"YOU HAVE made history, great history for the good of mankind," wrote George C. Marshall, "and," he continued, "you have stood for all we hope for and admire in an officer of the United States Army." When Stephen E. Ambrose pronounces as "earned" this famous tribute to Dwight D. Eisenhower, one senses that he, like Marshall, put even greater store in the second half of the sentence than in the first. Eisenhower, the soldier, and Ambrose, a scholar of soldiering, are splendidly matched; this strong biography belongs to that wing of the genre in which the subject, by no means uncritically rendered, represents all that the author most honors.
And yet, in this account of one of America's most famous soldiers in the years before he resigned from the Army, one is struck by how little soldiering Eisenhower ever did. Although commissioned in 1915, after four years at West Point, he did not make it to France in World War I. After serving time in the '20s, he was forced to be Douglas MacArthur's lackey in the '30s, first in Washington at the time of the disgraceful attack on the Bonus Marchers' camp and then at the imperial outpost in Manila. Concealing his contempt for his commander, Eisenhower learned from MacArthur the need to be political and also precisely how not to go about that politicking.
When World War II presented immense opportunities and responsibilities, he swiftly vaulted past any but contrived links to the battlefields and the men who fought on them. He did not know, first hand, the boredom and exhilaration, the fear and affection experienced by soldiers fighting.
Comparisons are frequently made of Eisenhower's career with that of another West Point war hero who was the other Republican to hold two full terms as president, Ulysses S. Grant. The familiar rendition casts the two as men of action who were articulate about war and not about peace, and who were as inept as presidents as they were supremely confident as generals. Beyond obvious parallels, the two men were, however, greatly different. There was in Eisenhower's patiently conducted career none of the failure and despair of Grant's. And what was more, there were no youthful dashes on horseback through enemy fire in Mexico, nor any stepping into battle as the colonel of a regiment of raw recruits in the Missouri countryside.
Like Eisenhower, Grant, with a strong sense of the whole, commanded a huge network of armies over a vast area, but his was a war of rifles and of Americans. Eisenhower, in contrast, was the entrepreneur of a great, technologically sophisticated multinational enterprise. Ambrose's study makes it clear that largely he left the fighting to others, including, most successfully, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton Jr. and spent his own time conducting diplomatic salesmanship with such tough and exceedingly diverse customers as Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Charles de Gaulle, and their contentious deputies. In his conduct of the European war, one of Eisenhower's many major contributions was to remember that Germany was the enemy. He had no appetite for converting World War II into World War III with lunges against the Russians to the east, and he restrained soldiers, like General Patton, who had.
Eisenhower was less like the soldier- presidents of the 19th century than like the corporate chief executive officers of the 20th. When the war was over, no one should have been surprised that it was with these men that he chose to relax--and to win the presidency. Even Ambrose feels the need to explain the compatibility of the general and businessmen (he wonders which side was "awestruck") when, in fact, they were birds of a feather: "men who had proved themselves, who thought big, who handled big problems successfully, who knew how to organize and produce, who exuded self-confidence." And, Ambrose might have added if he were more critical of this world, so remote from the basic small particularities of life that they scarcely knew why they were lonely. At the book's close, even with the White House to keep his toothbrush in for eight years, Ambrose's soldier hero is doomed to the country club.
On June 19, 1945, Harry Truman wrote to Bess that "Eisenhower's party was a grand success. I pinned a medal on him in the afternoon. He is a nice fellow and a good man. He's done a whale of a job. They are running him for President, which is O.K. with me. I'd turn it over to him now if I could." Stephen Ambrose's fine chronicle of the able World War II and NATO commander documents that assessment and his second volume on the presidential years promises to do much to buttress the concept of the more effective "new Eisenhower," but the more the author tells us, the more we are reminded that Truman changed his mind.