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Eisenhower’s War

Eisenhower: At War, 1943–1945

by David Eisenhower
Random House, 977 pp., $29.95

1.

Of all American wars since the Revolution, the Second World War was fought with fewest regrets. Even now, after four decades, hardly anyone looks back at the war disapprovingly. Yet, in retrospect, it came to an end in a peculiarly double-edged way. That the world was rid of a Nazi tyranny will always be its proudest achievement. That it was replaced in almost half of Europe by a Communist tyranny will always darken that achievement. Any balance sheet of what the war finally accomplished cannot ignore the difference between what the war meant for Eastern and for Western Europe.

The most anguished question is whether the extension of Soviet power could have been avoided. It is a question that by its very nature can never be answered with any confidence. The war can be refought only as an exercise in speculation and hindsight, on paper. The way it—or any other war—was fought gives no reason to believe that it would have gone entirely right if it had been fought differently. What we can do now is to try to understand what hard choices had to be made and why they were made in a way that has shaped the world we live in. We may not agree on whether it was right for the Western Allies to stand by as the Red Army went into Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, but at least we can try to put ourselves back into that time and place, as if we had to face those hard choices as they arose.

Offhand, one might not imagine that a book on one Eisenhower by another would offer the best available means for making such a retrospective effort. Anyone who starts reading Eisenhower: At War by the general’s grandson, David, must wonder how “objective” or unprejudiced it can be. I opened the book with this question in mind: I closed it satisfied that the author must have known that his readers would not respect anything that smacked of an apologia or glorification.

The work is on the whole an impressive achievement. It is largely based on a thorough study of existing sources, mixed with a few sidelights from personal interviews. Despite its bulk of almost a thousand pages, it mostly deals with the last eighteen months of the war—from the Allied invasion of Normandy to the German surrender. It is for the reader who wants to refight the war at the highest level of command, sometimes day by day, often in meticulous detail. As far as I could tell, the author has done his homework; only specialists will be able to pass judgment on all the particulars.

There has been considerable interest of late in Eisenhower the president; this book may set off a new wave of interest in Eisenhower the Supreme Commander. In his introduction, David Eisenhower tells us that this is only the first of three volumes on the Eisenhower years. He is apparently prepared to spend a good part of his life on his grandfather’s career. If he carries through to the end, it will be a unique historical monument; no grandson has ever taken on such a magisterial task on behalf of a famous grandfather.

In one respect, the form of Eisenhower: At War is somewhat disconcerting. The reader immediately encounters an introduction of seventeen pages that may well raise more questions than the following 825 pages of text. David Eisenhower has seen fit in his opening pages to put forward a number of theories or interpretations that hold out a claim to originality; he promises to show how Eisenhower met political and military challenges “in ways that have not been fully understood, if understood at all.” The introduction tends to prepare the reader for a narrative that is more startling, and more tendentious, than it actually is.

Three of these novel interpretations stand out, and I will have more to say about them in due course. It may be well to state them at the outset, as David Eisenhower does, in order to keep them in mind as we go along.

  1. Eisenhower’s motives and decisions during the war were far more political than has been thought. The problems of the Allied-Soviet relationship made him “think and act as a politician.” The political aspects of his job were what it “was mainly about.”1

  2. Eisenhower’s political role led him “to cede Berlin and Prague to the Russians.” Presumably he would have done otherwise if he had been less politically motivated.

  3. On the British side of the alliance, David Eisenhower suggests—as no one to my knowledge has ever done before—that Churchill and Montgomery were not really serious about policies and strategies which they urged upon Eisenhower and which gave him so much trouble. The British proposal for a campaign in southeastern Europe “seems to have been made mainly for political reasons,” not because it was considered to be militarily feasible. Montgomery did not actually believe in his scheme in September 1944 to get to Berlin and hoped that Eisenhower would turn it down flatly. Despite their pressure for such a move, the British were “in fact lukewarm if not opposed to a Berlin campaign” even in March 1945. In short, some of the greatest British-American controversies during the war were allegedly based on disingenuous or insincere British demands.

