Writer Evan Thomas's perceptive analysis of the 34th president shows a shrewd operator who played his cards close to the vest.
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Occasionally, he flashed a sharp sense of humor. In 1955, he was scheduled to deliver the commencement speech at Penn State University. Organizers asked whether he preferred to speak indoors, avoiding possible storms.Skip to next paragraph
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“You decide,” the president answered. “I haven’t worried about the weather since June 6, 1944.” (D-Day, remember?)
During his eight years in office, Eisenhower played 800 rounds of golf, including 200 at the storied Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, according to Thomas’ tally. The US Golf Association built a practice putting green and bunker for the president on the South Lawn of the White House in 1954.
With the exception of Ulysses Grant, no other president brought as much military knowledge to the White House. It served Ike, and the country, in good stead.
For starters, Eisenhower could, and did, ferret out military bluster, both in budgets and proposed tactics. Nuclear expansion frustrated Eisenhower as it grew into overkill, spurred by congressional, military, and contractor fearmongering.
“How many times do we have to calculate that we need to destroy the Soviet Union?” the president asked. Ike knew the Soviets were outgunned and, unlike then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson and others of influence, put minimal stock in the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite in 1957.
His military pedigree as leader of the World War II victory gave Ike substantial public and political capital to debunk conventional wisdom. In some cases, he did. In many others, the president chose to leave matters muddled, a technique that gave him cover while giving other countries pause. At times, Thomas writes, this strategy also left millions of Americans fearful, such as the almost routine school exercises across the nation in the 1950s to duck-and-cover in preparation for an expected Soviet missile strike.
He was, as Thomas describes it, “willing to appear less than sharp, even a little slow-witted, if it served some larger purpose.”
Perhaps most surprising to those unfamiliar with Eisenhower beyond his war heroics and the building of the interstate highway system was his abhorrence of war. In 1951, a year into the Korean War, Ike gazed upon soldiers’ graves on Decoration Day and later wrote in his diary, “Men are stupid.”
As president, the former war hero bungled covert operations by allowing the disengaged CIA director, Allen Dulles, to stay on the job too long. For that mistake, Ike paid with the humiliation of the U-2 spy plane, an embarrassing episode involving an American pilot captured after being shot down in Soviet air space.
Still, Eisenhower enjoyed many more triumphs than embarrassments as president. And he averted both nuclear and protracted brush-fire wars. Thomas describes his methods as a mixture of “cleverness, indirection, subtlety, and downright deviousness.” Ike, as the author sees it, knew when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
When the stakes for America and the world were highest, Eisenhower played a winning hand. So, too, does his latest biographer.
Erik Spanberg is a regular contributor to the Monitor's Books section.