Bringing together thousands of hours of interviews with the men and women who were closest to him, Merle Miller has constructed a revealing and personal biography of the man who would become the supreme commander. From his childhood in Kansas to West Point, World War I, and Europe where he led the Allied Forces to a hard-won victory in World War II, Ike the Soldier goes behind the historic battles and into the heart and mind of Ike Eisenhower.
Miller has crafted the defining biography on the life of the thirty-fourth president, bringing more depth to the man many thought they knew. His strained relationships with his father, brothers, and son are brought into focus; as well as his love affair with his wife Mamie, and his relationship with Kay Summersby—his driver turned companion and confidante during WWII.
“An informed and balanced tribute to a world-class leader whose remarkable character gains greater luster with the passage of time.” —Kirkus Reviews
“This is a highly enjoyable look at Ike’s personal and official relationships with the people most important to him during the first 55 years of his life, including family, Army and Allied colleagues and heads of state.” —Publishers Weekly
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WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
At times the man who was to become supreme commander of the largest Allied army in history, a man who was to be known for his flawless memory had, or said he had, trouble remembering where he was born, but few things made him angrier than being called a Texan; he was, he inevitably said, a Kansan.
He was born in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890, too close to and on the wrong side of the railroad tracks. He grew up, also on the wrong side of the tracks, in an isolated town almost precisely in the geographical center of the United States, Abilene, Kansas. But the incredible journey he made really began on June 14, 1911, at that mighty, unarmed fortress on the west bank of the Hudson — West Point, New York. Eisenhower begins his best and most personal book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, published in 1967, only two years before his death, with an account of his trip to West Point in June 1911. "I traveled light," he said. "There was no need for more than a single suitcase."
It was a late start; he was almost twenty-one, but he got a late start at almost everything. In 1915 Eisenhower wrote of his West Point classmate Omar Nelson Bradley, "His most prominent characteristic is 'getting there.' " He could have been writing of himself.
Those who did not know him well thought of him as bland, relaxed, uncompetitive. He was none of those things. Whatever he undertook, whether it was personal or professional, he had to win. Late in life Eisenhower said, "I never give up a battle until I am licked, completely, utterly, and destroyed, and I don't believe in giving up any battle as long as I have a chance to win."
His son, John, said his father "couldn't do anything without making it work out. Trying to be best at it. He wasn't the kind of competitive person who would say, 'I have to put that guy down,' but he had to be better than everybody else. The things he chose doing, he was good at."
Eisenhower was not a patient man. He later said he was "a rather stern individual when I think I am being taken advantage of in any way or for any reason." He was the son of a Pennsylvania Dutchman with "all the temper of the Pennsylvania Dutch."
Eisenhower wasn't particularly fond of West Point much of the time he was there. He had not gone because he had dreams of military glory; that was for soldiers like his sometime friend, sometime enemy George S. Patton, Jr. He went to the Point because it offered a free education and opportunities to play baseball and football. The education turned out to be limited and uninteresting, and his athletic ambitions were frustrated. He often regretted that he had come and spoke of leaving. But late in life, as old men will, he remembered much of his time there with nostalgia.
When he was dying at Walter Reed hospital in 1969, his old friend Mark Wayne Clark, West Point class of 1917, visited him daily. Every afternoon around five, Clark would sit near his bed and talk with him for half an hour. Clark said, "He was really sick, all wired, emaciated, his head tilted, and weak as could be. But, you know, all he wanted to talk about was West Point, not about being president, not about being supreme commander, about D-Day, none of that. West Point was all, ever."
Ulysses S. Grant, class of 1843, the only other West Pointer who spent eight years in the White House, wrote in his Personal Memoirs, "I had rather a dread for reaching my destination at all ... I would have been glad to have had a steamboat or railroad collision, or any other accident happen, by which I might have received a temporary injury sufficient to make me ineligible, for a time, to enter the Academy. Nothing of the kind occurred, and I had to face the music." It must be remembered, of course, that Grant lacked most of Ike's advantages as a plebe. According to his biographer, William S. McPhealy, "When Ulysses Grant reached West Point in 1839, he was still a boy. At 17 he weighed 117 lbs and was five feet one inch tall." Both Grant and Eisenhower were bored at West Point, and again as peacetime soldiers. Grant was so bored and depressed that in 1854, drinking heavily, he found it necessary to resign his commission. Eisenhower sometimes spoke of resigning, but he never really came close to doing it.
