by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The entrance of the United States in the First World War was an enormous deciding factor in the conclusion of that horrendous conflict, in which many millions of Europeans lost their lives. While America declared war on Germany in spring 1917, the massive mobilization of volunteers and drafted soldiers and the plan put into place by the American Expeditionary Force meant that the nation’s presence on the battlefield took many months.
The commanding office of the A.E.F. was General John J. Pershing (1860-1948). A native of Missouri, he taught black children upon finishing high school and then attended a normal school for teacher training. When applied for the United States Military Academy at West Point, a military career was apparently less important than getting a better general education than he could get back home.
He was evidently a modest scholar, but displayed obvious leadership qualities, serving as first captain and president of the class of 1886 at West Point, where he was ranked 30th of the 77 graduates and was commissioned a second lieutenant. He served first in a cavalry regiment in New Mexico and participated in many campaigns against Indians, while also spending some time in posts in California. He also was one of the highest ranked marksman in the Army.
From 1890, his regiment was based in Iowa and there were more campaigns against Indians in the upper Midwest. Shortly afterward, Pershing became a military professor at the University of Nebraska, where he earned a law degree. After being promoted to first lieutenant, he was given command of a cavalry regiment troop of the famed “Buffalo Soldiers” of blacks which was involved in further engagements with Indians.
In 1897, he became an instructor at West Point, where his penchant for strict order and discipline led some of the unhappy students to derisively call him “Nigger Jack.” Though this pejorative was softened to “Black Jack,” it was long thought the nickname was in tribute to his strong character and personality.
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898, Pershing and the 10th Cavalry fought in Cuba and he was given a citation for gallant conduct, which was later upgraded to a Silver Star. He became a major of a volunteer regiment during the conflict and then went to the Philippines and was an adjutant general for two years. When discharged from the volunteers in 1901, he reverted to a commission as a captain with the regular Army until he left the Philippines two years later.
Pershing was admired by President Theodore Roosevelt who sought a promotion to colonel, but seniority determined promotions and remained a captain. After a posting as assistant chief of staff in the Southwest Army Division at Oklahoma City, Roosevelt arranged for Pershing to be sent to Japan as a military attaché, a diplomatic posting.
After returning to the United States in the 1905, following a stint observing the stunning military victory of Japan over Russia, Pershing was promoted to brigadier general due to another intervention by the president. There were accusations that this skipping over three levels and hundreds of candidates was due to political preference as Pershing was married to the daughter of a Wyoming senator who chaired the Senate Military Affairs and Appropriations committees, but his promotion, though not common, was not unheard of in military annals.
Pershing went overseas again, including in Europe and another stint in the Philippines, where he commanded a fort and served as a provincial governor. He continued to be a tough leader, but commanded respect from even those who served under his command. Returning to America again, he took command of a brigade at the Presidio in San Francisco and which was then sent to Texas.
Tragedy struck in 1915 when his wife and three daughters died in a fire at the Presidio, leaving Pershing with his only son. Pershing was engaged, two years later, to Anne Patton, a granddaughter of Benjamin D. Wilson, a close friend of William Workman, and sister of George S. Patton, Jr., later a hero of World War II, but the relationship ended during the First World War.
Pershing achieved national fame when he led an expedition into Mexico seeking the capture of Pancho Villa, though poor planning and supply management plagued the effort and Villa eluded Pershing and his force. When President Woodrow Wilson was considering declaring war against Germany, Pershing’s superior officer was the likely candidate for commander of the A.E.F., but died shortly before the declaration was made. This put Pershing in line to lead the force and after Wilson interviewed him, this was done in May 1917. He rose from major general to full general, the first to be so declared in three decades.
Pershing had virtually unlimited powers at his command and arrived in France a month after his appointment and the first American troops arrived during the fall. The earliest fighting Americans were under the command of British and French forces and it was summer 1918 before American divisions began to fight on their own. The U.S. First Army made its debut that August, followed by a second one.
Despite the tremendous effort he oversaw in deploying some two million men in short order, Pershing’s battlefield tactics of throwing large numbers of men at the trenches that were utilized by both sides were often criticized and some engagements, such as the Battle of the Argonne Forest, led to significant American casualties (one being Joseph Kauffman, brother of Walter P. Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman.) He also stepped down as commander of the First Army after questionable tactics in battle and caused consternation with his demands of a German unconditional surrender.
Still, with Germany in an exhausted and weakened military (much less political and social) condition, the Allies were boosted by the American presence and pushed forward under the supreme command of French Marshal Ferdinand Foch. While many younger American officers, notably Douglas MacArthur, another key World War II figure who also was controversial along with Patton, Pershing was considered a national hero when the war ended.
Pershing, as so many millions did toward the latter stages of the war and afterward, battled illness during the worldwide flu pandemic, but, after recovery in 1919, was given the signal honor of designation as General of the Armies of the United States, creating his own insignia of four gold stars. He also created the Military Order of the World War, a fraternity for officers that still exists.
His visit to Los Angeles on 26 January 1920 was part of a national tour of military facilities, with accolades, testimonial dinners, special tours and other events packed into an incredibly tight schedule. At the time, there was serious consideration of Pershing running for president that fall as a Republican, but he would not campaign, though he said he would serve if the voters so determined. Instead, Ohio Senator Warren G. Harding won the nomination and election.
