[This review was published in the Fall 2012 issue of The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, pp. 387-397.]

 

Book Review

 

Target: Patton – The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton

Robert K. Wilcox

Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2010

 

                                                                                 Everyone knows that in the trial of court cases a jury’s determination of the facts often remains a matter of suspense until the jury files back in and renders its verdict.  Thereafter, the convention is that, unless the verdict is overturned, the indeterminacy is resolved.  For judicial purposes, and for the most part in the view of society at large, the facts are taken as established.  What people may not realize nearly so well is that the narratives put together by historians are also, like verdicts, man-made constructs.  An historian, at his best, is always of a “revisionist” frame of mind, questioning accepted accounts, evaluating biases of earlier historians and sources, discounting the intellectual fashions of his or any other day, weighing evidence, assessing the importance of missing witnesses and documents, considering what deserves emphasis – and much more.  With this in mind, we know that historical accounts are not direct depictions of reality, but necessarily reconstructions.  The result is that our understanding of the past, and even of the present, is often only an approximation, sometimes even a figment of half-informed imagination.

                                                                        The process is an epistemological nightmare even in the absence of clandestine activity and secret cabals.  It is made much worse if “facts” cannot be “taken as they appear” because of any significant amount of behind-the-scenes skullduggery.  How much of that sort of thing happens in human life, muddying the historical record?  Precisely because the activity is done in secret, it is almost impossible to say.  And if so, it is also almost impossible to determine how much of what we take to be true is a mere facade.  A good example is provided by 9/11.  Is the official account of what happened on that day a true depiction?  If it is, our understanding of the events of the past decade (and more) will comport to a large extent with what we think we know about a face-off between Islamic radicalism and ourselves.  If it isn’t, we’re in a quandary, in the absence of an established alternative explanation, and have reason to believe that we perceive only a façade with an undetermined reality behind it.

Target: Patton – The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton is written by Robert Wilcox, an “investigative and military reporter” who has authored several books on military subjects.  The book centers, of course, on the death of the General.  But it finds it unavoidable to dig deeply into the intricacies and extent of clandestine activity during and after World War II.  Wilcox shows himself to be a thorough and conscientious investigator who introduces us to the whole “dark side” of subterranean reality.  In our innocence, we are inclined to cry out, at least inwardly, that it “can’t possibly be so.”  But Wilcox has marshaled too much information, from too many diverse and credible sources, to permit us to escape through denial.  The truth on many things has only come to light with the passing years, as some archives are opened, decrypted messages are released, witnesses feel freer to speak, and memoirs are written.  Some of the memoirs are by defectors at the highest levels of espionage activity.

The revelations about that clandestine world combine with Wilcox’s telling of Patton’s disgust at some of the more momentous strategic decisions made in the European Theater in World War II.  These are woven into the narrative about the many specifics of the automobile-truck collision that on December 9, 1945, sent Patton to the hospital and that led to his death there on December 21.  We will discuss both of those broader aspects, but first let’s see, in necessarily quite abbreviated form, what Wilcox says about Patton’s death.

 

General Patton and His Death

George S. Patton was born in 1885 and educated at the Virginia Military Institute and U.S. Military Academy.  He joined in the hunt for Poncho Villa in Mexico in 1916 and commanded a tank brigade in France in World War I.  He went on to become the most relentlessly aggressive commander in Europe in the Second World War, leading a victorious effort in North Africa, slashing his way to the capture of Messina in Sicily, serving as a decoy to mislead the Germans before  the landing at Normandy, and driving into Germany and Czechoslovakia with his famed Third Army.  This is all too brief an introduction, since there was much more, including considerable conflict with other generals and frustration over being held back – but, of course, we run the risk of telling readers what they already know, since he “needs no introduction.”

As to his death, “No one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that General Patton was assassinated…,” Wilcox writes; “but a pretty good case could be made that Patton was murdered.”  When we consider all of the facts Wilcox has assembled in his book, many quite well documented, this reviewer agrees that the case is plausible, even though one must agree with Wilcox’s estimation that it is not definitive.

Despite his caveat that the case is not open-and-shut, Wilcox doesn’t shy away from voicing a conclusion.  He says near the end of the book that “one of the main ideas in this book [is] that the assassination was a joint OSS-NKVD operation.”  This is startling.  It concludes not only that Patton was assassinated, but that it was done through a collaboration of the American Office of Strategic Services [the forerunner of the CIA] and the NKVD [the Soviet forerunner of the KGB].  (We will discuss the well-established existence of such collaboration later.)  Even though a good many years have passed, Wilcox calls for an official investigation, with an exhumation and testing of Patton’s remains.  (We’re not sure what he expects can be learned from such testing, since assassination techniques using cyanide spray are said by him to be “undetectable.”)

