Book Review: Eisenhower
Author: Paul Johnson (Penguin Books, 2014)
Review by Joel Solliday
The twentieth century was filled with tragedy and triumph. Defeating fascism and communism called for incredible statesmanship and great leaders like Churchill, FDR, Reagan, and Thatcher. Paul Johnson’s concise biography of our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) inclines me to add him to this list of leaders. He was not profoundly dynamic but he was the leading force on the ground (rather than in speeches) bringing defeat to Hitler in World War II. And later, in the Oval Office, he helped made America strong enough to eventually outlast the Soviets in the cold war.
Eisenhower (or “Ike”) was raised in Abilene, Kansas, to embrace small town Mid-Western values like personal industry and self-reliance. His German heritage combined militarism with Mennonite pacifism and his family read the Bible daily. As a student, Ike loved American history and excelled in English, geometry, geography, and engineering. His one black mark at West Point was for smoking. He quit cold turkey years later.
In the army, Ike proved to be an efficient staff officer, a flexible problem-solver, and an able administrator. He worked hard and rose in the ranks without ever seeing combat.
In 1916, he married Mamie Geneva Doud. They lost their first son “Icky” at age three to scarlet fever. Their second son, John, graduated from West Point on June 6, 1944 (D-Day) and he retired as a brigadier general. Throughout Ike’s army career, he and Mamie moved 25 times and never owned a home until after he retired. However, they soon had to move again—to the White House.
Of all the Allied generals in World War II, Ike probably had the least interesting personality. Still, he was the right man for the Supreme Command. He knew how to get along with strong-willed often egotistical officers with drastically divergent views. His analytic intelligence and his ability to communicate clearly enabled him to keep the other generals on mission—essentially, to destroy the German war machine, eliminate Nazi tyranny, and provide security for the free world.
The plan on the ground for getting this done was called Operation Overlord, It culminated in the largest air, land, and sea operation ever undertaken–the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 (D-Day). Ike was prepared to take the blame for failure, but Overlord turned out to be a successful turning point in the war. The Allies suffered some 10,000 casualties, including 4,414 dead. German casualties that day were far fewer but they failed to repel the invasion. By the second day, 250,000 Allied troops were ashore in France.
Elaborate deception strategies were required to successfully fool the Germans into thinking the landing would take place at Pas de Calais. Phony reconnaissance flights, massive pseudo building projects, Patton’s diversion, fake air-raids, and misleading bombing patterns served to keep twenty German divisions in the wrong place at the right time. The deception even included planting a dead body containing fake plans in a place where Germans would find it.
As the war drew toward its arduous end, Ike took pains to minimize casualties, refusing to race with Russia for the prize of taking Berlin—an unpopular decision. He made sure that Nazi atrocities were documented and available as evidence in war-crime trials. In the end, Gen. George Marshall congratulated Eisenhower, saying, “You have completed your mission with the greatest victory in the history of warfare.”
During the 1952 campaign for the presidency, Ike had his critics but they underestimated him. Millions of Americans sported “I like Ike,” buttons and he attracted more votes than any candidate in American history.
President Eisenhower understood war and the stakes for war. An early priority for Ike was to make peace in Korea without abandoning the cause or leaving a free people vulnerable to brutal communist imperialism. He succeeded. Ike’s military experience helped set his aim for the establishment of NASA and for the Interstate Highway System, which proved to foster tremendous economic advantages as well. Domestically, he tended to meet emergencies with patience, presuming that rising prosperity would cure ills better than political solutions. But patience is not always good politics. Both mid-term elections during his presidency secured gains for the Democrats.
Ike’s America in the ‘50s was prosperous, solvent, and calm. Inflation and unemployment remained low while the GNP consistently rose, as did purchasing power and the average family income. Fiscal restraint was applied across the board, including in the military. Still, our nuclear stockpile increased under Ike who used it to our advantage in diplomacy. International trade increased and the US rose as an industrial giant. Results like these were unprecedented.
Ike’s life spanned a tremendous era in history. Yet, his presidency seems anti-climactic in light of his previous accomplishments as a five-star general and Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during WW II and later as the Supreme Commander of NATO. After nine years in retirement, Ike passed away with the first moon landing only four months away.
Underestimating Ike was common both then and now. He is not remembered as an intellectual and rightly so. He once said, “An intellectual is a man who takes more words than necessary to tell more than he knows.” That’s not Ike. He was more a man of experience than education, patience more than passion, and results more than rhetoric. Yet, in his quiet way, he succeeded as a leader because his education, passion and rhetoric were exceptional. They just weren’t all that noticeable.