Grant, Fuller, and Fascism

by Eric Byrd

116937John Keegan and Geoffrey Perret have repackaged the essential arguments of The Generalship of Ulysses S. Grant, first published in 1929, in more politically palatable prose. But I was interested by the book's datedness, the view it offers of the odd personality and ominous historical situation from which the reevaluation of Grant was launched. Major-General J.F.C. Fuller (1878 – 1966) is a somewhat sinister and repellent figure – a disciple of Aleister Crowley; a mystic whose Futurism graded into Fascism; the maverick mastermind of British tank operations in the Great War (and his skill at drawing elaborate occult symbols came in handy when the Tank Corps needed an insignia) whose theories of mobile armored warfare were ignored in interwar Britain but eagerly studied in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, the rival tyrannies destined to build thousand-tank armies and smash them together on the burning steppes of the East. Fuller attended Hitler's fiftieth birthday party, in April, 1939, a celebration capped by a three-hour parade of tanks and motorized infantry. Afterwards Hitler asked Fuller if he was pleased with his “children.” “Your excellency,” Fuller replied, “they have grown up so quickly that I no longer recognize them.”

Fuller's Fascism is not integral to his specialist analysis of Grant's campaigns. His book is for the most part a lecture to English officers – a lecture criticizing their snobbish cults of Lee and Jackson; a lecture reminding them that the United States pioneered industrial warfare a half-century before 1914 (the historian Steven Woodworth has suggested that Grant's troops improvised an early tank during the 1863 siege of Vicksburg, when they pushed an armored rail car bristling with sharpshooters close to the rebel trenches) and that the deftly mobile campaigns of Grant and of his protege Sherman, full of feints and bluffs, and speedy concentrations of overwhelming force, offered lessons on how to maintain the tactical offensive in an age of massacrous defense firepower. But if not integral, the Fascism does appear, in his closing rant on the future of Europe, and in the authoritarian asides that John Keegan had to repudiate when transmitting Fuller's arguments in The Mask of Command.

The divergence with Keegan is very revealing of Fuller. For instance, Fuller praises Grant's deep awareness of his political responsibilities as a general-in-chief; his maintenance of public morale and of the fragile pro-war coalition; his modest subordination and convincing denial of immediate presidential ambition (disgruntled Republicans hoped that if Grant won the war in summer 1864, he could replace Lincoln on the November ballot). But even as he praises the political tact of Grant's generalship, Fuller cannot help but sneer at the Northern public, “the canaille,” and he calls Grant a reduced Hero, an instrument of democratic government rather than one of the Great Men, who make their own worlds. Fuller's view of President Grant is characteristic:

The idol of the people, for eight years he was enthroned in the temple of their rascality…Had he been less obedient to his ideals, had he been more of the soldier who destroys to create and less of the man, the farmer he once was, who sows and waits on God's goodwill to ripen his crops, he might have influenced his generation more than he did.

Keegan, in contrast, says that Grant's “unheroic heroism” was “perfectly adjusted to the populism of the society he led to victory.” Keegan thinks it representative of the best of American democracy that the great general of the Civil War did not even flirt with warlordism – that he “resisted fantasy with republican sternness.” Keegan laments that such “republican sternness” – or call it “Washingtonian sternness” – was not transplantable to the Old World, where

the surrender to the appeal of the hero as leader, war chief and superman remained a possibility rooted in the subconscious of its traditional societies. In the mid-twentieth century, that possibility was to become a disastrous reality.

Such are the last lines of Keegan's chapter on Grant, “Grant and Unheroic Leadership,” which immediately precedes and sets up his chapter on Hitler, “False Heroic: Hitler as Supreme Commander.”