Beliefs Opinion Politics

COMMENTARY: Adultery, the military and twisted morality

c. 1997 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and a sociologist at the University of Chicago National Opinion Research Center. Check out his home page at or contact him via e-mail at agreel(at)

UNDATED _ Does personal immorality disqualify a person from military command? Should the best qualified man for the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff be passed over because of a moral blemish that’s more than a decade old? Should all future commanders pass a test of moral purity?

Granted, adultery is a nasty sin, but what does it have to do with presiding over a country’s military establishment?

It didn’t seem to hinder Napoleon all that much.

If the mores that suddenly have been imposed on the American military had existed 55 years ago, Dwight David Eisenhower may not have served out his term as commander of the Allied forces in Europe. Nor could he have served in the military after the war. Moreover, the disgrace of his removal would have precluded his ever seeking the presidency.

There is some disagreement among historians about the precise nature of Eisenhower’s relationship with Kay Sommersby during the war years in Europe. Some of his colleagues thought it was a love affair. However, it is unlikely, as President Harry Truman would claim later, that Gen. George Marshal threatened to replace Eisenhower if he did not end the liaison. There was enough knowledge of the relationship to disgrace Eisenhower _ if there were hot lines, rivals to leak hints to the press, and media sharks intent on destroying celebrities, even minor ones.

One could have made a very strong case against Eisenhower. His alleged lover was a junior in the military. There was a war going on. Virtually all who fought in it had left their wives and homes and did not have access to a lovely military woman. It might have been argued against him that the affair interfered with the”good order”of his command. It was the same argument used against First Lt. Kelly Flinn, the Air Force pilot who accepted a general discharge rather than face a court martial on charges including adultery, disobeying an order and lying.

Yet in those days, the military had few women officers to persecute and there was no question of a double standard. The army was willing to leave well enough alone and not intervene in a personal relationship. Moreover, Marshal, then Chief of Staff, might have argued plausibly enough that Eisenhower was the best qualified man to win the war, regardless of his personal weaknesses.

In the end, Eisenhower got away with what he was doing, no one complained and very few Americans knew about it. Moreover, such reticence existed long before the so-called sexual revolution. Now, in our supposedly more enlightened era, we do the equivalent of putting an officer guilty of adultery in the stocks of Puritan New England.

Which brings me to Gen. Joseph Ralston, who is far and away the best qualified candidate for chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs. Yet he will not get it, another victim of the morality feeding frenzy that has consumed _ to name just two disparate instances _ such victims as Douglas Ginzburg, who was denied a seat on the Supreme Court because he had once smoked marijuana and political consultant Dick Morris, who lost his White House access because of an affair with a prostitute.

The excuse for the destruction of Ralston was the effort to prove there is not a double standard in judging men and women in the military, as suggested by critics of the handling of the Flinn case. Despite frantic attempts by the secretary of defense to distinguish between the two cases, nearly everyone believes there is a double standard.

However, to punish Ralston because of the Flinn case when he had nothing to do with it, shows a kind of twisted sense of morality _ that all officers are responsible for decisions some make _ and a search for vengeance that deprives the country of the best man for his job.

Ralston was done in by the stupidity of his colleagues. But he was also done in by a morality feeding frenzy that says it’s legitimate and praiseworthy to destroy celebrities, even temporary ones, no matter how unjust and harmful the results might be.