nolead begins An American Hero
nolead ends nolead begins By Michael Korda
Harper. 779 pp. $34.95
nolead ends nolead begins
Reviewed by John Rossi
For The Inquirer
nolead ends A new biography of Dwight Eisenhower by publisher and author Michael Korda reexamines Eisenhower's life, not so much as a work of original scholarship but as a reinterpretation of Eisenhower's place in American history. Korda focuses especially on his role as commander of Allied forces during World War II. And there, Korda has no doubts about Eisenhower's greatness, calling him "the toughest, most experienced, most formidable, and most realistic American commander since Ulysses S. Grant."
The biography's early sections are outstanding, painting a picture of a hard-working and studious Eisenhower, which belies his later reputation for being none too bright, and illustrating Korda's argument that Eisenhower's youth shaped him. Korda believes that these hardscrabble years in a close but demanding family shaped Eisenhower's persona. He grew up craving fame and success but kept those ambitions to himself by controlling his passions and emotions - a trait he would retain for the rest of his life, both as a general and as president. Even his celebrated big grin was a protective mechanism, a way to hide his real feelings.
Korda is good on Eisenhower's early career, showing how his marriage to Mamie Dowd moved him into a higher social class. He was devoted to her and his son, John - another son died young. She provided the stability that enabled him to navigate the top levels of the military bureaucracy. With regard to the much analyzed wartime relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby, Korda believes the case, to use the Scottish legal term, is "not proven."
Korda shows that Eisenhower was a superb peacetime soldier, a top-notch staff officer and a military problem solver. He won the respect of older men who served as his mentors, such as John J. Pershing, Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall and the Army's outstanding military intellectual between the wars, Fox Conner. They all saw something in Eisenhower, who overcame a mediocre record at West Point by graduating first from the Army's Command and Staff College.
The heart of Korda's book deals with Eisenhower's role in World War II. In 1942, Marshall began the process of making Eisenhower America's key military representative in Europe. He counted on his intelligence and his unmatched ability to get people to work together. Korda notes what a difficult task Eisenhower faced, dealing with prima donnas like Bernard Montgomery, Charles de Gaulle and even his old friend, George S. Patton. But Eisenhower's likability made men happy to serve under him: "His sincerity, his grasp of detail, and his lack of ceremony made it difficult, even impossible, to refuse him, and enabled him to assemble . . . a team whose members might quarrel and try to pull rank between themselves, but rarely, if ever with Ike." Whatever the Allied generals thought of Eisenhower, Korda writes they "were willing to be led by him."
Korda traces Eisenhower's learning curve from his first command in North Africa, when he was tentative and had to sack officers who were his friends, through his role in the Normandy invasion. The decision to launch D-Day on June 6, 1944, was Eisenhower's for good or ill. The subsequent broad-front strategy that he followed, Korda argues, was the correct one.
He rejected the idea that the war could be won by bombing alone and asserted his control over the bombing generals before D-Day by threatening to resign if he was not given control over the air force.
To Eisenhower, Berlin was not a viable target. If the British and Americans captured the city, they were bound by the Yalta treaty to turn it over to the Russians. He was not about to risk 100,000 casualties for what he considered a non-military target. Handling these controversies shows Eisenhower at his best, Korda argues.
The weakest part of Ike deals with his presidency. Korda devotes less than 100 pages to this phase of Eisenhower's career and these, unlike the earlier sections, contribute little to our understanding of him. This is unfortunate because scholars now recognize what an effective president Eisenhower was. Shortly after he left office, a group of historians rated him 22d among American presidents. Today, he is ranked in the top 10.
As president, by using the same "hidden hand" techniques he mastered in the military, Eisenhower deserves much of the credit for restoring American self-confidence in the 1950s. He let Sen. Joseph McCarthy overreach and destroy himself, was the first president since Reconstruction to enforce civil rights - in the Little Rock integration crisis - built the interstate highway system, and presided over eight years that saw the country reach unimagined levels of material prosperity.
Korda's biography is charmingly written, lavishly illustrated and easily the best biography of Eisenhower to appear.