Eisenhower's forgotten mentor
You don’t know the name Fox Conner, but you should.
He served as one of General John Pershing’s top officers during World War I. Later, he served as the Army’s Deputy Chief of Staff, the number two role in the entire Army. He became a Major General (two stars), which was the highest rank obtainable at the time except by the single officer serving as Army Chief of Staff. He played a significant role in the development of the careers of General George C. Marshall, who served as the Army’s Chief of Staff in World War II, and General George S. Patton, perhaps America’s top battlefield commander of the 20th century. He played an overwhelmingly critical role in the career trajectory of Dwight Eisenhower, mentoring him for years. As a general and later president, Eisenhower met, worked for and commanded some of the greatest military leaders in history: Pershing, Patton, Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Omar Bradley, “Hap” Arnold, British Field Marshal Montgomery, Marshal Georgy Zhukov of the Soviet Union –- the list goes on and on. Yet he wrote of Fox Conner, “In sheer ability and character, he was the outstanding soldier of my time.”1
Conner perfectly exemplifies the idea of the Silver Medalist. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff of the Army, but never as Chief of Staff. Two Presidents and two Secretaries of War passed him over. Between the World Wars, he led troops in Panama and Hawaii, two of America’s top strategic commands at the time. But he never commanded men on the field of battle. He rose to his highest rank in between the World Wars, when America reverted to a heavy sentiment of isolation, cutting its armed forces drastically. His warnings about the dire effects of these cuts – and his prescient belief that another world war was written into the Treaty of Versailles to end the First World War – were dismissed by almost everyone except a few devoted acolytes.
Except for a couple of reminisces in Eisenhower’s books and mentions in two books on American generalship by Edgar F. Puryear, the public and even much of the military leadership apparatus largely forgot about Conner for the better part of a century. Fortunately, Conner has more recently received a touch of the attention he deserves in excellent biographies written by Steven Rabalais and Edward Cox, and a book about Pershing’s senior leaders. Conner lived an extraordinary life, served his country superlatively for 40 years, foretold the nature of the most destructive war in history, and closely mentored the most important American military leaders who waged that war. We have much to learn from him – about patiently preparing for the moment to demonstrate our gifts, emotional clearheadedness, and what it truly takes to serve as a mentor.
Childhood Through West Point
Conner was born November 2, 1874 to Robert Conner and Nancy “Nannie” Fox, in Slate Springs, Mississippi. His father fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War; blinded during the Battle of Atlanta in 1864, he became known as “Blind Bob.” Robert returned home and began teaching at Slate Springs Academy, which had been founded by a friend’s brother, Fuller Fox. Fuller’s sister, Nannie, also taught at the Academy. They fell in love and married in 1873. When Fox Conner was born, “His name symbolized the union of two families devoted to both military service and education.”2
Throughout his childhood and life, Conner consumed books voraciously. At age 8, Fox Conner read a report by the Secretary of War, which gives an early premonition of the militarily-focused intellectual capabilities he would demonstrate in life. Perhaps he read it due to his own interest or possibly he was reading the report to his father. If he read it to his blind father, it would be an early example of his devotion to others. Whatever his motivation, at that moment, he determined to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, and make the Army his profession.
His uncle Fuller Fox had subsequently become an attorney and politician. Fuller Fox had also become friendly with Mississippi’s Congressman, Hernando de Soto Money, who could appoint one student from his district to the Military Academy each year. As a favor to Fuller, and to curry favor with Fuller – a rising politician who later served in Congress too – Money appointed Fox Conner to West Point.
Conner’s class began with 109 students. In those days, first-year students – “plebes” at West Point – underwent inordinate hazing at the hands of upperclassmen. Histories of West Point are filled with details of mortifying, almost sadistic, experiences endured by the plebes. Some reports suggest hazing for that year was especially unforgiving. By the end of their first year, one-third of the students had left. Rabalais notes, “Fox Conner did not complain” and Conner wrote to his parents, “I don’t care how hard they are on me as it will straighten me and develop me generally.”3
In 1898, war broke out between America and Spain. Conner and his class graduated early that year. Academically, Conner graduated 17th out of the 59 students left in the class – a good but not remarkable result. His class ranking did not suggest the greatness which lay ahead. Conner and all the newly commissioned second lieutenants readied for battle.
