How fortunate that Americans didn’t adopt the same inquisitive and puritanical approach to their generals’ sex lives in the past that they so obviously love indulging in today. For if they had, the history of the Republic would have been far less happy and far more blood-stained. Great generals, indeed great spy chiefs, have been expected to exhibit many magnificent qualities historically, but sexual fidelity rightly hasn’t been prominent among them, at least in wartime. The media witch hunt against Gens. David Petraeus and John Allen is yet another indication that America still doesn’t see the Global War on Terror as a proper war, analogous to the great conflicts of the past.
The Civil War saw the sexual philandering of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman during his long and frequent absences from his wife on campaign. His latest biography, The White Tecumseh by Stanley Hirshson, quotes Sherman’s youngest son saying that his parents got along well enough when they were together, although Sherman always signed his letters to his wife with the hardly affectionate: “W.T. Sherman.” On the Confederate side, Gen. Earl Van Dorn was shot and killed by a man who thought Van Dorn was having an affair with his wife. Thomas Lowry’s book The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War instances several other such high-rank escapades, yet nowhere is it alleged that adulterers make worse generals.
In the First World War, Gen. Jack Pershing, the commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Force, had a girlfriend in Paris despite being putatively engaged to George Patton’s sister at the time, an affair that Patton dutifully covered up for his commanding officer. If every American general who strayed into Parisian pleasure palaces during that conflict had been held up to the level of obloquy presently directed at Petraeus and Allen, it’s hard to see how the war could have been conducted to its successful conclusion.
The Second World War saw the notorious philanderer Ernest J. King in charge of the U.S. Navy, one of the greatest admirals in American history. It would not have occurred to President Roosevelt to sack him on moral grounds, not least because the commander in chief had himself had an affair with Lucy Mercer. Meanwhile, the architect of Operation Overlord, Dwight D. Eisenhower, was conducting an affair with his attractive young chauffeuse Kay Summersby which even involved her sitting in on dinners with British field marshals.
Nor was it confined to soldiers; Major Gen. William J. “Wild Bill” Donovan was the head of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the forerunner of the CIA. He was America’s top spook for several years, her most decorated war hero of the Great War, and a serial adulterer. The true value of Donovan’s work was also seen at the time of Operation Overlord, when the OSS and the British Special Operations executive dropped no fewer than 10,000 tons of weaponry and equipment to the French Resistance, which put much of it to good use in slowing down the German counterattack. As he watched the D-Day landings from the deck of the heavy cruiser the USS Tuscaloosa, which was giving but also receiving fire off Utah Beach, Donovan loved every moment. Even though J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI had files bulging with details of Donovan’s affairs, the United States kept him in place because—like Petraeus and Allen today—he was simply the best man for a difficult and complex wartime job.
It is fatuous to argue that Petraeus or Allen would ever have given away any secrets to the Russian, Chinese, or Iranian intelligence services if an attempt were made to blackmail them over their private lives. Petraeus’s resignation was the right thing to do because he couldn’t expect underlings to cleave to a standard of behavior that proved beyond him, but let’s hear no more of that moronic canard that, “A man prepared to betray his wife would also betray his country.” In trying to persuade young soldiers to study history, Gen. Allen says, “There’s no excuse for not having a 5,000-year-old mind.” We ought to extend that wisdom to him and his present predicament, because history shows that there are huge numbers of soldiers and spies who have indeed, sadly, betrayed their wives, but who would never betray their country.