Who Killed Patton?by Nicholas DeRenzo
Robert K. Wilcox, Target Patton: The Plot to Assassinate General George S. Patton (Regnery, 2008)
History tells us that General George S. Patton, Jr. sustained life-threatening injuries in a December 1945 automobile accident in occupied Germany and died almost two weeks later of an embolism in a hospital bed. In his latest book, Target Patton, Robert K. Wilcox tells us that the General may have been shot in the head with a rubber bullet by an American spy/abstract painter, targeted by the British government, or even poisoned by the Soviets through his IV. The conspiracy possibilities are endless.
Wilcox suggests that, due to Patton’s well-known belligerence toward superiors, his stated desire to fight the Russian threat when they were still perceived by most as allies, and his penchant for slapping subordinates, he may have been assassinated—perhaps even by America’s own wartime intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services—in one of the greatest cover-ups in American history. Through a series of clumsy insinuations, rumors, and mostly unsubstantiated firsthand accounts, Wilcox implicates anyone who ever disliked or disagreed with the general. Seemingly everyone with whom Patton interacted—with the possible exception of his hunting dog—may have had a reason to want to eliminate or silence the war hero. But motives alone, no matter how damning, fail to prove unequivocally that an assassination occurred.
Wilcox often seems guided by conflicting impulses as an author: to deliver a riveting adventure tale full of paratroopers and poison, or to dryly lay out evidence, building coincidence upon coincidence to make a case for the prosecution. His gathering of facts, which proves ultimately unpersuasive, undermines Wilcox’s otherwise rather keen sense of storytelling, nowhere more evident than in his biographical sketch of Douglas deWitt Bazata. The aforementioned painter/agent/would-be assassin claims to have been commissioned for the assassination by his OSS superior William Donovan in an attempt to stop Patton from revealing wartime American misdeeds or inciting World War III with his provocative and hawkish anti-Soviet comments. Bazata is a man of contradictions, at once a ruthless assassin and a cosmopolitan painter under the patronage of Princess Grace of Monaco. When not weighed down with the impossible task of proving the unprovable, Wilcox’s character studies and battle scenes are energetic and readable. When strung together as pieces of evidence, these stories lose their vitality.
One of Wilcox’s primary methods of trying to prove foul play is by constantly referring to missing pieces of information—documents, reports, or witnesses he could not locate while conducting his research. Because he fails to find an accident report from the car crash, Wilcox assumes that somebody must have destroyed it. No autopsy or witness interrogations? Must be foul play.
The best that can be said about Target Patton is that it is unconvincing, the worst, that it is politically inflammatory. Attempts are made throughout to discredit Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Dealers—perhaps not surprising for a book released by Regnery, a D.C. publisher known for its far right leanings. Wilcox claims, for example, that Roosevelt “was basically in the Soviet’s pocket.” He continues, “He admired Stalin, sought his favor. FDR was starstruck. The Russians hardly could have done better if he was a Soviet spy.” FDR as starstruck fan, Stalin as rock star? A laughable idea if it weren’t so damned outrageous.
At the end of his 400 pages of evidence, Wilcox writes of the possible assassination, “But the evidence so far unearthed suggests that it could be true. There is fact in the scenario. It could have happened. Something is not right about what we, so far, know happened to Patton—as well as what we do not know. His accident and death needs further investigation.” Wilcox’s impulse to conduct that further investigation seems a noble one, a fitting tribute to an American hero who died under somewhat suspicious circumstances. However, not unlike a rubber bullet to the brain, this book’s lack of conclusive evidence and Wilcox’s tendency to veer frequently into politicized attacks on the Roosevelt administration fatally weaken the legitimacy of his endeavor.