Eisenhower came to have a high regard for Grant. In 1946 when he was chief of staff of the army he wrote William Elizabeth Brooks, author of Grant of Appomattox, to say that not only had he read and enjoyed his book, but that many years ago he had read Grant's report to the secretary of war, submitted somewhere about the middle of July 1865. The first several paragraphs of that report
impressed me mightily — in them the Commander traced out his general idea or his general plan for the defeat of the Confederacy at the moment he was called upon to take charge of all the Northern armies. I think people frequently lose sight of the importance of this broad scheme which lies behind every move the Commander makes. As a consequence we see people — sometimes highly informed critics — attempting to separate one battle or one point of a campaign from the whole of the campaign and in doing so get it completely out of focus. Ever since I read that report my respect for Grant has been high, in spite of many bitter criticisms that I have read both of his military ability and of his personal habits.
With respect to this last item I am delighted that you have handled it so carefully and logically. It never seemed possible to me (and I have thought about it often during the months since December 1941) that a man who was so constantly under the influence of liquor could have pursued a single course so steadfastly, could have accepted frequent failures of subordinates without losing his own equilibrium, could have made numbers of close decisions which involved a nice balance between risk and advantage, and could have maintained the respect of such men as Sherman, Sheridan, Meade, and, above all, of President Lincoln.
Eisenhower was speaking not only of Grant's campaigns and battles; he was speaking of his own "single course" pursued steadfastly for winning the war in Europe, of the failures of his subordinates, of the many close decisions he had made involving "a nice balance between risk and advantage." And for the names of Sherman, Grant, Meade, one can substitute the names of almost any Allied generals, save Montgomery. And instead of Lincoln one would name Roosevelt, Churchill, de Gaulle, and, to be sure, Stalin.
No one ever accused Eisenhower of being "constantly under the influence of liquor," but he was accused of indecisiveness, indecision, dangerous affability, of knowing nothing at all about military strategy, and of never having heard a shot fired in anger. All that was said even before he got into politics.
Eisenhower was impressively broad of shoulder and, at five feet ten inches, taller than most of the incoming cadets. He was older; most of them were in their teens, but he was within a few months of being able to vote, although he did not vote until 1948, when he could have had the presidential nomination of either major party and even, many people thought, both parties.
His hands were large —"like elephant's feet," his brother Edgar said — and indicated a good deal about him. Harry Anholt, a friend who managed the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver before and during Eisenhower's presidency, said, "You could tell his hands had done a good deal of hard work when he was young. They were very large, and he told me he had frozen them a few times."
His wife, Mamie, remembered that when he began painting, many "experts" were surprised. They "didn't think he could pick up a paintbrush. ... The knuckles of both Ike's hands had been broken because of football and baseball playing when he was young." Eisenhower himself often said his hands looked as if they were meant to hold an ax, not a pen.
In the summer of 1983, a statue of Eisenhower was dedicated at West Point; it overlooks the majestic plain. Almost everybody thought that the sculptor had done a good job, but there was one recurrent criticism. People who had never seen the man felt that the hands on the statue were too large.
As a new cadet, Eisenhower must have been conscious of his clothes that June day in 1911; they were poorly cut and had the look of the rube. In a photograph showing him in what he wore when he arrived at West Point, the sleeves of his jacket are too long and the jacket itself reaches almost to his knees. The trousers are also too long and baggy.
Many of the other entering cadets wore clothes that were for the most part well cut and seemed to fit perfectly. Many of them spoke of the class of 1915 plebe banquet they had attended on June 5 at the Hotel Drake in New York. The cost for the full-course dinner was $2.50, and room accommodations were made available to the incoming plebes for an additional dollar. But Eisenhower, for whatever reason, did not attend; nor did he stop in New York on his way to West Point. He later said the thought of stopping in that big city made him fearful. His only city experience had been a day and a night in St. Louis when he took the West Point entrance examinations, and then he had gotten lost.
