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Books and Culture

Ryan L. Cole
Liking Ike
A new biography portrays an underrated leader.
1 June 2012

Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith (Random House, 976 pp., $40)

Frank Gehry’s proposed design for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial, set to begin construction this fall on the National Mall, has met with mixed reviews. Critics, including the former president’s grandchildren, feel that Gehry’s concept—a collection of columns, metal tapestries, and, originally, a statue of Ike as a young boy—fails to capture Ike’s importance. Gehry’s recently announced design alterations aren’t likely to mollify the critics, though he has replaced the boy sculpture with one of Ike as an Army cadet. Those looking for a clearer understanding of the 34th president’s significance are better directed to Jean Edward Smith’s massive new biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace. As with the historian’s previous works, including comprehensive examinations of Ulysses S. Grant and Franklin Roosevelt, Smith leaves little on the cutting-room floor. This is Eisenhower in full.

Smith traces Eisenhower’s life from his days as a barefoot Kansas boy—the image from his 1945 homecoming speech in Abilene that inspired Gehry’s original design—to his retirement in Gettysburg, but the book is strongest when illuminating its subject’s often overlooked virtues. Even today, despite more positive recent assessments, Eisenhower’s presidency is often portrayed as a dull interlude between Roosevelt’s New Deal and John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier. In this standard version, the forces of history swirled while Ike played golf and painted landscapes. The reality was quite different. The 1950s were tumultuous nationally and internationally; Eisenhower, a cool and commanding leader and sly politician, proved the right president for the time—as he had been the right supreme allied commander during World War II.

Eisenhower was not a swashbuckling soldier or a great battlefield manager. But through years of administrative expertise gained at the side of legendary generals such as Fox Conner, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur, he acquired an innate understanding of personal relationships, a mastery of diplomacy, and an ability to make grave decisions. Through a combination of patience, tact, and a willingness to delegate without relinquishing ultimate responsibility, Eisenhower bridged the differences between Washington and its London allies, managed the egos of his subordinates, and, in Smith’s telling, served as a “giant umbrella” for the unified allied effort that liberated Europe.

This success transformed the career military man into a national hero. After serving as the army’s chief of staff, supreme commander of NATO, and then, somewhat distractedly, as Columbia University president, Eisenhower felt beckoned by the White House. A seasoned executive and no stranger to the give and take of politics, he made a seamless transition from the battlefield to the hustings and then to the Oval Office. Never forgetting, in his own words, the “horror and lingering sadness of war,” President Eisenhower eased the country out of an unpopular conflict in Korea; staved off, against the recommendations of his national security advisors, U.S. involvement in Dien Bien Phu; and diffused an international conflict among Israel, France, England, and Egypt during the Suez Crisis. Domestically, he balanced budgets, broke ground on the Interstate Highway System, and opened the Saint Lawrence Seaway. Though a Republican and a fiscal conservative, Eisenhower shunned political extremes. His cautious foreign policy annoyed both hawkish Democrats and isolationist Republicans. Though staunchly anti-Communist, he worked aggressively toward détente with the Soviet Union and had no use for Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose self-destruction he predicted.

Eisenhower’s moderation was also essential in advancing the civil rights movement. In support of the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education, he ordered the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the desegregation of Little Rock’s Central High School; for him, it was a matter of enforcing and upholding the law. The act, of course, angered Southern segregationists, while its tentative and limited nature disappointed civil rights activists. Smith, however, argues that Eisenhower’s approach, which essentially backed equal rights for African-Americans with the full force of the federal government, addressed and resolved the crisis with “as little rancor as possible” and was ultimately a victory in the struggle for civil rights.

Impressive as Eisenhower’s achievements are, in war and in peace, his record leaves plenty of room for criticism. For the most part, though, Smith treads gently. He does point out the deficiencies in Eisenhower’s broad-front strategy, which allowed the Germans to regroup temporarily after the Normandy Campaign. He’s critical of the president’s approval of the coup d’état against Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh and argues that it laid the groundwork for longstanding Iranian-American antagonism. And he shows how Eisenhower’s treatment of Richard Nixon—an uncomfortable mix of cold paternalism and political expediency—revealed the amiable Eisenhower’s calculating side.

Unfortunately, the book is not without needless distractions. Allegations of a romance between Eisenhower and Kay Summersby, his Irish-born driver and wartime secretary, are not new, and they remain disputed. But Smith unquestioningly cites passages from Summersby’s ghost-written deathbed memoir to fill in the details of the supposed romance. Summersby and her purported affair with Ike take up an unwarranted amount of space in a book that otherwise doesn’t dwell in detail on Eisenhower’s personal life.

Smith’s straightforward prose, which frequently draws intriguing parallels with Grant, Eisenhower’s historical forbear, is a perfect match for its subject—without literary flourishes or dramatic touches. The overall impression is not of a “man on horseback,” or a military genius, or a theatrical political revolutionary. Smith’s Eisenhower is a thoughtful leader who took command and accepted responsibility, a quietly skillful politician who became one of the twentieth century’s most successful presidents.

During the ongoing dust-up over the Eisenhower Memorial design, Ike’s descendants suggested that a modest statue, placed near the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, would make a fitting alternative to Gehry’s more controversial proposal. Indeed, after reading Eisenhower in War in Peace, one can imagine something along these lines making an appropriate tribute to this underrated man of the republic.

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