In Depth: The George Peddy Papers
Bridging the Gap Between Total War and Lasting Peace
On May 8, 1945, Great Britain, the United States and their allies accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, formally bringing an end to fighting in Europe. Flags were raised, street parties were thrown and school was canceled as a weary Western Europe breathed again. But as the Briscoe Center’s George Peddy Papers show, the work was only half done.
“I am sure you heard all the radio announcements, climaxed by Churchill’s and Truman’s announcements,” wrote Peddy to his wife Gertrude, that day. “I really have not been able to appreciate the fact that all is over in Europe.” Indeed for Peddy, who as an army officer witnessed the plight of forced laborers, starving civilians and Jewish prisoners, the war wasn’t over. Furthermore, Americans were still fighting in the Pacific—a consideration that on the first V-E Day would “dull the point of the thrill” that otherwise he would have enjoyed.
After graduating from UT Austin in 1920 with a law degree, Peddy became a successful Houston attorney, well known as a former candidate for U.S. senator and an anti-Klan political force. He had fought in World War I (giving up a seat in the Texas House of Representatives in order to do so) and volunteered again in 1942 at the age of 50. Enlisting as a major, he rose to lieutenant colonel with the Fifth Infantry Division of the Third Army.
“My Division has been the spearhead Infantry Division of General Patton’s Army and, of course, I am proud to have been on his staff,” wrote Peddy. “We liberated many of the most interesting and historically important cities of France.”
As a civilian affairs officer—responsible for logistics, communication and aiding with the re-establishment of local governments—Peddy was never far from some of the Second World War’s most distressing and dangerous scenes. Since landing on the beaches of Normandy in July 1944, his division had made its way across France, eventually breaking through the western German border and “operating against the last resistance pocket” at the time of Germany’s surrender.
But as victory was confirmed, Peddy was far more concerned with feeding people than celebrating, and his efforts to provide for civilians and prisoners were the subject of increasingly desperate letters home.
“In my area are more than 50,000 French, Russian, Polish, Belgian and Dutch forced laborers,” wrote Peddy after crossing into Germany. “The paper solution is ‘to make the Germans feed them’ but there is no food here for the Germans themselves.”
Peddy “screamed to high heaven” and “pleaded for food” after the Third Army invaded, “but for five of the longest days of my life I couldn’t get it.” As supplies trickled in, Peddy helped distribute it among those most in need. But the need kept coming. As his division moved east, it was met by thousands of German soldiers, civilians and displaced persons from Eastern Europe fleeing from the advancing Soviet troops.
“There is being enacted before my eyes a tragedy such as was never seen before in all the history of the world and I am perforce helpless,” wrote Peddy to his wife. “You know I wouldn’t write in this manner to anyone else, but I am so tired of fighting and protesting a policy which can mean but one thing—famine, destitution and chaos.”
According to the historian Richard Vinen, “For many Europeans, the years that followed the Second World War were the worst of the twentieth century.” Food and fuel were scarce, and the winter of 1947 was one of the coldest of the century. Men such as Peddy, whose pens were mightier than their swords, witnessed the postwar trauma and worked hard to mitigate it.
Allied efforts to reconstruct Western Europe culminated in the Marshall Plan of 1948 (“two years late, but not too late” according to Peddy), which helped kick-start the economy, ushering in an age of growth and prosperity in the 1950s. But recovery was preceded by a crisis, which in Peddy’s words had “never been seen or even dreamed of … believe me my friends, I am not an alarmist.”
Notwithstanding his frustrations, Peddy’s “humanitarian instincts” were praised by his superiors, who thanked him for his “arduous efforts in caring for the mass of unfortunate displaced persons … with who the division came in contact.”
Before returning to Texas, Peddy served as deputy military governor of Frankfurt, meaning that the avid politico missed the 1946 election cycle. The ’46 elections had witnessed a huge turnover in Texas politics. It appeared that World War II veterans were able to oust established incumbents from office at will.
Perhaps encouraged by their success, Peddy ran again for the U.S. Senate as a candidate in the 1948 Democratic primary. According to the Denison Press, he ran “a whirlwind campaign,” crisscrossing the state and “drawing large crowds.” Naturally, he devoted much of his campaign talks to foreign affairs, preaching a rather grim gospel of Cold War preparedness. Despite polling an impressive 20 percent of the vote, Peddy could only place third. However, this was much to the chagrin of former Gov. Coke Stevenson, who had trounced the field but was still forced into a runoff.
According to the Panhandle Herald, “the extra strength shown by Peddy” (on the same side of the party as Stevenson) cost the former governor an outright victory. Stevenson went on to lose the controversial runoff—to a youngish congressman named Lyndon Johnson.