The Death Of Patton: Sinister Plot, Or Just A Cover-Up?

Robert Orlando Screenwriter
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History has no shortage of conspiracy theories: NASA faking the moon landing, the U.S. government orchestrating 9/11, or Oswald not acting alone. Gallons of ink have been spilled for the art of conjecture, and speculation has become its own cottage industry. Cover-ups often accompany conspiracies, but it is a mistake to confuse the two. Richard Nixon — no stranger to conspiracy or cover-up — astutely observed, “If you are ever going to lie, you go to jail for the lie rather than the crime.” Or in the case of Bill Clinton, you get impeached.

For nearly seven decades, conspiracy theories have swirled around the suspicious circumstances of the death of General George S. Patton, America’s most audacious (and effective) WWII commander.  Political commentator Bill O’Reilly’s recent book, Killing Patton, has renewed speculation that Patton was assassinated. But was the irascible leader of the U.S. Third Army truly murdered, or are the tantalizing theories about his death simply a cover-up for the shameful handling of Patton’s final days? “Silence Patton: The First Victim of the Cold War,” which I directed, is a new account of the Patton narrative drawing a careful distinction between conspiracy and cover-up.

Whether there was a conspiracy to kill Patton or not, one thing is certain: a sloppy investigation followed the tragic accident in Mannheim, Germany on December 9, 1945. No autopsy was performed. The driver of the 2.5-ton Army truck that smashed into Patton’s car was drunk, but never detained. The investigation was rushed along and the official accident report was lost, circumstances that naturally point to a cover up. But to understand what truly happened on that lonely, war-torn road in southwestern Germany nearly 70 years ago, we must link the cover-up of the accident scene with the conspiracy theories themselves. One without the other simply will not stand.

Accusing someone who might have motive to kill is insufficient without an explanation of how the crime was committed. Wishing bad intentions or even establishing motive to kill Patton does not mean the event occurred. It is not enough to simply investigate the suspects; the suspects must be connected with the plots “on the ground” by real facts. In the case of Patton, that means analysis of the car accident, his hospital stay,and the actions and motives of the general’s friends, rivals, and potential enemies.

Patton was a larger-than-life character, and it is no wonder that conspiracies about his death abound. His story makes good material for books and movies, but often accounts of the General are based more on fiction than fact. Even the award-winning Patton movie, memorably acted by George C. Scott, is biased and tends toward the sensational. The film, which won best picture and a slew of other Academy Awards, is based largely on the book, A Soldier’s Story, by General Omar Bradley. Bradley was not nearly as talented as Patton, and like many WWII commanders, he disliked Patton and his flamboyant leadership style. As a result, his book and the film present a sometimes comical caricature of Patton. Bradley may have disliked Patton, even harbored jealousy toward him, but he did not wish to kill Patton. For others, the motive to kill was more apparent.

Among conspiracy theories, the two best-known suspects with a cause for a possible Patton assassination are none other than U.S. General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Russian dictator Josef Stalin.

One theory fingers Eisenhower — the quintessential politician and the WWII hero who never led an army or won a battle — as the mastermind behind Patton’s assassination. Eisenhower, as the theory goes, had his sites set on the presidency once the war was over. In order to raise his profile, he needed the war to end without controversy, and that was not going to happen with Patton running postwar Germany and making disparaging remarks about America’s new friend, “Uncle Joe” Stalin. In a vain attempt to silence Patton, Eisenhower demoted the four-star general, but Patton was undeterred. He stated that he would “remove the gag” upon his return to the U.S. and tell everyone the truth about how the war had been conducted. The famous General was a wildly popular figure back home, and his voice would resonate loudly with the public, hurting or even defeating a potential Eisenhower ticket.

As a result, so the theory proposes, Eisenhower participated in a plot, with the help of William “Wild Bill” Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA. Donovan is purported to have paid Douglas Bazata, a WWII Jedburgh paramilitary operative, $10,000 to shoot Patton. They staged the shooting to coincide with a planned accident on a Mannheim street. Under the plan, the assassin’s shot would be calibrated to kill Patton, but failed. Instead, he would be taken to a hospital in Heidelberg, where later, as back up, an undercover Polish agent dressed as an orderly, would administer an untraceable but lethal dose of poison into Patton’s body, causing the general to suffer an embolism and die.

Few would question the sometimes contentious relationship between Patton and Eisenhower during and even after the war. By the summer of 1945, many thought Patton was losing perspective; even General George Marshall, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, believed Patton should be under mental observation and had his phones tapped. Eisenhower and Patton had different leadership styles and viewpoints that often clashed. Patton, though subordinate to Eisenhower, was frequently insubordinate when he thought it might win the war, gain American pride, or even boost his own legacy. Eisenhower largely tolerated Patton’s “bad behavior” because he needed him to win on the battlefield, something Montgomery and Bradley seemed unable to do in Italy, France and Germany. It could be argued that Patton’s value to Eisenhower fell dramatically after the war ended in Europe. He dismissed orders for denazification, was outspoken about the advantages of partnering with a reconstituted German army, and publicly spoke of a future war with the Russians. He had gone too far. Patton had to go.

