War-averse commander in chief

February 17, 2012

Difficult though it is to believe for one of my generation, it has been more than half a century since Dwight David Eisenhower left the White House after 41 / 2 decades of exemplary public service. At the time — January 1961 — many of us welcomed his departure. We even more ardently welcomed the arrival of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and, with him, a new generation of political leadership: younger, more daring, more open to the “new ideas” about which the New Frontiersmen talked so loudly and excitedly.

Too often we forget, even after having had half a century to think about it, that, as Jean Edward Smith puts it in this fine new biography, Eisenhower was “the only president in the twentieth century to preside over eight years of peace and prosperity.” This was not because he was a cautious, passive caretaker president but because his long, distinguished military career had led him, as earlier their own experiences of war had led Ulysses Grant and William T. Sherman, to hate war. In 1953, when he took office, the United States was in the midst of the Korean War, a conflict the American public loathed. “Ike believed the country wanted peace,” Smith writes, “and he was determined to provide it. War was neither a board game nor a seminar exercise for armchair intellectuals.” So he got the country out of Korea, refused to rescue France from the folly of Dien Bien Phu (thus keeping the United States out of Vietnam) and declined to go along with France and England in their subsequent folly at Suez.

We will never know what Kennedy would have done about Vietnam as we slipped gradually into the quagmire there, but we do know that the war was enthusiastically boosted by McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and the other “armchair intellectuals” he brought into his administration. We do know that it was carried on by Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, before the latter finally extricated us from it. Scarcely had we caught our breath than George H.W. Bush led us into war with Iraq, though he at least had the sense to stop as soon as the job was done. Instead it was left to his son and namesake, poked and prodded by neocons with no personal experience of combat — chickenhawks, as they’re known in some circles — to take us not merely into Iraq but into Afghanistan as well.

So now is a very good time for this war-happy capital city to reacquaint itself with the life and example of Eisenhower, who has faded too quickly from the collective memory. Because for several years we have been busily sentimentalizing the soldiers of the “Greatest Generation” whom he led to victory in Europe, we remember him as a military leader. But he was in the White House far longer than he was general of the Army and supreme commander of Operaton Overlord, the Allied invasion of Europe that began on D-Day 1944, and his White House years need a more thorough exploration than many previous biographers have given them.

Smith, whose long, distinguished career includes superb one-volume biographies of Grant and Franklin Roosevelt, provides just that. He devotes some 230 pages to World War II and 210 to the White House (out of a total of 766 pages of text). This near-exact balance is appropriate, as the two periods had equal importance in Eisenhower’s life. To be sure, he was a military man at heart — he organized the White House much as he had organized the Allied command — and a somewhat (but certainly not wholly) reluctant candidate for the presidency, but his place in American history may be more likely determined by his White House years than by his military record.


’Eisenhower in War and Peace’ by Jean Edward Smith (Random House)

Eisenhower was born in Texas in 1890, but his family moved to Kansas when he was a year and a half old. Abilene is where he grew up and where he absorbed the solid Midwestern values that defined him for the rest of his life. His father was rather feckless, but his mother was attentive and loving, bringing up a brood of boys, all of whom excelled in the various careers they chose. Ike got into West Point on his merits (he placed solidly in a competitive exam) and thrived there. He made friends easily and had good grades, but: “More important than class standing . . . Ike had learned the profession of a soldier. He knew how to march, how to handle a weapon, how to ride, and how to write an order. He knew the customs and traditions of the service, the organization, and the importance of teamwork and discipline. He was not thirsting for glory, but he understood the career he had embarked upon.”

Too late to see action in World War I, at its close he began a slow rise through a peacetime Army in which promotion came at a snail’s pace, if at all. Apart from his obvious abilities, there were two reasons he managed to get ahead: He was lucky, and he developed close relations with older men who took him under their wings. These included John J. Pershing, George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur (whom in time he despised as “a puking baby”), as well as others (Fox Conner, Walter Krueger, George Van Horn Moseley) who are forgotten now but were immensely important in the Army of the 1920s and ’30s. Eisenhower made it to Washington under MacArthur in the late 1920s and again a decade later, under Marshall. Everywhere he went, his superiors shared Moseley’s judgment of him:

“You possess one of those exceptional minds which enables you to assemble and to analyze a set of facts, always drawing sound conclusions and, equally important, you have the ability to express those conclusions in clear and convincing form. Many officers can take the first two steps of a problem, but few have your ability of expression.”

As the nation was drawn into the century’s second global conflict, Eisenhower moved quickly from the War Plans office in Washington to command of the European theater. He was something less than a brilliant military strategist, but his “executive ability . . . was exceptional.” He was able to keep in check the vast egos of his gifted American and British generals and to persuade them to work in something that approximated unison. “I belonged with troops,” he had said long before arriving in London, and he had the loyalty of all those who served under him. In the course of the war he made mistakes, as did everyone else, but a French general got it right: “Eisenhower was the right man at the right place at the right time.”

He came home in 1945 as his country’s greatest hero. He served for a time (and served well) as president of Columbia University and wrote a wartime memoir, “Crusade in Europe,” that Smith deservedly praises for its lucid prose and “complete record of the war in Europe.” He really didn’t much like or understand academia, though, and was receptive when “I Like Ike” fever got underway. His progress to the 1952 Republican nomination was not exactly a victory march, but he got there, won the general election in a landslide and settled in at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Smith’s account of Eisenhower’s stewardship is astute, with only a couple of exceptions — Ike was no leader on civil rights and, contrary to legend, was not “personally responsible for the interstate highway system” — and, again, Smith’s judgment is deserved:

“As president, Eisenhower restored stability to the nation. His levelheaded leadership ensured that the United States would move forward in measured steps under the rule of law at home and collective security abroad. His sensible admonition upon leaving office to be wary of the military-industrial complex was the heartfelt sentiment of a president who recognized the perils of world leadership. . . . As with FDR, politics came naturally to Eisenhower. Bismarck once observed that political judgment was the ability to hear the distant hoofbeats of the horse of history. Ike possessed that talent in abundance. As historian Garry Wills put it, Ike was a political genius. ‘It is no mere accident that he remained, year after year, the most respected man in America.’ ”

Ike did have a private life, and it was more interesting than those of many presidents. Smith does not scant it. He paints a full portrait of the long marriage to Mamie Doud, with its frequent ups and downs, and as best he can he portrays the relationship between Ike and Kay Summersby, the attractive and much younger British woman who was, throughout the war, his driver and much more, though precisely what “much more” means is in dispute. “Whether he and Kay were intimate remains a matter of conjecture,” Smith writes. “But there is no question they were in love.” It was with Mamie, though, that Ike lived out his last years at the farmhouse in Gettysburg, Pa. They seem to have been happy years, which both of them manifestly deserved.

EISENHOWER IN WAR AND PEACE

By Jean Edward Smith

Random House. 950 pp. $40

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