Discuss: Who Was the Better Commanding Officer, Henry Blake or Sherman Potter?


Monday M*A*S*H Discussions offers fans the opportunity to offer their opinions on a wide variety of topics relating to M*A*S*H. Please share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section. My hope is these discussion posts will continue to elicit comments in the weeks and months after they’re initially published. Have a suggestion about something you think might be worth discussing? Let me know and maybe it will become my next Monday M*A*S*H Discussion topic.

Today’s topic: Who was the better commanding officer, Henry Blake or Sherman Potter?

In Charge of the 4077th

Be careful before commenting because I’m not asking readers to choose their favorite commanding officer. I’m asking them to think about who commanded the 4077th better. It’s a hard question to ponder simply because the first three seasons of M*A*S*H with Henry Blake in charge are so different than the eight seasons in which Sherman Potter oversaw the 4077th.

Henry seemed to hate being in command and having to make decisions. He clearly hated the paperwork that came with being commanding officer. I think it’s safe to say Hawkeye and Trapper liked Henry as a person but I don’t think they had much respect for him as a commanding officer. Frank and Margaret clearly didn’t. They went over his head more than once with complaints. At times, it felt like Radar was the one running the 4077th, not Henry.

Potter, by comparison, was very comfortable being in charge of the 4077th. He didn’t always love it, but it was something he wanted to do, not something he was forced to do. Everyone respected him, with the possible exception of Frank. He took pride in his position and in the people under his command.

Many fans may argue Potter was the better commander and there’s probably some truth to that. Henry had his serious moments when he rose to the occasion, but was more laid back and easygoing. Potter occasionally joked around, but mostly took his job seriously and conducted himself as an officer first and foremost. Both had their own command styles. Was one better than the other? The 4077th survived and thrived under both Henry and Potter.

Hit the comments with your thoughts.

14 Replies to “Discuss: Who Was the Better Commanding Officer, Henry Blake or Sherman Potter?”

  1. Definitely Potter.

    I think Henry did the job as best as he knew how, but he just wasn’t cut out to be a commander: as you say, Arj, his incompetence led to Houlihan and Burns going over his head so many times he had boot prints on his scalp; likewise, even Hawkeye said leaving an idea with him was like abandoning a baby in a garbage can . . . and even he and Trapper often went over his head down to Radar. There were even times where Henry would try to sneak out of his position, usually to get a quick nap, go out for a round of golf, or carry on an interlude with Leslie.

    That being said, however, as I’ve said many times, if you really pay attention to Season 3, Henry actually seemed to slowly grow into the position. “Aid Station” is a perfect example of this, as he not only shows a little back bone, but he’s dead-dog serious about having to send a nurse, surgeon, and corpsman to the aid station: it was a side of Henry we rarely saw, but it was also one of the rare occasions where he actually exercized his command; I feel like had Henry stayed, he really could have grown into the position, and who knows? Maybe even Margaret and Frank (to a lesser extent, obviously) may have eventually developed a little more respect for him.

    Potter, on the other hand, he not only was Regular Army, and a careerman, but prior to taking over command of the 4077th, his service record showed that his recent activity was mostly administration and a desk jockey . . . I’m going to assume that given his age and the time he’s spent in the Army (Korea was his third war), he probably worked his way up to that position, so he certainly was better suited for command than Henry was. Potter may have been a careerman, and he could be by-the-book a lot of the times, but he also realized that the 4077th was pretty much just a bunch undisciplined, nutty doctors, so he wasn’t too strict with them, and like Henry, could even let his hair down and be one of the boys at times.

    Unlike Henry, however, he couldn’t be as easily manipulated by Margaret and Frank, which I think they learned quickly: “Quo Vadis, Captain Chandler?” shows that they attempt to do something about Chandler, but whereas they could easily have walked over Henry and he could have cared less, Potter wasn’t having any of it – much to their surprise. Clearly, Margaret not only eventually grew respect for Potter, but you could see they also really bonded over the course of the series (Harry Morgan even said Loretta Swit came to be like a daughter to him, also Gary Burghoff like a son). In the same episode, he also didn’t take any crap from Flagg, despite not knowing him like Hawkeye does; Flagg even tried threatening him by saying to the effect of, “I want a decision now! The last guy they had couldn’t make a decision without six week’s notice!”

    While we’re on the subject, Frank certainly wasn’t cut out to be a commander, even though he desperately wanted to: his main concern was overly military correctness, and not only that, but he certainly wasn’t good at snap decisions . . . and heck, when he was in command, Margaret basically did all the work anyway, while Frank was more or less a puppet. Nevertheless, while Frank had no respect for Henry, it was clear that he genuinely disliked Potter, because in his eyes, Potter dashed his dreams of being in command, and basically took that command away from him; to him, Potter was an usurper.

    1. Something else I forgot to add: both Henry and Potter seemed to realize that Radar was essentially the one who kept the whole hospital running as company clerk, and I think they both took that for granted, but in different ways. . . .