The December 9 collision was preceded by what may well have been at least two other attempts on Patton’s life.  As recounted in Patton’s posthumously published memoir, on April 20, 1945, the general was flying in a light observation plane to visit unit headquarters when his plane was attacked by an unidentified fighter, with four other planes circling overhead.  Patton’s pilot flew so low to the ground as part of his evasive action that the fighter crashed when it was unable to pull out of a dive.  Then Patton’s diary reflects that on May 3, Patton was riding in a jeep when a farmer’s wagon pulled out of a side street and almost decapitated him with a protruding pole.  Wilcox gives a lot of information about a U.S. Counter Intelligence Corps special agent (Stephen Skubik) who later that summer attempted to alert “higher-ups that he had uncovered a Russian-OSS plot to assassinate Patton.”   Skubik wrote a book after the war in which he said a Ukrainian professor had warned him that “my best intelligence tells me that the NKVD will soon attempt to kill General George Patton.  Stalin wants him dead.”  There’s a pertinent sequel: Wilcox says that “in the early 1960s… a defected Soviet assassin, Bogdan Stashinsky, revealed in interrogation that he had murdered Stephen Bandera, the Ukrainian nationalist from whom Skubik had first learned of the threats to Patton’s life.”  (There were two Ukrainians; Bandera was the first, the professor the second, to warn the agent.)

There are conflicting accounts of the December 9 injury to Patton (some involving no collision at all or that the accident occurred at a different place), with the event obscured by the disappearance of the official accident report, other reports, and key witnesses.  But the generally accepted version is that Patton was riding in the back seat of a Cadillac limousine with General Hobart Gay on their way out for a pheasant-hunting trip near Mannheim, Germany, when “without warning or signaling, the driver of [a] two-and-a-half ton truck heading toward the limousine in the opposite lane suddenly turned abruptly, almost 90 degrees, into the opposite oncoming lane,” causing a collision.  Patton was the only person seriously injured.  There are conflicting accounts about whether he incurred extensive facial lacerations (or none at all), but in any event he suffered a broken neck, resulting in paralysis from the shoulders down. 

He was taken to a recently-established U.S. Army hospital in Heidelberg, where for several days he made substantial recovery.  Plans were made to send him home to the United States on December 22.  But during the 24 hours before leaving, Patton’s condition suddenly deteriorated.  He died from moving blood clots (embolisms) on December 21.  His wife declined an autopsy, and the authorities didn’t insist on one, a decision Wilcox criticizes.

Was this a simple accident and unfortunate aftermath, or was it more?  Wilcox made as exhaustive an investigation as a private party can, and marshals a good many reasons to be suspicious of it and even to reach his conclusion that it was an assassination.   There is no substitute for reading the book to get a full grasp of those reasons, but we can give at least a truncated indication of them here.

He thinks it meaningful that, despite his diligent efforts with the U.S. National Archives and Library of Congress, “an official accident report [the making of which is referred to in later documents] appears to no longer exist.”  Three other documents about the accident “that I found mentioned in my searches were also missing.”  The Army Provost made an investigation, and his report is “nowhere to be found.”  

Key witnesses, he says, vanished immediately after the event.  The driver of a jeep that was accompanying the limousine “was never seen or publicly heard from again.”  The truck driver who swerved in front of Patton’s vehicle “was foolishly allowed to vanish,” according to Ladislas Farago, author of The Last Days of Patton.  There were a number of “first responders,” from whom little has been heard.

The limousine itself was towed away and disappeared.  What is purported to be the car has been on displayed in a U.S. museum, but close examination by experts shows it to be a fake, not even being the same year’s model.  Efforts have been made to file away its vehicle identification number.  Wilcox, of course, did not rely on his own judgment about these things: he first consulted a “classic car expert” who had written an article about “the glaring discrepancies” and then had an inspection made of the car by the General Motors “Cadillac history expert, Matt Larson.”

Wilcox consulted a Los Angeles Police Department investigator “to evaluate the pictures and stories I had accumulated.”  This revealed odd discrepancies.  The investigator reported that “none of [the photos] show the same damage.”

There is evidence that Patton’s phones were tapped, “certainly by the U.S., and most probably by the Soviets.”

Wilcox doesn’t explain an apparent contradiction in his account (which may  be accounted for, however, by a change of thinking by Patton).  At one point, we are told that Patton, who had been warned that he was a target for assassination, told his daughters that he wouldn’t be returning home, because he would be killed.  But shortly before the collision “Patton was making open arrangements to return home,” intending to resign from the Army so that he could speak out publicly about how the war had been conducted.

