Dwight D. Eisenhower's heroic persona has tended to overwhelm his many biographers. One suspects, after reading his opening sentence, that the same aura has affected Stephen Ambrose: ''Dwight Eisenhower was a great and good man.'' Yet before he's finished this first volume, which ends with Ike as President-elect, the author has emerged with his historian's credentials intact.
In fact, some will be surprised at the several criticisms he levels at his subject. But most will agree that this is the best biography of the only man in the 20th century to achieve his country's highest military and civilian ranks.
Born in 1890, the third of six sons, Dwight David Eisenhower was steeped in the Victorian virtues of hard work and self-sufficiency. His Abilene, Kan., boyhood left little time for ''reflection and introspection,'' so busy was he ''getting things done.'' A fair student and a fierce competitor, young Eisenhower was a natural leader who secured a West Point appointment at age 20. Though his family was pacifist, Ike was smitten by the military academy's Spartan regimen that was not unlike his upbringing.
Commissioned a second lieutenant in 1915 with ''the class the stars fell on, '' Eisenhower was sent to Fort Sam Houston where he met Mamie Doud. They were married a year later. Thus Eisenhower began an arduous career as a staff officer that kept him stateside during World War I while his friends were commanding troops in Europe. But he bided his time and became indispensable to a series of commanders, including Douglas MacArthur and George C. Marshall.
Once Ike won his first star in September 1941, there was no stopping him. He was called to the Pentagon after Pearl Harbor to take charge of the Far East Planning Division. Shortly thereafter, he devised a plan for a cross-channel invasion of Europe that foreshadowed ''Operation Overlord.'' By 1942 he had his second star and the command of all American forces in Britain.
He took the British by storm with his modest manner, and the GIs were equally impressed with their new commander's concern for his troops. Shunning a sumptuous suite at Claridges in London, he opted instead for the Dorchester Hotel that was within walking distance of his office. Though accessible to the press, he was quick to pass on credit to his staff and his Allied counterparts.
Eisenhower's tenacity and teamwork soon earned him the confidence of Roosevelt and Churchill - and command of Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. His lack of combat experience caused him to be overly cautious, and the campaign took too long and cost too many men. But Eisenhower learned from his mistakes, and it soon became obvious that no other general was so well suited to be supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe.
The drama of D-Day has been recounted many times, but Ambrose's account is especially riveting. The tension at Allied headquarters is palpable as Eisenhower weighs - and then defies - the weather odds to launch the greatest amphibious assault in history. The decision made, he goes to Newbury to mingle with the men of the 101st Airborne before they take off for Normandy. As the last C-47 roars off into the night, he stands, alone, by the runway in silent contemplation.
Though Ambrose cheers Overlord's success, he charges that Eisenhower was responsible for ''one of the greatest mistakes of the war, the failure to take and open Antwerp promptly which represented the only chance the Allies had to end the war in 1944.'' He's similarly scornful of Ike's patience with Field Marshal Montgomery's several failures, such as the ill-fated ''Market-Garden'' operation.
Nor is the author happy with Eisenhower's decision to clear the Alps of German resistance rather than race the Russians to Berlin as Churchill had requested. This strategic blunder, Ambrose says, stemmed from Ike's naivete in assuming that the Russians shared our goal of liberating Europe. Still, the author admires Eisenhower for placing military objectives above political considerations. Moreover, Ambrose insists that the Allied victory would not have been achieved without the general's genius.
Eisenhower intended to retire when the war ended. But his celebrity was such that he was thrust into a succession of responsibilities deemed to be his duty. During the next six years, he served as head of the American occupation zone in Germany, chief of staff, president of Columbia University, and supreme commander of NATO.
None of these positions, however, provided him with the satisfaction of commanding combat troops. But he accepted each task with a characteristic equanimity that propelled him to greater heights - and thence toward the White House.
Ambrose asserts that though Eisenhower had no political ambitions, he was drawn into the maelstrom by a combination of circumstances beyond his control. Had Dewey defeated Truman in 1948 and served two terms, Ike would have been 65 years old and probably beyond serious consideration for the presidency. Instead, Dewey self-destructed, and by 1952 the Democrats were in disarray. So Eisenhower did his duty and accepted yet another invitation to serve his country.
As a political force, Ike was irresistible, and the Republican nomination was essentially his for the asking. Yet Ambrose shows the general to be a much shrewder politician than most people have imagined. He demolished Taft's forces during the primaries, and then promptly made peace with the Ohio senator to close ranks for the coming campaign. And when the party professionals were ready to dump Richard Nixon after the ''slush fund'' revelation, it was Eisenhower who calmly called for a full disclosure that defused the crisis and strengthened the ticket. This meticulous study reveals a man whose modest manner was often mistaken for indolence even though his many accomplishments belied this facile appraisal. Ambrose's concluding volume will doubtless demonstrate that the nation's 34th President deserves far more credit than he has been accorded by the historians.