A SPATE OF NEW BOOKS on Dwight D. Eisenhower is now appearing, stimulated by the recent availability of additional papers (in the Eisenhower Library and in the John Hopkins University collection of his correspondence and memoranda) and by a recent outpouring of personal revelations by government officials who served during the Eisenhower presidency or in World War II. Their central theme is that Eisenhower has been much misunderstood and undervalued -- denigrated by progressive critics for a "luxurious torpor" in domestic affairs and by diplomatic experts for a loose handling of foreign policy crises at double-talking press conferences conducted on the golf course. For the most part, the new studies seek to show that Eisenhower was an intense, if largely behind-the-scenes, activist exercising control through the application of his own philosophy of the presidency as the guiding by unseen hand.

The publication of The Esenhower Diaries generally supports these concurrent efforts to redeem or strengthen the Eisenhower reputation, but neither the diaries nor the new books effectively rebut the preponderant evidence that his operational control as president was frequently slack. As a literary work, the diaries are not entirely satisfactory. They are intermittent and fragmentary. They grow thin and desultory toward the end of his second term as his physical strength and enthusiasm both waned. They often fail to mention what would seem to historians to have been the burning issue of a particular day. They do not add significantly to what is known of major events of this period. Yet because they are, in the words of their editor, Robert H.Ferrell, "the only place in Ike's prose where one can find the soldier-statesman setting out his innermost thoughts," they are a rich and reassuring addition to the public record. They illuminate the Eisenhower mind and character. What they reveal is a generous-spirited, fair-minded, strong-willed, well-organized man whose strong suit was cogent analysis and balanced judgment. Humane, optimistic, loaded with common-sense, he was also very self-assured, tenacious, and quite capable of shrewdly masking his purposes and his ambitions. He had a natural gift, unequalled by any of his contemporaries, for diplomatic persuasion -- in the sense of earning men's trust and respect and persuading them to carry out his plans, or to vote for him (as an enduringly popular and trusted American political leader, through thick and thin, he was without peer in this century). This was at bottom a triumph of character, but his character was made of sterner stuff than boyish enthusiasm and a talent for public relations. mHe was tough, yet wise; decisive, yet careful; not intellectual, but smart. A natural leader. He understood and used power with considerable finesse, but with an innate appreciation of its limited efficacy.

One reason he may become more highly regarded in the limit-conscious 1980s, than in the go-go 1960s, is that his most important presidential purposes, both domestic and foreign, were conservative, even negative: to safeguard the capitalistic system; to halt the further spread of New Deal "socialism" which deeply felt was destroying unique American values and bankrupting the economy; to contain or defeat the external threat represented by the USSR and lesser communist powers, but to do so by means of a defense posture that would not turn the country into a garrison state and deliver it into the hands of the military-industrial complex. He was, above all, a man of proportion who exerted himself to neutralize the extremes of his time, to broaden the middle ground where free men could stand.

There was evidence of careful political judgement early on. In 1936, while Major Eisenhower was working for General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines, the diary records "a terrible bawling out over a most ridiculous affair." MacArthur, who fancied himself a political genius, had wholly accepted a Literary Digest poll showing that Landon would beat Roosevelt by a landslide. Eisenhower showed him letters from a friend at home indicating that Landon could not even carry his home state Kansas, but the grandiloquent MacArthur rejected this cautionary counsel and blew up, calling Eisenhower and a fellow junior officer "fearful and small-minded people who are afraid to express judgments that are obvious from the evidence at hand." Eisenhower ended the diary entry with "oh hell."

Six years later, Brigadier General Eisenhower was acting head of the War Plans Division of the Army staff in Washington, working 16-hour days to contain the chaos brought on by the attack on Pearl Harbor and the swift Japanese onslaughts all over the Pacific. MacArthur was besieged on the Bataan Peninsula, outnumbered, outgunned and facing defeat. There was a swelling sentiment to extricate the famous commander so that his generalship would be available for later, more decisive battles. Eisenhower did not agree. On February 23, 1942, the diary noted "I cannot help believing that we are disturbed by editorials and reacting to public opinion rather than to military logic . . . He is doing a good job where he is, but I'm doubtful that he'd do so well in more complicate situations. Bataan is made to order for him. It's in the public eye; it has made him a public hero; it has all the essentials of drama; and he is the acknowledged king on the spot. If brought out, public opinion will force him into a position where his love of the limelight may ruin him."

