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An American icon and hero faces a nation-and a world-in transition
A bona-fide American hero at the close of World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower rode an enormous wave of popularity into the Oval Office seven years later. Though we may view the Eisenhower years through a hazy lens of 1950s nostalgia, historians consider his presidency one of the least successful. At home there was civil rights unrest, McCarthyism, and a deteriorating economy; internationally, the Cold War was...
An American icon and hero faces a nation-and a world-in transition
A bona-fide American hero at the close of World War II, General Dwight Eisenhower rode an enormous wave of popularity into the Oval Office seven years later. Though we may view the Eisenhower years through a hazy lens of 1950s nostalgia, historians consider his presidency one of the least successful. At home there was civil rights unrest, McCarthyism, and a deteriorating economy; internationally, the Cold War was deepening. But despite his tendency toward "brinksmanship," Ike would later be revered for "keeping the peace." Still, his actions and policies at the onset of his career, covered by Tom Wicker, would haunt Americans of future generations.
"But Mrs. Hoyt, don't you realize," I replied in self-defense, "that Eisenhower has had a heart attack?"
Mrs. Hoyt drew herself up-she was a lady who could draw herself up impressively: "Young man," she said, "I would vote for Eisenhower if he were dead!"
She and hosts of other Americans might have done just that in 1956, because Eisenhower-known familiarly to everyone as "Ike"-was a popular incumbent revered as the victorious commander of Allied forces in the European theater during World War II and as a "man of peace"-the indispensable leader who in four years in the White House had kept the Cold War with the Soviet Union from turning hot andatomic. Throughout his tenure (1953 to 1961), as it turned out, Eisenhower was one of the best-loved presidents of the century, with an average 64 percent Gallup poll approval rating over the eight years of his two terms.
Eisenhower was, observers agreed, a "father figure" to the American voters of the prosperous and relatively tranquil fifties, many of whom had served under him in the European theater and-like good old Ike-were amateur golfers, backyard cooks, and going bald. A vast majority apparently believed that Eisenhower alone had protected them from the Russian bear and produced the rising material prosperity that had followed depression and war.
Therefore, despite his health problems and my fund-raising, he defeated Stevenson a second time in 1956 and by an even greater margin than in 1952. Many poll-takers and politicians believe that Eisenhower could have been elected to a third term in 1960, had he sought it-but he couldn't, because by then the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution limited all presidents to two terms. Thus, ironically, a highly popular Republican was the first president turned out of the White House by an amendment that originated in the Republican Eighty-second Congress as partisan, posthumous revenge against a hated Democrat, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and his four terms.
In the eight years Dwight Eisenhower was constitutionally permitted to serve as president, the public-like Mrs. Hoyt-did not seem to mind that he spent much of his time playing golf and bridge, that his closest friends were wealthy businessmen whose frequent largesse he happily accepted, and that his health was suspect-he suffered a heart attack during his first term, a small stroke, and a bout of ileitis in his second. In the fifties, liberals and many Democrats derided him as a "caretaker" president rather than a strong chief executive in the White House, a judgment he may have encouraged but that has been considerably moderated in recent years. Most voters obviously liked things Ike's way. Times were good, after all, and the national father figure surely would keep the Soviets at bay and the economy rolling.
A self-proclaimed nonpolitician, Eisenhower was strongly conservative in domestic affairs and a convinced internationalist in foreign relations-though a hard-line anti-Communist. Nevertheless, his administration preserved much of FDR's and Truman's New and Fair Deals, though the conservative Eisenhower was contemptuous of both. He believed, however, as he told his press secretary, James C. Hagerty, "This party of ours and our program will not appeal to the American people unless [they] believe that we have a liberal program. Our hidebound reactionaries won't get to first base." Eisenhower's almost constant conflict in foreign policy with those "hidebound reactionaries" gave him and his supporters the label "modern Republicans" and served to disguise the president's more palatable form of conservatism on domestic matters.
