What's not to like about Ike?
'Ike: An American Hero' illuminates the quiet virtues of Dwight D. Eisenhower
In today's landscape of ideology-driven, scorched-earth political partisanship, Dwight D. Eisenhower looks like some extinct dinosaur from eons ago. Americans, to echo the famous campaign slogan, genuinely liked Ike. Europeans liked Ike. Michael Korda likes Ike, too, and after reading Ike: An American Hero, his mammoth biography, it's easy to see why: "Ike was an American from Abilene, but he was also a good European, perhaps even a great one; and his view of life was rooted in common sense, decency, and tolerance, not in ideology."
Whether as president during the 1950s or as Supreme Commander of Allied forces during World War II, Eisenhower developed productive working relationships with some of the most difficult personalities imaginable, including US Gen. George Patton, France's Charles DeGaulle, Winston Churchill, and British Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery. Korda sums up Eisenhower's unique genius for working well with others: "Even his critics praised his fairness, his energy, his patience, his common sense ... and above all his matchless ability to deal with even the most difficult of prima donnas."
Korda spends most of this biography on Eisenhower's military career, describing how Eisenhower rose through the ranks and somehow kept the fragile military alliance between the US and Britain together during World War II. The two allies disagreed on important strategic matters, such as when the D-Day invasion should begin, but Eisenhower never let personalities undermine the alliance.
Patton and Montgomery, for example, often held each other in contempt (Patton once referred to Monty as "a tired little fart"), but Eisenhower needed both these brilliant military leaders working together, especially after D-Day. Although he has sometimes been denigrated as a "politician-general" rather than a "fighting-general," Korda continually illustrates the paramount value of Eisenhower's consensus-building skills.
"Monty was a loner, arrogant, vain, unforgiving, professionally brilliant, and utterly convinced that he was always right," writes Korda. Patton was pretty much the same, but also had a penchant for making stupid, bloviating comments to the press, much to Eisenhower's frustration. Monty may have been speaking for many when he dismissed Ike as a "[n]ice chap, no soldier," but Eisenhower always kept his patience. Korda makes it clear that Ike had wanted to command soldiers in battle from the beginning of his military career, but his superiors found his political and administrative skills so unique that he was repeatedly denied that opportunity.
Korda's skillfully written and thoroughly researched narrative explores all the important decisions made by the Allies, especially before and after the D-Day landing, and relates how Eisenhower kept his fractious team working toward the same goal of defeating Hitler. Korda also details Eisenhower's often-strained relationship with his wife, Mamie, who spent most of the war alone in Washington. Eisenhower's driver throughout the war was a gorgeous ex-fashion model named Kay Summersby, and there was much speculation (then and now) that she and Eisenhower had an affair. Korda's conclusion is that we don't have enough evidence to either prove or disprove the charge.
"What is certain," writes Korda, "is that from the very beginning Kay hero-worshipped Ike, that Ike was deeply (and obviously) attracted to her, and that throughout the war he treated her more like a close friend than a driver." Whether this wartime relationship was consummated or not, Korda calls "nobody's business," but it certainly upset Mamie on the home front. In Europe during World War II, Korda says, "Ike was experiencing the greatest moments of his life ... and another woman – young, pretty, and adoring – was sharing them with him."
No wonder Mamie was suspicious. Eisenhower was never much of a romantic, notes Korda, who describes his letters home to Mamie as being "full of accounts of his continuing struggle against mildew" and other mundane matters.
Although Korda is justified in dwelling at length on Eisenhower's long military career, he devotes too little time on his presidency. By war's end, Eisenhower was so popular that the White House was basically his for the asking. But he didn't enjoy politics: his "skill was in reaching consensus," notes Korda, "so he was not well suited for dealing with arguments, angry dissent, name-calling, and posturing of politicians." Nonetheless, the Eisenhower presidency today appears to many as a golden age of "common sense."
If Korda's biography leaves readers with any lesson, it's never to underestimate the values of patience, listening, and open-minded intelligence. Eisenhower was not a genius like Einstein or Shakespeare, but his humble virtues seem as rare and necessary today as ever. If the man from Abilene was easy to like, so is Korda's terrific biography.
• Chuck Leddy is a member of the National Book Critic Circle, and writes frequently about American History.