General Matthew Bunker Ridgway had an unenviable task when he took over as Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) from General Eisenhower. It was never going to be easy to fill the boots of the universally admired “saviour of Europe,” even for “the man who saved Korea.” Add to that an introverted, homebody personality and a serious, workmanlike disposition and the daily diplomacy of coordinating 14 militaries and liaising with their civilian governments was made even more challenging. But Ridgway was a battle-hardened soldier by the time he came to NATO in May 1952, having single-handedly revived the spirits of the UN Army in Korea and turned the tide against the seemingly inevitable advance of the Chinese Communist forces. He was used to facing down long odds and he was prepared to fight for every soldier under his command.
It helped the spirits of the men to see the Old Man up there in the snow and sleet . . . sharing the same cold miserable existence they had to endure.
Ridgway was extremely popular amongst the troops that he had commanded both in Europe during the Second World War and in Korea. A real soldier’s soldier, there are countless stories of Ridgway taking care of his troops: stopping to lace up the boots of an enlisted man, fighting the top military brass in Washington to get better food and letter-writing supplies to the field, jumping out of airplanes with his paratroopers and fighting on the front lines in active combat. He is said to have remembered the names of over 5,000 men under his command and he performed daring feats that became legendary down the ranks. According to military historian Thomas Fleming, during the Second World War, “one of his favorite stunts was to stand in the middle of a road under heavy artillery fire and urinate to demonstrate his contempt for German accuracy. Aides and fellow generals repeatedly begged him to abandon this bravado. He ignored them.” Below, a photo of Ridgway (centre) in 1943 with some of his paratroopers after skydiving into Sicily.
Despite this popularity with his troops, Ridgway was regarded by some as too direct, too humourless and too independent to lead the Alliance. Ridgway was always more comfortable on the battlefield than in the boardroom. He “was less easy-going than Eisenhower and committed the unpardonable political sin of telling the truth, and doing so bluntly.” It was no secret that NATO’s civilian political class favoured Eisenhower’s gregarious and sociable Chief of Staff, General Alfred Gruenther, as his successor. Ridgway, however, had the backing of US President Harry Truman. And so he arrived in Paris in May of 1952, ready to take up his command from Eisenhower. Before his arrival, a photo of Ridgway had been widely circulated in Europe, showing him with a hand grenade hanging around his neck (see photo below). Ridgway was famous in the US military for always wearing a grenade on one shoulder strap and a first aid kit on the other, but European publics saw the photo as a sign that the new SACEUR was a warmonger who would bring fighting rather than peace.
His arrival was met with protests and street riots in Paris and other French cities, organised by the French Communist Party. They marched with signs declaring him “Ridgway Assassin” and “Ridgway the American monster.” People also protested in London, with an even simpler message: “Ridgway Go Home.” The slogan was painted on walls in France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Hundreds of French Communists were taken into custody following the riots. But Ridgway ignored the sound and fury of his detractors and immediately set to work.
His was a Herculean job to put flesh on the bones of NATO.
While Eisenhower had started the mammoth task of creating a single military command structure, Ridgway had to see the job through. This involved bringing Greece and Turkey into the NATO fold while easing the historical animosities between them, balancing British and American naval capabilities, and contradicting the conventional wisdom that all air forces ought to be united under a single command. Through deft negotiation, Ridgway knocked down these problems one by one, declaring within months: “There now exists a command structure to control our initial forces along a 4,000-mile front extending from Northern Norway to the Caucasus.”
From now on there’s a right way, a wrong way, and a Ridgway.
The next task on Ridgway’s agenda was to make sure that this long border could be defended. He pushed Allied governments to increase both their active forces and their reserve strength, build critical infrastructure to assist with troop deployment and prepare for crises through military exercises. One of his biggest challenges was to help convince France that West Germany should be allowed to rearm, while in parallel, measures were being taken to integrate the country into a western defence community.
Ultimately, although he spent just over 400 days as SACEUR, Ridgway laid the groundwork for the Alliance’s growth into a successful military organisation. He boosted NATO’s regular and reserve forces from 12 to 80 divisions, created an effective command structure and mediated tensions between sometimes uncooperative and uncommunicative member states. Ridgway left NATO in July 1953 (Ridgway (right) can be seen with his successor General Alfred Gruenther in the photo below) and returned to Washington, D.C. to become the Chief of Staff of the US Army. He proved just as willing to reject orthodoxy and ruffle feathers at the Pentagon as he had been at NATO—most notably by pushing hard against the plan to send American troops to Vietnam. His views were mostly dismissed and he retired shortly thereafter.
In the end, Ridgway was proudest of the times where he used his stubbornness and indomitable personality to speak truth to power. He was not loved like Eisenhower. He was not admired like Gruenther. But he happily sacrificed the approval of his peers for something far more valuable: the lives of his troops.
I shall go to my grave humbly proud of the fact that on at least four occasions I have stood up at the risk of my career and denounced what I considered to be ill-considered tactical schemes, which I was convinced would result in useless slaughter.