Eisenhower avoided direct personal involvement in the two great moral issues of 1950s America, school desegregation and McCarthyism-though in the latter case his admirers claim that his deliberately above-the-battle stance was an effective opposition tactic. Standing aloof, in both cases, may have guarded and even extended his popularity-but at the expense of opportunities to provide moral leadership to a nation badly in need of it.
The man of peace, moreover, fumbled in 1959 perhaps the best chance then or since for a comprehensive nuclear test ban agreement with the Soviet Union or its successor state. And the policies of the strong anti-Communist who kept the Soviets at bay and the Cold War from heating up nevertheless planted the seeds of some future troubles, including the war in Vietnam. While in office, Eisenhower feared and resisted any such combat involvement in Asia ("I don't see any reason for American ground troops to be committed in Indochina," he told Hagerty during the "French war" in 1954). After his return to private life, however, he strongly backed the American war in Vietnam, because he thought a former president should support a current president and believed that if U.S. armed forces ever were committed, it was necessary for them to be successful.
Eisenhower's great political strength as president was his dedication to middle-of-the-road policies, and his insistence that he was guided only by devotion to duty and a sense of the national interest. These claims were the more believable owing to patriotic admiration for his role in World War II-still, in the decade of the fifties, the most dramatic and formative experience of many Americans' lives-and by the fact that Eisenhower had spent most of his early life in the small and ill-financed prewar army, scarcely a career to be chosen by a politically ambitious man or by one whose goals were money and power.
Dwight David Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890, but his father moved the family to Abilene, Kansas, a year later. There Ike, as he was already called, had a late-nineteenth-century, Tom Sawyer-like upbringing-save for the absence of the river and of Huck Finn.
One of six brothers, Dwight was raised in a white frame house on South East Fourth Street, absorbing the simple and unquestioned values taught by his surroundings and by his parents-honesty, self-reliance, hard work, ambition, and fear of God. His father, a creamery worker, read the Bible aloud to his family, and both parents preached "getting ahead." Introspection and reflection, however, were not particularly appreciated on South East Fourth nor in Abilene; and there was little racial and political diversity in a town in which virtually everyone was white, Republican, Christian, and of European descent.
"Little Ike"-brother Edgar Eisenhower was known as "Big Ike"-competed and sometimes fought with his brothers and other boys, excelled in sports, and displayed a ferocious temper-which, later in life, the army officer and president controlled but n ever banished. He received decent grades in school, discovered an early interest in military history, and displayed leadership qualities in organizing athletic and other outdoor events-becoming as a youngster what he remained for life, an able cook on camping trips.
In 1910, he formed a friendship with Everett "Swede" Hazlitt-who became a lifelong correspondent-an Abilene contemporary who was planning to take the 1911 service academy exam, hoping to be accepted at Annapolis. Little Ike took the service exam, too, and scored well enough to qualify for appointment to the military academy at West Point.
There, after his entrance in 1911, Dwight Eisenhower was part of another disciplined and narrow community, where questions about its values were not encouraged or even tolerated. His course of study was basically engineering, and the approved classroom method was learning and reciting by rote. None of this was intellectually or socially broadening, but his Class of 1915 (sometimes called "the class the stars fell on") was outstanding, numbering among its 164 members sixty-four young men who would become generals-and two, Omar Bradley and Eisenhower, who would earn four stars.
He performed well enough in class, gathered quite a few demerits for disciplinary offenses, and, as a yearling (which is what est Point calls sophomores) showed signs that he was about to become a star running back on the football team. A knee injury cut short his gridiron career, whereupon he became such a keen student of the game that he was asked to coach the junior varsity. A turn as a cheerleader gave him valuable experience in public appearances.
