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

He was mortified, even mordant, at that fate. But in a way, he was liberated, not from the utter terror that battle brings but from the wrongheaded lessons that battles teach. It was dangerous enough that, ninety years after the Civil War, the man called upon to liberate Europe had been shaped by the classroom lessons of Gettysburg and Vicksburg. But—fortunately for Eisenhower, fortunately for us all—he would not be stricken with the military night blindness brought on by Verdun, Passchendaele and the Meuse-Argonne offensive. As Smith writes, “Unlike many British senior commanders, Eisenhower had not been shocked into excessive caution by the futile slaughter of World War I. He was ready for a war of maneuver.”

In truth, learning lessons was one of Eisenhower’s greatest strengths. His postwar experience writing a guide to the American battlefields of Europe gave him a deep knowledge of the landscape where American troops would fight a quarter century later. His early views (“I believe that virtual dictatorship must be exercised by our President”) showed what might charitably be called an insufficient appreciation for the will of the people and an insufficient understanding of the underpinnings of the Constitution. But by the time he became president, he was, if not a man of the people, then most assuredly a man who respected the will of the people. He learned a great lesson from Marshall, who once told him, “Eisenhower, this Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled to always bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.” Eisenhower would adopt that lesson in Europe, at Columbia and in the White House. He recoiled when, returning to the White House after his inauguration in 1953, he was handed a sealed envelope. “Never bring me a sealed envelope,” the new president barked. “That’s what I have a staff for.” No man, including Reagan, ever delegated with such deftness.

Eisenhower served under and with the greatest military minds, strategists and officers of his time or any other. They included John J. Pershing, MacArthur, Patton, Mark Clark, Marshall and Walter Bedell Smith, a constellation of stars who, with the exception of Pershing, would shine in World War II and in some brilliant cases beyond. He was at base a gifted staff officer, but he would grow into a gifted military strategist, a dazzling bureaucrat and, in time, a radiant commander of men, first with the 101st Heavy Tank Battalion at Fort Meade, then with the Fifteenth Infantry Division at Fort Lewis and finally in the European theater in World War II.

Today, we routinely think of Eisenhower as a politician even in his military uniform, for his political skills contributed mightily to his D-day triumphs. But there were times when he let military impulses trump political imperatives, occasionally to great disadvantage and even tragedy. One of his stumbles was his failure to see the peril in the Clark-Darlan agreement of 1942, which tied the United States to a known collaborator with odious Vichy ties and a prominent collaborationist portfolio. Eisenhower “had not been catapulted over the heads of 345 generals more senior—to say nothing of their British counterparts—because he was a proven combat leader,” Smith writes, adding: “He was chosen to be supreme commander precisely because of his political sensitivity.”

He showed his mastery of spin early in World War II. In North Africa, where the American army was forced back eighty-five miles in less than a week’s time, Eisenhower came into his own as a senior commander. He portrayed the Battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia as the turning point of the war. That is an overly grand assessment and not remotely how the 1943 battle is taught in military circles today. However, the tactical failures of that confrontation led to important changes in operational procedures that would reap dividends on D-day.

LONG BEFORE Reagan was recognized for his innate genius for projecting optimism, Eisenhower was its presiding oracle. “Ike’s optimism was contagious,” Smith writes. “He recognized that a few compelling ideas, preached relentlessly, would propel his forces forward.” Most of the time it worked, and it was particularly advantageous as the German threat at the Battle of the Bulge became clear. “The present situation is to be regarded as an opportunity,” Eisenhower said, again employing the spin that he now recognized as one of his greatest skills, “not a disaster.” Eisenhower’s optimism was redeemed, in part because of the daring and success of Patton.

But Eisenhower also spun history. He and Walter Bedell Smith so mischaracterized Montgomery’s plans and actions after D-day that the redoubtable British general was moved to say, “I have never been able to understand why Ike and Bedell made those statements.” And in Crusade in Europe, his 1948 war memoir, Eisenhower, perhaps motivated by Cold War tensions but also possibly by self-absorption, ignored the Soviet contribution to ending and winning the war.

That Eisenhower mastery of spin was accompanied by mastery in personal politics. Examples include his relationship with Patton, which could not have been an easy one and, perhaps more critically, with de Gaulle. Indeed, as Smith relates, “Dealing with de Gaulle brought out the best in Eisenhower.” It later brought out the best in de Gaulle, but first Eisenhower would allow de Gaulle to occupy the Palais de l’Elysee, outmaneuvering President Roosevelt and the State Department “so skillfully that he left no fingerprints.” Another example of his sterling personal politics occurred in 1952, when Eisenhower traveled across the street at the GOP convention to visit the vanquished senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, his Republican presidential rival. Such a gesture of pure personal chivalry had never occurred before, and has not been replicated since.

It was D-day that made Eisenhower’s career and sent him on a White House trajectory. It was a stunning strategic achievement of planning, politics, maneuver and manpower. But the liberation of France was also the liberation of Eisenhower. No longer was he an indoor general or a peripheral figure with hard eyes and an easy smile. His emergence as perhaps the central military figure of the war, at least on the Allied side, was pure Ike. Here is Smith’s assessment:

Like de Gaulle, Eisenhower arrived on the world scene unheralded. But whereas de Gaulle made his way by forcing his iron will on others, Ike moved by subtlety and indirection. His amiable personality and avuncular enthusiasm concealed a calculating political instinct that had been honed to perfection.

But the post-1944 period nearly undid Eisenhower. It was one of the rare times he wasn’t able to transform his disadvantages into formidable advantages. Arrayed against Eisenhower, as the Allies moved east into Europe, were Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke and Montgomery. Montgomery promptly went on a political offensive that matched the military offensive opening on the continent. “I think now that if we want the war to end within any reasonable period you will have to get Eisenhower’s hand taken off the land battle,” Montgomery told Brooke. “He has never commanded anything in his whole career; now, for the first time, he has elected to take direct command of very large-scale operations and he does not know how to do it.” Shortly thereafter Brooke fought to have Eisenhower removed from his commanding heights. Here are his remarks before the British chiefs of staff:

I put before the Committee my views on the very unsatisfactory state of affairs in France, with no one running the land battle. Eisenhower, though supposed to be doing so, is on the golf links at Reims—entirely detached and taking practically no part in the running of the war. . . . Personally, I think he is incapable of running the war even if he tries.

The Allies prevailed, of course, and so did Eisenhower, who at war’s end was tired and knew his marriage was in tatters because of a lengthy and deep relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby. But his public reputation was shiny, and his appeal as a potential political figure for the nation’s highest office was undiminished. Nonetheless he shied away, not entirely disingenuously. “I’m a soldier, and I am positive that no one thinks of me as a politician,” he said, fully convincing no one, perhaps not even himself. “In the strongest language you can command you can state that I have no political ambitions at all. Make it even stronger than that if you can. I’d like to go even further than Sherman did in expressing myself on this subject.”

That said much less than met the eye. Smith points out that saying he would “like to go even further than Sherman” is materially different from actually doing so. In January 1948, when for timing and age reasons political experts argued that Eisenhower’s presidential chances were greatest, he demurred formally, saying:

It is my conviction that the necessary and wise subordination of the military to civil power will best be sustained . . . when lifelong professional solders, in the absence of some obvious and overriding reasons, abstain from seeking high political office.

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