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To Major General Daniel Van Voorhis
September 2, 1939 [Washington, D.C.]
Personal and Confidential
My dear Van Voorhis:
I have a very confidential matter to take up with you, and I must ask you not to comment to any other person regarding what follows:
The Secretary of War is disturbed over the situation in Panama. He has just returned from an inspection there and is of the opinion that conditions are not what they should be. Frankly, he feels that the Governor of the Canal Zone has made little effort to cooperate with the Military Commander, but has centered his efforts to too great an extent on the economic or money-making phase of the Canal operation, to at least some neglect of essential military precautions. He feels that General Stone has made every effort to cooperate, but he is also strongly of the opinion that General Stone has not the force to command the situation, and does not visualize the more important aspects of the requirements.1
During the next few months, at least, the Canal Zone will probably be the point at which most of the critical international incidents will develop, concerning this country. For some time past six British cruisers have been lying off the Canal; we have the question of German submarines to consider; air fields in nearby Colombia have German reserve pilots operating planes, who have already excited the suspicions of our Embassy to the Colombian Government. So you can see the critical state of affairs in the Canal Zone.
Now I come to your connection with the matter. The Secretary of War refuses to consider General Lear as a possible Commander of the Zone. I have never met General Lear, but I do find a number of people who reflect the same opinion as the Secretary.2 However that may be, Mr. Woodring is positive on this phase of the matter. So it becomes necessary to find an officer senior to Lear to relieve General Stone, and your name has been proposed as the man with the force, leadership, and good judgment to meet the situation.
To be perfectly clear in the matter, I will explain further—and again, most confidentially, that General De Witt is scheduled to relieve General Bowley in command of the Fourth Army, and General Brees, who might possibly be considered for Panama, not only has a short time left to serve, but some very important problems in the Air Corps augmentation program are occurring in his corps area, as well as in the planning for possible mobilization—which would center very heavily in his area.3
I see that on the Foreign Service roster you are credited with the longest service of any individual—over twelve years. Also you have been less than a year in command of the Fifth Corps Area—and I think it is most unfortunate to make frequent changes in corps area commanders. However, the facts are as I have outlined them above, and I wish you would write me immediately, confidentially, by air mail and give me your reaction.4 I know you will loyally carry out any orders, but I would like to be aware of your feelings in the matter.
P.S. One phase of the matter I did not mention. I think it is not only important, but only fair that the shortening of General Stone’s tour in Panama and the superseding of General Lear be carried out with as little loss of face to these two officers as is possible of arrangement. I hope we can stage the affair so that General Stone feels moved to reverse himself on the further extension of his foreign service tour. As to General Lear, there is no “out” that I can see at the moment. Naturally I presume he will be resentful of being denied the opportunity to command the Zone. But the situation is too critical to this country to settle on any personal basis.
Document Copy Text Source: George C. Marshall Papers, Pentagon Office Collection, Selected Materials, George C. Marshall Research Library, Lexington, Virginia.
Document Format: Typed letter.
1. Secretary of War Woodring had been in the Canal Zone August 9 to 13; he returned to the United States on August 19. Brigadier General Clarence S. Ridley (U.S.M.A., 1905) had been governor of the Panama Canal Zone since August 1936. Major General David L. Stone had commanded the Panama Canal Department since April 1937 and was due to retire in August 1940.
2. Major General Ben Lear commanded the Pacific Sector of the Panama Canal Department. He was, as an officer who served under him briefly later recalled, “a big, gruff cavalryman, about whom I knew little. But there was something about him that I instinctively felt boded future trouble.” (J. Lawton Collins, Lightning Joe: An Autobiography [Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1979], p. 101.) Van Voorhis, whose commission as major general was three months prior to Lear’s, outranked him by two files.
3. Lieutenant General Albert J. Bowley had commanded the Fourth Army and Ninth Corps Area since March 1938 and was due to retire November 30, 1939. Major General Herbert J. Brees commanded the Eighth Corps Area.
4. Van Voorhis replied: “I thoroughly appreciate the responsibility devolving upon the commander under the present circumstances. If, however, you feel that I am qualified to meet the situation, both present and future, I want to assure you of my willingness to meet your wishes and my availability at any time you command.” (Van Voorhis to Marshall, September 4, 1939, GCMRL/G. C. Marshall Papers [Pentagon Office, Selected].) See Marshall to Stone, October 9, 1939, Papers of George Catlett Marshall, #2-063 [2: 76-77].
Recommended Citation: ThePapers of George Catlett Marshall, ed.Larry I. Bland, Sharon Ritenour Stevens, and Clarence E. Wunderlin, Jr.(Lexington, Va.: The George C. Marshall Foundation, 1981- ). Electronic version based on The Papers of George Catlett Marshall, vol. 2, “We Cannot Delay,” July 1, 1939-December 6, 1941 (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 48-50.