Author: Shribman, David M
Date published: March 1, 2012
Even Academics Like Ike Now Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace (New York: Random House, 2012), 976 pp., $40.00.
He exuded warmth to large groups but was frosty in person. He was not an intellectual but had a remarkable mastery of history. He was known as a duffer but had a deep understanding of the mainstreams of his time. He was a pale eminence in a panorama of striking twentieth-century presidents. He was a southerner who didn't resist desegregation, a military man who spoke of the evils of the military-industrial complex, and a Westerner whose rejection of the entreaties of Britain and France during the Suez crisis gave hope and inspiration to Third World nations around the world. He understood the necessity of military sacrifice, but he made no presidential decisions that led to an American combat death.
Dwight David Eisenhower wasn't a braggart. He wasn't showy, and he wasn't a visionary thinker. He wasn't a masterly practitioner of big-power politics. He didn't set the English language aflame with passion, poetry or powerful imagery. He was just Ike, who invaded captive Europe at D-day, vanquished Adlai Stevenson twice and set the nation on a course toward racial equality. He balanced the budget, sent to the Supreme Court prominent justices who would reshape the nation, planted Republican roots in the Democratic South, set the GOP on a new internationalist path and built the St. Lawrence Seaway. He did it all with a decent golf swing, an intoxicating smile, a sixth sense for politics and a drink at the end of the day.
Few men ever assembled an obituary as lengthy as his, a legacy as rich, and a life as varied or as full of accomplishments. And none with an obituary, legacy, life and accomplishments remotely comparable to his was as ridiculed, underestimated and misunderstood as he was at his death. In conquering Nazi Germany, mastering Allied politics and triumphing in two American national elections, Eisenhower - not Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, nor even John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan - was the quintessential American of modern times. He was at ease in many spheres and in a historical role as close to indispensable as any in the American ascendancy.
All this is clear now, and the wonder is that it was so elusive for so long. This view of Eisenhower - as a sober magus of military power and master of domestic politics, preeminent in both spheres - was all but unknown at the conclusion of his own life, which began in the era when American presidents had beards and ended in the period when presidents seemed to have only warts. His childhood was in a horse-andbuggy America. His early military career was in an era when the potency of airpower was only beginning to be understood. His presidency was in a period marked by Sputnik, and he died in the very year in which his former vice president would sit in the White House and speak by radio telephone to American astronauts who had landed on the moon, guiding themselves on that voyage with computers far less powerful than the ones in our pockets today.
At the time of his death, Eisenhower was mourned as a beloved military leader and a benign presidential caretaker, but he was widely, if not universally, seen as a symbol of the era's sprawling suburban growth, mindless materialism, bland culture, rampant conformity, and deep-seated racial and gender bias. It was a period of mediocrity and mendacity run wild, all set to a Sinatra ballad. As the prominent political scientist of the 1950s and '60s Clinton Rossiter put it patronizingly while Ike still sat in the White House: "He will be remembered, I fear, as the unadventurous president who held on one term too long in the new age of adventure."
Eisenhower was known as the interregnum man. He was the figure between the New Deal/Fair Deal Democrats of the FDRTruman era, when the survival of America and its capitalist system seemed in the balance, and the New Frontier/Great Society period, when American idealism gave way to elements of a generation that rejected the Vietnam War and much of the cultural architecture of the nation at midcentury.
But that view began to change with the work of Fred I. Greenstein, who in his book The Hidden-Hand Presidency depicted Eisenhower as a "hidden-hand" president who shrewdly masked his intelligence and his wily maneuvers. Stephen Ambrose, in his 1 990 work Eisenhower: Soldier and President, celebrated the man as a figure for all seasons. Since then, others have picked up this theme. But no one has written so heroic a biography as this year's Eisenhower in War and Peace, by the distinguished Columbia historian Jean Edward Smith, author of respected works on John Marshall, FDR and Lucius D. Clay.