If any of his fellow plebes were inclined to look down on him, they would soon learn that in West Point slang all plebes were "lower than whale shit," were "built wrong," "walked like turkeys"; their shoulders were "round as globes," and they were "so wooden that no one would believe that they wouldn't float if thrown in water."
When Eisenhower got off the train at the yellow-brick railroad station only a few steps away from the west shore of the Hudson, he was looking at one of the most spectacular views in America, the Hudson Highlands. George Washington called it "the Gibraltar of America," and it seems likely that in 1942 when Eisenhower spent a great many uneasy days on the real rock of Gibraltar he once or twice wished he had accepted an offer to become commandant at the Point. The academy itself, with its forbidding granite gothic buildings, was intimidating. "I was so scared, I almost turned back," he said.
But that feeling was temporary; as he was to discover, there was something comforting about the look of the place. It seemed settled, permanent, as if it had been there forever and would continue to be. The British had discovered at some cost during the Revolutionary War that it was impregnable. They had hoped to divide the rebellious colonists by taking it, but despite the treason of Benedict Arnold, they had failed. In the four years Eisenhower was there, he learned a great deal about what happened in that area during the Revolutionary War; those hills became more familiar than the flat plains of Kansas.
But on the morning of June 14, he was more aware of the intimidating climb up what was called "the long hill" to the adjutant's office, where he and the other entering cadets would abruptly cease to be civilians. They were to learn immediately that life at the academy was tough, at times brutal. They were the "scum of the earth." They were "entering purgatory for the first time." They were "Ducrot, too insignificant to be worthy of attention." They were "Mr. Dumgard, Dumbjohn, Dumflicket, Doojohn." "Drop those bags, mister. Pick them up, mister. That wasn't fast enough for me, mister. You hear me? That was not fast enough. Do not hesitate, mister. Drop those bags.
"There are only three answers to any question, mister. There are only three because you are so beastly you can only handle three. If you can handle three. You are subhuman, mister. You are beastly; that's why it's called Beast Barracks. The three answers to any question are, 'Yes, sir, No, sir, and No excuse, sir.' Now let's hear those three answers, mister. And brace yourself while you answer, mister."
Eisenhower said, "My impression of that first day was one of calculated chaos." As to the hazing that day and in the three weeks of "Beast Barracks" that followed, he said, "I had encountered difficult bosses before. ... I suppose that if any time had been provided to sit down and think for a moment, most of ... us would have taken the next train out. ... But no one was given much time to think — and when I did it was always, 'Where else could you get a college education without cost?' "
The whole performance of "hazing" struck Eisenhower as funny, he said, "and in the semi-privacy of my room, I could laugh a little at myself and at the system. But whenever an upperclassman saw the sign of a smile, the shouting and nagging started again."
Eisenhower at West Point and later in life often said the system was ridiculous. But he did not rebel against it or try to change it much. It was that way throughout his life. He was not a man who tried to change things. Those who wanted him to improve things were inevitably disappointed. He was a man who went along with the status quo. That was true when he was a cadet; when he was a junior officer; a senior officer; when he was supreme commander. In French North Africa, for example, when as commander in chief of the Allied expedition there he hung on to the discredited Vichy officials rather than risk change. And as president he did not think it part of his job to educate the nation on the need for civil rights for Negroes. For that matter, he did not do much to interfere with the freewheeling reign of Joseph R. McCarthy. At the Point, there were never any courses on reforming the system. Instead, the cadets were taught to defend it when it was in trouble.
As for the brutality of Beast Barracks, Eisenhower later said, "There's a bunch of freewheeling boys and they have to be brought quickly into an attitude of obeying orders and they do this with methods that the new cadets sometimes think of as rather harsh. ... Their purpose is not to make it easy."