      Henry took it for granted because, as I said previously, it wasn’t uncommon for him to slip away for a nap, or golf, or to just skive off his duties, and he knew Radar would just simply cover for him: sign paperwork in his name, make phone calls as him, etc. Even if Radar seemed a little uncomfortable with at times.

      Potter, on the other hand, knew Radar knew all the routines and everything, but didn’t realize he took it for granted until Klinger took over, and he was reminded that Klinger trying to take over for Radar was like when he took over for Henry. As Mulcahy explained to him: Henry had to help Radar grow into the job, so Potter already had, “the broken-in model,” and he realized he had to help Klinger grow into the job as well.

  2. I loved both characters. Henry said some of the funniest things in the series – and it was easy to overlook that, because McLean made it look so easy. He was a multi-dimensional character, but some dimensions went deeper than others. Being a commanding officer was not one of his strengths – he was a draftee just like Hawkeye, Trapper, and Frank – but for some reason, he was made a Lt. Colonel. He knew he had responsibility, but you never felt like he was trying to tow the Army line.

    That being said, who was the best commanding officer – clearly Col Potter. He was regular Army. He had respect for the uniform. I think he had greater respect for life and for the work the surgeons did, but he was going to try to obey the spirit of the Army, if it didn’t compromise his surgeons’ anti-authority streak. He was also a good surgeon in his own right.

  3. Agree with Andrea that nothing I else I can really say that BDOR hasn’t already perfectly.

    It’s really an unfair question really. Henry was a doctor back in the states who was drafted to be the commander. Potter was RA and probably had significant experience in that area, so of course he would be better suited for the job, and technically was better.

    That being said, as RJ pointed out, the 4077th thrived under both. I believe that’s because like a lot of top of the totem pole positions like that, even things like the president, if you have the right people around you, the right advisors, etc. than anyone could do the job. All you really gotta do is say yes or no sometimes and give speeches and appearances, that you don’t even have to write or plan.

    With Radar being as good as he was, and then eventually Klinger, anybody could have run the 4077th.

  4. IMO, Potter was the better CO. He was able to balance surgery and paperwork effortlessly. Henry had his good qualities but, like 007 said, he wasn’t really cut out as a commander first. Other than that, I have nothing to add.

  5. A side question: How did Henry become CO? Did the army appoint him CO against his wishes? Would an unwilling draftee surgeon really have been given that authority? Or did Henry voluntarily put his name in for command? If so, why, given his apparent discomfort with the responsibility? When Henry starts his “two rules “ comment in Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” by referring to his time in “command school “, I’m always surprised by the implication that he actually received training and performed well enough to be assigned a command. I know crazy stuff happens in military bureaucracy, but I’m never sure where the line goes between reality and literary license.

    1. It’s because Potter commanded respect, but Blake did not. I would compare both men to their counterparts in Stargate SG-1, specifically General O’Neill and either General Hammond or General Landry. O’Neill, like Blake, didn’t get much respect from his subordinates because he didn’t have much interest in earning that honor. Both Hammond and Landry were more like Potter, both good men, but uncompromising when it came to earning respect, just like Potter.

  6. Colonel Potter was definitely the superior commander, by any metric you can conceive, but Colonel Blake did as good a job as he possibly could. I like to consider this by comparing how poorly each colonel would have served in the other’s role if their roles were reversed.

    An episode like Dear Peggy, Honeycutt’s letter home, would have never worked with Blake. He wouldn’t have noticed the minor nuances of Klinger’s escape attempts as easily as Potter did. Taking note of Klinger’s hairy knuckles when he was mimicking a woman is something Blake would probably have missed.

    Likewise, an episode like The Incubator wouldn’t have worked with Potter. He wouldn’t have been as lenient as Blake about allowing Piece and MacIntire to go cavorting about in search of an incubator. Potter is also not the kind of man who would have ordered a grill that Radar could have offered to acquire the incubator with.

    1. It would have been interesting to see how Hawkeye and Trapper would have been under Potter’s command vs Hawkeye and BJ. I think Hawkeye and BJ would have been typical cutups under Blake’s command. I will say that Trapper was a bit more calmer than Hawkeye but then again, everyone was a bit calmer than Hawkeye.

  7. I agree that Potter was the better commander but they both had compassion for the wounded as well as the Korean people. I think what is cool (and this discussion has nothing to do with this subject) but Potter (though tempted once) adored his marriage yet obviously Blake did not. On another note, Hunnicut (granted he fell once and almost twice) adored his marriage and Trapper did not. I like how they changed the show with this on season 4.

  8. The early seasons of the series were much like the novel and movie. For this reason, Henry Blake was the perfect commanding officer, reflecting his counterpart in both the novel and the film. After the departure of McLean Stevenson and Wayne Rogers, the kreative reins of the show fell more and more to the show’s star, Alan Alda. It was a different show, not that it was better or worse, but simply that the dramatic content was boosted and largely so to the benefit of Alda. For these later seasons and the balance of the series, Sherman Potter was the perfect commanding officer.

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