Lesson: Ancestral clues about the path to take in life. Conner followed the paths of his mother and father, in education and the military. If you feel unsure of what to do with your life, the lives of your parents or ancestors may provide clues.
The Long Slog
Conner, despite his wishes and attempts, did not fight in the Spanish-American War. He also requested to serve in the cavalry. The military, in its imponderable wisdom, instead assigned Conner to the artillery, the branch which fights with large guns. Conner did serve in Cuba on occupation duty after the war, where he honed his Spanish language skills.
In 1901, Conner received promotions to First Lieutenant and then to Captain. “The examining board that promoted Conner to captain less than a year after his previous advancement in rank noted the marked improvement in his level of artillery knowledge.”4
As in his childhood, Conner read voraciously. He wed Virginia “Bug” Brandreth in 1902. His new father-in-law, Frank Brandreth, owned a huge estate about an hour up the Hudson River from New York City. Brandreth possessed an immense library and Conner would take advantage of it for the rest of his life. Conner would likewise utilize the library in every Army post he served at during his career and if the base didn’t have a library, or a good enough one, he created it or brought it up to his standards. Especially early in his career, Conner, bored by his official duties, took it upon himself to immerse himself in all facets of military life – strategy, tactics, artillery doctrine, and even military justice did not escape his attention in these years.
In 1905, Conner demonstrated the first significant suggestion that he might rise to a position of senior command and preeminence. Conner was assigned to the Army’s demanding Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Usually a two-year program, he skipped ahead to the second year, an exceedingly rare exception and honor. Conner also studied French, which would play a significant role in his life and career. He graduated second in his class. Then Conner attended and taught at the Army War College. In these academic trials, he impressed his commanding officers with his intense study habits, intuitive grasp of planning and strategy, and his expanding leadership potential.
Conner then served for a year in a French artillery regiment, where he came to deeply understand both French military approaches and psychology. Rabalais writes,
“Conner also came to understand the shame that permeated the French Army over its defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in France’s loss of the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine in 1871. Despite the passage of four decades, France’s desire for revenge – and for recapture of the lost provinces – still smoldered.”5
Lesson: Learn a foreign language. In the first half of his career, many of Conner’s breaks came from his foreign language fluency. All of his subsequent opportunities for high command derived from his experiences in World War I and his relationship with Pershing. Those experiences came his way because of his fluency in French and German.
In August 1914, World War I began. The United States officially remained neutral.
Before the First World War, America maintained only a small standing army of about 127,500 men and officers. Absent growth, even talented officers could not rise through the ranks. At age 42, after 18 years as a commissioned officer, Conner remained a captain. By the eve of America’s entry into World War I, he had served as a captain for fifteen years! He had not served in any American conflict fought up to this point in his career – in Cuba and the Philippines, in China or in the “Punitive Expedition” in Mexico.
Lesson: Patience and preparation. Conner may have remained a captain in official rank, but he didn’t plateau in those 15 years. He honed his language fluency. He studied – both in arduous Army schools and on his own time, through his own reading, writing and reflection. He became a supreme expert in American, French and German artillery strategies and tactics. He knew artillery, and had more than a passing familiarity with related doctrine, like air power, the tank and emerging technologies. He worked hard. He cultivated relationships with his superiors and junior officers. He did not know whether an opportunity to demonstrate his knowledge and display his leadership gifts would ever come. But he prepared as if that opportunity would show up soon, and he would be called upon to play a prominent part. “Energetic patience” is the phrase that comes to mind about these 15 years in Conner’s career.
Finally, in the summer of 1916, a vacancy in the Army hierarchy came up and Conner received his long-overdue promotion to major. And indeed, Major Conner’s call to destiny was right around the corner.
