Fortune likes Ike
Is there any President so deeply tied to the perception of a particular era than Dwight D. Eisenhower? That decade, often perceived as an era of increased conformity and unprecedented prosperity seemed tailor made for a president more often imagined in golf duds than more presidential garb. Ask many Americans who they rate as the great presidents of the twentieth century, it is likely few would consider Ike’s a successful administration, but rather one that did little to rock the boat. In his hefty new biography of the thirty-fourth president, Eisenhower in War and Peace, historian Jean Edward Smith presents his argument why he considers Eisenhower’s tenure to be one of the most successful administrations of the century.
Smith is primarily a military historian, and it is the pre-presidency portion that his work is most engaging. Eisenhower, born to an aimless father and a devout Jehovah’s Witness mother in rural Texas, stood out in his early years as a natural leader with a shrewd eye towards advancing his military career. Barely missing action in World War I, Eisenhower moved between staff positions in the peacetime army, rarely serving in any commanding post, but developing a knack for knowing the right people. Generals John Pershing, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall each looked out for Eisenhower as he rose through the ranks, and Smith makes no effort to hide the fact that Eisenhower’s rise was due to his understanding of military politics and sometimes extraordinary luck rather than any particular skill at command. His first real command as commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean theater almost met with disaster in the 1942 invasion of North Africa, a fact that proved problematic with more forward thinking generals up to the end of the war and may have had a serious impact on the state of Europe at the end of the war. Still, Smith emphasizes, Eisenhower learned from his mistakes, and most importantly, developed an uncanny ability to choose subordinates who could free Eisenhower up to make the most important decisions himself.
It was that last quality that contributed most to Eisenhower’s presidency. He surrounded himself with people that he knew were capable of making firm decisions, yet he had the confidence to ensure the last word, and the authority to back it up. Scenes of Ike on the links at Augusta notwithstanding, there was never any doubt who wielded the power and Americans loved him for it (Eisenhower remains the only president to leave office with as high a job approval as when he started). It is disappointing then that Smith treats Eisenhower’s eight years with less precision than perhaps befits a presidential biography; his tendency to boil down major trends of the decade into one or two situations (for instance, the civil rights movement is largely seen solely through the desegregation of the Little Rock school district) feels like much more is being left out. Part of this, I suspect, comes down to Smith’s conservative leanings and his intent of rehabilitating Ike’s image; much of the candor that marks Smith’s writing on the war years is missing from his assessment of the presidential years. Many of his arguments bear credence: Eisenhower’s efforts to limit freewheeling spending on the military and his intent on governing from the center proved to work well for the nation domestically and put America in an admired position worldwide. Other decisions, such as the increased use of the CIA to secretly intervene in statecraft, led to repercussions that are still an issue in the US’s foreign policy.
At close to a thousand pages with notes, Eisenhower in War and Peace is remarkably readable despite its length (and weight—I would recommend downloading the ebook). I doubt that it could be viewed as the definitive biography—Eisenhower remained remarkably elusive, even to those closest to him. But Smith’s portrait stands with other treatments as one of the best, and gives armchair historians a great and debatable perspective on the man who quietly helped chart America’s course during one of its most pivotal decades.