Wuthering Ike

Wuthering Ike

Mini Teaser: A review of Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda.

by Author(s): Martin Walker

Michael Korda, Ike: An American Hero (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 779 pp., $34.95.


DWIGHT D. Eisenhower was surely one of the most underrated presidents in American history. Posing as the amiable duffer and famed for his garbled sentences, Eisenhower was widely ridiculed by liberal elites at the time-and this perception has endured (perhaps, in part, because Eisenhower let an alcoholic Senator Joe McCarthy self-destruct rather than openly confronting him). Yet, particularly when measured against more contemporary presidents, Eisenhower was a quite successful chief executive. After all, during his tenure in the Oval Office, there was no war between the great powers, no economic recession, no real confrontation with the Soviets (apart from the U-2 glitch), no riots at home. What's not to like?

So a second look at Dwight D. Eisenhower and his presidency seems overdue. While Michael Korda has produced a sound, thoughtful and highly readable account, Ike does not quite fit the bill.

For one thing, it is quite odd to read a biography of a modern American chief executive in which the presidency itself occupies less than 10 percent of this voluminous book. But then Eisenhower was a victorious general, for whom the rules are often different. Biographies of George Washington and Ulysses Grant (less so with Andrew Jackson) tend to favor the pre-presidential period. And why not? There is, after all, a certain logic to this, since that is usually the time when presidential credentials are forged. The imbalance in this case, however, is remarkable. Korda offers 50 well-described pages on his boyhood and West Point, 120 pages that take Eisenhower from his days as a young second lieutenant to the outbreak of World War II-which itself gets 360 pages in the chronological narrative-plus another 50 pages at the start of the book on the strategy of the war and the D day decision.

In the case of Eisenhower, whose presidency gets barely 70 pages, the book's proportions seem perverse. The more distant his administration becomes, the more critical it becomes to understand how Eisenhower laid the foundations for prosperity at home and America's ultimate triumph in the cold war. But Korda declines to take up this task. Instead, it is clear that his two great interests are to understand how the young Kansan farm boy became the great coalition commander and to cover the war that made Ike's name.

Well and good, but before assessing how Korda's biography rises to those challenges, it is important to focus on what has been left largely unaddressed.

Eisenhower became president as the United States and its allies were bogged down in the slaughterhouse of the Korean War. Rather than "fighting on to victory," he moved to terminate the conflict. If one can extract a guiding principle for his foreign policy, it was this: he carefully avoided adventures. He concentrated on building up NATO into an effective transatlantic security organization and recognized his limits; most notably by swallowing his inability to intervene to help the Hungarian Revolution and by launching the summit process-that is, talking directly and without preconditions to the Soviet leaders. Some challenge Ike's record in foreign affairs by pointing out that the Bay of Pigs was planned on his watch and with his approval, but Eisenhower insisted on two preconditions: that the Cubans establish a government in exile and that the United States be prepared to intervene with air power. Kennedy dropped them both-and so this fiasco is rightly attributed to JFK rather than Ike.

It was his decision to withhold U.S. support for the French in Vietnam during the Dien Bien Phu disaster and to reject air-force proposals for the use of tactical nuclear weapons against the base's besiegers. Even more important, Eisenhower opposed and reversed the Anglo-French attempt to invade Egypt, topple Nasser and regain control of the Suez Canal, and did so despite appeals to the solidarity of the Atlantic alliance at a time when the Soviet Union was blustering about "raining missiles" on London and Paris. In this regard, the contrast with the Bush administration's Iraq fiasco looms large. Eisenhower's credo, in World War II and ever after, was prudence, not reckless daring-one that his contemporary Republican successors might do well to ponder and emulate.

