's low boiling-point would be reached in some altercation with the British. King would have preferred to put more power into the Asiatic war earlier. He supported loyally the general strategy of beating Germany first, but this often required concessions of ships and war material which he did not like to make. He could not spare much as he was, until the last months of the war, working on a deficit in ships. America was fighting a two-ocean war for the first time in its history.

(12) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

Roosevelt and Churchill had established that intimate relationship which was to remain unimpaired until death removed the former in 1945. There was no such useful working entente with our Russian ally. Foreign Minister Molotov had been m Washington in the late spring and had gone back to Moscow with the understanding, at least on his part that the United States and Britain would attempt to create

a second front in Europe in 1942.

The Russians could not have been more disappointed than our own Army people that plans for a 1942 cross - Channel invasion had to be abandoned. There was much grumbling about the British and considerable criticism of Churchill the Prime Minister was convinced that England was not ready to undertake such a major effort, and I did not think that we were either. I personally was interested in the safety or the United States. A cross-Channel operation could have failed and we still would have been safe, but England would have been lost.

I think that is what Churchill had in mind. He wanted to have much more assurance of success than General Marshall could give him. Marshall's country would have been safe, but England was sitting twenty miles across the Channel, right under the Nazi guns. England could not afford to be defeated in an invasion attempt. Churchill, in his responsibility for preserving the integrity of England, had to be satisfied in his own mind that the expedition could succeed. I cannot blame him for that.

(13) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

As was so often the case, "Harry the Hop," as we called him around the White House, would remain silent for long intervals during any discussion, but he would usually be the first man to put a finger on the essential element of a problem.

Churchill's jesting title, "Lord Root of the Matter," was an accurate description. Hopkins had an excellent mind. His manner of approach was direct and nobody could fool him, not even Churchill. He was never influenced by a person's rank. Roosevelt trusted him implicitly and Hopkins never betrayed that trust. The range of his activities covered all manner of civilian affairs - politics, war production, diplomatic matters - and, on many occasions, military affairs. We saw a great deal of each other. The only previous impressions I had of Hopkins concerned his various relief activities in the first years of the Roosevelt administration, and I, perhaps, held some prejudices against him. I frequently joked with him about those days and sometimes called him "Pinko" or "Do-Gooder." He took it all in good spirit and we never had any major differences of opinion. By his brilliant mind, his loyalty, and his selfless devotion to Franklin Roosevelt in helping carry on the war, Harry Hopkins soon erased completely any previous misgivings

I might have held.

(14) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

The Joint Chiefs heard an interesting angle on the war with Germany when General Ira Eaker, then commanding American bombers in England, told us that if we could get enough big bombers, his force and the R.A.F. would in the next year so wreck German war production as to make an invasion of Europe not difficult. Eaker did a masterful job in presenting his thesis, pointing out specific targets on the huge maps in the J.C.S. room. My reaction was that such an effort would be highly valuable if the promised results could be attained. So far the German war machine did not appear to have been slowed appreciably by Allied air attacks.

(15) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

The Combined Chiefs, finally, after many compromises between the British and American points of view, brought the discussions at Quebec to a satisfactory conclusion. Discussion of the Burma problem had consumed more time than any other, but the most important work done at "Quadrant" was to prepare blue-prints for the invasion of Normandy.

The President and the Prime Minister ratified the plan to make a cross-Channel invasion from England in May, 1944. It was to be the principal British-United States ground and air effort against the Axis in Europe.

Called "Operation Overlord," the blueprint specified that our forces should first secure adequate landing ports in Normandy, followed by occupation of areas in France from which to launch attacks against the occupying Axis military forces in order to destroy them or drive them back into Germany. A balanced British and American ground force and air force, together with the landing equipment and a covering naval contingent, was to be built up in England as quickly as possible and was to be ready to launch the combined land, air, and naval attack at any favourable time, but not later than May, 1944.

(16) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

At noon of February 11th, the Joint Chiefs met with the President to review plans for attacking Japan at the earliest practicable date, preferably with the support of heavy air assault from the Chinese mainland. Thousands of Chinese were engaged during the winter of 1943-4 in building huge landing fields for the great new B29 aeroplane, which by summer would be unloosing its destructive bomb load on the heart of industrial Japan. These super-bombers, half as large again as the familiar Flying Fortress (B17) were beginning to come off the US assembly lines in useful numbers. The Joint Chiefshoped this new fighting aircraft, with its exceptionally long range, would be able to surmount the problem of distance and give material support to the offensive against Japan.

The general strategy was to go west through the Japanese-held islands until we were in a position to strike Japan proper. Admiral Chester W. Nimitz was in command in the Central Pacific and was sending us his plans for taking some islands on the route and by-passing others. The JCS usually approved the plans, because we felt that in Washington we were too far away to judge the details of his operations.

The next day (February 12) Major-General Richard K. Sutherland, Chief of Staff to General Douglas MacArthur, conferred with me regarding future operations in the South-west Pacific area. It appeared that MacArthur's ideas might conflict with those of Nimitz, and the difference in the personalities of these two able commanders was going to require delicate handling.

(17) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

MacArthur was convinced that an occupation of the Philippines was essential before any major attack in force should be made on Japanese-held territory north of Luzon. The retaking of the Philippines seemed to be a matter of great interest to him. He said that he had sufficient ground and air forces for the operation and that his only additional needs were landing-craft and naval support.