Smith has produced a life-and-times biography of the classic sort, but it is also a celebration of virtues of another era, especially modesty, humility and verbal brevity, qualities all but unknown in our own high-octane and high-stakes time. He portrays a man at the center of the important questions themselves at the center of the twentieth century, always with the capacity to address them (the civil-rights debate might be the signal exception, and it is not an insignificant one) if not always quick to do so. The result was eight years of peace and prosperity, a balance of each that has no peer in the last century. Smith suggests that the self-confidence of Ike extended to the nation itself. No one today would say that any of the last three presidents felt he had nothing to prove, and no one today would suggest that the national self-confidence under the last three presidents, ranging from 1993 to this day, remotely matched the American self-confidence of the Eisenhower period, fraught as it was with challenges, tensions and, as we have come to see, portentous transitions. Indeed, Smith's portrayal of the thirty-fourth president, laudatory if not hagiographie, as evident in the following paragraph, very likely could not be written about any president who followed Eisenhower:
Like a true professional, Eisenhower made things look easy. He was a master of the essentials. He appeared to be performing less work than he did because he knew instinctively which matters required his attention and which could be delegated to subordinates. His experience as supreme commander taught him to use experts without being intimidated by them. He structured matters so that he always had the last word, and in a curious way that encouraged his subordinates to do their best. The lines of authority were clear, the national interest was broadly defined, and there was no buck passing.
And so if Kennedy (Irish aristocrat, Harvard intellectual and brat-pack flaneur) and Reagan (the clear-eyed innocence of Dixon, Illinois, the savoir faire of Hollywood and a napkin scrawled with the Laffer curve in a smoky nightclub) were types readily identifiable and explained, Eisenhower was a type, too. It included a bit of that special swashbuckling that comes from that swath of Texas up against the Oklahoma border that we also associate with Sam Rayburn, a bit of the corps confidence of West Point we associate with Douglas MacArthur, and a dose of the World War II experience shaped by his intimacy with George Marshall, George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and Charles de Gaulle. Yet unlike every other president of his century and ours, with the possible and surprising exception of Herbert Hoover, Eisenhower was a fully formed, hugely accomplished figure long before he entered the White House, and he still would have been had he never entered presidential politics. As Smith says, "Ike had no need to prove himself."
And yet in the two proving grounds of politics - temporal approval and historical approval - Ike acquitted himself grandly. We have seen historians' assessments grow rosier with the years. But it is also true (and much forgotten) that Elsenhower's popularity ratings when he left office were as high as they were in the beginning. It is important, too, to remember that Eisenhower could have been the nominee of either party in 1948 or 1952 and that Stevenson, whose cult still endures, though graying, was doomed as a presidential contender from the moment Eisenhower agreed to run as a Republican in 1952.
Eisenhower was reared in Abilene, Kansas. Is there any other town of that size that could claim, in 1950, three graduates of the local high school who were college presidents - Ike at Columbia, his brother Milton at Penn State and Deane Malott at Cornell? At that time, the town had relinquished the rowdy days of the cow drives but, with wooden planks serving as sidewalks, was a long way from being a late nineteenth-century fleshpot and entrepôt. It was at Ike's birth, as Smith puts it, "a sleepy Kansas backwater," and its future favorite son had accumulated the sort of ail-American series of jobs (ice puller at a creamery, fireman keeping the furnaces roaring) that make for myths. Off to West Point Ike went, where he was marinated in more juices of the nineteenth century, learning the lessons of the Civil War. Then to the great frustration of his life: he was on the sidelines rather than in the trenches and in command of men in the Great War.
He was mortified, even mordant, at that fate. But in a way, he was liberated, not from the utter terror that battle brings but from the wrongheaded lessons that battles teach. It was dangerous enough that, eighty years after the Civil War, the man called upon to liberate Europe had been shaped by the classroom lessons of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But - fortunately for Eisenhower, fortunately for us all - he would not be stricken with the military night blindness brought on by Verdun, Passchendaele and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. As Smith writes, "Unlike many British senior commanders, Eisenhower had not been shocked into excessive caution by the futile slaughter of World War I. He was ready for a war of maneuver.