The notion of celebrity was certainly becoming more pervasive and cross-disciplinary as Pershing arrived, with local businesses advertising using images and descriptions of the war hero, even to an unintentionally comic effect. For example, a Los Angeles donut company tried to link “doughnuts” to “doughboys” with the general’s visit, though most kept to more traditional expressions in their appreciation of Pershing’s visit. Boos Brothers cafeteria, for example, tied his arrival to the recently renamed Central Park, rededicated as Pershing Square after the war’s end.
Press coverage combined intense postwar patriotism with unfettered adulation lavished upon the conquering hero, or so he was uniformly portrayed. The Los Angeles Express noted, in a drawing caption, that Pershing “made the Germans see stars—and stripes;” that he “‘crowned’ the Crown Prince [of Germany];’ and “he knocked —- out of WilHELm.”
Separately, the paper lionized the general in an editorial next to another drawing, only expressing regret at the shortness of the visit. Still, it continued,
Short as the time is, our regard for Pershing will know how to improve each fleeting hour and it will go hard with us indeed if, on his departure, our guest does not carry with him the conviction that here his arduous work has received its full meed of appreciation—here his fame is secure.
While the tour was for inspection of facilities, the Express characterized the trip differently by saying “his progress through the country has been a triumphal procession” and that Pershing “has stood as the military embodiment of the cause.” It added that “this modest, unassuming man, who formed legions of raw recruits into mighty armies and taught conscripts to be veterans, is nobly worthy. He proved himself to be a great leader.”
The Los Angeles Times referred to Pershing as “our own war hero, commander of the only armies in the world conflict that never lost a battle.” The paper then stated that he went to Europe convinced that his men “possessed a native courage and an individual initiative” that, despite a lack of training the Germans had, made them “superior” to the enemy.
The Times added that Pershing asked Foch that the A.E.F. divisions “be given a chance” and that, once there was more American independence on the battlefield that, the French commander, admitted “that the brilliant manner in which they obtained their objectives” was “the most agreeable surprise of the war.” As noted above, there was some criticism within the A.E.F. about some of Pershing’s strategy and tactics.
On that last point, the editorial ended with the assertion that:
A general who commanded more than 1,000,000 men in the front line and never lost a regiment, who sent thirty divisions forward without one of them turning back—the place of that commander in history is above criticism.
Notably, in the Times’ coverage of the general’s visit, there was much made of his mingling with children; addresses gave at the Arcadia Balloon School (a subject of a recent post here), Exposition Park and other locations; a tour of the Goldwyn film studio; the inevitable presentation of a key to the city; and his general interaction with locals as he made his way through the region. Among all of the broad expressions of goodwill and thanks, however, there were some interesting and instructive subtexts.
For example, the paper referred liberally to a talk the hero gave at the Hotel Alexandria. While the main headline read “Los Angeles Pays Grateful Tribute To Our Leader In Great War,” a subheading was “Pershing For Compulsory Military Training,” a concept that has never had much traction in American history.
Moreover, it quoted Pershing’s views on foreign immigration, a particularly timely topic a century later, as he stated
we open our gates and allow a stream of immigration to enter, without taking much pains to sort it out or to discriminate as to the kind of people we admit. The result is that we have a large number of ignorant foreigners among us who associate themselves in little groups and fail to mingle with Americans to such an extent as to learn very much about what this government stands for or what its forefathers intended it to stand for.
In these days of the “red scare” that burst out after the conclusion of the war, Pershing added that “these ignorant classes of people are easily led by agitators who advocate openly the destruction of the government; advocate anarchy and even Bolshevism.” His solution was to give these people time to learn English and about American institutions and, this failing, “I should conclude that American could get along very well without them.” The Times noted that this drew applause.
The devotedly pro-business paper separately reported that Pershing was a guest of honor at a meeting of the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association, where “Americanism [was the] Banquet’s Keynote,” specifically what was known as “100 per cent Americanism.” There Pershing expressed his views of immigrants in a more direct way than at the Alexandria:
Make every foreigner learn to read and write within a given length of time, or ship the indifferent ones back to the foul nest from which they came. Give them an opportunity to become good citizens first, of course.
He then addressed the “laborites” and addressed the pronouncements of American Federation of Labor figure William Z. Foster, who ran as a Communist for the presidency in 1924, 1928 and 1932, as if it represented the mainstream thinking of labor unions and members broadly.
Pershing also had Biblical injunctions to use against “profiteering” without defining what that term meant and advocated prison terms for such figures to stem the red tide of Bolshevism. He concluded and drew applause for intoning, “for three years we have permitted it to do its worst to the devoted people of the nation. In that time we have made 18,000 new millionaires.”
The Times even had a cartoon of Pershing holding a scroll of his busy agenda during his whirlwind visit from 8:30 a.m. until Midnight and offered the headline, “Who Said Eight-Hour Day?” as a shot across the bow at unions and others who called for what today has long been a standard work day for Americans.
The highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a snapshot of General Pershing riding in a parade on Broadway in downtown Los Angeles and standing in an open car to acknowledge adoring crowds. Holding his hand to keep the hero steady is Mayor Meredith P. Snyder.
The photo is a notable artifact documenting a major event in postwar Los Angeles involving one of the nation’s best-known figures a century ago. Today, Pershing Square remains as the city’s public recognition of a man most Angelenos would almost certainly not recognize, so remembering the significance of General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing in all of his dimensions is important for our interpretation of the region’s past.