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Keeping it Zipped Above and Below the Beltline

The famous World War II poster showing a cargo ship sliding beneath the waves and bracketed by the phrase “LOOSE LIPS SINK SHIPS” was rightly interpreted as a warning against gossip about military subjects in public places that spies might hear. U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall couldn’t do anything about loose talk by civilians. His problem was with subordinate commanders, particularly senior ones, who couldn’t their lips zipped. And he also had to deal with the problem of some senior commanders unable to keep their pants zipped.

“You will not permit members of your command to have their women secretaries accompany them on their official trips.”

—Army Chief of Staff Gen. George C. Marshall to Maj. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton

To deal with the former, Marshall decided to write a detailed confidential memorandum to senior commanders and members of his staff. Dated Sept. 11, 1942, it bluntly began: “Indiscretions of officers in official and unofficial conversations have been productive of serious consequences.” He then went on to list “specific references to the character of indiscretions. . . .”

Gen. George C. Marshall

Gen. George C. Marshall and his staff officers, Washington, D.C., March 6, 1942. National Archives photo

 

Relations with the British:

Marshall summarized the enemy’s exploitation of rash statements by civilian and military personnel for the purpose of poisoning Anglo-American relations. Marshall stated that “… this state of affairs is extremely critical and must be remedied.”

 

Relations with Members of Congress and Other Government Officials:

On this Marshall came down hard. “We have frequently been embarrassed and have suffered serious results flowing from the indiscreet talk of high-ranking officers of the Army, as well as the younger men, with members of Congress on tours of investigation and other officials of the government similarly engaged. Bad blood is being stirred up between the Army and the U.S. Navy which is, to put it mildly, a tragic misfortune and presents a constantly increasing embarrassment. . . .” He ended with the admonition that such behavior was “inexcusable.”

“We have frequently been embarrassed and have suffered serious results flowing from the indiscreet talk of high-ranking officers of the Army, as well as the younger men, with members of Congress on tours of investigation and other officials of the government similarly engaged. Bad blood is being stirred up between the Army and the U.S. Navy which is, to put it mildly, a tragic misfortune and presents a constantly increasing embarrassment. . . .”

 

Army and Navy Relations:

After summarizing incidents and the problems they’ve created between CNO and COMINCH Adm. Ernest King and himself, Marshall wrote that “vigorous action must be taken to suppress service jealousies and suspicions.”

 

Other Army Reactions:

Expanding on the above, he included “other groups such as the Merchant Marine or civilian laborers for contractors.” He wrote of “numerous incidents of extremely bitter feeling” that resulted in fistfights. He added that all “these matters are seized upon by enemy propaganda and the results are not merely confined to our disadvantage here at home but are spread throughout Latin America.”

Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton

Lt. Gen. Lewis Brereton, circa 1944. Then-Maj. Gen. Brereton was just one example of a subordinate that had to be told to stop the hanky-panky with a female secretary by Gen. Marshall. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives

Marshall concluded by noting “the offenders in these matters have been more frequently officers of high rank.” Though he didn’t say it, everyone understood that going forward, any new offense risked the offender’s career.

The second problem, that of senior commanders and their mistresses, was as old as war itself. Marshall was no prude, knowing that there was nothing he could do about it. But he made sure he was well informed of such dalliances because of their potential for scandal.

“Information, official and otherwise, reaches me indicating that your relations with your secretary have given rise to facetious and derogatory gossip in India and in Egypt. Ordinarily I have little interest in an officer’s personal affairs that are not related to the performance of his military duty. However, your conspicuous position of command in a foreign theater of war makes it imperative that your personal affairs do not give rise to comment detrimental to the prestige of the American Army. I wish to make it clear that anything short of this will destroy my confidence in the effectiveness of your leadership.”

So it was that on Sept. 26, 1942, Maj. Gen. Lewis Brereton, commander U.S. Army Middle East Air Force, received a “Personal and Confidential” letter from Marshall. In his previous command in India, Brereton began a very public affair with the wife of a Firestone Tire Company executive whom he had made his secretary.

Marshall gave it to Brereton with both barrels: “Information, official and otherwise, reaches me indicating that your relations with your secretary have given rise to facetious and derogatory gossip in India and in Egypt. Ordinarily I have little interest in an officer’s personal affairs that are not related to the performance of his military duty. However, your conspicuous position of command in a foreign theater of war makes it imperative that your personal affairs do not give rise to comment detrimental to the prestige of the American Army. I wish to make it clear that anything short of this will destroy my confidence in the effectiveness of your leadership.” Marshall went on to tell Brereton to end the affair, and to inform his staff to tone things down. Again, though Marshall didn’t say so, Brereton knew if he didn’t clean up his act, his career was over. Brereton immediately replied that his secretary had “resigned” and he currently “had no secretary.”

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