In truth, learning lessons was one of Elsenhower's greatest strengths. His postwar experience writing a guide to the American battlefields of Europe gave him a deep knowledge of the landscape where American troops would fight a quarter century later. His early views ("I believe that virtual dictatorship must be exercised by our President") showed what might charitably be called an insufficient appreciation for the will of the people and an insufficient understanding of the underpinnings of the Constitution. But by the time he became president, he was, if not a man of the people, then most assuredly a man who respected the will of the people. He learned a great lesson from Marshall, who once told him, "Eisenhower, this Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled to always bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done." Eisenhower would adopt that lesson in Europe, at Columbia and in the White House. He recoiled when, returning to the White House after his inauguration in 1953, he was handed a sealed envelope. "Never bring me a sealed envelope," the new president barked. "That's what I have a staff for." No man, including Reagan, ever delegated with such deftness.
Eisenhower served under and with the greatest military minds, strategists and officers of his time or any other. They included John J. Pershing, MacArthur, Patton, Mark Clark, Marshall and Walter Bedell Smith, a constellation of stars who, with the exception of Pershing, would shine in World War II and in some brilliant cases beyond. He was at base a gifted staff officer, but he would grow into a gifted military strategist, a dazzling bureaucrat and, in time, a radiant commander of men, first with the 101st Heavy Tank Battalion at Fort Meade, then with the Fifteenth Infantry Division at Fort Lewis and finally in the European theater in World War II.
Today, we routinely think of Eisenhower as a politician even in his military uniform, for his political skills contributed mightily to his D-day triumphs. But there were times when he let military impulses trump political imperatives, occasionally to great disadvantage and even tragedy. One of his stumbles was his failure to see the peril in the Clark-Darlan agreement of 1942, which tied the United States to a known collaborator with odious Vichy ties and a prominent collaborationist portfolio. Eisenhower "had not been catapulted over the heads of 345 generals more senior - to say nothing of their British counterparts - because he was a proven combat leader," Smith writes, adding: "He was chosen to be supreme commander precisely because of his political sensitivity."
He showed his mastery of spin early in World War II. In North Africa, where the American army was forced back eighty-five miles in less than a week's time, Eisenhower came into his own as a senior commander. He portrayed the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia as the turning point of the war. That is an overly grand assessment and not remotely how the 1943 battle is taught in military circles today. However, the tactical failures of that confrontation led to important changes in operational procedures that would reap dividends on D-day.
Long before Reagan was recognized for his innate genius at projecting optimism, Eisenhower was its presiding oracle. "Ike's optimism was contagious," Smith writes. "He recognized that a few compelling ideas, preached relentlessly, would propel his forces forward." Most of the time it worked, and it was particularly advantageous as the German threat at the Battle of the Bulge became clear. "The present situation is to be regarded as an opportunity," Eisenhower said, again employing the spin that he now recognized as one of his greatest skills, "not a disaster." Eisenhower's optimism was redeemed, in part because of the daring and success of Patton.
But Eisenhower also spun history. He and Walter Bedell Smith so mischaracterized Montgomery's plans and actions after D-day that the redoubtable British general was moved to say, "I have never been able to understand why Ike and Bedell made those statements." And in Crusade in Europe, his 1948 war memoir, Eisenhower, perhaps motivated by Cold War tensions but also possibly by self-absorption, ignored the Soviet contribution to ending and winning the war.
That Eisenhower mastery of spin was accompanied by mastery in personal politics. Examples include his relationship with Patton, which could not have been an easy one and, perhaps more critically, with de Gaulle. Indeed, as Smith relates, "Dealing with de Gaulle brought out the best in Eisenhower." It later brought out the best in de Gaulle, but first Eisenhower would allow de Gaulle to occupy the Palais de l'Elysée, outmaneuvering President Roosevelt and the State Department "so skillfully that he left no fingerprints." Another example of his sterling personal politics occurred in 1952, when Eisenhower traveled across the street at the GOP convention to visit the vanquished senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, his Republican presidential rival. Such a gesture of pure personal chivalry had never occurred before, and has not been replicated since.
It was D-day that made Eisenhower's career and sent him on a White House trajectory. It was a stunning strategic achievement of planning, politics, maneuver and manpower. But the liberation of France was also the liberation of Eisenhower. No longer was he an indoor general or a peripheral figure with hard eyes and an easy smile. His emergence as perhaps the central military figure of the war, at least on the Allied side, was pure Ike. Here is Smith's assessment:
Like de Gaulle, Elsenhower arrived on the world scene unheralded. But whereas de Gaulle made his way by forcing his iron will on others, Ike moved by subtlety and indirection. His amiable personality and avuncular enthusiasm concealed a calculating political instinct that had been honed to perfection.