With Pershing in World War I
In April 1917, following many real and imagined provocations, America entered World War I, joining the Entente (Allied) Powers of France, Great Britain, Russia, Belgium, and many smaller nations, against the Central Powers of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and some smaller countries.
For most of the war, Conner served two roles with Pershing – as his chief of operations for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) and as his chief interpreter with the French. In the military, operations means strategy and planning. Conner and his team – including future Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall – examined critical strategic questions, such as:
- What would be the structure and size of the basic fighting unit, the division?
- Where would American troops enter the fighting?
- When would they attack?
- How many divisions would attack at once?
- What backup troop support would be available to relieve them?
- What equipment and artillery would the attacking divisions need in order to have success?
These questions, and many more, took a colossal effort to mastermind, especially with the Americans entering a war that had already been fought for three years, involving millions of men, and a front that stretched more than 400 miles from the English Channel to Switzerland.
Because of his language skills honed at the CGSC, his year in France and his own study, Conner served as the key American interpreter with the French high command. Through this role, and as a senior officer on Pershing’s leadership team, Conner participated in most of the paramount Allied military deliberations. Acknowledging the difficulties of managing such a complex situation, he lived and breathed the challenges and dysfunctions of the Allied cause. They included:
- Allied distrust. The British distrusted the French, which was reciprocated. Both distrusted these raw and, as they saw it, naive, American officers and troops. The Americans distrusted an Allied leadership which had wasted the lives of millions of men, throwing them away for the gain of mere miles.
- Low Allied morale. The French, British and Belgians had fought for three years and suffered millions of casualties. In 1917, Russia, their ally, withdrew from the war, allowing the Germans to move huge troop resources to fight on the Western Front. A serious question existed about whether the Allies would have to surrender before American forces could enter the fray in sufficient numbers to do any good.
- A lack of formal Allied cooperation and coordination. Only in April 1918 did the French General Ferdinand Foch become the Supreme Allied Commander over all troops on the Western Front.
- Distrust between AEF headquarters and the field. As the chief of operations, Conner served in Pershing’s General Headquarters (GHQ) organization. Significant distrust existed between the GHQ staff and in-the-field divisional staffs. Much like a geographically distributed business today, it became easy for HQ to blame the field and vice versa.
- Confusing relations between the War Department and the AEF. Technically, Pershing reported to the War Department in Washington, DC. But Congress had bafflingly promoted Pershing to a higher rank than his titular boss, Army Chief of Staff Peyton C. March. And Congress’s orders to Pershing contemplated him reporting directly to the President. Because of this bewildering situation, distrust ran rampant between Pershing’s AEF and the War Department.
- The practicalities of moving millions of American troops. The U.S. faced the daunting problem of transporting millions of soldiers overseas to Europe, then through France to the front line to fight. America did not possess sufficient shipping to move those troops and their equipment across the Atlantic Ocean. So America depended on British shipping. Once they arrived, U.S. troops had to utilize French ports to disembark, and then travel on French trains to places in France in which to train and prepare for deployment to the front. Those logistical requirements were enormously complicated to manage. And the French and British used them to wrangle political and military concessions from the Americans as well.
None of these difficulties involved actually fighting the enemy.
The infinite complexities and details of Conner’s work during the First World War are overwhelming. Suffice it to note: he entered the war as a Major and played a small role on Pershing’s team. He ended the war as a Brigadier General (one star), and for the final months of the AEF deployment, he served as Pershing’s Chief of Staff – probably the critical role in the AEF after Pershing himself. Pershing later wrote, “I could have spared any other man in the AEF better than you.”6
By late October 1918, German fighting had weakened. At 11:00 am on November 11, 1918, an armistice between the combatants began and the war ended. On June 28, 1919, Conner joined Pershing in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles to witness the signing of the official peace treaty. Amidst the champagne toasts, cheering, laughter and eruptions of joy, Conner reflected on the moment. In the words of Rabalais,
“Fox Conner felt uneasy. Having witnessed how the shame of defeat in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 had fueled the desire for revenge in his French comrades, Conner doubted how long the words of a treaty would quell the warrior spirit of the militaristic – and humiliated – German nation.”7
Conner left that ceremony – ending the “War to End All Wars” - convinced it had actually laid the groundwork for another world war.
