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Backstage with Butcher

4 minute read

MY THREE YEARS WITH EISENHOWER (911 pp.)—Captain Harry C. Butcher, USNR—Simon & Schuster ($5).

Harry Butcher was a vice president of the Columbia Broadcasting System when he went into the Navy, as a lieutenant commander,”in 1942. He might have spent the rest of the war in the Navy’s Communications Division had he never worked for a trade paper called the Fertilizer Review.

In 1926, a couple of years out of Iowa State College, Butcher was in Washington editing the Review when he happened to meet an up-&-coming young major named Eisenhower. In June 1942, when Eisenhower was named Commanding General of the European Theater of Operations, he decided that he wanted Lieut. Commander Butcher as one of his aides.

My Three Years with Eisenhower is the result: Harry Butcher’s detailed, gossipy record of the period July 1942-July 1945. Written day by day on the spot, and now edited down to something like half its original size, it is still a warehouse of high-command anecdotes and behind-the-scenes yarns. Butcher was at the General’s elbow much of the time (“he wanted . . . an old friend around to whom he could talk eye to eye”), ran errands for him, played bridge with him, sometimes shared the same room. No one else had readier access to Eisenhower or a better backstage view of what was going on.

“I’ll Tell the Boss.” In England early on the morning of June 6, 1944, the telephone rang. It was Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory, who had opposed Eisenhower’s plan to use paratroopers in the invasion of France. Now Leigh-Mallory had good news: paratroop losses seemed to be light, and things were going fine. “Grand, said I, grand, I’ll tell the boss as soon as he wakes up. … I tiptoed down the cinder path to Ike’s circus wagon to see if he was asleep and saw him silhouetted in bed behind a Western. Ike grinned as he lit a cigaret.”

In France, some time later, Winston Churchill arrived for a conference at SHAEF Forward Camp, tried to argue Eisenhower into shifting the scheduled amphibious attack against Southern France to the still-occupied ports of Brest, Lorient and Saint-Nazaire. Writes Butcher: “Ike said no, continued saying no all afternoon, and ended saying no in every form of the English language at his command.”

President Roosevelt, King George VI, Harry Hopkins, General Marshall, and General de Gaulle appear on the scene. Butcher talked to most of them, and reports pretty tactfully on what they had to say. Sometimes there was discord (“After all, Allies are like families”): in November 1944, Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery sent a letter suggesting that the Allied armies had suffered “a strategic reverse” and needed a “new plan”; this, says Butcher, “made Ike hot under the collar.” Of the General Patton soldier-slapping, Butcher reports: “Ike is deeply concerned and has scarcely slept for several nights.” One night at dinner Eisenhower was called to the phone. “We soon heard his voice saying, ‘Brad, that’s wonderful. . . . Sure, get right on across with everything you’ve got. … To hell with the planners.’ ” The Remagen bridge had just been captured; Bradley was calling in to report.

Full of such sidelights and highlights, My Three Years is good-natured, modest, knowledgeable reporting. It makes few judgments and adds only anecdotes—not insights—to the U.S. knowledge of Eisenhower. “I found myself,” Butcher says, “continually in a dilemma while editing the diary. Some of the entries . . . appeared too brutally frank for publication. Yet I wanted to give the reader an honest report. . . .” He sold it for $175,000, the highest price of the war, to the Saturday Evening Post. Captain Butcher and his literary agent get it all, but Ike Eisenhower can be grateful to his old friend & aide for an assignment well done.

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