But the post- 1944 period nearly undid Elsenhower. It was one of the rare times he wasn't able to transform his disadvantages into formidable advantages. Arrayed against Eisenhower, as the Allies moved east into Europe, were Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Montgomery. Montgomery promptly went on a political offensive that matched the military offensive opening on the continent. "I think now that if we want the war to end within any reasonable period you will have to get Elsenhower's hand taken off the land battle," Montgomery told Brooke. "He has never commanded anything in his whole career; now, for the first time, he has elected to take direct command of very large-scale operations and he does not know how to do it." Shortly thereafter, Brooke fought to have Eisenhower removed from his commanding heights. Here are his remarks before the British chiefs of staff:
I put before the Committee my views on the very unsatisfactory state of affairs in France, with no one running the land battle. Eisenhower, though supposed to be doing so, is on the golf links at Reims - entirely detached and taking practically no part in the running of the war. . . . Personally, I think he is incapable of running the war even if he tries.
The Allies prevailed, of course, and so did Eisenhower, who at war's end was tired and knew his marriage was in tatters because of a lengthy and deep relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby. But his public reputation was shiny, and his appeal as a potential political figure for the nation's highest office was undiminished. Nonetheless he shied away, not entirely disingenuously. "I'm a soldier, and I am positive that no one thinks of me as a politician," he said, fully convincing no one, perhaps not even himself. "In the strongest language you can command you can state that I have no political ambitions at all. Make it even stronger than that if you can. I'd like to go even further than Sherman did in expressing myself on this subject."
That said much less than met the eye. Smith points out that saying he would "like to go even further than Sherman" is materially different from actually doing so. In January 1948, when for timing and age reasons political experts argued that Eisenhower's presidential chances were greatest, he demurred formally, saying:
It is my conviction that the necessary and wise subordination of the military to civil power will best be sustained . . . when lifelong professional solders, in the absence of some obvious and overriding reasons, abstain from seeking high political office.
He would not always feel that way, of course. But first he would serve as president of Columbia (defending scholars against the "Red Scare" that was only then gathering force but never really embracing the campus life or the Columbia Zeitgeist) and as supreme commander of NATO. For most figures in history, these would be assignments and legacies enough. But for Eisenhower, they were the bridge between two star turns on the world stage. They provided him with perspective, executive leadership, and positions where his assumptions about the structure and nature of power were challenged. (For there is nothing, not even de Gaulle, to match the ferocity and intransigence of an Ivy League faculty.) During those years, he was given the indispensable opportunity to think deeply about the important issues of the time, including the role of tolerance and freedom in a democratic society facing a mortal threat from a competing ideology; the place of atomic weaponry in the postwar world; and, not unrelated, the struggle between communism and the West.
On the surface, Eisenhower's overwhelming popularity gave the 1952 election little suspense. But there were significant consequences, as the nation was to see decades later if not clearly at the time. In this election were the first substantial cracks in the solid South; Eisenhower began the generalelection campaign in Georgia, one of FDR'S home states, and in the audience were William Hartsfield, the Democratic mayor, and Eugene Talmadge, the Democratic governor. By the time the ballots were cast, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia and Florida had slipped into the GOP column. Catholics had begun moving away from their New Deal moorings, and the suburbs were leaning Republican. All this adumbrated a mass movement that would transform American politics and render the nation politically unrecognizable by century's end.
He assembled a cabinet that was remarkable for its lack of experience in Washington - not one member possessed it - and set a path for his presidency that had little resemblance to the 1952 platform. "There would be no victory in Korea, no reduction in foreign aid, no shift in emphasis from Europe to Asia, no immediate tax cut, and no end of the New Deal," Smith writes. "The changes would be incremental. Eisenhower was a realist, not an ideologue, and his policies would hew to the middle of the road."
The irony of the age is that the man who would lead the West against the red-tinged prophets of central planning believed deeply in planning, and when it wasn't done he was seriously aggrieved: "Ever since 1946 the experts have been yapping about what would happen when Stalin dies and what we should do about it," he said at a cabinet meeting, the frustration oozing from the man. "Well, he's dead. And you can turn the files of our government inside out looking for any plans laid. We have no plans."
