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He Got the Big Things Right

Dwight D. Eisenhower and Nikita Khrushchev at Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, September 1959

When the youngest man to be elected president of the United States was inaugurated in 1961, the contrast with his predecessor could hardly have been greater, and John F. Kennedy made the most of it. “Let the word go forth,” he said grandly at his inaugural, “…that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.” The Harvard graduate from Massachusetts had no great achievements to his name but he had a thick head of hair the color of chestnuts, brainy friends who played vigorous touch football, an activist international agenda, and a stylish wife with a soft voice who was already planning to bring high-end decorators and artists of international repute to the White House. Kennedy intended to move boldly where his predecessor had been watchful and slow.

The man Kennedy replaced was seventy and none too robust. He had suffered a heart attack and a mild stroke in office, along with other ailments, and was notorious for losing himself in a tangle of words when addressing sticky questions. Dwight David Eisenhower won deathless fame as commander of the 1944 invasion of France that helped to end World War II in Europe, but once out of uniform genial blandness seemed to settle over the man, called Ike since youth. His bald pate and broad smile gave him an amiable, grandfatherly air. His tastes matched those of a generation winding down. He got up early and went to bed early. In the White House he and his wife Mamie frequently had dinner together alone in front of the TV. Ike’s favorite movie was Angels in the Outfield, a sentimental baseball film of 1951. Close seconds were the western films High Noon of 1952, in which the town marshal faces down four men come to kill him, and The Big Country, in which a retired sea captain brings peace to feuding ranch families.

Ike watched High Noon three times and The Big Country four times. In the audience at one showing of the latter was the British prime minister, Harold Macmillan, come to the US to argue for sweet reason in dealing with Khrushchev over Berlin. Macmillan hated The Big Country. “It lasted three hours!” he protested in his diary. “It was inconceivably banal.” Gregory Peck turned the other cheek for most of the film but a moment came when he had to fight. That, roughly, was what the president had been telling Macmillan all day. Macmillan was reluctant to push the Russians over Berlin; Eisenhower felt a line had to be drawn clearly before the talking could begin.

Eisenhower came by his love of westerns naturally. He considered Abilene, Kansas, his hometown, because that’s where he lived longest as a child and where he graduated from high school. “Now that town had a code,” he said at a B’nai B’rith dinner in 1953, “and I was raised as a boy to prize that code.” Rule one of the code was to confront your enemies head on, as Wild Bill Hickok, Abilene’s famed marshal of the 1870s, had done. “Read your westerns more,” Eisenhower told the diners. The code was the narrative spine of the western novels that Eisenhower read for pleasure, published by prolific romancers like Luke Short, Max Brand, and Zane Grey. At the core of every western was a man meeting a challenge with clear-eyed courage. “When I read them,” he told his wartime driver, Kay Summersby, “I don’t have to think.” With Summersby, Eisenhower had an affair that ended with the war. There was nothing complicated about it. Mamie was the woman Eisenhower had married when young. Summersby was younger, prettier, and there.

Ike’s likes were as commonplace as his taste in fiction. He was an avid golfer and by one count played almost eight hundred rounds during his eight years in the White House. His favored course was Augusta. His partners were old friends, all men, referred to as “the gang.” Ike loved to grill steaks for the gang, followed by a game of bridge. His bridge was described as about like his golf—pretty good, and on his best days maybe even a little better than pretty good. The historian William Lee Miller, in Two Americans, a new book about Eisenhower and Truman,* writes that Ike could hold his own alongside a competitive player like his friend General Alfred Gruenther. Late in life, shortly before entering the White House, he took up another hobby—oil painting. Here, too, he was content with the familiar—country landscapes and portraits of friends. Occasionally, according to his grandson David, he even borrowed his composition from a picture postcard.

The new president did not quite take Eisenhower seriously. Kennedy was amused when a poll of historians in 1962 rated Eisenhower near the low end of presidents considered average—only twenty-eighth of thirty-five. It was that embarrassing poll, Kennedy told his aide and future biographer, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., that explained Eisenhower’s return to active campaigning in the 1962 midterm elections. “Eisenhower has been going along for years,” he said, “basking in the glow of applause he has always had. Then he saw that poll and realized how he stood before the cold eye of history—way below Truman; even below Hoover.”