Despite David Eisenhower’s emphasis on the “political” Eisenhower and his insistence on focusing on the Russian problem, the book is largely taken up with the British-American military relationship. While the Soviet angle comes out more sharply than before, it occupies only a minor portion of the book. For one thing, the Soviets were so secretive about their plans and actions that there is not that much to tell, especially from their side. Though Eisenhower had to take them into account, he was usually forced to wait until they had launched their attacks to be sure of what they were doing. Scores of pages pass by with barely a mention of the Soviets. The major focus of the book is necessarily on the British-American relationship. That it was troubled at best and stormy at worst is no longer news. But David Eisenhower has put it all together so that anyone willing to make the effort can reenact the great and often painful inner conflicts at the top.

The dominating theme of the story, then, is actually the trials and tribulations of coalition warfare. In this case the coalition was made up of two intimate partners, Great Britain and the United States, with one more, the Soviets, distantly linked, and with the Canadian, Polish, French, and other contingents in subordinate roles. When one thinks of the trouble the British and Americans had working together, one wonders what in the world might happen if the sixteen members of NATO had to fight together. Essentially a study of coalition warfare, this work might well become required reading by everyone with a stake in the defense of the West.

David Eisenhower’s book stimulated me to reconsider the war in Europe, partly with his help and partly by going back to original sources. In what follows, I have tried to set forth this reconsideration in my own terms, with comments from time to on his views. I have not always agreed with him, but I have always admired the thoroughness and seriousness of his effort.

2.

The nominal head of the two-member coalition was the Supreme Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower. His previous career had made him an unlikely candidate for the job. As a West Point graduate in 1917, he had come on the scene too late to see action in France. He had spent the 1920s going through all the right training schools for upward assignments and promotions, only to land in 1933 as special assistant to the imperious General Douglas MacArthur, whom he served in Washington and in the Philippines for the rest of the decade. In the early months of the Second World War, he seemed doomed to remain a staff officer in Washington as chief of the War Plans Division and then the Operations Division in the office of the Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, another overshadowing superior.

After a decade in desk jobs, he was finally rescued from them in June 1942 by getting the appointment as commander in chief of the Allied forces in the European theater, which in practice put him in North Africa. This assignment indicated that he was Marshall’s favorite and was being groomed for bigger things. Nevertheless it had its drawbacks. Three quarters of the troops under him were British. The two leading British commanders, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander and General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, were nominally subordinate to him but far exceeded him in combat experience and actually took charge of the fighting while he was stuck away in Algiers far from the action. Eisenhower did not cover himself with glory in his Mediterranean role and still had to prove himself when he was named Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe in January 1944.

In one way, his first experience as Allied commander later worked against him. It gave the British a precedent for treating him as titular chief while their generals largely conducted the war on the ground. The lesson was not lost on the other ranking American generals in the Mediterranean phase, Omar N. Bradley and George S. Patton, Jr. They came out of North Africa and Italy resentfully determined to take over real power in Europe and to put an end to the Mediterranean practice of using piecemeal American units to support major British forces in important operations. The American sensitivity in Europe to the issue of who was commanding whom and the suspicion of Eisenhower’s susceptibility to British influence were outgrowths of his North African initiation as Allied commander.

Eisenhower: At War first invites consideration of what kind of a Supreme Commander he was in the European phase. This rank was clearly fanciful. Given the conditions he had to work with, or under, he was not and could not have been “supreme.”

He took his directions from the Combined Chiefs of Staff, made up of the American Joint Chiefs of Staff and the British Chiefs of Staff Committee, at the head of which were General George C. Marshall for the Americans and Field Marshal Sir Alan Brooke for the British. They could overrule him though they were usually hesitant to do so. David Eisenhower notes that “Eisenhower’s authority would always be nebulous.”

The institutional differences between the British and American command structures made for built-in complications. The British had three autonomous commanders-in-chief for ground, air, and sea forces. The Americans had only one in ultimate command of all three services. Eisenhower as American commander had far more authority than as Allied commander. In fact, he “exercised only formalistic authority” over the British, as David Eisenhower puts it. As for the French generals, they took their orders from De Gaulle, and De Gaulle took his orders from no one.

  1. 1

    Here as elsewhere, the emphasis in the introduction is not always consistent with that in the body of the book. In his conclusion, David Eisenhower also writes: “To the end, Eisenhower’s approach was military: defeating the German army and gaining an unconditional cease-fire” (p. 789).

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