In episodes where no plans were possible - the fight over the Bricker amendment, for example, which would have given new powers to lawmakers in international treaties - he found common cause with his presumed rivals, such as Lyndon B. Johnson, whose wily machinations helped defeat the amendment. But he was not the captive of his presumed allies. The French at Dien Bien Phu begged for American help but didn't get it. And Britain's joint action with France during the Suez crisis only served to anger Eisenhower, not to make him prisoner of expectations.
This was especially so on military matters. In his first State of the Union message, the president said that "to amass military power without regard to our economic capacity would be to defend ourselves against one kind of disaster by inviting another." He pressed ahead with his New Look concept for the military, giving increased funding to the air force while reducing army and navy appropriations, despite the opposition of some of his own appointees, including the generals Matthew Ridgway and Maxwell Taylor, both of whom he replaced as a result. "Eisenhower's emphasis on the New Look and nuclear weapons preserved the peace during the Cold War," Smith writes. "But," he goes on:
It spawned a variety of side effects, some benign and beneficial, others downright pernicious. Among the pernicious was the arms race that led to the development of thermonuclear weapons, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the spiral in defense spending that Ike had hoped to avoid.
On the positive side: increased pure research that paid off for decades.
Through it all, Eisenhower displayed an amiable artistry in ambiguity. In 1955, Joseph C. Harsch of the Christian Science Monitor asked the president whether he would use tactical nuclear weapons if there were a conflict with China over Quemoy and Matsu. Eisenhower's response is an object lesson in obfuscation: "The only thing I know about war are two things: the most changeable factor in war is human nature in its day-by-day manifestation; but the only unchanging factor in war is human nature." That explains nothing, of course, because in one inscrutable sentence Eisenhower described human nature as both changing and unchanging. But it got him off the hook and allowed him to move on, and he employed the tactic repeatedly. It was brilliance in the guise of buffoonery.
Elsenhower's views on race have been the subject of enormous controversy, not without justification. He was, above all, a product of his region and race, both of which gave him a constricted view of what might be possible. Eisenhower was not a bigot, but by temperament, inclination and rearing he was not a civil-rights activist either. He wanted progress but without rancor - that was the Eisenhower way, after all - but in the case of race, that was all but impossible, and he should have known it. Even so, he ordered the end of segregation in the nation's capital and took Harry Truman's offensive against segregation in the armed forces to a new, more effective level, with the result that by 1954 no racially segregated units remained in the armed forces. Both achievements are substantial and worthy of praise, but they were mere slices of the loaf, not even half the loaf. Even so, he worked quietly and by and large effectively with religious leaders, including the Reverend Billy Graham, to sow the notion that segregation was odious and unacceptable. And in the famed Little Rock Nine crisis he gave verbal support to the nine black children who tried to enter Central High School, decisively issued an order commanding "all persons engaged in ... obstruction of justice to cease and desist therefrom, and to disperse forthwith," and called in the 101st Airborne Division.
His final years were full of travail including Sputnik, the Middle East, the U-2 incident, and even the prospect of being succeeded by a vice president from California he didn't fully trust or a junior senator from Massachusetts he didn't fully respect. Eisenhower approached each of these challenges with confidence, competence and experience, though in the case of Nixon his gracelessness in promoting his lieutenant commander may have been deliberate and not reflexive. It is that combination of confidence, competence and experience that sets him apart from every president who followed, with the possible exception of George H. W. Bush, whose tenure in the White House was only half that of Eisenhower, Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. All the other modern presidents, especially the last three, faced crises for which they were unprepared or at least lacked personal experience. That is the Eisenhower difference. He was prepared for almost everything that came his way. In war, he triumphed with intelligence and power. In peace, he triumphed with serenity and mastery. There was ample reason to like Ike in his time, and there is even greater reason to like him now. Indeed, history has shown that we have not seen his like again. A few decades ago, the absence of a latter-day Ike figure might have been the occasion for relief. In the second decade of the twentyfirst century, it occasions an expression of despair,
David M. Shribman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh PostGazette and a nationally syndicated columnist. He formerly served as a political writer for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and as Washington bureau chief for the Boston Globe.