Clearly, Eisenhower might have had a motive for wanting to silence Patton. But would the Supreme Allied Commander and future President of the United States go this far? I think not. Even at their worst, Patton and Eisenhower were still friends. They had known each another since their years at West Point decades earlier. Throughout the war, Eisenhower is on record many times for acknowledging Patton’s strengths and brilliance on the battlefield, and when possible had saved his career. And in his memoirs, Patton is filled with praise for Eisenhower despite his belief that his friend did not know how to ignore politics to win battles, or find the backbone to confront Russian aggression.

This conspiracy theory is well covered in the book Target Patton, by military historian Robert Wilcox. Wilcox relies largely on the private testimony of Douglas Bazata, the self-proclaimed assassin of Patton whom the author knew, as well as accounts by Stephen J. Skubik in his book, The Murder of General Patton.

The second most cited suspect in a plot to kill Patton is Josef Stalin — a far more likely candidate by most standards. Patton was an outspoken critic of what he predicted would be the rise of a sweeping and dangerous Russian empire. He had tried (rightly) to prevent Russian aggression as the Red Army toppled the capitals of Eastern Europe and then finished with the rape of Berlin. Patton had been commanded by Eisenhower to stand down. In the months after the fall of the Third Reich, Patton exposed the postwar abuse taking place against the German people — the robbing of industries, the deportation of private citizens to the gulag, and the blind eye the Western Allies turned to the nearly 20,000 Allied POWs trapped behind the newly defined Russian borders.

Patton rejected the postwar policies dictated by Eisenhower and the American government, crafted largely by Russian sympathizers Henry Morgenthau and Harry Dexter White of the U.S. Treasury Department and venerated by an anti-Patton press corps. The prophetic general warned that Stalin was not to be trusted and advocated that the U.S. salvage some of the German army in order to maintain an aggressive pro-democracy, anti-communist presence in Europe.

As conspiracy theories go, Stalin is a more viable candidate for murder. He had ample cause to want the outspoken General eliminated, and his bloodthirsty reputation was well established. Days after the German cease fire, Stalin turned his malevolence on his own highly successful and highly esteemed General Konev, out of fear of his popularity. Stalin had already killed his own wife. In the Ukraine, he starved millions of his own people between 1932 and 1933 through a policy of collectivization, which amounted to forced famine. And in Poland, he massacred the entire Catholic leadership. It is not difficult, therefore, to convict Stalin prima facie. His NKVD thugs, who conducted joint operations with the OSS and “Wild Bill” Donovan, had infiltrated postwar Germany and easily would have known Patton’s whereabouts had they wanted to take him out.

Bill O’Reilly’s book Killing Patton is the latest rehashing of this theory first offered by Skubik. The question that Skubik, O’Reilly, and other like-minded theorists do not answer — and it is the most important question — is, how?

How did a team of NKVD operatives working with the OSS plan an assassination attempt with virtually no advance warning (same day) and with primitive communications technology? Such an endeavor would have meant staging a car accident in which many of the co-conspirators would have been close personal friends of Patton’s, including his trusted commander Major General Hobart Gay.  Other factors make the plausibility of such a scheme highly unlikely: 1) the razor-thin precision required to follow the general’s vehicle to an unrehearsed visit of an ancient Roman site; 2) the last minute need to adjust while Patton made an impromptu switch from the front seat to the back so that his shivering hunting dog could warm itself by the heater; and 3) the need to surreptitiously prop open a car window (4 inches) at one of these stops to avoid shattered glass. Further, the conspirators would have to convince Patton that somehow the impact that caused the severe gash to his head had been the result of a collision with an overhead light inside the vehicle and not from an outside projectile.

It is clear that, with only a cursory review of the facts, the conspiratorial case for execution quickly falls apart … but not for a cover-up of a sloppy investigation. The lesser-known facts that don’t make the conspiracy headlines point to a cover-up and even to the person behind that cover-up. It was not Eisenhower or Stalin, but someone who might never have been suspected.

The soon-to-be-released film (and book), Silence Patton, acknowledges that Patton was in real danger due to his outspokenness. Evidence to that effect is fully developed and the plausibility of multiple assassination theories explored. But the true mystery to be unlocked is not about conspiracies.  Rather, it is about the cover-up itself, a botched investigation. And the culprit is an individual everyone would least expect. In the absence of a true conspiracy, nothing is more sensational than a good cover-up, and this film once-and-for-all promises to end the controversy.

Robert Orlando is a writer and award-winning director and producer. His latest release, “Silence Patton: The First Victim of the Cold War” is due in theaters in 2015.  For details visit www.silencepatton.com.