At the end of this new biography of Dwight Eisenhower, the author quotes Ike’s grandson David asking Mamie Eisenhower whether she had really known her husband. “I’m not sure anyone did,” she replied.
Jean Edward Smith’s impressively researched and impressively thick volume brings us closer to understanding the soldier-statesman whom Richard Nixon (of all people) called “a far more complex and devious man than most people realize” — but not quite in the way Smith intends. Eisenhower in War and Peace capitalizes on three decades of upward revision of America’s most famous soldier-president by such scholars as Fred Greenstein and Stephen Ambrose, as well as grandson/biographer David. Smith gives us a relentlessly positive appraisal of the man who led the Allies to victory in Europe in World War II, and then as chief executive gave us “eight years of peace and prosperity” — a claim, Smith adds pointedly, “no other 20th-century American president can make.”
That said, what really emerges from Smith’s account is a far more complicated, and far more flawed, man than either he or the regnant pro-Ike cult cares to admit.
Dwight David Eisenhower was born in 1890 in Denison, Texas, the son of Mennonite pacifists who would move to Kansas when he was two years old. Hard-working and intellectually gifted, he was the center of his family’s doting attention when he suddenly decided to go to West Point — partly because he knew the Army would pay for a college education, but also (as Smith acknowledges) because he had abandoned all pretense of his parents’ pacifism. Instead, one abiding interest would dominate the rest of his life: the exercise of power, for good (at least in his own mind) but never at the cost of his reputation, not to say popularity.
In that sense, the Army was a perfect choice. Its outwardly rigid rules and hierarchy permitted a strong but secretive personality like Ike’s to cloak vital decisions behind a façade of ordered routine. His success was such that in 1930 the new Army chief of staff, Douglas MacArthur, made him his deputy. “This officer has no superior of his age and grade,” wrote MacArthur. Yet unlike his Republican mentor, Major Eisenhower would become a strong New Dealer and, in the shadow of the Great Depression, an enthusiastic authoritarian. “I believe that virtual dictatorship must be exercised by our President,” he wrote shortly before FDR’s inauguration in 1933. “Things are not going to take an upturn until more power is centered in one man’s hands” so that national recovery can get under way without “the pernicious influence of noisy and selfish minorities,” one of which, in Eisenhower’s mind, is evidently American business — those same businessmen he would later worry about as part of the military-industrial complex.
When war came in 1941, 51-year-old Dwight Eisenhower was the Army’s leading staff officer. The fact that he had no combat experience did not slow his advancement to command of American forces in North Africa, and then to the post of supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. While George Marshall was more than ready to quarrel with his British counterparts in defense of American interests, Ike could be relied on to work out an amicable Anglo-American alliance with prickly egos such as Churchill and Montgomery — while secretly never deviating from a course that made America, not Britain, the dominant partner. The plaque that sat on his desk as president, Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re — Pleasantly in manner, powerfully in deed — describes perfectly his approach to exercising power both as supreme commander and later as president.
Unfortunately, Suaviter in modo, fortiter in re is no guarantee of good judgment. Ike yielded to popular pressure to sideline George Patton after the famous slapping incident during the campaign in Sicily, handing command of forces in the Normandy invasion to the overly cautious Omar Bradley, who, unlike Patton, had no feel for the kind of rapid-mechanized-maneuver warfare that the campaign in Europe demanded. More seriously, Eisenhower followed his hero FDR in believing the alliance with the Soviet Union was genuine, and deferring to Stalin. That led Ike first to disregard Patton’s advice and allow the Soviets to take Prague, even though American forces were closer, and then to contradict Churchill’s explicit wishes and let the Soviets occupy Berlin.
For once, Patton and Churchill were on the same side. “We had better take Berlin — and quick,” Patton pleaded. Ike was skeptical: “Who would want it?” Patton’s reply rings out like a tolling bell: “I think history will answer that question for you.”
After the war, Ike began considering his future, including a run in 1948 for president — but as a Democrat, not a Republican. Indeed, his ultimate choice of political party had less to do with inner conviction than with what it would make others think about him. In 1952, being Republican said: reining in big government, getting Reds like Alger Hiss out of the government, and winning in Korea. His famous campaign slogan that year, “I shall go to Korea,” led many to assume that the hero of D-Day would be taking over command himself — when in fact he wanted a negotiated settlement to put Korea behind him.
Eisenhower despised his predecessor, Harry Truman — who, he scoffed, “didn’t know any more about government than a dog knows about religion” — and owed his election to Joe McCarthy and the Republican Right. But as president, he turned against them, almost from the moment he entered office. His goal, as Smith acknowledges, was an administration whose only real difference from the Democrats would be more efficient management. This meant running his presidency firmly from the center, which meant accepting the boundaries defined by the New Deal — like a dog in a fenced-in yard. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security,” he once wrote to his brother Edgar, “you would never hear from that party again.” Repudiating the assumptions of the New Deal would mean the loss of what mattered most to Eisenhower, namely power. And reelection in 1956 seemed to vindicate that strategy. Yet shrewd though Ike was in understanding power, he never understood the power of ideas to shape human lives and destinies — largely, one suspects, because he had no ideas himself.
Probably for that reason, it’s hard to find in retrospect much to admire in what Eisenhower wrought as president. He opened the door to a huge expansion of the size of the federal government under his successors, including Medicare and the war on poverty. His appointment of William Brennan and Earl Warren to the Supreme Court may have helped to implement desegregation, but it also set up other rulings that would undermine America’s social cohesion. And if the domestic projects Smith praises most, the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway, paid their own way, they left no governing principle for controlling or limiting those that didn’t.
But in retrospect, perhaps Ike’s biggest failure was in the one area in which one would have expected him to be acutely expert, namely defense. He was determined to shrink the Pentagon after Korea. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched,” he declared in 1953, “signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” Michael Harrington himself could not have come up with a formula more simple-minded or misdirected. Eisenhower’s answer was to sink the bulk of defense dollars into big bombers and big bombs, especially atomic ones. His “New Look” policy was supposed to save money. Instead, it locked America into a strategy of mutual nuclear annihilation, and left our armed forces woefully unprepared for a ground war in Vietnam, which ballooned the budget anyway.
In Smith’s view, Ike’s “progressive conservatism” made him a great president. A better description would be that it made him the first RINO. Certainly no one summed up Eisenhower better than William F. Buckley Jr., more than 50 years ago, in Up from Liberalism: “It was the dominating ambition of Eisenhower’s Modern Republicanism to govern in such fashion as to more or less please more or less everybody. Such governments must shrink from principle; because principles have edges, principles cut; and blood is drawn, and people get hurt. And who would hurt anyone in an age of modulation?”
Instead, the blood and hurt come later, when others have to deal with the mess left by such moderate irresponsibility.
– Mr. Herman, a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Built the Arsenal of Democracy in World War II, forthcoming from Random House in May.