Even Academics Like Ike Now

Even Academics Like Ike Now

Mini Teaser: Dwight D. Eisenhower was a paradoxical man—warm in groups but frosty in person; not an intellectual but steeped in history; a simple man who dominated giants. Jean Edward Smith's tome offers insight into this self-effacing yet effective man.

by Author(s): David M. Shribman

Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower in War and Peace (New York: Random House, 2012), 976 pp., $40.00.

HE EXUDED warmth to large groups but was frosty in person. He was not an intellectual but had a remarkable mastery of history. He was known as a duffer but had a deep understanding of the mainstreams of his time. He was a pale eminence in a panorama of striking twentieth-century presidents. He was a southerner who didn’t resist desegregation, a military man who spoke of the evils of the military-industrial complex, and a Westerner whose rejection of the entreaties of Britain and France during the Suez crisis gave hope and inspiration to Third World nations around the world. He understood the necessity of military sacrifice, but he made no presidential decisions that led to an American combat death.

Dwight David Eisenhower wasn’t a braggart. He wasn’t showy, and he wasn’t a visionary thinker. He wasn’t a masterly practitioner of big-power politics. He didn’t set the English language aflame with passion, poetry or powerful imagery. He was just Ike, who invaded captive Europe at D-day, vanquished Adlai Stevenson twice and set the nation on a course toward racial equality. He balanced the budget, sent to the Supreme Court prominent justices who would reshape the nation, planted Republican roots in the Democratic South, set the GOP on a new internationalist path and built the St. Lawrence Seaway. He did it all with a decent golf swing, an intoxicating smile, a sixth sense for politics and a drink at the end of the day.

Few men ever assembled an obituary as lengthy as his, a legacy as rich, and a life as varied or as full of accomplishments. And none with an obituary, legacy, life and accomplishments remotely comparable to his was as ridiculed, underestimated and misunderstood as he was at his death. In conquering Nazi Germany, mastering Allied politics and triumphing in two American national elections, Eisenhower—not Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson or Franklin Roosevelt, nor even John F. Kennedy or Ronald Reagan—was the quintessential American of modern times. He was at ease in many spheres and in a historical role as close to indispensable as any in the American ascendancy.

All this is clear now, and the wonder is that it was so elusive for so long. This view of Eisenhower—as a sober magus of military power and master of domestic politics, preeminent in both spheres—was all but unknown at the conclusion of his own life, which began in the era when American presidents had beards and ended in the period when presidents seemed to have only warts. His childhood was in a horse-and-buggy America. His early military career was in an era when the potency of airpower was only beginning to be understood. His presidency was in a period marked by Sputnik, and he died in the very year in which his former vice president would sit in the White House and speak by radio telephone to American astronauts who had landed on the moon, guiding themselves on that voyage with computers far less powerful than the ones in our pockets today.

At the time of his death, Eisenhower was mourned as a beloved military leader and a benign presidential caretaker, but he was widely, if not universally, seen as a symbol of the era’s sprawling suburban growth, mindless materialism, bland culture, rampant conformity, and deep-seated racial and gender bias. It was a period of mediocrity and mendacity run wild, all set to a Sinatra ballad. As the prominent political scientist of the 1950s and ’60s Clinton Rossiter put it patronizingly while Ike still sat in the White House: “He will be remembered, I fear, as the unadventurous president who held on one term too long in the new age of adventure.”

Eisenhower was known as the interregnum man. He was the figure between the New Deal/Fair Deal Democrats of the FDR-Truman era, when the survival of America and its capitalist system seemed in the balance, and the New Frontier/Great Society period, when American idealism gave way to elements of a generation that rejected the Vietnam War and much of the cultural architecture of the nation at midcentury.

But that view began to change with the work of Fred I. Greenstein, who in his book The Hidden-Hand Presidency depicted Eisenhower as a “hidden-hand” president who shrewdly hid his intelligence and his wily maneuvers. Stephen Ambrose, in his 1990 work Eisenhower: Soldier and President, celebrated the man as a figure for all seasons. Since then, others have picked up this theme. But no one has written so heroic a biography as this year’s Eisenhower in War and Peace, by the distinguished Columbia historian Jean Edward Smith, author of respected works on John Marshall, FDR and Lucius D. Clay.

