History, we’re told, repeats itself. Those who write history, however, are another matter.
Historians do tend to agree on the greatest presidents – Lincoln, FDR, and Washington – and often come up with similar names one rung lower. Usual suspects in the latter category include Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas Jefferson.
After that, though, the rankings shift with historical cycles and reinterpretations of eras and achievements although those on the bottom (hello Warren Harding, Andrew Johnson, and James Buchanan) tend to stay there. Ulysses Grant is perhaps the lone bottom-rung president whose stock has risen to a notable degree.
Commanders-in-chief whose legacies have muddled along, neither great nor awful, stand a much better chance of a restorative makeover – a bit of historical Botox – that, who knows, could even lead to a Ken Burns documentary some day. Look no further than the rescue of Harry Truman by David McCullough’s 1992 biography “Truman.” The book prompted an insightful second look at Truman’s tenure that gained wide acceptance thanks to McCullough’s compelling case for milestones including military integration, the Marshall Plan for economic aid, and creation of NATO.
In recent years, the “I Like Ike” sentiment has gained momentum with biographers and historians, among them Michael Korda, Jim Newton, and now, Jean Edward Smith with his new biography of Eisenhower. Much as he did with his 2007 doorstop biography of FDR, in Eisenhower in War and Peace Smith sifts through mountains of earlier appraisals, anecdotes, and historical documents and synthesizes the information into a crisply written and meticulous analysis of Eisenhower.
He makes a convincing argument, obliterating earlier arguments by historians that Eisenhower’s was a dull, torpid presidency marked by mediocrity and go-along-to-get-along policy.
Among the major accomplishments during Ike’s two terms:
•Conceiving and building the Interstate Highway System, the nation’s largest public works project at $101 billion ($823 billion today) when it was proposed in 1955. Eisenhower’s interstates now cover 47,000 miles across America and, of course, are essential not just for mobility and travel but trade and commerce. Smith describes the highway network as “the mother of all stimulus programs” because Eisenhower pushed it through as the economy began to wilt during his first term.
•Displaying a steady diplomatic hand on numerous occasions, an attribute that allowed the former supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe to avoid conflict during eight years as commander-in-chief.
Ike ended the Korean quagmire he inherited from Truman, avoided mutually assured destruction with the Soviets, and routinely ignored entreaties from his military advisers to send in troops or, worse, deploy nuclear weapons. As the French fell apart at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the president responded to suggestions by American strategists to consider air strikes and the atomic bomb with a swift rebuke. “You boys must be crazy,” he said. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.”
In similar fashion, he resolved international crises with China and over the Suez Canal by employing a poker face that leveraged the possibility of military engagement just enough to prod adversaries to choose diplomatic means.
•Making crucial appointments in the Supreme Court – most notably former California Gov. Earl Warren as Chief Justice – and lower-level federal courts that established not only the precedent of desegregation but carried it out in ruling after ruling. Also, Eisenhower left no doubt about the intention and integrity of Brown v. Board of Education when he sent in federal troops to break the resistance of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and preside over the safe integration of Central High School for the Little Rock Nine three years later. Smith writes: “Those who would criticize Eisenhower for not moving fast enough on civil rights should remember that it was his judicial nominees who made the revolution possible.”
•Reaching across the aisle. Eisenhower was a Republican, but he worked with a Democrat-led Congress through most of his eight years in the White House. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and his Texas protégé, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, shared a mutual respect with Eisenhower and, hard as it is to imagine in 21st-century America, often engaged in a ritual known as bipartisanship. In many cases, Eisenhower bucked his own party. The Republican platform called for, among other things, killing FDR’s New Deal programs, reducing foreign aid, and cutting taxes. Ike ignored them all, pursuing a moderate, incremental strategy that paid later dividends and justified his approach.
Smith lauds Eisenhower for his political pragmatism and notes that “the calcified wing of the Republican party” presented more challenges than did the Democrats.
