There are two kinds of popular presidential biographies. The first is a book that aims for detachment from its subject, examining a president in light of new evidence or offering a fresh, critical reinterpretation. James Mann’s "The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan" is a fine recent example. The second kind is a hagiography, a work that romanticizes a president and, in the process, often makes the reader feel good about America itself. David McCullough’s "Truman" is the gold standard in this stream.
Unfortunately, this book on General Dwight Eisenhower by the veteran journalist Jim Newton falls into the second category. Though ostensibly justified by some new documents and interviews with the General’s son, John Eisenhower’s remarks about his father offer little insight or new information, and what new documents are utilized tell us little we did not already know. Instead, Eisenhower amounts to little more than a love letter to the man who occupied the Oval Office from 1953 to 1961. “Dwight Eisenhower left his nation freer, more prosperous, and more fair,” the book concludes. “Peace was not given to him; he won it.” Such saccharine words aptly summarize the sentiments expressed throughout the book.
America’s 34th president had seen his reputation much improved since he left office. At the time often seen as a bland, listless executive, he now frequently ranks among the top ten presidents in many historians’ listings. It is possible, however, to both recognize a man’s greatness and be honest his limitations.
The Eisenhower that emerges in "Eisenhower" has his flaws and mistakes airbrushed. Consider the General’s unwillingness to defend the great George Marshall from the vicious attacks by Joe McCarthy in the early 1950s. Marshall was one of Eisenhower’s mentors and instrumental in promoting him within the Army. Though many were calling on Eisenhower to repudiate McCarthy, Ike knew the Wisconsin Senator’s smears were helpful to the Republican Party. And so he remained silent as Marshall’s reputation was ripped apart by wild dogs. Newton will only say about this sordid episode that it was “imperfect.” He quotes others as admitting Eisenhower had disgraced himself, but Newton cannot bring himself to utter the words.
More consequently, Eisenhower was the president to begin the awful practice of employing the CIA to overthrow foreign governments, many of them democratically elected. Whereas Truman had refused to do so, Ike gave the go-ahead to the CIA to mount a coup in Iran in 1953, and in Guatemala in 1954.
Both were unnecessary to victory in the Cold War, and both were grave human rights abuses that had terrible moral and strategic consequences. But even these incidents, by far Eisenhower’s worse foreign policy blunders, emerge as partial successes in this book. “[S]o, too, could the alternatives have shadowed the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, if the Soviet Union controlled Iran and the Persian Gulf through the heart of the Cold War,” Newton writes. “Instead, Iran lay safely nestled within the American orbit for the balance of Eisenhower’s tenure, indeed, for the rest of his life.”
In fact, however, we now know that the Iranian leader had little intentions of moving into the Soviet sphere, in no small part because Soviet troops had been slow to leave Iran after occupying the country during World War II. The coup in Iran was a catastrophe of American diplomacy, its consequences even worse when one recalls it inspired further illiberal covert operations among American policymakers.
The book proceeds at a brisk enough pace, and Newton is an able storyteller. If a reader is searching for an explanation for Eisenhower’s esteemed reputation among historians and the public at large, "Eisenhower" offers more than enough confirmation. But for readers looking for a balanced, realistic interpretation – one that that shows Ike’s many virtues as well as his very real deficiencies – Stephen Ambrose’s "Eisenhower: Soldier and President" remains far superior.