Smith has produced a life-and-times biography of the classic sort, but it is also a celebration of virtues of another era, especially modesty, humility and verbal brevity, qualities all but unknown in our own high-octane and high-stakes time. He portrays a man at the center of the important questions themselves at the center of the twentieth century, always with the capacity to address them (the civil-rights debate might be the signal exception, and it is not an insignificant one) if not always quick to do so. The result was eight years of peace and prosperity, a balance of each that has no peer in the last century. Smith suggests that the self-confidence of Ike extended to the nation itself. No one today would say that any of the last three presidents felt he had nothing to prove, and no one today would suggest that the national self-confidence under the last three presidents, ranging from 1993 to this day, remotely matched the American self-confidence of the Eisenhower period, fraught as it was with challenges, tensions and, as we have come to see, portentous transitions. Indeed, Smith’s portrayal of the thirty-fourth president, laudatory if not hagiographic, as evident in the following paragraph, very likely could not be written about any president who followed Eisenhower:

Like a true professional, Eisenhower made things look easy. He was a master of the essentials. He appeared to be performing less work than he did because he knew instinctively which matters required his attention and which could be delegated to subordinates. His experience as supreme commander taught him to use experts without being intimidated by them. He structured matters so that he always had the last word, and in a curious way that encouraged his subordinates to do their best. The lines of authority were clear, the national interest was broadly defined, and there was no buck passing.

And so if Kennedy (Irish aristocrat, Harvard intellectual and brat-pack flaneur) and Reagan (the clear-eyed innocence of Dixon, Illinois, the savoir faire of Hollywood and a napkin scrawled with the Laffer curve in a smoky nightclub) were types readily identifiable and explained, Eisenhower was a type, too. It included a bit of that special swashbuckling that comes from that swath of Texas up against the Oklahoma border that we also associate with Sam Rayburn, a bit of the corps confidence of West Point we associate with Douglas MacArthur, and a dose of the World War II experience shaped by his intimacy with George Marshall, George Patton, Bernard Montgomery and Charles de Gaulle. Yet unlike every other president of his century and ours, with the possible and surprising exception of Herbert Hoover, Eisenhower was a fully formed, hugely accomplished figure long before he entered the White House, and he still would have been had he never entered presidential politics. As Smith says, “Ike had no need to prove himself.”

And yet in the two proving grounds of politics—temporal approval and historical approval—Ike acquitted himself grandly. We have seen historians’ assessments grow rosier with the years. But it is also true (and much forgotten) that Eisenhower’s popularity ratings when he left office were as high as they were in the beginning. It is important, too, to remember that Eisenhower could have been the nominee of either party in 1948 or 1952 and that Stevenson, whose cult still endures, though graying, was doomed as a presidential contender from the moment Eisenhower agreed to run as a Republican in 1952.

EISENHOWER WAS reared in Abilene, Kansas. Is there any other town of that size that could claim, in 1950, three graduates of the local high school who were college presidents—Ike at Columbia, his brother Milton at Penn State and Deane Malott at Cornell­? At that time, the town had relinquished the rowdy days of the cow drives but, with wooden planks serving as sidewalks, was a long way from being a late nineteenth-century fleshpot and entrepôt. It was at Ike’s birth, as Smith puts it, “a sleepy Kansas backwater,” and its future favorite son had accumulated the sort of all-American series of jobs (ice puller at a creamery, fireman keeping the furnaces roaring) that make for myths. Off to West Point Ike went, where he was marinated in more juices of the nineteenth century, learning the lessons of the Civil War. Then to the great frustration of his life: he was on the sidelines rather than in the trenches and in command of men in the Great War.

Pullquote: Eisenhower was prepared for almost everything that came his way. In war, he triumphed with intelligence and power. In peace, he triumphed with serenity and mastery.Image: Essay Types: Book Review