Ralph de Toledano, a wartime OSS agent and later a Newsweek editor and prolific author, corresponded with Wilcox about “an early CIA plot to assassinate Chiang Kai-shek,” and in the course of it related to Wilcox how he had been told by U.S. government insiders, including then vice-president Nixon (about whom Toledano wrote two books), that Patton had been killed by the OSS.  At least one of them added, according to Nixon, that the killing had been in collaboration with the chief Soviet intelligence operation in Germany.

Wilcox’s investigation included days of interviews with a Douglas Bazata and his wife, and perusal of forty diary-journals written by Bazata.  Much turns on whether Bazata is to be believed.  (We will leave it to readers of the book to judge that for themselves, although it is worth mentioning that he passed a lie detector test and Wilcox says that “almost everything Bazata told me about himself – other than the Patton/Donovan stories – was backed by documentation at the archives… By 1996, millions of records about the OSS… were finally released to the Archives and accessible.”)  Bazata was an officer in the OSS during World War II, after having been an infantry captain and ace weapons instructor at Fort Benning.  He was selected by OSS founder-director “Wild Bill” Donovan to be a member of an elite group that was a precursor of the Green Berets.  Bazata was seriously injured during a parachute jump behind German lines.  After the war, he worked as a mercenary, and during the Reagan administration was an advisor on anti-terrorism for Secretary of the Navy John Lehman.  Wilcox says Bazata became willing to talk about his wartime life as “a designated OSS assassin” in the early 1970s.

What he told Wilcox is chilling.  “He claimed that he had been asked by none other than … Donovan himself to assassinate the general” and that Donovan had congratulated him and paid him $10,000 for doing it.  (Bazata says he took the money even though someone else got to Patton in the hospital with a cyanide spray before he and a Polish accomplice got there with their own “poison concoction.”)   We are told that “Bazata claims no firsthand, personal knowledge about who was behind the wish to kill Patton, only that the request to do so came directly from Donovan.”

We might think that surely there was no one, other than Stalin, who would have any motive or inclination to have Patton assassinated.  Unfortunately, that’s not true.  The situation was summed up succinctly by General Charles Summerall in a letter to Patton in the fall of 1945: “Your success has aroused jealousy and made enemies… They have finished with you and now seek to destroy you.”  (It is possible, of course, that Summerall did not mean a physical destruction.)

Patton had long spoken out vociferously to his superiors (and in private conversations that were likely to have been reported to his superiors) about his objections to how the war and its 1945 aftermath were conducted.  “He had raged at his superiors’ decisions to repeatedly halt his advances, most notably at Falaise where he could have killed thousands of Germans who escaped through a narrow pocket and returned to fight at the Battle of the Bulge; at the German border, where he could have crossed early…; and at the conclusion of the European conflict… when his pleas to go deeper into Eastern Europe and beat the Russians to crucial objectives, especially Berlin, had been sternly rejected.”  To him, it was “a mockery of the Allies’ victory” to allow Stalin to take over Eastern Europe.  Moreover, Patton opposed the insistence on unconditional surrender, believing it made the Germans all-the-more resistant and thereby cost American lives.

A number of things were done right after the war that Patton found atrocious.  He “vehemently criticized the Morgenthau Plan” to strip Germany of all its industrial potential.  When “thousands of Americans and European soldiers who were POWs when the Russians overran their camps never returned home,” Patton protested in secret the decision “not to press Russia to return [them].”  Wilcox quotes author John M. G. Brown, writing in a a two-part article “Mikhail Gorbachev, Let Our People Go” (The New American, May and June 1990), who explains that America’s new president, Harry Truman, “decided that the potential losses, both diplomatic and military, of open conflict with the Soviet Union were not worth the recovery of all U.S. prisoners in Soviet control.”  Patton also opposed giving France “several hundred thousand [German] POWs to be used as slave labor.”  Patton considered it “merciless, even traitorous,” to enforce the agreement made by Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta for what John Loftus, in The Belarus Secret, described as the “rounding up and deportation [to Stalin] of some 2 million Russians, known as Operation Keelhaul.”

It was all of this and more that Patton was contemplating speaking out about after he had resigned and entered private life.  For him to have done so would have blown the lid off of some elevated reputations and changed our understanding of the history of those times.

Assuredly, there was plenty of motive.  It remains for us to see what Wilcox was able to find out about the clandestine world of which assassinations were a part.

