When I was invited to write the biography of General William E. DePuy, I asked myself two questions. Do we need a DePuy biography? Is there sufficient evidence to do a proper job? The answers are yes and yes.
DePuy is the central figure in the transformation of the United States Army after the American war in Vietnam. As a soldier I saw the Army change from a demoralized institution in the early 1970s to a force that was prepared to fight and win the next war. But that was only a general impression. The research and analysis I would need to do in order to write the biography of a man at the center of that change would help me understand what and how such change had happened. As a historian, I knew that most individuals at any time are so focused on doing their jobs and living their lives that they lack the perspective to note that the trees in their view comprise a large forest. For example, though I lived through the 1960s, I confess that, nearly fifty years later, I’m still puzzling out what the events of that time mean. The prospect of examining how events from World War II through the first Gulf War shaped “my” Army and learning how DePuy was both formed by and shaped his Army attracted me.
Documentary and living sources are available, though the ranks of the latter thin with each passing day. At least two of the people I interviewed, Ed Hamilton (LTC, USA, Ret.), a World War II and CIA colleague of DePuy’s, and Jeannie Mattison Rotz, a high-school classmate and friend, have died since I began this project. The Military History Institute (MHI) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is the mother lode for documents bearing on my subject. The DePuy Papers and DePuy Oral History are found at MHI, as are oral histories and papers of many senior officers who knew and interacted with General DePuy. Surveys of veterans, documents from World War II to the twenty-first century, and expert guidance by the staff made MHI my base camp in this effort.
(p.xiv) MHI holdings were supplemented by the DePuy Family Papers; the holdings at the U.S. Army Center of Military History at Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.; and the archives maintained at the Military History Office, Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) at Fort Monroe, Virginia. Peers, contemporaries, aides, former subordinates, close observers, and DePuy’s children, William, Joslin, and Daphne, made themselves available to me. A surprising number of military friends and colleagues came out of the woodwork with firsthand knowledge of General DePuy as they learned what I was doing.
So I took on the challenge of this biography, deliberately setting aside a question posed by German army captain Adolf von Schell in his little classic, Battle Leadership, “How shall we speak about the souls of others when we do not even know our own?” as well as Sigmund Freud’s dismal pronouncement, “Whoever undertakes to write a biography binds himself to lying, to concealment, to flummery.… Truth is not accessible.”1
From the beginning, I was keenly aware that biographers risk loss of objectivity. It is easy to become defensive as one’s subject, once a stranger, becomes a friend or a caricature of unblemished virtue. There is an inclination to explain away faults, to flatter. Conversely, one could come to despise the subject or, worse, take on the project intending to do a hatchet job. I hope the reader finds that I did neither, that this biography is a balanced portrayal. DePuy was a man of rare intelligence, lucid expression, intense focus, and exemplary dedication to his Army and to his country. His career, particularly its culmination as Commanding General, TRADOC, benefited both. Yet DePuy was not without flaws. The very qualities that produced results also made him, by his own admission, a very impatient man. Making important decisions almost certainly guarantees that one will also make enemies. Leading is not for the squeamish. DePuy did not suffer fools gladly.
Historian Russell F. Weigley described the time of World War II and the Cold War as a period “when, personal doubts and much controversy notwithstanding, the world really did depend on that country [the United States] and those armed forces for the preservation of freedom.”2 DePuy came to maturity and played an important role in “those armed forces.”
The book is chronological, describing DePuy’s life from youth to death with emphasis on his military career. Strict chronology is (p.xv) interrupted by brief excursions into events that shaped him as a young man and influenced his later thinking. A life, like a graph of economic performance, has a long-term trend line that includes peaks and valleys of events along that trend line. My excursions are a way to connect or amplify some of the peaks and valleys in DePuy’s life, a way to manage simultaneity. Many things take place at the same time in a person’s life, but a written chronicle must describe and analyze them one at a time.
The purpose of these excursions is to shed light on DePuy’s thinking, actions, and development, not to resolve the professional issues he addressed, many of which were contentious at the time and are still debated. For example, DePuy’s account of combat in Europe from June 1944 to May 1945 derives directly from his personal experiences in the 90th Infantry Division, an organization that was transformed in the course of the war from “a problem division” to a very good one. Whether the 90th was unique or fairly representative of the learning curve of American infantry divisions in Europe is the subject of analysis by a new generation of military historians. But the focus of this biography is how DePuy’s experience in World War II shaped him, not to settle this larger issue.
Similarly, DePuy’s detail to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) during the Korean War raises doubts about the competence and effectiveness of that Agency. But DePuy, not the CIA, is our subject.
In the late 1950s, as a new colonel assigned to a cell working political-military issues for the Office, Chief of Staff, Army (OCSA), DePuy found himself in the midst of acrimonious confrontations among the services regarding role and mission, massive retaliation and flexible response. These larger issues deserve serious study, but our aim in raising them is to show how his experience of the late 1950s prepared Colonel DePuy to address Army issues of the 1970s.
DePuy was deeply engaged in Vietnam from 1962 to 1969 and in improving the post-Vietnam U.S. Army from 1969 until he retired in 1977. In these last two assignments and later, he was in the middle of what has been called a revolution in military affairs. He saw the task of the professional soldier as a never-ending process, a kind of permanent revolution: preparing for the next war. The major issues DePuy was concerned with in getting the Army ready to fight the next war—management, training, doctrine, combat developments—have produced a considerable literature. So have other issues in the (p.xvi) post-Vietnam Army: the end of conscription, the need to recruit and retain an all-volunteer force, NCO education, the opening of many new fields to women soldiers, and the problem of a demoralized Army shrinking in size. Events in American society during those years were equally momentous: social disorder, a failed presidency, and the ignominious end of the Vietnam War. Moreover, the lethality of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, fought largely with American and Soviet weapons systems and begun from a standing start, returned the attention of American planners to preparation for war in Europe.
A biography of reasonable length for a general audience can allude to such larger issues, but it cannot discuss in great detail the many events that touched DePuy’s life. Endnotes and a selected bibliography are provided to assist readers who wish to pursue issues in greater depth.
In retrospect, DePuy’s life (1919–1992) and military career (1941–1977) seem foreordained to take him to the top ranks of the Army, as though his life was designed to be precisely what it was. But General DePuy, like the rest of us, did not know how his life would play out nor how it would end. He did his best; he made great contributions to his Army; and he derived deep satisfaction in knowing what he had accomplished.
(1) . Adolf von Schell, Battle Leadership (Fort Benning, Ga.: The Benning Herald, 1933). Freud cited in Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (New York: Penguin, 2005), 291.
(2) . Foreword to Henry G. Gole, Soldiering: Observations from Korea, Vietnam, and Safe Places (Dulles, Va.: Potomac Books, 2005), xiv.