Book Review. Eisenhower in War and Peace.

 

Eisenhower in War and Peace                                                                                                                                                                       by Jean Edward Smith. Random House, 2012

Individuals born between 1929 and 1945 make up a generation recently labeled “the lucky few.” As a card-carrying member of that group, I remember the “I like Ike” presidential campaigns as happy events and the eight years of Eisenhower’s presidency as relatively stable and carefree. Yes, we did have to practice getting under our desks in case of nuclear attack but the larger implications escaped our young minds.

For me, reading Jean Edward Smith’s biography of Eisenhower turned a black-and-white image of the smiling, bald President into a full-color portrait of a genuine American hero, complete with his flaws and his accomplishments through Smith’s carefully documented reconstruction of his life.

As Eisenhower later recalled his childhood, “We were very poor, but we didn’t know it at the time.” Again and again, Eisenhower enjoyed good luck. His senator held competitive exams for service academy appointments rather than doling out political favors, and Ike went to West Point. His knee injury from football disqualified him for a commission, but the academy medical officer over-ruled the medical and Ike was commissioned as an infantry officer. He requested duty in the Philippines, but was assigned to Fort Sam Houston, where he met and soon married the wealthy young Mamie Dowd. Then, like so many other families in the pre-antibiotic era, Ike and Mamie lost their first child to infectious disease, scarlet fever complicated my meningitis and, in Smith’s view, their “marriage was no longer the same.”

Eisenhower’s organizational and administrative skills led to steady career advancements. He served with the top leaders of the Army including Pershing in Paris, then with MacArthur in Washington and Manila, and finally with Marshall in Washington. Smith pulls no punches, and describes both Eisenhower’s successes and his hot temper, his own willingness to take responsibility and his insistence on delegating tasks to his subordinates.

The story builds through Eisenhower’s management of the European theater in World War II as the allied supreme commander. In that role, Eisenhower came to know the leadership of the Western world and developed the skills that would take him to the presidency. Smith carefully recounts the military and political pressures on Ike, while dispassionately weaving in the history of his three-year relationship with Kay Summersby.

Of his 28 chapters, Smith devotes 12 to Eisenhower after the war; in these, he fills out the development of Ike’s leadership skills and his character by detailing his handling of the Korean conflict and crises with McCarthyism, with public school desegregation, with the launch of Sputnik, and with the U2 incident, among others. Smith’s writing is smooth and unobtrusive, letting the accumulating facts build the picture of Eisenhower as an increasingly skillful and mature statesman.

In summary, this is a fine book about a great American. After reading it, those of us who remember Ike from our youth will want to thank him for his masterful handling of the grave threats we only vaguely recognized. Those for whom he is an historical figure of uncertain significance will gain a new appreciation for his contributions.

2 thoughts on “Book Review. Eisenhower in War and Peace.

  1. Roger, I enjoyed both your most recent piece about the remarkable transition that happen last night and the review of Ms. Smith’s book on Ike. I recommend another book on him: “Ike’s Bluff” by Evan Thomas.

    When a visiting Indian exchanged student was staying with us (in Gettysburg) my brother and I took him to meet Ike, since he had seen all of the battlefield he could tolerate and my mother told us “to do something” with our guest, instead of watching television, since he had come all the way from India. Ike greeted us warmly and asked Ravi to sit in a white love seat on the inside wall of his porch, overlooking the putting green. Ike then turned to Kit (my brother) and me and learned where we were in school and what activities we were enjoying. Ike then turned to Ravi and asked if he could guess why he had been asked to sit on the white love seat. Ravi was speechless! Here was the (recently retired) President of the United States, less than four feet from him, asking him a question for which he had no response. Ike then explained that the love seat was the favorite chair of Prime Minister Nehru during his visit in 1956. Ravi almost levitated! Ike then had a wonderful conversation with Ravi. He learned that Ravi and his parents had been in a large crowd that had come to see Ike during a visit to India. He asked Ravi about the schools he had attended, what had surprised him about the United States, and much more. As the conversation on the porch was coming to a close, Ike got up and escorted Ravi into the dining room, which was just around a corner. There Ike showed Ravi the many gifts he had received as President, focusing on those from India and its neighbors. In all, Ike spent almost two hours on a Saturday afternoon with this teenage exchange student from India.
    Best, – Gordy

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