Launchpad: “Speech to the Third Army” by George S. Patton, Jr.

George Patton awards the silver star to a black soldierDirections: This Launchpad, adapted from the What So Proudly We Hail curriculum, provides background information about the author and discussion questions to enhance your understanding and stimulate conversation about the story. In addition, the guide includes a series of short video discussions about the story, conducted by Eliot A. Cohen (Johns Hopkins SAIS) with the editors of the anthology. These seminars help capture the experience of high-level discourse as participants interact and elicit meaning from a classic American text. These videos are meant to raise additional questions and augment discussion, not replace it.

Summary | Read the Selection | Thinking About the Text | Thinking with the Text

About the Author

According to Charles M. Province, founder of the George S. Patton Jr. Historical Society and author of several books about General Patton under whom he served with great pride, George Smith Patton Jr. (1885–1945) was a man of many—even self-contradictory—ways: “He was a noted horseman and polo player, a well-known champion swordsman, and a competent sailor and sportsman … an amateur poet … a rough and tough soldier … a thoughtful and sentimental man. Unpredictable in his actions, [yet] always dependable … outgoing, yet introverted.” Hailing from a military family that traced its lineage back well beyond the American Revolution, Patton was already determined during childhood to become a hero. After graduating from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1909, he received a commission in the United States Army and never left it. He began as a cavalryman and swordsman, but soon became aide to General John J. Pershing, first in Mexico and then in World War I in Europe. There he became an early expert in a new form of battle machine—the tank—which he later used to full effectiveness as commander of the Third Army during World War II.

Though they often referred to him as “Old Blood and Guts” (a description he disliked), most of the men who served with Patton regarded him as a charismatic leader and, despite—or, according to some, because of—his copious use of profanity, an inspirational speaker. He commanded respect not only for his technical expertise, but also for his keen understanding of the human psyche (especially in wartime) and his prodigious knowledge of history and warfare. The much-celebrated movie Patton (made in 1970) makes evident his complex character, his competence, and his view of history as coherent and contiguous. It begins with his famous speech to the troops—in a much cleaned-up version.

Summary of the Speech

General Patton’s speech to the Third Army was given on June 5, 1944, the eve of the Allied invasion of Europe. This third-person account of the speech comes from The Unknown Patton by Charles M. Province, who compiled it from innumerable sources. The first part presents the background, the second the speech itself, interrupted by brief comments on the reaction of the troops. Readers will no doubt be struck by Patton’s harsh and often foul language, and his profuse reliance on profanity. But they should not make the mistake of thinking that Patton had not carefully rehearsed every word, chosen precisely for its desired persuasive effect. The speech repays careful analysis, and, when one identifies the problems it is designed to address, its genius and power will become evident.

Thinking About the Text

General Patton, a lifelong professional soldier born into a family of professional soldiers, addresses civilian soldiers—most of them draftees—the majority of whom had never yet been in battle. We examine the speech mainly to discover how it seeks to accomplish its rhetorical purposes. We are also interested in what it reveals about the nature of leadership in the American democratic republic. On all these matters, comparison with Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s speech to the mutineers will prove instructive.

The Rhetorical Situation

  • What are Patton’s concerns about his men?
  • What fears and hopes does he have to address?
  • What does he want to accomplish by his speech?

WATCH: What are Patton’s concerns about his men? What does he want to accomplish by his speech?

 The Rhetorical Strategy

  • How does Patton address the fears and hopes of his men? Under similar circumstances, what appeal would best address your own fears and hopes?
  • To what does Patton mainly appeal: honor, duty, manhood and manliness, pride and shame, identification with team or country or himself, desire for glory and reputation, hatred of the enemy, purpose of the war, or American principles and ideals? Why do you think he emphasizes the things he does?
  • What is the function of Patton’s profanity? What are its effects on the men—and why is it effective?

WATCH: What case does Patton make?

Analysis of the Speech

Imagine yourself in the audience of soldiers. Pause after each paragraph and try to assess what he said, why he said it, and what effect it would have had on you.

