Alfred Maximilian Gruenther (March 3, 1899 – May 30, 1983) was a senior United States Army officer, Red Cross president, and bridge player. At age fifty-three, he became the youngest four-star general in the U.S. Army's history. He succeeded General Matthew Ridgway as the Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR) in Europe serving from 1953 to 1956.
Early life and military career
Gruenther was born in Platte Center, Nebraska, the son of Mary "Mayme" Shea, a school teacher, and Maximilian Gruenther, a newspaper editor who published the Platte Center Signal. He attended St. Thomas Academy in Saint Paul, Minnesota. In June 1917, he entered the United States Military Academy at West Point and after studying for nineteen months due to the wartime, on 1 November 1918, was graduated fourth in a class of 277. He was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Field Artillery but after the Armistice he was recalled to West Point to complete his training, and was graduated second time in June 1919.
Until May 1935, when he was promoted to captain, he served various tours of duties including teaching for eight years mathematics, electricity and chemistry at West Point.
In September 1941, Gruenther, being a major, took part in the Army's Louisiana Maneuvers, the largest war exercises since the World War I which involved near 400,000 troops. His performance was noticed by Chief of Staff of the Army, Lt. Gen. Lesley J. McNair.
In October 1941, Gruenther was promoted to lieutenant colonel and became deputy chief of staff and then chief of staff of the Third Army as colonel under Lt. Gen. Walter Krueger, headquartered in San Antonio, Texas. Gruenther's immediate commanding officer was Dwight D. Eisenhower with whom they became bridge partners.
Being a bridge practitioner, Gruenther published several books on the subject, including Duplicate Contract Complete: A Guide to Playing in and Conducting All Duplicate Bridge Contests, and served as a referee at bridge national tournaments. In 1931, he refereed the Culbertson-Lenz bridge championship in New York City which was dubbed by the press as "The Bridge Battle of the Century". After West Point superintendent received a complaint about full-time officer spending nights at bridge tournament, he audited Gruenther's 8 a.m. class. Superintendent reported to his superiors that, "If I could be certain that being a bridge referee would have the same salutary effect on all the Military Academy's instructors as it has had on Lt. Gruenther, I would demand that they all become bridge referees in their spare time. I have never seen a finer chemistry instructor than Lt. Gruenther." Gruenther was considered the best bridge player in the U.S. Army, and was Dwight D. Eisenhower's favorite partner. Eisenhower was playing bridge when, in 1948, President Truman telephoned him to ask him to take the post of head of NATO, in Paris. On returning to the table, he was asked who he would appoint as his second-in-command. "Well, I ought to take Bedell Smith, but I think I'll take Gruenther because he's the better bridge player". He was an honorary member of the National Laws Commission of the American Contract Bridge League. He served as honorary president of the World Bridge Federation 1958-78.
World War II
Gruenther was an adviser and planner to top generals in World War II. He possessed a strong power of analytical reasoning with capacity both to detail and overall perspective for which his colleagues called him the Brain. In 1942, he was promoted to brigadier general and became a deputy chief of staff of Allied Force Headquarters in London under Gen. Eisenhower, who assigned him the Operation Torch development. A year later, he was promoted to major general and served as chief of staff of the Fifth Army, and the 15th Army Group under Gen. Mark W. Clark; he was the principal planner of the allied invasions of North Africa in 1942 and Italy in 1943.
After the end of World War II in 1945, Gruenther served as deputy commander of U.S. forces in Austria. In 1946-1947, he was appointed deputy commandant of the recently established National War College.
In 1947, he served as Director of the Joint Staff and then Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1947-1949. In 1949, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general and served as the U.S. Army's deputy chief of staff for plans and operations.
In 1951, Gruenther was promoted to four-star general and appointed as the Chief of Staff, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (COFS SHAPE) under Gen. Eisenhower, who became the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). He continued to serve under Gen. Matthew Ridgway and later replaced him as SACEUR. From 11 July 1953 to 20 November 1956, he was Supreme Allied Commander, Europe/Commander in Chief, U.S. European Command (SACEUR/USCINCEUR). On December 31, 1956, Gruenther retired from the Army.
Head of American Red Cross
From January 1957 to March 1964, he was president of the American Red Cross. As head of the Red Cross, Gruenther personally visited and inspected disaster areas in the United States. He made frequent public appearances, captivating the audience with "easy manner and conversational style." He received several awards for International Red Cross related activities, which included visits to Russia and Poland.
In the 1956 presidential campaign, Gruenther's name was placed on the list of possible candidates for the Republican nomination after Eisenhower's heart attack on September 24, 1955. After serving two terms, President Eisenhower considered Gruenther as a possible alternative to Richard Nixon for the Republican presidential nomination in 1960, and later suggested Gruenther as a potential vice-president for Nixon, but ultimately realized that Gruenther did not have the political base required to get either place on the ticket.
Gruenther served on the boards of Dart Industries, Inc., New York Life Insurance Company, and Pan American World Airways. He also served on the Draper Committee and several presidential commissions on draft, health and disarmament. He was a president of the English-Speaking Union.
Gruenther died of complications after pneumonia at Walter Reed Army Hospital, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1922, Gruenther married Grace Elizabeth Crum of Jeffersonville, Indiana, who gave birth to two sons, Donald A. Gruenther, and Richard L. Gruenther; they both became career military officers. His great-grandson, USAF Captain Lucas Gruenther died at the age of 32 while flying F-16 jet fighter on January 28, 2013 during a training mission over the Adriatic Sea.
Gen. Eisenhower characterized Gruenther as "one of the ablest all-around officers, civilian or military, I have encountered." Gruenther served with distinction as staff officer in U.S. military operations in the Mediterranean theater of World War II in 1942-1945, and as supreme Allied commander in Europe, during the Cold War in 1953-1956.
In 1952, Gruenther became the youngest four-star general in U.S. history He is also sometimes credited to be the youngest major general in the U.S. Army in World War II, but that distinction belongs to James M. Gavin, who, as commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was promoted to major general at the age of 37.
Gruenther was featured on the Time's cover on February 6, 1956. He appeared as a guest on February 10, 1957 on the popular TV quiz show What's My Line and on March 10, 1957 Meet the Press program.
Gruenther was the recipient of many national medals, including the Distinguished Service Medal with three oak leaf clusters, and honorary degrees from several American universities, including a Litt.D. from Bates College (1958). Altogether, he had honorary degrees from 38 universities and colleges and decorations from 20 nations.