Book Review – S. Rabalais, General Fox Conner, Pershing’s Chief of Operations and Eisenhower’s Mentor (Havertown, Pa., 2016)

Steven Rabalais’ fascinating biography is the first to cover the life of US army officer Fox Conner (1874-1951). Connor served as ‘Black’ Jack Pershing’s Chief of Operations in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) during the Great War and in the 1920’s became a close confidant, mentor and friend to Dwight Eisenhower.

Former US President and Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during the Second World War, General Dwight D. Eisenhower referred to Fox Conner as a man to whom he would ‘always be indebted’.[1] General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) during the Great War, said Conner was the most indispensable man in the AEF.[2] Conner also had close relationships and influence over other well-known American military leaders such as George Patton Jr. and George Marshall (of the post-Second World War Marshall Plan). However, despite Conner being highly regarded by many of the USA’s most successful military leaders, he remains virtually unknown in the country of his birth and to the wider world.

Steven Rabalais’ book seeks to remedy this omission.

Robert Conner

His account gives a narrative of the life and career of Fox Conner. Conner came from humble origins. He was born in Slate Springs, northern Mississippi, in 1874. His father, Robert Fox, had been a cotton farmer before becoming a Confederate soldier who was blinded during the Battle of Atlanta in 1864.

After the war, Robert Fox became a teacher where he met Fox’s mother, Nannie, also a teacher, and they were married in 1873.[3]

Fox Conner at Staff College, 1910

Conner grew up always wanting to be a soldier and entered West Point, the US Military Academy, in 1893 and graduated in 1898.[4]

From 1898 to 1911, he served in the artillery in the field and coastal units before attending the U.S. Army Staff College at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and then the U.S. Army War College. From 1911 until 1912, he was seconded to a French army artillery regiment, spending a year in France.[5] When America entered the First World War in April 1917, Conner was selected by Pershing as an initial member of the General Staff. He became the AEF’s Chief of Operations, serving from November 1917 until August 1919.[6] In the 1920’s, he held a range of posts including commander of the 20th Infantry Brigade in the Panama Canal Zone and commander of army forces in Hawaii. He retired in 1938 and took no professional role in the Second World War. In 1951, he died aged 77.[7]

Conner was an innovator and had remarkable insight on future military developments. He was instrumental in forming the first ever divisions the US army had based around a 28,000 strong ‘square’ divisional structure of two brigades of two regiments each.[8] During the First World War, he advised Patton to go to the newly formed US tank corps as the tank was a ‘thing of destiny’.[9]

At heart, Conner was an intellectual. Despite his parents being teachers, he still came from the relative poverty of the post-Civil War rural south and his education was patchy. However, he acquired an ability to learn by himself, supported by his parents, and he developed a passion for history. He used his love of history to teach tactics and strategy to his officers and men. For example, Rabalais writes about how Conner used history to enthuse and educate Eisenhower, who was his subordinate when they were both posted to Panama in the 1920’s. Eisenhower told Conner that he had lost his former passion for the study of history as a result of the way it was taught at West Point. There, facts were drilled into recruits through rote and memorisation.

Fox Conner and Robert Pershing, Paris Peace Conference 1919

Conner suggested three historical fiction books to Eisenhower that might interest him. Eisenhower read them and greatly enjoyed them. Conner asked him, ‘Wouldn’t you like to know something of what the armies were actually doing during the period of the novels you’ve just read?’ Eisenhower recalled, ‘the upshot was that I found myself becoming fascinated with the subject [again]’. Conner made Eisenhower think about the why in history rather than the what. Eisenhower believed Conner’s influence to rekindle his appetite for history had ‘profound and endless results’ for his professional development.[10]

This book is academic but is written in an easy and accessible style. It is an important contribution to the historiography of the Great War in both America and Britain. In the USA, it will help raise awareness of Americans about their country’s important contribution to the First World War, which is very low in America’s historical consciousness.[11] In Britain, this book will help counter the Anglo-centric perspective which dominates the study and the public discourse on the Great War.

I spoke to Steven Rabalais about his book for the Mentioned in Dispatches podcast.

[1] S. Rabalais, General Fox Conner, Pershing’s Chief of Operations and Eisenhower’s Mentor (Havertown, Pa., 2016), p.147 (see photograph opposite).

[2] Ibid., p.148.

[3] Ibid., pp.1-2.

[4] Ibid., pp.7-16.

[5] Ibid., pp.17-41.

[6] Ibid., pp.41-148.

[7] Ibid., pp.149-249.

[8] Ibid., p.52.

[9] Ibid., p.59.

[10] Ibid., pp.182-186.

[11] For example, there has been no biography of Conner. The only publication is  E. Cox, Grey Eminence: Fox Conner and the Art of Mentorship (Stillwater, OK., 2011).