World War II history is rich with some of the finest, most historically significant speeches of the 20th century. President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks; General Dwight Eisenhower’s ordering of the D-Day Normandy invasion; and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Never Surrender” address to Parliament’s House of Commons.
There was another, however: General George Patton’s speech to the Third Army—an address that I believe sits atop the greatest military speeches in American history.
Memorialized by George C. Scott in the opening scene of the 1970 film “Patton,” its eloquence was its imagery of brutality—its urgency in its promise that the soldiers were guaranteed to witness death in war.
World War II officially ended in the Summer of 1945, but Europe was won Christmastime 1944. Speeches don’t win wars, but they are crucial to the morale of soldiers and their sense of duty. This singular, motivational oration embodied Patton’s strategic genius, as well as his unrelenting rejection of neutrality and excuse-making.
Words Into Action
Here are excerpts, as written for the biopic (toot-my-own-horn brag here: I can cite the speech verbatim, by memory):
I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.
Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about America not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the war, is a lot of horse dung. Americans, traditionally, love to fight. All real Americans love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooters, the fastest runners, big league ball players, the toughest boxers. Americans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser.
This is the moment Patton links the American soldiers to our Revolutionary Army—whose efforts and sacrifices brought forth the greatest nation in world history—and he linked them, as well, to the other great American armies that came before World War II.
. . . Americans have never lost and will never lose a war, because the very thought of losing is hateful to Americans.
Now, an army is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, fights as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for the Saturday Evening Post don’t know anything more about real battle than they do about fornicating.
As strong an individual personality as Patton was, he had an innate grasp of the truth that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. He knew that every man was responsible not only for himself but for all others in his unit.
Now there’s another thing I want you to remember: I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let the Hun do that. We are advancing constantly and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We’re going to hold onto him by the nose and we’re going to kick him in the ass. We’re going to kick the hell out of him all the time and we’re going to go through him like crap through a goose.
Patton had earned the nickname “Old Blood and Guts,” because he produced more results in less time and with the fewest casualties of any other general, Allied or Axis, during the war, according to Patton biographer Alan Axelrod. As the general had once remarked, “nobody ever defended anything successfully; there is only attack and attack and attack some more.”
All right, now, you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh . . . I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle anytime, anywhere.
His men knew he would fight to his death, alongside them on the battlefield.
Winning the War
Nine days before Christmas 1944, the Wehrmacht launched a last-ditch military offensive, at the Battle of the Bulge, and it was effective, killing thousands and trapping another 6,000 in the area of Bastogne, Belgium.
Patton’s proposed campaign of leading the Third Army into Bastogne over the course of just 48 hours was met with looks of incredulity from his fellow generals and commanders. Patton never underestimated the Nazi’s will to win; the blitzkrieg of the Bulge was largely influenced by Germany’s desperation, and Patton understood that a desperate enemy was a dangerous enemy.
Patton had long respected the prowess of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, his contemporary of the Third Reich, and acknowledged that the Allies, severely battered and depleted from the Bulge, could still lose the war on the European front. Old Blood and Guts knew death or capture was guaranteed for the 6,000 Allied soldiers if he and his men didn’t arrive in time. Imagine the pressure Patton and his men must have felt; they faced uncertainty as to whether they could relieve, and if they didn’t relieve in time, they themselves faced certain death or capture. No Hollywood film can replicate the real-life—and understandable—fear those men must have felt.
But despite—or, maybe, in spite of—the apprehension and unpredictability, the general and our boys did it. They spent their Christmas holiday moving 100 miles across France, over two days, to relieve Bastogne—just as Patton had said would happen. It was the most ground covered in the shortest period of time up to that point in our military history.
The victory ensconced General Patton, in my humble opinion, as great an American as any who has ever lived. Could General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded the Southwest Pacific during Bastogne, or General George Marshall, who led operations in the Pacific and elsewhere throughout Europe, have led the Third Army to victory? Certainly. This moment, however, was Patton’s destiny, and his moment of redemption, since he had developed a reputation for lacking discipline, due to a 1943 incident in which he slapped and mocked shell-shocked Allied soldiers.
The Nazi armed forces were the most vicious and sophisticated our military had ever faced. Had the Bastogne relief occurred a day or two late—even, perhaps, an hour or two late—it is very possible that the Allied forces would have been forced into surrender. At that moment in our history, in the West’s history—in world history—the side that outfought the other side would reign supreme.
Defeat was never an option for Patton. I’ve never served in our military, and I only know war to be Hell from history and stories from veterans I know and admire. Conversely, though, that kind of Hell seems to conjure almost superhuman intrepidity within our fighting men and women. We Americans enjoy our many freedoms because of these heroes and heroines, and we owe it to all of them to fight to preserve the liberties they risked—and gave—their lives to defend.
Americans, as General Patton said, love to fight. And fight we will to maintain American greatness and exceptionalism.
Photo credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images