Lesson: Look beyond the moment. After more than a century, it is difficult for us to comprehend the joy and exuberance of the end of the First World War. An unfathomable slaughter had ceased. How hard it must have been for Fox Conner to peer beyond the hoopla and celebration, and to perceive more horror and destruction on the horizon. And yet he did. He worried about the humiliation of the Germans and where it might all lead in future years.
Mentor to 19 Stars
In his 20 years of Army service after the war, Conner commanded two of America’s key strategic areas – the Panama Canal and Hawaii. He served as Deputy Chief of Staff, the number two role in the Army (today called the Vice Chief of Staff). Under Chief of Staff John L. Hines, he often served as the acting Chief of Staff during Hines’s many absences from duty. In 1926, he was promoted to Major General (two stars), then the highest rank attainable except by the single officer serving as the Chief of Staff. In 1926 and 1930, Conner was considered for the Army Chief of Staff role, but was passed over both times. In 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt asked Conner to take the role, but Conner declined. No one really knows why, but after years of squabbling in Washington to protect the Army in the face of isolationist pressures and significant military cuts, Conner may simply not have wanted to spend his remaining few years of active service fighting those same budgetary and administrative battles.
By far, Conner contributed most significantly to American military history through his mentorship of George S. Patton, George C. Marshall and Dwight D. Eisenhower. He and Patton and their wives became friends before World War I and remained friends for life. Their shared interests in history, military strategy, horses, fishing and the future of tank warfare cemented that friendship. Patton served under Conner in Hawaii in the late 1920s, and Conner made sure Patton became known to his many friends in the senior echelons of Army leadership. Conner and Marshall met during the war. For a time Marshall worked for Conner, who came to view Marshall as a planning genius with a special talent for harmonizing allies in pursuit of the general cause. Conner championed Marshall in his Army circles. He counseled Marshall to continue honing his natural abilities in planning and Allied war management – especially to surmount the problems they had encountered in the First World War.
Conner had the greatest impact on the career of Eisenhower. When they met in 1920, Eisenhower was stuck as the football coach on his base and facing a court-martial for overcharging the Army on an expense report. Conner used his connections to have the matter dropped by then-Army Chief of Staff Pershing. Eisenhower joined Conner in Panama as Conner’s number two officer. The mentoring began. Eisenhower wrote, “my tour of duty was one of the most interesting and constructive of my life. The main reason was the presence of one man, General Fox Conner.”8
Eisenhower mentioned to Conner that, because of West Point’s system of rote memorization, he’d lost interest in a former passion – military history. Conner looked up on the shelves of the library he created in Panama and gave Eisenhower three works of historical fiction to read:
- The Long Roll, by Mary Johnston, about an aide to Confederate General “Stonewall” Jackson in the American Civil War;
- The Crisis, by Winston Churchill (American author - not related to the British statesman), uses an aide to impart the story of the rise of Union Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman
- The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (who also created Sherlock Holmes), tells of the rise and fall of Napoleon.
Eisenhower enjoyed them, so Conner gave him three history books about those novels' time periods.9 For the next two and a half years, Conner loaned Eisenhower books from that library and then quizzed him. Conner used the Socratic method of questioning to explore why military leaders made the decisions they made. On-duty, they spent much of their time together. Off-duty, they hiked, camped and fished together – the mentoring never stopped. They enjoyed it. They argued about the lessons from the books – they cared deeply about those lessons!
“It is clear now that life with General Conner was a sort of graduate school in military affairs and the humanities, leavened by the comments and discourses of a man who was experienced in his knowledge of men and their conduct.”10
Ever mindful of that day in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, Conner discussed what the next world war might look like. Conner believed Germany and Japan might combine as allies. He thought America could not stay out of the next world war. Remembering the distrust among the Allies and the coordinating nightmares they faced, he presciently believed that America’s allies would need a far more capable coordinating infrastructure than in World War I. Conner thought all of America’s allies would need to serve under a single fighting organization with one Supreme Commander possessing enormous abilities of influence, persuasion and decision-making – with military and political leaders alike.
