Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Churchill Series - May 20, 2008

(One of a series of daily posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Readers Note: The following post, first published in December 2005, is one of my favorite Series posts.

From time-to-time, I think of reasons (excuses?)to republish it.

It's republished today because this is the time of year most honorary degrees are awarded.

One other item: In the last week or so a number of you have made informative comments of the threads. Thank you very much.


At a critical time during World War II, an American military leader Churchill trusted set in motion plans to thwart something he felt the Prime Minister was planning. It sounds ominous, but if you read on I think you'll say things worked out for the best.

Just before Pearl Harbor, Churchill sacked Britain's Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Field Marshall Sir John Dill. It was arranged that Dill would finish out the war in a backwater post.

Following Pearl Harbor, Churchill decided to go to Washington to develop a joint American-British war plan. He knew the British would need Dill's knowledge at what would be complicated and contentious planning sessions.

So Dill was brought along with Churchill's party to give what he had, and then be shuffled off.

But it came about that he stayed on in Washington in a new position; one in which he made a vital contribution to the war effort.

How so?

Well, since the American and British chiefs of staff would jointly plan Allied strategy and allocate scarce resources; and since the joint chiefs would meet only occasionally for planning sessions; there was a need for liaison between the two nations' chiefs between meetings.

That difficult task was given to Dill.

It was agreed he could best fulfill it in Washington with direct access by cable to each of the British chiefs and right to attend the American chiefs' meetings.

Dill performed splendidly. The late historian Stephen Ambrose said no one surpassed Dill in explaining to the chiefs of each nation the ideas, needs and temperaments of the chiefs of the other nation.

But during the first months of 1944, with D-Day approaching, Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall feared both countries' chiefs would lose Dill's service because Churchill felt Dill was tipping too much in the Americans favor. Marshall thought Churchill might recall him.

Marshall wanted to convince Churchill that Dill was so well thought of in America that recalling him would harm Allied relations.

So Marshall hatched a scheme.

What if Harvard gave Dill an honorary degree, he asked an aide. Wouldn't that impress Churchill? The PM wouldn't want to pull such a man out of the States, would he?

The aide was dispatched to Harvard whose president said he would like to but there was so much that went into an honorary degree, he didn't see how it could be done.

The aide duly reported back to Marshall.

"Try Yale," Marshall barked.

Yale had some of the same problems with an honorary degree as Harvard. But its President, Charles Seymour, said Yale could award Dill the Charles P. Howland Prize.

And what was that?

It was awarded for outstanding contributions to international understanding.
The award ceremony, the president said, would include mace, academic procession, anthems, etc.

Marshall thought that would all be just fine.

The War Department informed the press that the Chief of Staff would be taking time from his very busy schedule to travel to New Haven to attend this most important award ceremony. What's more, Secretary of War Simpson and Asst. Secretary of War Lovett were also planning to attend.

The press reported on the ceremony with what Simpson later called a big "splash." Marshall stayed long after the ceremony talking informally to the press and posing for pictures, actions not typical of the General.

Soon other colleges and universities, including The College of William and Mary and Columbia University awarded Dill honorary doctorates.

Marshall later told the aide he'd heard Churchill had said, "Dill must be doing quite a job over there."

Of course, there was no more talk of recall.
Forrest C. Pogue, George C. Marshall: Organizer of Victory. (pgs. 336-337)


Ex-prosecutor said...

That is a fascinating story.

One of my destinations, in the unlikely event that time travel becomes available in my lifetime, is to attend one of Churchill's dinners at Chequers. They are the source for so many stories, including tales of those foolish enough to try and out-quip Sir Winston.