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Book review: ‘Eisenhower in War and Peace’ by Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower in War and Peace

Jean Edward Smith

Random House: 944 pp., $40

Jean Edward Smith’s massive work, the first comprehensive biography of Dwight D. Eisenhowersince Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume work in the 1980s, joins a flurry of recent books — grandson David Eisenhower’s affectionate memoir (“Going Home to Glory”), L.A. Times editor at large Jim Newton’s presidential portrait (“Eisenhower: The White House Years”), and scholar David A. Nichols’ study of the Suez crisis (“Eisenhower 1956") — in viewing Eisenhower as the embodiment of a midcentury spirit of consensus noticeably absent from the current political scene.

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He was “a progressive conservative [who] believed traditional American values encompassed change and progress,” writes Smith, who follows that assessment with a pointed comment from a letter by Eisenhower that is difficult to imagine being written by a prominent Republican today: “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would never hear of that party again,” he observed to his brother Edgar. “There is a tiny splinter group that believes you can do these things….but their number is negligible and they are stupid.”

Eisenhower would never have been that blunt in public. From the very beginning of his military career, Smith argues persuasively, Eisenhower was a shrewd political operator who concealed his acumen and ambition behind an affable façade. Born in 1890, he grew up in poverty; his dour father, a failure in business, practiced a grim variety of Christianity so off-putting that Ike did not join a church until after he was inaugurated as president and then only because he deemed it politically necessary. The six Eisenhower brothers (a seventh died in childhood) were all driven to high achievement by their father’s cautionary example, and everyone agreed that Ike was the one who most resembled their cheerful, problem-solving mother.

He displayed those qualities as a career soldier, compensating for his lack of combat experience (World War I ended as he was about to embark for France) by making himself indispensable to a series of powerful mentors who accelerated his rise in the peacetime army. His wife Mamie’s gifts as a hostess helped, though Smith’s brief comments on their marriage depict an often-tense relationship. By the time Eisenhower arrived in Washington one week after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor to work for Army Chief of Staff George Marshall, he was known as a hard-working officer with formidable executive abilities. His service in the War Plans Division, including a draft proposal for the invasion of Normandy prompted Marshall to appoint Eisenhower supreme commander of the European theater.

Smith’s evaluation of Eisenhower’s generalship during World War II is hardly spotless. Time and again — in North Africa, Sicily and Italy — he judges Eisenhower a poor strategist whose inexperience as a battlefield commander made those campaigns longer and harder than they should have been, won in the end primarily because of the Allies’ overwhelmingly superior resources. He estimates that Eisenhower’s decision to liberate Paris instead of immediately pursuing the German army to Berlin after D-Day delayed the war’s end in Europe by six months, at the cost of an additional half-million Allied casualties. What made him a great leader, in Smith’s assessment, was his willingness to take responsibility for his mistakes, learn from them and move on. His honesty fostered respect and confidence among the Allied senior command, forging the unity that was essential for victory.

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Eisenhower emerged from the war a national hero and obvious presidential candidate, though he coyly brushed aside such speculation. (Smith considers it likely that Ike seriously considered divorcing Mamie and marrying Kay Summersby but was led by his ambition to end their wartime affair with a cold-hearted letter in 1945.) His deliberate political ecumenicalism kept everyone guessing about Eisenhower’s aspirations — indeed, even his party affiliation — until 1952, when he allowed Massachusetts Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. to declare him in sympathy with “enlightened Republican doctrine” and squared off against Robert Taft, a U.S. senator from Ohio, for the nomination.

Taft represented the isolationist, ultra-conservative Republican old guard that Smith depicts causing Eisenhower many more headaches than the Democrats ever did. His advisors tried to mollify them by persuading an indifferent Eisenhower to select Richard Nixon, a senator from California known as an anticommunist crusader, as his running mate. His lukewarm feelings turned decidedly cold when a financial scandal engulfed Nixon two months before the election. Eisenhower, in a typically passive-aggressive move, refused to drop Nixon but made it clear he expected him to resign from the ticket. Instead, Nixon gave his Checkers speech. Though it’s now famous for the maudlin plea for sympathy that guaranteed he wouldn’t be replaced, Smith makes it clear that the speech was in fact a shrewd political maneuver in which Nixon flung down a gauntlet to Eisenhower by laying bare his finances and urging all candidates to do the same. Eisenhower, who had been paid for his wartime memoirs with a legal but tax-dodging lump-sum payment, was infuriated. He never really trusted Nixon after that.

At home, Eisenhower expanded Social Security to cover the self-employed, built the interstate highway system (“the mother of all stimulus programs,” Smith sardonically comments), and sent federal troops to Arkansas to enforce the desegregation of its public schools. He let the rule of law deal with Joseph McCarthy, whom he despised but refused to criticize publicly, arguing that attacks merely fueled the Wisconsin senator’s quest for notoriety. Instead, he banned all members of the military and employees of the executive branch from testifying or providing documents to McCarthy’s committee — an unprecedented expansion of executive privilege, Smith notes — and left the Senate to deal with its out-of-control colleague. He applied the same tactics to the Republican old guard: “far from appeasing or reasoning with the dyed-in-the-wool reactionary fringe,” he wrote in his diary, “we should completely ignore it.”

The result? “When he left office in 1961, his popularity ratings were as high as when he was inaugurated,” Smith reports. Eisenhower certainly benefited from the postwar surge in prosperity, but Smith’s account of the many crises he surmounted with unflappable good sense — and, when necessary, an astute dose of obfuscation and delay until everyone calmed down — makes it clear that he was no golf-playing absentee president. He maintained a dignified retirement and died quietly in 1969 at 78 after a series of heart attacks. This measured but fundamentally admiring account of his long years of public service shows that in war and peace, Dwight D. Eisenhower proved himself to be precisely the kind of leader America wanted and needed at the time.

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Smith is a contributing editor for the American Scholar and reviews books for The Times, the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.


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