Graduation into the peacetime army, however, did not offer much to an ambitious young man. Eisenhower missed combat in World War I, but in its final stages, having done well in all his assignments, attained the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel. From there, for two decades, it was mostly downhill: back to major in 1920, to captain in 1922, up to major again in 1924, and then a twelve-year wait before he was returned in 1936 to his 1918 rank-and then mostly because all members of the Class of '15 were promoted.
Along the way, Eisenhower had married well-to Mamie Doud of Denver, who proved an ideal army and later presidential wife, managing for the couple a well-ordered household and a happy personal life, rarely interfering in her husband's career. They lost a firstborn son, a devastating blow to both, but a second son, John, was born in 1922; and in army circles, at least, Eisenhower prospered-though that was not reflected in promotion.
In 1926, Eisenhower finished first in his class at the Command and General Staff Training School in Leavenworth, Kansas, a real distinction (but his friend George Patton, a previous C&GS grad, warned him to start thinking "about making the infantry move under fire"). Later, at the War Department in Washington, he drafted a much-praised history of the army in France in World War I for Army Chief of Staff General John J. Pershing-who then sent him to the Army War College, and next to France to expand the war history by firsthand observation. When Eisenhower returned to the United States, he became an aide to Douglas MacArthur, who had succeeded Pershing as chief of staff-entering a decade in which he was to work closely with MacArthur, in Washington and the Philippines.
In these years, Eisenhower was not only good at his work, he made influential friends. He had so impressed General Fox Connor, his commanding officer in the Canal Zone-who encouraged him to read, study, and develop his intellectual capacities-that Connor had exerted his influence to get his young protégé assigned to the C&GS school. The attraction was mutual; Connor, Eisenhower said as late as 1964, was "the ablest man I ever knew," and he once conceded that "in a lifetime of association with great and good men he is the one figure to whom I owe an incalculable debt."
There were, however, a number of others. Eisenhower learned much about administration from the difficult, politically minded MacArthur, and aped him in his mastery of details and his stubbornness in debate. From MacArthur's unfortunate example, however, Ike was confirmed in his determination to keep out of politics, Nevertheless, the controversial, publicity-minded MacArthur labeled his aide "the best soldier in the Army."
Thus, at a time when most mid-rank army officers were as unsung as worker ants, Dwight Eisenhower had attracted the favorable attention of three of the army's stars-Connor, Pershing, and MacArthur. When his assignment to MacArthur's staff and his years in the Philippines came to an end, Eisenhower spent some time in the field, notably as chief of staff of the Third Army in the great Louisiana "maneuvers" held just before World War II. But within days of Pearl Harbor, another chief of staff, George C. Marshall, summoned him to Washington; and within months Eisenhower found himself chief of the War Plans Division-and again under the wing of an important general whose greatest gift may have been his ability to judge talent.
Eisenhower's meteoric ascent within the army in the first months of World War II, not to mention his steady accumulation, in the 'tween-war years, of jobs well done and favorable fitness reports, has to be ranked as the most impressive phase of his career-even more so than his later rise to the presidency (which, after all, depended not a little on his World War II fame and on the efforts of others). Ike's manifest abilities and Marshall's good opinion caused the chief of staff to send him to London as chief of the European theater of operations. There the modest small-town boy from Kansas with the infectious grin and the easygoing manner made instant friends with most British officials, including Winston Churchill (but not Generals Alan Brooke and Bernard Montgomery).
So he was well positioned to be given command of Operation Torch-the invasion of North Africa-when President Roosevelt reluctantly acceded to Churchill's insistence that Torch should take place before a cross-channel invasion of Europe. Eisenhower hated that decision, but command of Torch was beyond anything of which the unknown young officer of a few months earlier could have dreamed. It led on to command of the invasion of Europe-and ultimately to a great political career capped by the presidency of the United States.
