This 2012 biography is a refreshing and well-written tour through the life of one of the 20th century greats. It is especially strong as a rebuttal of the trope of passivity or laziness that sometimes still attaches to the supremely popular president. The book may have been better titled “Eisenhower’s Decision-Making in War and Peace.”
The subtitle might have been Experience Matters. Where Eisenhower’s decisions were from experience he was flawless. When inexperienced – and unaware of his inexperience – trouble could brew.
The war portrait is more illuminating. Eisenhower had never led so much as a battalion in combat, but was promoted over many dozens of more senior generals to lead the Allied command in Europe. When Pershing or Marshall wasn’t working for his career, Fortuna was. When should a leader be temperance and exercise forbearance (disciplining Patton)? How best to handle the competing claims of leadership in France (Eisenhower nudged heavily the US to favor de Gaulle, enough to be fait accompli against FDR’s preferences)? Still, two-thirds of US deaths in the theatre occurred in the final year of the war, in no small part due to an enormous strategic error Eisenhower was responsible for: battle all along the German line instead of concentrating a drive through it. Still, Smith shows us Eisenhower’s capability for growth and assumption of responsibility for failures that make for a great leader.
Was it Eisenhower’s savvy communication skills and general likability that not only avoided condemnation for this mistake, but positioned him as a near-certain post-war president? The ample bibliography doesn’t direct to another more in depth resource on the topic.
In Smith’s account of the peace, Eisenhower’s inconsequential tenure at Columbia University as president gets far more attention than rushed sections on the Middle East or civil rights changes. The 1958 Civil Rights act gets no mention for instance, though the judicious steps around intervention in Little Rock is a good refresher. The biographer after deft portraits of Eisenhower in the Philippines and career maneuvering almost appears rushed to finish the book.
Eisenhower’s relationship with Nixon is also rushed. It is rare for someone to out maneuver Eisenhower but Nixon did when his fate on the 1952 ticket was on the line. Given the breakdown of trust, and increasingly bad health, how could the immensely popular Eisenhower have left Nixon on the ticket in 1956? “A connection to the Old Guard [of the GOP]” isn’t satisfying when we’ve been treated to much deeper and complicated views of his relationship with Patton or Montgomery. Once bitten, twice shy in his confrontation with Nixon?
Smith concludes that his affair with Kay Summersby nearly blew up the 1952 election – a “nuclear option” that the Truman administration almost used. Truman later however appears to have destroyed the most damning piece of evidence, a letter to George Marshall at the end of WW2 saying he would divorce Mamie. This liability almost certainly accounted for his reticence to enter the race. How widely open the knowledge of this affair was yet never entered the larger public discourse — until her books — is gobsmacking compared to today.
His entry to the race was in the end orchestrated by twice defeated internationalist Thomas Dewey, concerned about the “isolationist” wing led by Robert Taft. Eisenhower appears willing to have not run, had only Taft endorsed NATO, which he would not. Taft would endorse Eisenhower, but the complexities here also are more teased than fulfilled. Exactly why was Eisenhower such a dedicated internationalist but not interventionist (most famously in the Russian invasion of Hungary in 1956)?
The judiciousness of Eisenhower is perhaps most lasting in his repeated refusals to consider using “tactical” nuclear weapons. It is chilling to see how often such proposals would be made by the military in differing circumstances. Eisenhower’s practical wisdom had a very deep foundation.
As president, Eisenhower would twice be presented with recommendations from his National Security Council and the Joint Chiefs of Staff the the bomb be used; first, in Vietnam to protect the French at Dien Bien Phu, then against China at the time of the Formosa Straight crisi. Both times Eisenhower rejected the recommendations. As a former supreme commander, Eisenhower had the confidence to do so, where other presidents might not have. And by rejecting the use of the bomb, there is no question that Eisenhower raised the threshold at which atomic weaponry could be employed–a legacy we continue to enjoy.pp 450-451
Eisenhower’s administration balanced the federal budget multiple times, and brought US debt to GDP down from 100% to 56%. He set the post-WW2 US definitively on an internationalist course without entangling the world in another war. He further, most famously in his farewell address was able to identify even the risks of this approach – the military-industrial complex.
Readers considering this book are best advised to do a physical copy for ease of accessing the footnotes and endnotes. They add a rich conversational frame to the main thread. It includes notes on Stephen Ambrose’s unreliability, whether Eisenhower ever thought Warren to the Court was his biggest mistake, and many other fun topics.
Smith closes with on a note that has to be ominous for a biographer, one which any Eisenhower biography may suffer from:
Several years later, a young David Eisenhower asked his grandmother Mami whether she felt she had really known Dwight David Eisenhower.
“I’m not sure anyone did,” Mamie replied.p. 766