“Again and again General Conner said to me, “We cannot escape another great war. When we go into that war, it will be in company with allies. We must not accept the ‘coordination’ concept under which Foch was compelled to work. We must insist on individual and single responsibility – leaders who will have to learn how to overcome nationalistic considerations in the conduct of campaigns.””11
After their time in Panama, Conner kept a watchful eye on his mentee. Eisenhower’s commander blocked him from attending high-level Army schools, including the (now-named) Command and General Staff School. Conner used his influence to navigate Eisenhower through the Army system so he could attend. In June 1926, Eisenhower graduated first in his class of 245 officers at CGSS, which he called “a watershed in my life.”12 He had officially become a rising star in the Army.
Conner continued to stay in touch with and counsel Marshall, Patton and Eisenhower – for the rest of his career and for the remainder of his life. Conner suffered a number of health issues throughout his adult life, likely exacerbated by his starting smoking at age 14. In 1936, he suffered a stroke; in 1938, a more severe stroke and a heart attack ended his military career. He would linger on until October 13, 1951, when he died of lung cancer.
On September 30, 1938, Conner retired. The same day, Britain and France signed the Munich Agreement with Germany and Italy, carving up Czechoslovakia and merely postponing a new worldwide conflagration.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, triggering the start of World War II, which Conner had predicted 20 years before. On the same day, George C. Marshall became the Army Chief of Staff. He would lead the strategic planning of the Allied war effort on two fronts in Europe and in the Pacific Theater, helping to maintain a delicate wartime coalition of Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, China, America and many other nations. For his service, Marshall became General of the Army (five stars), and later Secretary of State and Secretary of Defense.
When America entered the Second World War in December 1941, Marshall called on Brigadier General Eisenhower to lead the new War Plans Division in Washington. Eisenhower impressed Marshall immensely. Ultimately, Eisenhower would become a General of the Army as well, and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, wielding vast power and persuasive abilities in service to defeat the Axis Powers.
Eisenhower’s top battlefield commander in Africa and Europe was George Patton. A genius at tank warfare, Patton slashed across Europe after D-Day in 1944, helping to bring the Axis to its knees. Patton became a full General (4 stars).
Lesson: Mentoring takes method and content. As a senior Army leader during and after World War I, Conner kept a lookout for promising talent. When he found an officer of potential, his educational genes kicked into high gear. He used every bit of his abilities to educate that officer. He also used his connections and knowledge of the Army bureaucracy to ensure the officer rose to sufficient prominence to be of great use to the military. With Eisenhower, he used the Socratic method to question, probe, prod and test his pupil. Think how much Conner had to know about the details of historical battles and leadership to be able to do that level of questioning! Conner took it a step further. He aimed his mentoring toward developing knowledge and abilities he thought would be in dire need in the next, inevitable-to-his-mind world war. And so he focused Eisenhower and Marshall on the intricacies of Allied command, psychology and influence, managing wars on multiple theaters, and handling the strategic military and political considerations the next war would demand. His approach and guidance paid mammoth dividends for the Allied war effort in its defeat of the Axis Powers.
And so an officer who never held a battlefield command or served as the senior Army officer probably did more to help the Allies win World War II than any other non-participant.
The Lessons of Fox Conner
The life and career of Major General Fox Conner give us six supreme lessons. Let me close this biography by examining those lessons, in order of prominence to me.