After the 1943 North African campaign (Operation Torch) which Eisenhower commanded, he was occasionally irritated by his portrayal in the British press as an administrative general whose chief contribution was "friendliness in welding an allied team." On February 7, 1944, the diary recorded "They don't use the words 'initiative' and 'boldness' in talking of me, but often do in speaking of Alex and Monty. The truth is . . . that I had peremptorially to order the holding of the forward airfields in the bitter days of January 1943 . . . I had to order the attack on Pantelleria . . . It wearies me to be thought of as timid when I've had to do things that were so risky as to be almost crazy. Oh hum."

There is one mention of Kay Summersby, on December 2, 1947: "Heard today, through a mutual friend, that my wartime secretary (rather personal aide and receptionist) is in dire straits. A clear case of a fine person going to pieces over the death of a loved one, in this instance the man she was all set to marry. Will do what I can to help, but it would seem hopeless . . . she is Irish and tragic."

There are deft portraits of political colleagues:

Secretary of Commerce Sinclair Weeks: "so completely conservative in his views that at time he seems to be illogical."

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles: "a dedicated and tireless individual . . . [but] not particularly persuasive in presentation and, at times, seems to have a curious lack of understanding as to how his words and manner may affect another personality."

Secretary of Treasury George Humphrey: "a splendid personality . . . almost a direct opposite of the caricatured business that so often appears in the columns of the 'liberal' press."

Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson: "careful and positive . . . [but] prone to lecture rather than to answer when asked a specific question."

Majority Leader, Senator Williams Knowland: "means to be helpful and loyal, but he is cumbersome."

Of the younger men, he thought his brother Milton was clearly the best: "I am of course a prejudiced witness. However, I have no hesitancy in saying I believe him to be the most knowledgable and widely informed of all of the people with whom I deal."

The diaries also reveal Eisenhower's serene sense of personal detachment from the presidency. There was the man himself, and then there was the office which he had entered upon as a public duty. The man was frequently bored or fatigued by the relentless demands of the office which, to his mind, outweighted its pleasures and advantages, but the duty was inescapable and he discharged it with a soldier's fidelity and cheerful resignation. In marked contrast to, say, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the presidency was not in Eisenhower's bones. Having already spent the largest part of his life on the rack of military duty, he would have preferred, other things being equal, to go fishing.

This recurrent theme of duty is, I believe, central to the evolution of Eisenhower's thinking about the possiblity of a political career, and that evolution is the single most interesting and revealing issue in the diaries. There is a sterling sort of honesty about his deep doubts, and a genuine humility and awe in the slow, reluctant granting of credence to the growing evidence of burgeoning support for him at the grassroots.

On March 8, 1947 (when he was Army Chief of Staff) he noted with surprise his failure to "anticipate a continuation of the demands that a uniformed man speak so often." In December of the same year, he expressed irritation with journalists who were insisting that he "take a partisan political stand, based on the erroneous assumption that I would like a high political office." A month later, "the tossing about of my name in the political whirlwind is becoming embarrassing . . . How to say anything without violating my own sense of propriety -- how to decline something that has not been offered to me, how to answer those . . . who honestly believe I had 'duty' -- all this cannot be done in the words of Sherman. What a mess!" A few days later he issued a statement that appeared to remove him from political contention, although it fell short of Sherman.

On July 7, 1949, when Eisenhower was president of Columbia University, the diaries record a visit from Governor Thomas Dewey. "The Governor says that I am a public possession, that such standing as I have in the affections or respect of our citizenry is likewise public property. All of this, though, must be carefully guarded to use in the service of all the people. (Although I am merely repeating someone else's exposition, the mere writing of such things almost makes me dive under the table.)" Dewey proposed that Eisenhower declare his Republicanism, run frist for governor of New York and then hold himself ready for the presidency. Eisenhower demurred. Dewey continued to press his case, and the general continued to resist. On January 1, 1950, the diary sought to sum up his considered position: "I do not want a political career; I do not want to be publicly associated with any political party, although I fervently believe in the two party system . . . my basic purpose is to try, however feebly, to return to the country some portion of the debt I owe to her. My family, my brothers and I are examples of what this country with its system of individual rights and freedoms, its boundless resources, and its opportunities for all who want to work can do for its citizens -- regardless of lack of wealth, political influence, or special educational advantage." He felt the weight and also the appeal of his long life as a soldier. "My classification is military," and as such "I should like to remain just what I've always been, a military officer instantly responsible to civil government, regardless of its political complexion." On April 27, 1950, he noted that "public speaking gets to be more and more of a burden."

In late October 1950, in the wake of the North Korean attack on South Korea and the ensuing fear of Soviet attack on Europe, President Truman asked him to go to Europe to organize the building of NATO defensive forces. He accepted this call as a soldier's duty. "Mamie's heart condition deteriorates a bit year by year, and I hate to contemplate the extra burden thrown upon her by attempting to set up housekeeping in Europe, particularly when she will also be worried about the condition of her father and mother back in Denver. Actually this phase of the whole business would be the only one that would give me any great private concern. As for myself, I do not think it is particularly important where I am working, so long as I feel I am doing the best I can in what I definitely believe to be a world crisis."

