In his New Republic review of Jean Edward Smith’s new Eisenhower biography, Rutgers historian David Greenberg rightly take legions of Ike-worshippers to task for sugar-coating Ike’s mixed performance as both a general and a president. As Greenberg notes, Dwight Eisenhower was not the amiable dunce of contemporary caricatures but nor is he the genius and giant he is now made out to be.
Not even his greatest admirers make any great claims for his tactical prowess, while many of his specific decisions during the liberation of North Africa and Western Europe were deeply flawed. (One decision that he got right–and that Greenberg needlessly criticizes him for–was sticking by George S. Patton after the latter slapped a couple of soldiers for alleged cowardice. Ike realized what Greenberg does not: that this was a small price to pay for Patton’s tactical genius.)
His presidency was even more problematic. While one can make the case, as Smith does, that Ike presided over eight years of peace and prosperity, the same might be said for other presidents such as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton or, in the case of two who did not serve a full eight years, Theodore Roosevelt and Calvin Coolidge. Ike’s achievement was not as unprecedented as Smith makes it out to be, nor did he have the kind of accomplishments that FDR (got the nation through the Great Depression, helped win World War II), Truman (the containment policy) or Reagan (helped end the Cold War) had.
President Eisenhower did deserve credit for ending the Korean War, building the interstate highway system, putting a bipartisan imprimatur on the New Deal, and moving the Republican Party away from isolationism but, as Greenberg argues, he also deserves demerits for not being more out front in confronting Joe McCarthy or Southern segregationists.
My biggest beef with Eisenhower, however, goes unmentioned by Greenberg: His handling of the Suez crisis when he sold out our allies (Britain, France and Israel) to curry favor with a Middle Eastern demagogue (Nasser). That misstep was to have baleful longterm consequences for American policy in the Middle East. Yet the consequences of this and other Eisenhower missteps are ignored or waved away by the legion of revisionists who want to elevate him into the top of the presidential pantheon. In reality, he was a good man, a good general and a good president–but not a truly great man or great leader.