Times were difficult for the Army in the decades between the First and Second World Wars. This was especially true on Governors Island. The American people wanted a quick draw down after Versailles. One of the most distinguished officers in the history of the U.S. Army served on Governors Island during these lean years. Unfortunately, General Fox Conner has largely been forgotten.
Conner was born in Mississippi in the decade after the Civil War and graduated from West Point in 1894. He received an auspicious assignment in 1911; Conner was posted to the French Army’s 22nd Field Artillery. Such assignments had a long history; prior to the American Civil War George McClellan and Richard Delafield were just two American military observers in the Crimea. When American began its involvement in the Great War, René Viviani and Joseph Joffre came to the United States in April-May 1917 to coordinate military and logistical matters with American officials. Conner received orders to coordinate the so-called Viviani-Joffre Mission. His diplomacy and light touch helped make the mission a success all the way around.
General Pershing took Conner to Europe that next month. In France. Conner was the youngest officer on Pershing’s staff and quickly became chief of operations for the AEF. Conner recognized the talents of a young George Marshall and took him under his wing. As the Meuse-Argonne Offensive was grinding along and American victory seemed at hand, Conner advised Pershing against advocating for an armistice. Conner believed the Germans had to be defeated totally or another war would be inevitable. Pershing concurred but the civilian leadership had other ideas. The Armistice came that November, and we will never know how things might have turned out otherwise.
New Yorkers turned out to see Joffre when he, René Viviani, and other French officials visited the United States in spring 1917
Conner had a number of assignments during the draw down in the 1920s. Budgets were tight and he saw first hand how the cutbacks in funding and personnel were harming the Army. That led to one of the more unusual incidents in the history of Governors Island. In April 1926 Deputy Chief of Staff Conner testified in front of the Senate Military Committee that the War Department should sell the island here in New York harbor as well as the Presidio in San Francisco. Conner estimated the two sites could generate 25 and 26 million dollars respectively. Conner reasoned that with these funds the Army could spend the money in much needed other areas. People were listening. Congressman Fiorello LaGuardia pounced on Conner’s testimony to advocate for an airport on Governors Island.
It may sound sacrilege but Conner had a point. Servicemen on the island were living in dilapidated shacks and old warehouses left over from the buildup during the Great War. A German officer was quoted in the New York Times as saying the Germany provided better quarters to POWs during the war than what existed for soldiers on Governors Island. The savior turned out to be Calvin Coolidge. In January 1928 the president signed legislation authorizing the construction of a new regimental barracks on Governors Island. This would be Liggett Hall. There was much debate over where the barracks for the 16th Regiment would go. Wisely they built it adjacent to the new YMCA.
Conner’s involvement is a little fuzzy, but he may have had something to do with Liggett Hall’s construction; ironically the man who had advocated Governors Island’s sale was stationed here in 1927 as commander of the First Infantry Division. It is interesting that just eight months later Coolidge authorized the spacious new barracks.
This photograph of Brigadier General B.H. Wells, Major General Fox Conner (center) and Major General Dennis E. Nolan (right) was taken on March 8, 1926. Conner was Deputy Chief of Staff at the time. Note that the three are wearing business suits. In the decades after the Great War military men wore civilian attire, not uniforms, to work due to isolationist sentiment.
Conner is forgotten today because he was wedged in between generations. Military glory eluded him during the First World War because he was so important to Pershing as a staff officer. Subsequently, Conner was hugely influential in the intellectual development of a generation of young military officers who played prominent roles in the next World War. Conner alumni included the aforementioned Marshall, George Patton, and Dwight Eisenhower. Conner retired from active service in 1938 and was too old when Pearl Harbor came.
Still, he did prove helpful. Eisenhower, for one, wrote frequently for advice. How to keep a fragile allied coalition together during wartime was something Ike wanted to know. This was a sensitive topic and one that Conner knew a little about, having handled such irascible characters as Joseph Joffre and Douglas Haig so well thirty years earlier. The Second World War was the conflict Conner and Pershing warned about in October 1918. At least he lived to see its conclusion. Fox Conner died in October 1951.
(image/Wells, Conner, and Nolan photograph courtesy of the Library of Congress)