“The last of the World War II heroic generals”

The service of General Maxwell Taylor

Brigadier General Maxwell Davenport Taylor near Carentan in Normandy, 1944
(Photo: U.S. Army)

World War II is generally accepted as the single most history-forming war of the 20th century. It is no surprise that commanders who served in the war are usually mostly remembered for the part they played it in, and their accomplishments in other conflicts are largely overlooked. It would be, however, hard to compress the career of General Maxwell Davenport Taylor (1901-1987) into just his World War II service. While his courage and his leadership of 101st “Screaming Eagles” Airborne Division rightly earned him acclaim, his long service after the war arguably had a far greater effect on the American military.
Maxwell Taylor graduated from West Point in the class of 1922 and was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, serving in Hawaii for four years before transferring to the Field Artillery Branch. He served at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, from 1935 to 1939 at the rank of captain, also traveling to China as an attaché in 1937.

Taylor at West Point in 1922
(Photo: The Howitzer)

America entered World War II in December 1941, and Taylor became first Chief of Staff of the 82nd “All American” Airborne Division, then commanding officer of the division’s artillery the next year. He found the chance to show off his personal skill and courage in the late summer of 1943. With the island of Sicily in Allied hands, the Allies were making ready to land on the Italian peninsula. The Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was deposed in late July, and the new Italian government was cautiously willing to change sides and fight along the Allies as soon as the latter made landfall. It was clear that German forces in the country would quickly retaliate. The Allied capture of Rome before the Germans could take it was considered important to the rapid success of the invasion, and Taylor and the 82nd Airborne were selected as the ones to make it happen.
Taylor and intelligence officer Colonel William Gardiner took a British boat to Italy on September 7. Once they made landfall, they climbed into an Italian military ambulance car and pretended to be freshly captured prisoners of war, escorted to Rome by their Italian “captors.” Even though they were operating deep behind enemy lines with no way to escape if things went south, Taylor and Gardiner had to wear their American uniforms, since wearing anything else would have led to their likely execution as spies if captured. Once in Rome, Taylor spoke with Italian General Giuseppe Castellano, and even dragged Prime Minister Pietro Badoglio out of his bed at 2 a.m. in an attempt to stop the Italians from stalling. Despite his efforts, the plan to capture Rome early failed. The planes of the 82nd Airborne were already in the air when Taylor realized that German troops were moving into the planned drop zones outside Rome and called off the mission by radio. Rome ended up being taken only in 1944, by troops that originally came ashore at Anzio.
(Read our earlier article: Anzio: “a vain-glorious blunder”)

Taylor sitting next to Italian Prime Minister Badoglio as the latter reads Italy’s declaration of war against Germany later in 1943
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Taylor’s next assignment took him to another legendary American airborne unit, the 101st Airborne Division, the “Screaming Eagles.” (Read our earlier article – The Screaming Eagles) The 101st was a new unit and was training in England in preparation of D-Day when its commanding general, William Lee, suffered a heart attack in February 1944. Taylor was chosen as the replacement and given a temporary promotion to major general in May.

Taylor in Normandy after D-Day
(Photo: U.S. Army)
Taylor proved his personal courage once again on the night before D-Day, when he jumped into Normandy alongside his men. While Theodore Roosevelt, Jr.  (Read our earlier article – Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, Jr.) is often (and correctly) cited as being the first Allied general to land on the invasion beaches, Taylor beat him by several hours as the first general to be in Normandy at large.
Taylor led the 101st in a new operation in September 1944. This was Operation Market Garden, the doomed attempt to cut through the Netherlands and get into Germany before the onset of winter. The division captured four of the five bridges assigned to it despite not having their artillery for two days.
Major General Taylor receiving the Distinguished Service Order from British General Bernard Montgomery after Operation Market Garden
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

Once Market Garden failed, the 101st dug in for the winter, but did not get a chance to enjoy some well-earned R&R. Hitler’s last great counterattack on the Western Front was launched in mid-December, catching the Allies flat-footed. The 101st was quickly rushed to the Belgian town of Bastogne to defend the strategically important road and railway hub in the middle of what became known as the Battle of the Bulge. It was possibly the finest hour of the 101st, but also Taylor’s greatest disappointment: he was at a conference in the United States when the German attack started, and could not rejoin his men in time. The 101st was commanded by its artillery officer, Anthony McAuliffe, during the battle, who became famous for his laconic response of “Nuts!” to the German demand for surrender. (Read our earlier article: To the German Commander: N U T S !)

Taylor in paratrooper outfit
(Photo: National Archives)

The Screaming Eagles saw little action for the rest of the war, but the most influential part of Taylor’s career was just beginning. He was appointed as West Point’s superintendent in September 1945, where he drafted the first written version of the Cadet Honor Code, which reads thus: “A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do.” He served as commander of allied troops in West Berlin from 1949 to 1951, and took command of the Eighth Army during the last phase of the Korean War in 1953.

Taylor taking over as superintendent at West Point
(Photo: United States Military Academy Library)
Taylor was appointed as Army Chief of Staff in 1955, succeeding his old mentor, Matthew Ridgway (Read our earlier article – The American war hero who also saved Korea) in the position. During this period, the U.S. military’s (and President Eisenhower’s) greatest challenge was adapting to the new reality of the Cold War and the possibility of nuclear war. It was a time of uncertainty, and Taylor found himself locking horns with Eisenhower over the future of the Army. Eisenhower’s New Look policy emphasized the use of tactical atomic weapons on the battlefield (though this notion was eventually recognized to rapidly lead to an inevitable total nuclear exchange), the use of espionage and covert operations to oppose the Soviet Union across the world, and the idea of massive nuclear retaliation.

