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Fiorello LaGuardia Tries to Become a General

With stars in his eyes, the New York City mayor made every effort to get general's stars on his shoulders

Of all the challenges Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall tackled, arguably none was greater than dealing with his commander in chief, President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A serio-comic tug-of-war between them occurred when, in early 1942, Roosevelt offered New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia a brigadier general’s commission in the reserves. LaGuardia lost no time trying to make Roosevelt’s words a reality.

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in a motorcade on Eisenhower Day, June 19, 1945. LaGuardia and Wagner Archives photo

Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower with Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia in a motorcade on Eisenhower Day, June 19, 1945. LaGuardia and Wagner Archives photo

In a Feb. 3, 1942 memo to his Assistant Chief of Staff, G-1 (Personnel) Brig. Gen. John H. Hilldring, Marshall, referencing his meeting with LaGuardia earlier that day, stated it was the mayor’s desire “to be on the rolls of the Reserve Corps” so as to be available to serve as part of the Allied military government in liberated areas, specifically Italian territories and Italy.

Though acknowledging LaGuardia’s qualifications, particularly his anti-Fascist propaganda work, Hilldring opposed the move, believing that commissioning someone of LaGuardia’s prominence would result in “a deluge of requests from other citizens demanding like treatment.” Marshall wrote LaGuardia a polite refusal. The matter appeared settled. But like any successful politician, LaGuardia was skilled in getting his own way.

In late 1942, following Operation Torch, the Allied landings in North Africa, LaGuardia tried again, proposing that he and a small staff be assigned to Lt. Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s headquarters “to coordinate various groups currently engaged in propaganda and psychological warfare.” Marshall found enough merit in LaGuardia’s proposal to write to Eisenhower and get his views.

“Truman Disputes LaGuardia’s Right to a Generalship”

New York Times headline, April 4, 1943

Eisenhower was cool to the idea, believing that it would further complicate an already complex military and civil affairs command structure that Eisenhower, still new to senior command, was struggling to control. In addition, England and the United States were not united strategically regarding civil affairs in North Africa, particularly conquered Italian territories.

Undaunted, LaGuardia met with Roosevelt in December 1942 and submitted a plan for control of propaganda and civil affairs in the next phase of military operations in the Mediterranean. Roosevelt, in a move typical of him when faced with an awkward situation, delayed making a firm decision one way or another.

With direct action stalled, LaGuardia took an indirect tack, using presidential confidant Harry Hopkins as his advocate. A breakthrough appeared imminent when, on March 16, 1943, Roosevelt told LaGuardia he’d get his star and a place on Eisenhower’s staff once the formality of a physical and signing of a disability waiver were completed. Roosevelt’s Army aide and sometimes “fixer,” Maj. Gen. Edwin “Pa” Watson stepped in to help. Watson tried to enlist Marshall’s secretary, Col. Frank McCarthy, to handle Army bureaucratic niceties without bothering Marshall, since the president had already approved things. But McCarthy, a member of Marshall’s staff since June 1941, smelled a rat. He went to Roosevelt’s military Chief of Staff Adm. William Leahy, requesting specific instructions from the president. When Leahy demurred, McCarthy went to his boss and laid everything on the table.

Marshall was furious, but instead of directly confronting the president, he took an indirect approach of his own. Marshall agreed that the mayor could re-enlist, but as a colonel.

Seated at the same table upon which the instrument of surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay the previous month, President Harry S Truman signs the guest log on board the USS Missouri (BB 63) during a visit to the ship in 1945. Standing behind him, from left: Adm. Jonas H. Ingram, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet; Capt. Stuart S. Murray, skipper of the Missouri; Grover Whalen, chairman of the mayor's reception committee for the president; Adm. William Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President; New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (partially obscured); and Commodore James K. Vardaman, Jr., naval aide to the president. U.S. Navy photo

Seated at the same table upon which the instrument of surrender was signed in Tokyo Bay the previous month, President Harry S Truman signs the guest log on board the USS Missouri (BB 63) during a visit to the ship in 1945. Standing behind him, from left: Adm. Jonas H. Ingram, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet; Capt. Stuart S. Murray, skipper of the Missouri; Grover Whalen, chairman of the mayor’s reception committee for the president; Adm. William Leahy, Chief of Staff to the President; New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (partially obscured); and Commodore James K. Vardaman, Jr., naval aide to the president. U.S. Navy photo

Publicly, LaGuardia claimed rank didn’t matter, that he was willing to sign on as a humble cook. But as anyone who knew him was aware, LaGuardia had an ego geometrically inverse to his 5-foot-high stature. Secretary of War Henry Stimson ruefully noted LaGuardia was “kicking like a steer” for general’s rank.

Then Congress got into the act.

On April 3, 1943, Under Secretary of War Robert Patterson appeared before the Senate’s Truman Committee, responsible for overseeing all aspects of the nation’s defense program, to explain a reorganization of the Army’s Pictorial Division. Among the committee’s points of contention was the commissioning of studio head Darryl Zanuck as a lieutenant colonel. Previously the highest rank given such individuals was major, which, for example, was the rank director Frank Capra received.

At one point in his reading of a prepared statement, Patterson was interrupted by the committee’s chairman, Sen. Harry S Truman, who said, “I’m informed by a headline this morning that the mayor of New York is to be a brigadier general in the Army. Now I know the mayor and think highly of him … but I don’t think he has any more business being commissioned than this colonel. Commissions are hard to get.”

Five days later in a press conference, Stimson said, “After talking it over with [Mayor LaGuardia], we decided to leave the matter open for the present, the mayor assuring me that he would always be available for service.” But that “at least for the present” there would be no Army commission for LaGuardia.

The mayor was unavailable for comment.

New York City’s “Little Flower,” as he was known, never did get his commission.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...