Lesson 1. A superlative mentor. When Fox Conner encountered an officer of exemplary promise, he went all-in. He used every bit of his abilities to educate that officer and to ensure that officer rose to sufficient prominence to be of great use to the military. With Eisenhower, he used the Socratic method to question, probe, prod and test his pupil. Think how much Conner had to know about the details of historical battles and leadership to be able to do that level of questioning! Conner took it a step further. He aimed his mentoring toward developing knowledge and abilities he thought would be in dire need in the next, inevitable-to-his-mind world war. And so he focused Eisenhower and Marshall on the intricacies of Allied command, psychology and influence, managing wars on multiple theaters, and handling the strategic military and political considerations the next war would demand. His methods and content paid mammoth dividends for the Allied war effort. Eisenhower summarized Conner’s impact, “I can never adequately express my gratitude to this one gentleman, for it took years before I fully realized the value of what he had led me through. But in a lifetime of association with great and good men, he is the one more or less invisible figure to whom I owe an incalculable debt.”13
Lesson 2. Emotional and rational clarity. Like Fox Conner in the Versailles Hall of Mirrors, we must coldly peer behind the veneer of the scene in front of us. Throughout life, we will encounter moments of immense popular elation or widespread despair. We should not become caught up in those moments or milieu. Amidst popular sentiment – in the nation, city, organization or team – we should also pause to ponder what we might be missing from that moment. We should stay clearheaded, and strive to maintain a rational grasp of the situation and its potential ramifications. We should assess the situation for ourselves and derive our own perspectives and conclusions.
Lesson 3. Patience and preparation. Today, it’s difficult to imagine being an officer or employee of promise and remaining at the same level for a decade and a half. We cannot comprehend that endurance. Again, Conner may have remained a captain in official rank, but he didn’t waste those 15 years. We do not know when our opportunity to shine will come – or whether it will ever arrive. We can perhaps control but not influence the opportunities that come our way. We can control our preparation and the seriousness with which we take that preparation.
Lesson 4. Do your best always. Throughout his career, Conner faced hardship and disappointment. He was not selected to fight in Cuba, the Philippines, China, or Mexico before World War I. Passed over twice, he never attained the highest post in the Army. He did not always agree with Pershing, or his other military or civilian superiors. In the 1920s and early 1930s, the budget of the Army was gutted. Perhaps the son of Blind Bob Conner knew that life would not always go according to plan, and he – we – have to make the best of the situation we find ourselves in. And sometimes the best we can do is excellent indeed, whether or not most people recognize it. Eisenhower concluded, “Fox Conner was the greatest soldier I ever knew, a soldier who never had a chance to actually prove that he was.”14
Lesson 5. Learn a foreign language. Or like Conner, learn a few. In the first half of his career, Conner’s breaks came from his language abilities. All of his subsequent opportunities for high command derived from his experiences in World War I and his relationship with Pershing. Those experiences came his way because of his fluency in French and German.
Lesson 6. Family hints about your path in life. If you feel unsure of what to do with your life, the lives of your parents or ancestors may provide clues. Not necessarily answers, but hints. Perhaps they provide examples to react against. In that case, they still would have been valuable starting places for thought, reflection and experimentation. Fox early on imbibed the dedicated paths of his mother and father, in education and the military. They became the bulwarks of his life.
Cox, Edward. Grey Eminence. Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press, 2011.
Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967.
Major General Fox Conner. Biography on the Army Historical Foundation website: https://armyhistory.org/major-general-fox-conner/
Puryear, Jr., Edgar F. American Generalship. New York: Presidio Press, 2000.
Puryear, Jr., Edgar F. Nineteen Stars. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994.
Rabalais, Steven. General Fox Conner. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2016
Zabecki, David T. and Douglas V. Mastriano, editors. Pershing’s Lieutenants. New York: Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2020.
(Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
Rabalais, Steven. General Fox Conner. Philadelphia: Casemate Publishers, 2016. p. 249. ↩
Ibid, 2. ↩
Ibid, 9. ↩
Ibid, 20. ↩
Ibid, 29. ↩
Ibid, xiii. ↩
Ibid, 151. ↩
Eisenhower, Dwight D. At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1967. p. 185. ↩
Ibid, 187. ↩
Puryear, Jr., Edgar F. Nineteen Stars. Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1994. pp. 168-169. ↩
Eisenhower, 200. ↩
Ibid, 187. ↩
Puryear, 168. ↩
Image created by Stacy Padgett.