But the cold eye of history has altered its verdict on Eisenhower considerably in the last half-century, finding within the Sunday painter a man with a learned understanding, firmer than that of perhaps any other president, of the nature of the power wielded by nations—that thing, described by Thucydides, which explains why “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Eisenhower himself would never have described what he knew in language so plain, but it is what marks the mind of the man who emerges from two new biographies. Jim Newton, in Eisenhower: The White House Years, and Jean Edward Smith, in Eisenhower in War and Peace (with twice the detail but at twice the length), both argue that Eisenhower was a figure of unusual judgment and firmness of purpose, and both record that he came by his understanding of power in two ways—first under the patient tutoring of a mentor, General Fox Conner, and then in the school of war.

Conner, a career Army officer from Mississippi, had been Pershing’s chief of operations in France during World War I. From the war he carried away two convictions—that the failure of the Allies to insist on Germany’s unconditional surrender in 1918 meant there would be a second war, and that the key to victory in the second war would be a seamless alliance hewing to the principle of unity of command. Two or more commanders were not going to run the war side by side; one would be chosen and the rest would follow. Conner preached this simple doctrine for twenty years.

Conner was a tall and handsome man, chilly and reserved, who stipulated that his diaries and letters be burned after his death. His deepest regret, like Eisenhower’s before 1942, was that he had never commanded troops in battle. But Conner had experience at the highest staff level, he was a lifelong student of military history, he took Eisenhower under his wing, and he led the younger man by easy stages through an ambitious reading program during a three-year tour in Panama.

First on Conner’s list were two novels of the Civil War, The Long Roll by Mary Johnston and The Crisis by Winston Churchill (the American novelist, not the British prime minister). Civil War novels led to Civil War memoirs—those of Grant and Sheridan. Before Conner was done with him Eisenhower had read Clausewitz’s On War three times. Simultaneously, Conner trained him in the art of writing general orders, an exercise that went far beyond the routine stuff of small-unit tactics. Later, finding a path through official obstacles, Conner wangled for Eisenhower an assignment in 1925 to the Army’s Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, where he took up golf, studied for precisely two and a half hours, five nights a week, and finished the one-year course first in his class. For the rest of his life Eisenhower believed that his rise owed more to Fox Conner than to any other man.

The education of Dwight David Eisenhower began with books—the tales of Hannibal and Caesar he loved as a child, the deeper study under Fox Conner—but more important was his experience of war, which came late. He missed the war in France. While his West Point classmates were making reputations by leading troops in combat, Eisenhower was stuck at a training camp near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Army sent no one to tell the trainers what recruits must be prepared to face in the trenches of the Western Front. Eisenhower and his colleagues based their course of instruction partly on what they read in the newspapers, and made up the rest as they went along.

Appeals for transfer to a fighting unit came to nothing and he was still training men when the armistice was signed in November 1918. From this experience, he reported in At Ease, the last and most personal of his books, he developed “a feeling for the military potential, in human terms, of the United States.” It began with a sense of the American raw material—what men knew when they arrived, what they could tolerate physically and emotionally, how they adapted to Army life. After that the national potential was a question of arithmetic.

The year after the war Eisenhower gained another insight into what nations need to be strong. With a friend he attached himself to a convoy of military trucks that crossed the country from Washington to San Francisco. Jim Newton describes this grueling sixty-one-day trip in a couple of sentences; Jean Edward Smith gives it two pages, and Eisenhower himself lingers on the journey for a chapter in At Ease, mainly because he enjoyed it so much. But he noted the appalling state of the roads along the way; on some days they progressed only three or four miles. The slow pace gave him time for a good look at cities and towns he would not see again until he was running for president, and the military lesson of the grueling journey was again a matter of simple arithmetic.

From the potential of those men he had trained must be subtracted the difficulty of moving them around the country. Eisenhower didn’t forget things; in Germany at war’s end he noted the multilane highways of the Autobahn and as president he pushed through a plan for building a 41,000-mile interstate highway system, the frank purpose of which was to make America strong by encouraging commerce in time of peace and mobility in time of war.

But Eisenhower’s education commenced in earnest with World War II, and it is here that the books by Newton and Smith part company. Newton covers Eisenhower’s military career in twenty-six pages; Smith gives it full measure in 430, a bit over half of his substantial tome. Both writers seem to have been drawn to Eisenhower by earlier work. Newton’s first book, Justice for All: Earl Warren and the Nation He Made (2006), focuses on a matter that Eisenhower can be said to have detested—the enforcement of court rulings requiring an end to segregation of the nation’s schools. In his earlier book, Newton credits Warren with securing a unanimous Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and in the new book he praises Eisenhower for appointing Warren in the first place, and then for enforcing court orders by sending the 101st Airborne Division into Little Rock, Arkansas. In doing this Eisenhower characteristically used more force than strictly necessary in order to settle things quickly.

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    Published this month by Knopf. 

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