For roughly the next year, until Eisenhower's return to the United States in the late spring of 1952, it seemed that at least half of all registered Republicans, and certainly all of their leaders, made the pilgrimage to NATO -- to pay their respects, and to insist that he had a duty to save the country, and not incidentally the GOP. The pressure mounted, but he continued to resist. By October 1951, however, he had begun to formulate the possible circumstances under which he might be available, but his ambivalence remained evident. "The only way I could leave this duty is to believe that a great section of the United States wants me to undertake a higher one." But that would require a real draft, "something that all agree cannot happen." But a genuine draft would "at least eliminate the necessity of my making any personal decision as to my own suitability. I scarcely mean that, because no one is really suitable; I think I meant that I will never have to decide whether or not I'd make a relatively good president. In the meantime, I can give my best to this task and hope that my silence will help politicians to consider the relative suitability of those that do want the nomination."

His visitors included Governors Dewey and Stassesn, Senators Duff, Lodge and Carlson, General Lucius Clay and publisher Henry Luce. They told him with increasing bluntness that Senator Robert Taft would take the nomination if Eisenhower sat back and waited for a draft. Eisenhower could not dismiss their warnings out of hand, for he felt a Taft candidacy would be bad for the GOP and the country, in part because it appeared that Truman would beat him badly. And Eisenhower was increasingly concerned about the cost of government programs, especially defense, that were "driving us straight toward inflation of an uncontrollable character." More sinister than the Russians was the threat of "insolvency." It was imperative to reexamine "our whole philosophy of defense, in its foreign and domestic aspects, and do what is intelligent for democracies to do . . . If we don't . . . we will go broke and still have inefficient defenses. We cannot afford prejudice, preconceived notions, fallacies, duplications, luxuries . . . Our country is at stake. Many will give her lip service; few will give her self-sacrifice, sweat and brains."

Neither a Taft nor a Truman victory was acceptable, but Eisenhower clearly disliked the insistent assertion that he was the only alternative. The entry for October 29, 1951, noted that "the whole business is merely repetitive, and except for the utter seriousness with which it is presented, it grows very monotonous. It is certainly burdensome. In reply, I said to these men as I have said before: I do not want to be President of the United States, and I want no other political office or political connection of any kind . . . I entered upon this post [SHAPE] from a sense of duty. I certainly had to sacrifice much in the way of personal convenience, advantage, and congenial constructive work when I left New York. I will never leave this post for any other kind of governmental task except in response to a clear call to duty."

If any single event can be said to have changed his mind, it was probably the videotape record of a huge Eisenhower rally held in Madison Square Garden in the early winter of 1952. The tape was brought to him in Europe by the aviatrix, Jacqueline Chochran. He noted on February 11 and 12, 1952, "The performance at the Garden is not only something to make an American genuinely proud -- it is something to increase his humility, his sense of his own unworthiness to fulfill the spoken and unspoken desires and aspirations of so many thousands of humans. Our times are tumultous -- people are returning to instinct, emotion, and sentiment. Responsibility is becoming again something real, not just an election record. . . . Viewing [the tape] finally developed into a real emotional experience for Mamie and me. I've not been so upset in years. Clearly to be seen is the mass longing of America for some kind of reasonable solution for her nagging, persistent, and almost terrifying problems. It's a real experience to realize that one could become a symbol for many thousands of the hope they have."

In a long retrospective diary entry in November 1959, near the end of his presidency (and after he had suffered a heart attack, ileitis, and a cerebral storke), he wondered whether his entry into politics seven years before had been a good idea. He was not at all sure, but one remark seemed almost to moot the rumination: "I have always been particularly sensitive to any insinuation that I might recoil from performance of any duty, no matter how onerous."

The Eisenhower Diaries will help reinvigorate the deeply cherished, if now badly bruised, belief that the White House is a post of honor and duty transcending personal aggrandizement and the more sordid aspects of politics. Most of the new Eisenhower books will serve the same purpose. In very general terms, they will buttress the new conservatism, but Reaganites can learn two vital lessons from the Eisenhower presidency: 1) He was deeply concerned to constrain defense spending so that our society could avoid the concomitants of economic waste and undue military influence; and 2) His approach to the USSR was not distorted by ideological abstractions divorced from fact, but guided by a confident and balanced perspective -- it was a problem to be managed with firmness and a sense of proportion.