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.