  • The Opening Paragraph (3): How does Patton begin? To what does he first appeal? Are the reasons he suggests that the men are gathered, ready to fight, plausible to you?
  • Second Paragraph, a direct address to the fear of dying (4): Here Patton makes many separate points. Why so many? Why this order? Which appeal is most powerful: to honor, to duty, to country, or to manhood? Does he succeed here in quieting your fear of death? Why or why not?
  • Third Paragraph, about alertness (4): What is the point? Why make it here?
  • Paragraphs Four to Eight, about the army as a team (4–5): Trace the several stages in this presentation of the army as a team, with each person having a crucial part to play. How does this section help address the men’s fears? Does the laughter at the beginning help make the men a team?
  • Paragraph Nine, about keeping Patton’s presence a secret (6): Why is this here?
  • Paragraph Ten, the purple-prose paragraph about the mission—to clean up the German mess and to clean out the Japanese nest, “before the [*^#%^] Marines get all the credit” (6): In the next paragraph, Province remarks: “This statement had real significance behind it. . . . [The men] knew that they themselves were going to play a very great part in the making of world history.” Do you see that deep meaning in what Patton said and in how he said it?
  • Paragraphs Eleven to Fourteen, about advancing and pushing hard (7–8): How do these paragraphs speak to the fears and hopes of the men?
  • Last Paragraph, on what you will be able to say after the war (8): What is accomplished by this closing? Notice especially the very last sentence and the speech Patton invents for you to make to your grandson: What is the effect of that closing, both for your fears and hopes and for your relation to your team and its leaders? Why does he have you speaking in imitation of his own profanity-laced speech?

WATCH: What is the function of Patton’s profanity? What are its effects on the men—and why is it effective?

Comparison with Chamberlain’s speech

Chamberlain and Patton were addressing different sorts of soldiers, under greatly different circumstances and requiring different rhetorical appeals. Nevertheless, some comparisons are fruitful.

  • Unlike Chamberlain, Patton never mentions the causes of the war or the reasons that Americans were fighting it. Why not? Given the circumstances, is this a significant omission?
  • Also unlike Chamberlain, Patton never seems to appeal to specifically American principles and ideals in trying to inspire the men. Why not? Given the circumstances, is this a significant omission?
  • Is Patton’s appeal for manly courage in battle, and the arguments he uses to make it, independent of the cause for which the men are being summoned to fight? Could the same speech have been made by a German or Japanese general to his soldiers?
  • Compare the ways in which Chamberlain and Patton attempt to gain the confidence and trust of their men. What is to be said for and against the ways of each?
  • Would either of these speeches work today? Whose speech—if either of them—would be most at home in our modern era?

Thinking With the Text

Patton’s speech, like Chamberlain’s, invites questions about the importance of courage and self-sacrifice, as well as the difficulty in obtaining them. It also raises interesting questions about leadership and about the military in American society. (Many of the following questions were asked also in the Shaara/Chamberlain Discussion Guide.)

Encouraging Courage and Self-Sacrifice

  • What is courage? What makes it so difficult? Is Patton’s definition of courage—fighting even though scared—correct? Is there more to courage than this definition?
  • How can one get ordinary citizens—especially in a republic dedicated to safeguarding their rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—to risk their lives in the service of the nation? Conversely, how do you temper a martial spirit and the love of war and glory? Which is the bigger challenge in modern American life?
  • How important—and effective—are honor and duty for inspiring men to fight? Is there a difference between fighting for your honor and manhood—to avoid being a coward—and fighting for a cause or for public service? Which is more likely to inspire people today to fight?
  • Should military service—or some other form of national service—be a civic duty? Why or why not?
  • What is the difference between military courage (and military service) and other sorts of courage (and public service)? Give concrete examples of civic courage not related to war. Which sort of courage do you regard as most important? Why?

WATCH: What is courage? Is Patton’s definition of courage—fighting even though scared—correct?

WATCH: What is the difference between military courage (and military service) and other sorts of courage (and public service)?

Leadership and the Military

  • What are the virtues necessary for leaders in a democratic republic? Are the virtues needed for military leaders different from those of civilian leaders?
  • On the one hand, we Americans want excellent leaders, people whom we can admire and follow. On the other hand, we Americans do not wish to be led, and we do not believe that some people are really better than others. What does this tension imply for leadership in America? Which of the two military commanders, Chamberlain or Patton, would you rather follow? Why?

WATCH: Compare Patton and Chamberlain’s speeches. How are they different? Why?


ABOUT THE IMAGE

Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, U.S. Third Army commander, pins the Silver Star on Private Ernest A. Jenkins of New York City for his conspicuous gallantry in the liberation of Chateaudun, France. 10/13/1944. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons via the National Archives and Records Administration.