Eisenhower's presidency at home also now seems far more momentous than it appeared at the time to a nation poised on the brink of the tumultuous 1960s, which seemed impatient with the benign elderly gentleman in the White House and his heart attacks, putting green and mangled syntax. But Eisenhower's decision to enforce the Supreme Court ruling on the desegregation of education, by sending paratroops to force the integration of Little Rock Central High School, was the precedent of federal intervention on which the civil rights movement thrived and came to depend. Korda rightly points out that this was not simply a principled decision of critical national importance, but that it was also wholly consistent with Eisenhower's policies in the military. During World War II, he had ordered the desegregation of Red Cross clubs in his theater of command and sent black replacements into hitherto white units. And the momentous 1954 Supreme Court decision came after Eisenhower's attorney general had filed a brief before the court arguing that segregated schooling breached the Fourteenth Amendment. He had already banned the segregation of interstate trains and buses.

Equally profound in its implications was the National Defense Education Program that followed the shock of the Sputnik satellite the Soviet Union launched in 1957, which prompted fears that the "missile gap" was matched by a technological and research gap. Federal funding for scientific research was consequently tripled, along with more funds for scholarships, science departments, and laboratories at schools and universities. Along with the GI Bill, it was a pivotal and successful federal investment in education that paid off handsomely.

Finally, as prosaic and unexciting as it may be, Eisenhower, in his memoirs, claims justifiably that the interstate highway system was one of the grand achievements of his presidency. Along with the St. Lawrence Seaway, it was the largest public-works program in the country's history, reshaping America's industrial geography and invigorating its economy. Although billed as a national-defense program to help evacuate cities in the face of atomic attack, its origins perhaps lay in the extraordinary cross-country journey Eisenhower was ordered to take in 1919 with a military convoy from Washington, DC, to San Francisco-where the average speed was six miles per hour.

Korda covers each of these points cursorily and without much analysis or any serious attempt to weigh the presidency as a whole. It is the military career that fascinates him, and Korda suggests that the keys to Eisenhower's career, beyond his outstanding gifts as a staff officer and planner, were his ability to get along with others and his skill at picking the right mentors and patrons at pivotal moments.

The first was General Fox Conner, who had been one of Pershing's staff officers in the First World War. Eisenhower, who had been experimenting with tanks and combined arms with his friend George Patton, met and impressed Conner at a lunch at the Pattons' home. Conner became Eisenhower's commander during a tour in the Panama Canal Zone and took the young Kansan under his wing. Conner made him read, novels at first (including Conan Doyle's splendid swashbuckler The Exploits of Brigadier Gerard) and then military history and the Greek classics. According to Korda, "Ike took the bait, and was soon devouring Conner's remarkable collection of military history, and sitting up well past midnight every night talking about the decisions and personalities of each period." Eisenhower read Clausewitz no less than three times until he could not only recite pages of it by heart but also explicate Clausewitz's maxims. Nor was this all. It was Conner who impressed on him the view that war in Europe would resume within twenty years, and then counseled Eisenhower to cultivate the acquaintance and support of the future commander in chief, General George Marshall.

The granitic Marshall, surely one of the greatest statesmen in American history, exercised a decisive influence upon Eisenhower and his career. (Later on, while campaigning in Wisconsin, Eisenhower would fail to defend his former chief against McCarthy's outrageous attacks-a blight on his record.) Eisenhower also found his way onto the staff of General Douglas MacArthur, drafting a plan for the mobilization of U.S. industrial resources in the event of war. His researches brought Eisenhower into contact with the canny financier and art collector Bernard Baruch, that confidant of presidents (and of Winston Churchill), who was highly impressed with the young staff officer. This too was useful. He later rejoined MacArthur (who called him "the best damn clerk I ever had") in the Philippines. In 1939, he turned down MacArthur's pleadings (and the offer of a $100,000 bonus from the Philippine government) to stay in Manila and went back to help train Marshall's fast-expanding new armies.

In the course of a year, Eisenhower went from being executive officer of an infantry regiment to being chief of staff of a division, then of an army corps of three divisions and then of an army of 250,000 troops. The maneuvers of September 1941, which set two great armies against one another in the steamy terrain of Louisiana, was his opportunity. By astute use of aerial reconnaissance, Eisenhower ensured that his Third Army defeated the Blue Army of General Ben Lear, whose striking force in what was intended as a blitzkrieg attack was General Patton's Second Armored Division.

Essay Types: Book Review