Taylor, and the Army at large, were wary of the apparent neglect of conventional forces, and the accompanying decrease in the Army budget. Taylor’s idea of adapting to the nuclear battlefield was the Pentomic formation. U.S. divisions traditionally comprised three regiments; two of these could be sent into battle, with the third held back as reserves. In the age of atomic weapons, however, this was a dangerous gamble, since a single enemy strike with tactical nukes could destroy two-thirds of a division. Taylor’s Pentomic division did away with the regiments and replaced them with five smaller “battle groups” whose equipment included atomic weapons, such as the Davy Crockett Weapon System, a nuclear recoilless gun. These battle groups were, at least in theory, small enough to be transported anywhere in the world by air, and could be dispersed more effectively, without offering the enemy a tempting target. A hypothetical Soviet nuclear strike followed up by an armored advance would be met by such smaller dispersed forces that would channel the attack into effective kill zones.
The Davy Crockett Weapon System, one of the weapons of a Pentomic Division
(Photo: U.S. Army)
In practice, the Pentomic formation proved a failure and was discarded after a few years of experiments. Each of the five battle groups comprised of five companies. Having such a large number of independent moving parts work together required more trained officers, more communications equipment, and more and better command and communications methods than were available. Additionally, breaking up long-established regiments and combining battalions from different regiments broke up unit cohesion.
Taylor retired from military service in 1960, Eisenhower’s last presidential year. Still grinding an axe against the New Look policy, Taylor wrote a book, The Uncertain Trumpet, in which he sharply criticized Eisenhower’s plans. The book caught the eyes of the upcoming Democratic presidential nominee, John F. Kennedy, himself a World War II veteran.
(Read our earlier article – The sinking of PT-109) Kennedy considered the book valuable ammunition in his campaign against Eisenhower’s Republican would-be successor, Richard Nixon. Both J. F. K. and his brother, Attorney General Robert Kennedy, came to consider Taylor a trusted supporter and a close friend, with Robert even naming one of his sons after him. President Kennedy based his own “flexible response” defense policy partially on the views Taylor espoused in his book.
Taylor with John F. Kennedy
(Photo: John F. Kennedy Library)
In 1961, Kennedy’s government financed the Bay of Pigs invasion, a catastrophically failed attempt to have anti-Castro Cuban revolutionaries take over Cuba. After the debacle, Kennedy asked Taylor to put together a report on why the invasion failed. Taylor’s report confirmed what Kennedy already believed: it claimed it was the fault of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who did not review the plan adequately.
Kennedy, already trusting Taylor, asked him to return to service and created a new position specifically for him: “military representative to the president.” Taylor became Kennedy’s de facto primary military adviser in this position, effectively sidelining the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. This arrangement ended in 1962, when Kennedy appointed Taylor the actual Chairman, eliminating the needs for the workaround.
General Taylor, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and John F. Kennedy
(Photo: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
Meanwhile, new clouds were darkening the horizon: the situation in Vietnam was turning worse, with the U.S.-supported South Vietnam regime failing to take sufficient measures against the Vietcong, even as South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm’s regime was losing stability due to its violent actions against the country’s Buddhist majority. Taylor was sent to Vietnam on two fact-finding missions to appraise the situation, first with Deputy National Security Advisor Walt W. Rostow in late 1961, then with Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in 1963. After his first trip, Taylor advised Kennedy to send 8,000 American troops to South Vietnam, a recommendation most of the cabinet agreed with – with the notable exception of Kennedy himself.
Taylor with Rostow during their 1961 mission to South Vietnam
(Photo: Fred Waters)
In August 1963, several members of the U.S. government sent a hastily and secretly written cable to Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador in South Vietnam. The message authorized Lodge to greenlight a possible coup by South Vietnamese officers against Diệm in hopes he would be replaced by a new government more capable of prosecuting the war. The telegram was sent without the knowledge of many important political figures, including Taylor. Taylor thought keeping Diệm in place was the better way forward, and considered the message a major mistake, but could do nothing about it after the fact.
Taylor’s second mission to Vietnam, one month after the cable was sent, reported that the war itself was going well, but also noted the regime’s unpopularity due to the Buddhist crisis. Events, however, were progressing too fast to change course. Diệm was arrested and killed in a coup in early November, with control of South Vietnam slipping into the hands of a military junta, a change which ultimately failed to improve the progress of the war.
Buddhist monks protesting the Diệm regime’s persecution of their faith, a conflict which was one of the causes of instability in South Vietnam and the eventual coup
(Photo: alphahistory.com)
After Kennedy’s assassination, Taylor continued to serve the new President, Lyndon B. Johnson. His term as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs ended in 1964, and he was posted as the new ambassador to South Vietnam until late July 1965. He served in a few more advisory and consultant government positions until his eventual retirement. He died in 1987, at the age of 85, of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. One of his two sons, Thomas Happer Taylor, served in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division, his father’s old World War II command.
Thomas and Maxwell Taylor on the day the former arrived, and the latter left Vietnam
(Photo: U.S. Army)
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