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Eisenhower in War and Peace

Jean Edward's Smith's new biography obliterates earlier arguments that Eisenhower’s was a dull, torpid presidency.

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Throughout this lengthy but absorbing account, Smith mixes in digressions and observations that prevent an overload of presidential proclamations. These side trips include heralding and highlighting the work of previous biographers while also carefully pointing out missteps and misleading accounts, the latter principally coming from Stephen Ambrose. (The popular historian claimed to have conducted private interview sessions with Eisenhower that likely never occurred. Worse, he reached conclusions on the former president’s views and actions on racial matters that wither under historical scrutiny.)

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Smith also dabbles in the estimable Eisenhower fairway, from his frequent trips to the Augusta National Golf Club to the chillier reception Eisenhower received at the Georgia golf mecca in the wake of the desegregation tumult in Little Rock. As president, Eisenhower installed a putting green just outside the Oval Office and played a total of 800 rounds.

“If this fellow couldn’t play golf, I’d have a nut case on my hands,” the president’s doctor once said.

Relations with Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, were bogey-filled from the moment Nixon opted for his famous “Checkers speech” and refused to make an offer to leave the 1952 ticket despite the controversy that swirled around him. The lack of trust and warmth between Eisenhower and Nixon included the absence of a single invite for the Nixons to the president’s farm in Gettysburg. Eisenhower did nothing to assist Nixon in his unsuccessful 1960 campaign against JFK.

Eisenhower had formidable self-discipline to go with his long memory. After smoking three to four packs of cigarettes daily throughout the war, he quit cold turkey when he accepted a job as president of Columbia University.

Most impressive of all, on the major issues, Eisenhower refrained from revisionism. Following the Russian capture of U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers, Eisenhower, who had been reluctant to approve the flights in the first place, accepted full responsibility, ultimately dooming hopes for a nuclear ban treaty. He also refused to fire or blame his staffers for the episode.

Later, he refused to take credit and instead blamed himself for lost opportunity.

“I had longed to give the United States and the world a lasting peace,” Eisenhower said. “I was able only to contribute to a stalemate.”

His contributions, of course, went well beyond that, and Smith has written a biography worthy of its subject.

Erik Spanberg is a frequent contributor to the Monitor's Books section.

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