Portraits of `Ike'

Eisenhower: At War, 1943-1945, by David Eisenhower. New York: Random House. 977 pp. $29.95. Ike: His Life and Times, by Piers Brendon. New York: Harper & Row. 478 pp. $21.95. EVEN from the distance of years, the likableness of Dwight D. Eisenhower shines out from the old photographs: the warm grin; a steady, self-assured gaze looking out from steely blue-green eyes; a self-effacing modesty marking him as ``one of the people.'' Pure nostalgia?

For the 1950s, the Eisenhower mystique did indeed glow -- so dominating the period politically that, as noted by Piers Brendon, one of two new chroniclers of Eisenhower, even his opponents could not resist the magic.

According to Brendon, young Robert Kennedy worked for Adlai Stevenson during Eisenhower's second (1956) campaign -- then quietly went out and voted for ``Ike,'' as did the overwhelming majority of Americans that year.

Was there another Ike behind the image? Brendon and David Eisenhower, the general's grandson (and Richard Nixon's son-in-law), have produced two fine historical contributions to the growing examination of Eisenhower that help answer that question. David Eisenhower's authoritative work, the more detailed of the two accounts, examines Ike's war leadership.

Ostensibly about Ike at war, the book is really a political and diplomatic analysis. As David Eisenhower shows, Eisenhower's wartime command was essentially a political and diplomatic leadership preoccupied with long-range strategic considerations taking place against a backdrop of terrible global adversity. This is an important book that will have to be taken very seriously by future Eisenhower scholars.

Meantime, Brendon's more critical account is an energetic, very readable one-volume interpretion. It is rich with insight and good humor, taking Eisenhower from boyhood through his two presidential terms. What is especially useful is that Brendon demythologizes the Eisenhower-as-instant-hero viewpoint that has arisen in recent years.

Still, it was World War II more than anything else that produced the later Eisenhower, as David Eisenhower's book -- the first in a projected three-part study -- demonstrates.

Ike's role as supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, writes his grandson, was instrumental in shaping not only his character, but Ike's later global agenda. Ike, writes David Eisenhower, was preoccupied with the US-Soviet linkup. The general recognized that US-Soviet cooperation was essential if the Allies were to prevail. At the same time, Ike nurtured the close US-British alliance that became the linchpin of postwar Western foreign policy.

It was this long-range strategic concept, says David Eisenhower, that led to the general's attempt at d'etente and coexistence during his presidency -- while still seeking to constrain the Soviets.

As both Brendon and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the more protective David Eisenhower note, Ike was not above making serious mistakes of both a personal and official nature. In wartime, that could result in casualties. And one trait of Ike's -- standing aside and letting the devil take his due -- was to reappear during Eisenhower's presidency. Ike declined to directly challenge Joseph R. McCarthy. He was also ambivalent about the emerging civil rights struggles of the 1950s.

In recent years, Eisenhower has been increasingly compared to Ronald Reagan. Similarities are superficial. In foreign affairs, Ike was an internationalist who continued the basic framework of Franklin Roosevelt's foreign policy. Reagan, by contrast, has been more concerned about building up US strength than seeking d'etente.

Domestically, although a fiscal conservative who abhorred excessive federal spending, Ike was not an ideologue. Eisenhower slowed the rate of spending for, but did not seek to dismantle, the main agencies of the Roosevelt-Truman years. Moreover, he left office warning against the dangers of the ``military-industrial complex,'' a phrase that he himself indelibly etched into the American consciousness in his farewell speech on Jan. 17, 1961.

It seems doubtful that Eisenhower would be altogether comfortable with the cozy relationship now existing among defense contractors, unions, and university research teams in this age of ``star wars.''

For all his flaws, Ike presided over an America that was economically prosperous (despite occasional recessions), at peace, (despite a semi-interventionist foreign policy that carried US Marines into Lebanon), and committed to d'etente (despite clandestine operations abroad by the Central Intelligence Agency).

One must resist the inevitable pull of nostalgia. Still, as the US turns toward the 1988 presidential election, fragmented as it is by the divisive pleadings of strident special-interest groups, it is only appropriate to look back to the Eisenhower record. Such a review is necessary, not just for interventionist conservative Republicans, but also for liberal Democrats inclined to avoid America's global responsibilities. Despite his limitations, Eisenhower defined a standard that current and future Presidents would do well to heed: national unity, world peace, and American global responsibility above all else.

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