By dusk that first day, not only had the plebes been hazed mercilessly, they had checked their civilian baggage and their civilian identities; they had been measured for uniforms and had been taught how to march, to salute, and to brace (stand at exaggerated attention). They had learned to do everything, everything on the double. They were not yet cadets, but by dusk they were no longer civilians either. By then they were wearing gray trousers and white shirts, and they were ready to be sworn in. They raised their right hands and repeated what was holy writ for West Pointers, the oath of allegiance. It was a moment Eisenhower never forgot:
I, Dwight D. Eisenhower, do solemnly swear that I will support the Constitution of the United States, and bear true allegiance to the National Government; that I will maintain and defend the sovereignty of the United States, paramount to any and all allegiance, sovereignty, or fealty that I may owe to any state or county whatsoever; and that I will at all times obey the legal orders of my superior officers, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice.
Eisenhower wrote of taking the oath:
Whatever had gone before, this was a supreme moment. ... A feeling came over me that the expression "The United States of America" would now and henceforth mean something different than it ever had before. From here on in it would be the nation I would be serving, not myself. Suddenly the flag itself meant something. ... Across half a century, I can look back and see a rawboned, gawky Kansas boy from the farm country, earnestly repeating the words that would make him a cadet.
The hazing bothered most of the other plebes much more. Not only were they young, most of them had had boyhoods that were privileged or sheltered. In Eisenhower's day there were no women, no blacks, no Hispanics, very few Catholics; and when he was a plebe there were three Jews, but not one of them graduated. Most of the cadets were solid middleclass WASPS. Eisenhower's roommate for the three weeks of Beast Barracks was quite typical. John Henry Dykes was from Lebanon, Kansas. His father and two uncles were doctors. According to John Henry's son, Delmar Spencer "Rooky" Dykes, "One of my dad's uncles was a friend of Charles Curtis." Curtis was a powerful Kansas Republican who became a U.S. senator and was Herbert Hoover's vice president. Dykes, like most cadets, had parents with power and what was just as useful to the politicians who appointed them: money.
According to Dykes, "I was probably the first cadet to meet Ike at West Point. When the class of '15 arrived, we were assigned two to a room in alphabetical order. Dykes was the last of the Ds, Eisenhower was the first of the Es; so I drew Ike. For the next week ... we went through the tough plebe indoctrination period called 'beast treatments.' The First Class officers made our lives miserable. They worked us over and chopped us down to size fast. We moved at a dead run all the time. We drilled, we shined brass buttons, we greased and cleaned rifles — and when taps blew at 10 P.M. we collapsed into bed.
"Ike took the hazing in his stride. When he was asked a question, he always began his answer with, 'Well, now ...' I've noticed, watching his press conferences on TV, that even today he begins his reply to questions with, 'Well, now ...'!"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Ike the Soldier"
Copyright © 1987 Merle Miller.
Excerpted by permission of RosettaBooks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Where It All Began,
Winning and Losing,
A Good Gamble,
The Dominant Quality,
A Nice Little Town,
The "Renegade Texan",
An Angry Man,
The Stepping Stone,
In the Truth,
Marching Through Georgia,
Not at the Top, But Climbing,
A Matter of Age,
The Summer of 1915,
The Nature of the Duty,
The Army Wife,
Keeping the Colonel Happy,
The Tortoise and the Hare,
The Dark Shadow,
A Grave Offense,
The Invisible Figure,
Slightly to the Rear,
Some Americans in Paris,
The Assistant to the Assistant,
The Insubordinate General,
Good Man Friday,
The Electric Train,
A Colonel Named Eisenhower,
The First Answer,
A Man of Responsibility,
A Kansan Goes to London,
A Precious Friendship,
Grosvenor Square, 20,
The Rock of Gibraltar,
Friday the Thirteenth,
A Bitter Decision,
Turn of the Tide,
An Auspicious Omen,
The First Step,
Holding Patton's Horse,
The Soft Underbelly,
The Final Plan,
O.K., We'll Go,
Piercing the Heart,
Irish and Tragic,
Out of the Woods,
Crossing the Seine,
A Fragile Reed,
A Mere Incident,
The Long-Distance Runner,
His Greatest Moment,