•Balancing peace and prosperity. Not only did Eisenhower avoid wars and skirmishes that would have imperiled young Americans, he also left those future generations in much better financial shape. What might best be described as prudent austerity practiced by the Eisenhower administration led to a balanced federal budget. Government efficiency improved during Eisenhower’s tenure and he famously delivered the unheeded warning in his farewell address to limit the scope of “the military-industrial complex” and its “permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.”
Smith delves into these and other issues without ever lapsing into hagiography. Eisenhower emerges here as a remarkable but flawed and human subject.
Throughout his military career and into the presidency, Eisenhower was a political animal, prone to recasting unpleasant events and episodes in a more favorable light.
And, of course, he made significant mistakes professionally and personally. Smith points to tactical errors in World War II and highlights Eisenhower’s lack of battlefield acumen, embodied by a near-disaster at Salerno. His most valuable skills involved navigating among the Allied political leaders and establishing a firm and credible chain of command that allowed for success. British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery called Eisenhower “a military statesman.”
Mamie Eisenhower didn’t accompany her husband to London during the war and the couple rarely saw one another. The death of a young son earlier in their marriage had, along with other issues, taken a tremendous toll. In the spring of 1942, Eisenhower went to London to assess American troops stationed there. His driver during his stay was a former model named Kay Summersby, part of a post-debutante group of British volunteers who often took visiting dignitaries around the city.
Eisenhower was instantly smitten. When he returned to London as European theater commander a month later, he found Summersby and made sure she was assigned to him. She never left his side until the war was winding down. A war correspondent told a member of the 82nd Airborne that Eisenhower and Kay were more than friendly. “I have never before seen a chauffeur get out of a car and kiss the General good morning when he comes from his office,” the reporter said.
All the while, Eisenhower kept writing Mamie and professing his loyalty and love while asserting a longing to return home. In fact, as Smith persuasively argues, Eisenhower considered divorcing Mamie and marrying Kay, an idea broached in a letter to his superior, General George Marshall. Marshall forcefully denounced the notion and the entire sequence of events emerged in an interview with Truman published posthumously in 1974. Historians dismissed the credibility of the statements, a dismissal Smith unravels in convincing fashion.
In the end, Eisenhower returned to Mamie and dispatched Kay Summersby with cool detachment.
Smith lauds Eisenhower for much of his foreign policy, but balances that assessment with a pointed critique of his epic blunder in Iran. The CIA, prodded by a British dispute with the Iranian government over oil (thanks, BP), plotted to install the shah of Iran and depose a democratic government, eventually gaining Eisenhower’s approval. The subsequent coup stirred bitter anti-American sentiment and, of course, continues to haunt American foreign policy to this day.
George Patton insisted Dwight David Eisenhower’s first and middle initials stood instead for “Divine Destiny.” Ike was intelligent and ambitious, but he also benefited from incredible luck and impeccable timing. As Smith illustrates, each step of Eisenhower’s improbable rise from obscurity in Abilene, Kansas, involved a stroke of fortune, starting with the fact that his home state senator had just shifted to competitive testing to determine West Point recommendations at the moment that Eisenhower made his bid to attend the military academy.
Later, powerful mentors steered Eisenhower up the military ranks and provided a range of invaluable experiences and lessons. These included Fox Conner, John Pershing, and Douglas MacArthur.
In the case of MacArthur, mutual admiration came with a shorter shelf life. Working in the Philippines under the vain and tempestuous MacArthur wore on Eisenhower. The two men enjoyed a warm relationship that later devolved to the point that Eisenhower lobbied to avoid a second stint together when MacArthur returned to active duty in 1941. In a letter to the Army’s assistant chief of staff, Eisenhower pulled no punches. “I worked for him long enough! I put in four hard years out there ... my opinion of that buckaroo went lower and lower the longer I knew him.”
Eisenhower was nothing if not ambitious. During one span lasting less than two full months, he vaulted over 228 officers with greater seniority. In June 1942, he went to London as European theater commander. Two years later, of course, he presided over one of the most important battle plans in American and world military history, the D-Day invasion (also known as Operation Overlord) of the beaches at Normandy.
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.)
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.