Reviewed by John Whiteclay Chambers II
Sunday, August 26, 2007
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."
Sharply etched portraits of those prima donnas enliven the narrative. Patton was "eccentric, erratic, vain, deeply emotional, and a full-fledged military romantic, in love with the whole idea of glory." MacArthur was "wealthy, socially and politically well connected, famous, glamorous, eccentric, deeply theatrical, patrician, a shameless old-fashioned snob, a military aristocrat, and a reckless hero. . . . Like one of the more difficult Shakespearean kings, he had a majestic sense of self." Montgomery "was a loner, arrogant, vain, unforgiving, professionally brilliant, and utterly convinced that he was always right."
However, this is more than a military biography. Korda seeks a fuller human dimension. He explores Ike's childhood as the third of six sons of a dirt-poor, stubborn, humorless failed businessman and an independent, outgoing, highly likable mother. The book gives considerable attention to Ike's wife, Mamie Doud Eisenhower, the spirited, pampered daughter of a wealthy Denver businessman, and her tribulations as the constantly moving wife of a soldier who informed her as he left on a new assignment less than a month after their marriage that "duty would always come first."
Drawing on the Eisenhowers' wartime correspondence as well as on the recollections of their granddaughter, Susan, Korda provides a highly sympathetic picture of Mamie throughout the marriage, but especially during the war, when she lived alone in a room in the Wardman Hotel in Washington while her husband as supreme commander resided in fancy lodgings in Europe and became one of the most famous men in the world.
Kay Summersby, the beautiful, Anglo-Irish model and British Motor Transport Corps chauffeur who became Eisenhower's wartime driver, secretary and companion, is an integral part of the narrative. Hedging his judgment about whether they actually had an affair, Korda is frank about the devastating impact such rumors had on Mamie.
Based on comparatively few, although excellent, published sources, this book is not an addition to scholarship. But it is a fresh and engaging characterization. It is enhanced by the author's clear sympathy for his subject, international perspective and charming, urbane style.
The author is a nephew of international film magnate Alexander Korda, who knew many of the characters in the book. Michael Korda was born in England and educated there and in France and Switzerland. Later he was, for more than 40 years at Simon & Schuster, one of the most successful editors in U.S. publishing.
The final section of the book on Eisenhower's presidency seems more like an addendum. Comprising fewer than 100 of the volume's roughly 700 pages, it is cursory and sometimes irritatingly skewed. Korda selectively mines the warehouse of history, and he rides his thesis hard. Once again, he has only praise or justification for Eisenhower, but this time not just for Ike's search for peace, opposition to colonial wars and criticism of the "military-industrial-complex," but even in regard to Ike's generally cautious approach to McCarthyism and racial desegregation.
This section has its value, nonetheless, particularly in light of the current administration. Korda reminds us that Eisenhower preferred to lead by consensus and that one of his great strengths was that "he didn't approach things with a rigid set of political ideas." Instead, as a pragmatic centrist, he accepted solutions from Democrats as well as from liberal, Eastern, internationalist Republicans -- both anathema to the conservative, unilateralist Midwestern wing of his party.
A true leader, Eisenhower believed strongly that a president should take personal responsibility for mistakes (and give subordinates credit for success), and as Korda concludes, that is "a belief that not every president since his time has followed as scrupulously as he did." *
John Whiteclay Chambers II is a professor of history at Rutgers University and editor-in-chief of "The Oxford Companion to American Military History."