Ike (By Michael Korda)
Hero for Our Times
An American Hero
By Michael Korda
HarperCollins. 779 pp. $34.95
Michael Korda, successful editor, novelist and memoirist, knows a good and timely story when he sees one. What could be more appealing today to Americans, divided, trapped in an unpopular and seemingly unwinnable war, than a fresh and inspiring account of U.S. leadership in World War II?
Ike is a valentine to "an American hero," Dwight Eisenhower, who rose from humble roots in Abilene, Kan., to become the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces and later two-term president of the United States. "Like Grant and Lincoln," Korda writes, "Ike was one of the people; and he had made good without ever losing sight of what he was and where he came from." He inspired millions, and this book's implicit message is that Ike's underrated style of leadership could help Americans regain what has been lost today:
"Something about his big grin; his long-limbed, loose American way of walking . . . his easy, familiar way of speaking to everybody from King George VI down to privates in both armies; his lack of pretension; his evident sincerity; and his willingness to accept unimaginably heavy responsibility made people like Ike. They were willing to be led by him. . . . They trusted him."
As in his earlier, brief biography of Ulysses S. Grant, Korda is especially interested in how the personality and character of his subject developed and affected subsequent achievements, particularly in the chaos and competition of war. Nearly half the book deals with Eisenhower's prewar career, including his many frustrations in the small and "feudal" officer corps of the interwar years.
Yet Eisenhower gained patrons who recognized his formidable intelligence, integrity and sense of duty and, behind the affable, self-effacing mask, his toughness, self-assurance and driving ambition. Douglas MacArthur, who exploited him, was not among Ike's boosters. But Fox Connor mentored him, and George Marshall oversaw Ike's rocketing advancement from lieutenant colonel in 1941 to four-star general in 1943.
The Western allies may have had senior generals with sharper geostrategic vision than Eisenhower (for example, America's George Marshall and Britain's Alan Brooke) and with more battle experience (George Patton, Bernard Montgomery, Harold Alexander), but after the North African invasion of 1942, none had anything like Eisenhower's record of both leading an alliance and supervising huge, daring military operations. He was a natural to command the invasion of France.
On every controversial military issue -- from the Americans' slowness in seizing Tunisia, to the adoption of a broad front rather than a spearhead advance toward Germany, to the failure to anticipate the German counteroffensive at the Battle of the Bulge, to the decision not to try to beat the Soviets to Berlin -- the author comes down firmly in support of Eisenhower.
This will hardly be the last word on most of those controversies, and surely Korda overstates the case in asserting that Eisenhower was not surprised in December 1944 because he had anticipated Hitler's counteroffensive. But virtually no one will challenge Korda's overall emphasis on Ike's fairness, energy, ability, patience, common sense, authority and, above all, "his matchless ability to deal even with the most difficult of prima donnas."