Though some of Eisenhower's subordinates-notably the British general Montgomery but even the Americans Ornar Bradley (his classmate) and George Patton (his old friend)-could be critical of his strictly military qualities, there was no denying that he got the job done, first in North Africa, then in Europe. All agreed that he was a superb commander, perhaps the best in history, of allied forces-a position demanding tolerance and patience with ambitious subordinates from different countries, skilled diplomacy in reacting to the sometimes imperious ways of FDR, Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, and Joseph Stalin, and masterly management of the conflicting interests of wartime allies. Such a performance demanded character and ability, and Eisenhower's ability and character obviously were of presidential potential.
To the American public after the war was won, he was simply the conqueror of Hitler, the man who had brought victory in World War II-a typical American who had risen to a demanding occasion by hard work and high merit. So it was not surprising that, in a tradition dating back to George Washington, Andrew Jackson, Zachary Taylor, and U. S. Grant, the new war hero, in whom still could be detected the modest Kansas farmboy, was quickly touted for the White House. Both Republicans and Democrats wanted him at the top of their tickets.
As the army's postwar chief of staff, Eisenhower turned down both parties for 1948, though President Truman (who denied doing so) may have offered to step down and run as the Democratic vice presidential candidate if the general would accept the party's presidential nomination. In later postwar years, Eisenhower was president of Columbia University, the best-selling author of a World War II memoir, Crusade in Europe, and the first SACEUR (Supreme Allied Commander, Europe), assigned by Truman the task of building up and leading the armed forces of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Few men have had such extensive experience in high office and international affairs. Eisenhower, by common consent, had handled all his responsibilities superbly-though at Columbia, some of the faculty regarded him as uninterested in scholarship and bored with paperwork. Still sought by both parties as their presidential candidate for 1952 and consistently a leader in national preference polls, the general with the broad grin maintained the appearance of a nonpolitician not eager, even reluctant, to run for president. This attitude was at least partially sincere, as Eisenhower often had expressed a desire to return to private life and a soldier's abhorrence of politics.
Excerpted from Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker Copyright © 2002 by Tom Wicker
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Posted July 24, 2003
Having read the nine books published thus far in the series, I would rate this book as the greatest failure. While the other authors focused on the man who served as president, Wicker focused only on issues which he deemed important. For example, the author expends only sixteen pages on Eisenhower¿s pre-presidential days (including World War II and the 1952 campaign) but devotes over twenty pages to the McCarthy hearings. The most that is written about Eisenhower the man (interests and hobbies) is one paragraph near the end of the book. Wicker is not only short on the personal attributes of Eisenhower; he expends little effort on the work of Ike¿s Administration. Rather than survey the breath of eight years of governance, the author focuses on a couple of major issues of the period. He then makes reference to a couple of other programs such as the Saint Lawrence Seaway, the interstate highway system, balanced budgets, and the Refugee Relief Act in one paragraph. He totally ignores other lasting contributions of the administration such as the ¿People-to-People¿ program, which includes the Sister City Program. But the gravest shortcoming of the book is that Wicker uses this biography to promote his own ideological views. Throughout the book he refers to the ¿right-wing¿ but never mentions the ¿left-wing.¿ He dismisses the ¿domino theory¿ of Eisenhower citing that Burma and Thailand did not go communist but ignores that Laos and Cambodia did. He is quick to condemn nations allied with the U.S. (¿In Guatemala, Eisenhower, the CIA, Anastazio Somoza were ushering in decades of murder and repression.¿) but ignores the ignoble activities of America¿s enemies. Perhaps most telling about his attitude toward America is his sentence: ¿Since World War II, Americans in their vast power and prosperity had been accustomed to being number one in all fields, certainly including education and technology; even the threat of the Cold War had not dampened their economic, military, and political self-confidence ¿ which many at home and abroad considered arrogance (emphasis added).¿ It is that arrogance that has made America great and the envy of the world. It is unfortunate that the publishers entrusted this important biography to an ideological journalist and fiction writer rather than an accredited historian. Wicker does not belong in the same class as other authors in the series particularly Remini, Wills, Diggins, and Brands.
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Posted November 25, 2008
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