Ike for the ages
Who was Dwight Eisenhower? His extraordinary leadership of the Allied forces in Europe led to victory in World War II. Under his presidency the nation enjoyed eight years of peace and prosperity. Yet several years after his death, when his widow Mamie was asked whether she felt she had really known him, she replied, “I’m not sure anyone did.” Jean Edward Smith, whose last book was the best-selling FDR, explores the public and personal life of the man he regards, second to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, as the most successful U.S. president in the 20th century in his absorbing Eisenhower in War and Peace.
Eisenhower wrote of himself: “I’m just folks. I come from the people, the ordinary people.” Smith goes behind such statements and perhaps comes as close as a biographer can in capturing those qualities of personality and judgment during his military career that so impressed his superiors. His affability and common sense enabled him to deal effectively with such strong personalities as Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, his longtime friend George Patton, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall. Early in his career, Eisenhower worked with General John Pershing and General Douglas MacArthur; the latter found Ike so indispensable to him in Washington as a speechwriter and in other ways that he requested that he go with him to duty in the Philippines.
Smith emphasizes that Ike was not a battlefield commander, nor a great soldier, but outstanding as a theater commander and military statesman. He also had exceptional ability as an executive and knew how to assume ultimate responsibility and yet delegate to others. Among the many achievements of his life, Smith discusses his crucial role in the formation of NATO, his presidency at Columbia University and his “behind-the-scenes” approach in dealing with Senator Joe McCarthy’s abuse of power.
One clue to Eisenhower’s successes comes from his belief that his mother had by far the greatest personal influence on him and his brothers. All four of his remaining brothers (another had died as a child) agreed that Ike was the most like their mother. In contrast to their rather distant father, she was the constant presence who organized their lives, soothed them if necessary, praised their achievements and could often see the humor in virtually every difficult situation. When General Dwight Eisenhower was hailed as an international hero at the end of WWII, a newsman asked her if she was proud of her son. “Which one?” she responded.
As president, Eisenhower was a fiscal conservative, but he was not an ideologue of any kind. He was for a balanced budget but also aware of the need for such significant public works projects as the St. Lawrence Seaway and the interstate highway system, the largest public works project ever attempted. Among other initiatives, he expanded Social Security in 1954 to provide coverage for an additional 10 million self-employed farmers, doctors and others; he established the Department of Health, Education and Welfare; and he approved funds to provide the Salk polio vaccine to the nation’s underprivileged children. He said that the decision to send federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the law regarding integration of the schools was the hardest he’d ever had to make except for the decision to go ahead with D-Day.
Meticulously researched, Smith’s book gives us a fresh and insightful understanding of the many aspects of Eisenhower’s full life.