 

The Underworld of Assassination

Wilcox has much to tell about that clandestine world.  “Exploding cigars, poison needle umbrellas, even radioactive coffee have been publicly shown to have been weapons in the Cold War arsenals of the CIA and KGB.  World War II was an incubator for such grisly exotica, including biochemical assassination weapons.”  He says that “by the start of the Cold War, the Russians operated a ‘Special Bureau’ with a lab for ‘undetectable means of exterminating human beings,” citing John Barron’s KGB: The Secret Work of Soviet Secret Agents.  “’Natural killers’ were created that could induce heart attack, ‘cerebral apoplexy,’ and other medical maladies leaving little or no trace.”  He refers to “a formerly classified CIA study” that says that in a hospital “drugs can be very effective.”  Bazata told how “a form of ‘refined cyanide’ can ‘cause or appear to cause’ embolism” (which was the putative cause of Patton’s sudden downturn and death).

The CIA study said that “the contrived accident is the most effective technique,” since “when successfully executed, …it is only casually investigated.”  Wilcox adds that “assassinations using traffic accidents and hospitals – or both – were known methods of NKVD murder at the time Patton died.”  He refers to several examples given by Dr. Mark R. Elliot of Samford University.  Moreover, he relates information given by Pavel Sudoplatov, the Soviet defector who was author of Special Tasks: The Memoirs of an Unwanted Witness – A Soviet Spymaster (1994) and who “managed assassinations for Stalin throughout WWII and after.”  Sudoplatov tells of the killing of Eastern Rite Catholic Bishop Theodore Romzha, who was injured in a contrived accident and “sent to the hospital,” where, Wilcox adds, he was then murdered with a surreptitious injection.”  Sudoplatov took responsibility for having “organized the murder of Stalin’s arch rival, Leon Trotsky.”  For a more complete account of this world of assassination, we will do well to read Sudoplatov’s book, which the respected historian Robert Conquest commends as “the most sensational… devastating… autobiography ever to emerge from the Stalinist milieu.”

But it wasn’t just the NKVD.  “OSS was familiar with death by truck, too,” Wilcox says, citing examples.  Assassination has by no means been lacking from American policy (which is not to say that the United States has any unique culpability in this regard, if we were to conclude, perhaps naively, that such killing is morally forbidden to a society such as that of the United States; those who would condemn it out of hand will have the burden of explaining why few Americans, if any, raised an outcry against the killing of Osama bin Laden).  Recall that it was Richard Nixon, then vice-president, who told Toledano of the attempted plots against Chiang Kai-shek and Syngman Rhee.  

That there could have been a collaboration between the American OSS and the Soviet NKVD may seem incredible to us today, but Wilcox sheds a lot of light on the pro-Soviet attitudes (and desire to appease Stalin) that prevailed at that time among the top echelons of the American government, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself.  There is much to support the possibility of such a collaboration.   Wilcox says that “Donovan, either naively or recklessly, was treating the NKVD as a special and trusted partner.”  One example was that “early in 1944, as the OSS/NKVD relationship grew, OSS in Finland got wind of a treasure trove of Russian documents including Soviet military and diplomatic materials that would enable the breaking of Soviet codes.”  When Donovan purchased the papers, “FDR, whom Donovan himself advised of the purchase, protested and ordered all of it given back to the Russians ‘at once.’” 

Wilcox speaks of another instance based on his reading of CIA documents now available in the U.S. National Archives.  The instance arose when a “high-placed German intelligence officer [Major Wilhelm Hoettl]… offered the U.S. an intact network of operatives, some actually in Russia, who could spy on the Soviets.” After Donovan determined that the information was accurate, he was advised by the chief U.S. intelligence officer in the European Theater, according to Anthony Cave-Brown in The Last Hero: Will Bill Donovan, to “double-cross” the Nazis and “inform the NKVD.”  Donovan then offered to the Soviets that he would help liquidate the Nazi spy ring.  The U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff were unhappy that Donovan hadn’t consulted them, but “reluctantly gave approval.”  Whether the Nazi agents were indeed killed can be surmised, but isn’t clearly revealed, since Wilcox says that at that point “the public documentary trail goes silent.”  We must wonder, of course, why an aide to Heinrich Himmler would have wanted to work with the OSS.  The answer may have been provided by the OSS chief Donovan himself when he voiced the opinion that Hoettl was “evidently motivated by a desire to stir trouble between Russians and ourselves.”  This would be consistent with what we know about Hitler’s final, desperate hope, that war would break out between the United States and the Soviet Union, relieving Germany. 

There are a good many other examples, but these must suffice for this review.  A reader might wish to read Bradley F. Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin: How the Allies Traded Intelligence, 1941-1945 (University Press of Kansas, 1996). 

 

Target: Patton reads like a combined spy novel and detailed investigative report.  As we quoted Wilcox earlier, “no one can prove beyond a reasonable doubt that General Patton was assassinated.”  So in the absence of the missing witnesses and reports, a certain agnosticism is justified.  Nevertheless, Wilcox is to be congratulated for having so diligently pursued a matter of great historical significance – and for having made his account so readable.

 

Dwight D. Murphey