Nimitz developed the Navy's plan of by-passing the Philippines and attacking Formosa. He did not see that Luzon, including Manila Bay, had advantages that were not possessed by other areas in the Philippines that could be taken for a base at less cost in lives and material. As the discussions progressed, however, the Navy Commander in the Pacific admitted that developments might indicate a necessity for occupation of the Manila area. Nimitz said that he had sufficient forces to carry out either operation. It was highly pleasing and unusual to find two commanders who were not demanding reinforcements.

Roosevelt was at his best as he tactfully steered the discussion from one point to another and narrowed down the area of disagreement between MacArthur and Nimitz. The discussion remained on a friendly basis the entire time, and in the end only a relatively minor difference remained - that of an operation to retake the Philippine capital, Manila. This was solved later, when the idea of beginning our Philippine invasion at Leyte was suggested, studied and adopted.

(18) William Leahy attended the meeting at Yalta.

Stalin then brought up the question of reparations in kind and in manpower, but said he was not ready to discuss the manpower question. The latter, of course, referred to forced labour. Since the Russians were using many thousands of prisoners in what was reported to be virtual slave camps, they had little to gain by discussing the matter. Stalin then had Deputy Foreign Commissar Maisky elaborate on the Russian view of the reparations question.

The proposal in brief was: Reparations in kind should include factories, plants, communication equipment, investments abroad, etc., and should be made over a period of ten years, at the end of which time all reparations would have been paid. The total value of the reparations in kind asked by the Soviet was 10 billion dollars, to be spread over the ten-year period.

The German heavy industries should be cut down and 80 per cent. removed in a period of two years after the surrender.

Allied control should be established over German industry, and all German industry that could be used in the production of war material should be under international control for a long period.

Churchill objected to the 10 billion-dollar figure, and he and Roosevelt agreed that a reparations committee should be appointed to study the issue. Roosevelt made it clear that the United States would not make the financial mistakes that followed World War I. He added that America would not want any manpower, any factories, or any machinery. It might want to seize German property in the United States, which at that time was estimated not to exceed 200 million dollars. Reparations presented a very complicated problem, and the appointment of a special commission seemed to be the only possible way to arrive at any kind of recommendation that could be accepted.

(19) William Leahy, I Was There (1950)

Franklin Roosevelt was a world figure of heroic proportions. He also was my friend, whom I had known and admired for thirty-six years, since we began to work together in World War I. A thousand memories crowded my mind as I sat in the compartment of the train returning to Washington.

I had seen him almost every morning since he appointed me his Military Chief of Staff late in July, 1942. The range of his mind was infinite. The official matters I had selected to bring to his attention usually were disposed of quickly, and he listened attentively as I talked. He was likely thereafter, at these daily sessions, to do most of the talking and to bring up anything he had on his mind. A flood of memories of Quebec, Cairo, Teheran, Honolulu, Alaska and the still-fresh impression of Yalta came to my mind.

I remembered partisan criticism that he had made this or that war move with an eye on the date of a national election. Franklin Roosevelt was the real Commander-in-Chief of our Navy, Army, and Air Force. He had fought this war in close co-operation with his military staff. To my knowledge, he never made a single military decision with any thought of his own personal political fortunes.

There were many of his domestic policies which I, being of a conservative mind, had little liking for, but I admired the skill he possessed in playing the complex and to me almost inexplicable "game of politics." That skill was frequently displayed at his famous weekly conferences with the Washington newsmen, many of which I attended. He gave them all the information he could, easily and cheerfully. He even scolded them at times, but they seemed to like it.

(20) William Leahy advised against the use of biological weapons during the Second World war.

In November, 1942, at the request of Dr. Ross Mclntire, I discussed with President George Merck, of the well-known chemical firm bearing his name, the possible use of bacteriological warfare. Merck was then studying, with a considerable number of scientists and in high secrecy, both offensive employment of and preventive measures against germ warfare.

At intervals this subject came up in my conversations with President Roosevelt and later with President Truman. I recall particularly that, as we were sailing for Honolulu for the MacArthur-Nimitz conferences in July of 1944, there was a spirited discussion of bacteriological warfare in the President's cabin. By that time the scientists thought, for example, that they could destroy completely the rice crop of Japan.

Some of those present advocated the adoption of such measures. Personally, I recoiled from the idea, and said to Roosevelt: "Mr. President, this [using germs and poison] would violate every Christian ethic I have ever heard of and all of the known laws of war. It would be an attack on the non-combatant population of the enemy. The reaction can be foretold: if we use it, the enemy will use it." Roosevelt remained non-committal throughout this discussion, but the United States did not resort to bacteriological warfare.

(21) William Leahy was strongly opposed to using the nuclear bomb on Japan. He wrote about this decision in his autobiography, I Was There (1950)

Once it had been tested, President Truman faced the decision as to whether to use it. He did not like the idea, but was persuaded that it would shorten the war against Japan and save American lives. It is my opinion that the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons.

It was my reaction that the scientists and others wanted to make this test because of the vast sums that had been spent on the project. Truman knew that, and so did the other people involved. However, the Chief Executive made a decision to use the bomb on two cities in Japan. We had only produced two bombs at that time. We did not know which cities would be the targets, but the President specified that the bombs should be used against military facilities.

The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that, in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children. We were the first to have this weapon in our possession, and the first to use it. There is a practical certainty that potential enemies will develop it in the future and that atomic bombs will some time be used against us.