Eisenhower in War and Peace
By Jean Edward Smith
After Dwight David Eisenhower’s death on March 28, 1969, his grandson David asked his widow, Mamie, whether she had really known her husband. “I’m not sure anyone did,” she told him. That helps explain why biographers have been compulsively drawn to him as a subject; there was obviously so much more behind the bluff, smiling exterior that it seems very worth the while to spend some time trying to understand him. Jean Edward Smith, who has written good books on Ulysses S. Grant and Lucius Clay, is the latest to do so. His Eisenhower in War and Peace is a well-researched and well-written account of Ike as statesman. It deserves to be mentioned alongside Carlo D’Este’s 2002 Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life, the best one-volume account of Eisenhower in uniform. But Smith gets us no closer to a true sense of Dwight David Eisenhower the man, one of the more baffling and inconsistent figures in American history.
Eisenhower was the supreme commander of U.S. armed forces in World War II and commander-in-chief from 1953 to 1961 who drastically reduced the size of the U.S. Army and Navy and denounced the “military-industrial complex.” He was the politician with a 79 percent approval rating who took minimal risks; the man of courage who failed to stick up for his old boss George Marshall against the slanderous demagoguery of Joseph McCarthy; the officer who helped integrate the U.S. Army but waited until the Supreme Court compelled him to integrate schools; the effective instigator of the 1956 Hungarian uprising who did nothing when it was crushed; the family-values president who slept with his sexy driver-secretary throughout World War II; the candidate who twice chose Richard Nixon as his running mate yet refused properly to endorse him for president during the 1960 campaign; and the NATO internationalist who supported Egypt’s reprehensible Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser against Britain, France, and Israel during the 1956 Suez Crisis.
In anyone else, such contradictions might be considered U-turns, even appalling betrayals, but not in Eisenhower. Why not? Because, as this book both explains and demonstrates, people liked Ike and they still do now, a half century after his departure from public life. The Eisenhower administration was regarded, in many ways correctly and even at the time, as a golden age of peace and prosperity in America. With the Korean War over, Stalin dead, and Vietnam still in the future, Eisenhower presided over a 10-fold growth in medical research, a balanced budget by his last year in office, and the building of the interstate highway system, which Smith describes as “the mother of all stimulus programs” despite Eisenhower’s being a fiscal conservative. With Ike it seemed that Americans could have it all.
Smith has fallen for Ike’s wide grin and gives him the benefit of the doubt in every major controversy of his career. Of the affair with Kay Summersby, in which Smith claims that her influence “was greater than is generally recognized,” his excuse is that everyone did it and that Omar Bradley was “one of the few senior commanders without a wartime sweetheart.” Eisenhower certainly took risks with the relationship, sitting her next to Churchill at dinners, which the British Chief of the Imperial General Staff, General Sir Alan Brooke, noted, “produced a lot of undesirable gossip that did [Eisenhower] no good.” When it got back to Mamie, Eisenhower coldly told his long-suffering wife in 1944: “It always depresses me when you talk about ‘dirty tricks’ I’ve played and what a beating you’ve taken, apparently because of me. You’ve always put your interpretation on every act, look, or word of mine….I’d rather you didn’t mention any of this again.”
The one area where Smith does seriously criticize Eisenhower is, by contrast, the one in which he was entirely free of fault: the opening of the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. “Eisenhower is to blame for the broad-front strategy that stretched Allied lines so thin that armor had little difficulty breaking through,” writes Smith, claiming that Ike should not have let the Germans get as far as they did before counterattacking. In fact, the Nazi offensive at Ardennes was a 39-division surprise attack carried out under complete radio silence, through three feet of snow, with searchlights bounced off the 100 percent cloud cover to turn night into day and prevent Allied forces from taking advantage of their air superiority. No power on Earth could have prevented the Wehrmacht from breaching Allied lines; the astonishing thing is that they didn’t reach the English Channel. Had Eisenhower adopted the alternative strategy of deep thin thrusts across the Rhine, the Allies would have been stretched even thinner.
Of Eisenhower’s tardiness in even looking into the civil-rights morass, Smith argues that he wanted the United States to change “with the cooperation of the South if possible” through “consensus” and “coalitions.” Smith concludes, “It is difficult to say that he was wrong.” No, it isn’t. If America had waited for the South to cooperate in the dismantling of Jim Crow through consensus and coalitions, it would have taken another 20 years. Smith’s observation that “he simply did not question racial segregation” is hardly a tribute to the president’s leadership qualities.
When it comes to McCarthyism, Smith finds ways to excuse the tardiness of Eisenhower’s actions against the Wisconsin senator. Yet this lets him off too easily. After all, Ike had seen his own former chief of staff and friend, Walter Bedell Smith, whom he knew to be a sound right-winger, accused of being a Communist sympathizer and blocked from becoming under-secretary of state. He only chose to stand up when Charles Bohlen, FDR’s interpreter at Yalta, was also blocked as the new ambassador to Moscow. In the course of the 1952 presidential campaign, Eisenhower disgracefully excised an encomium to General Marshall—one of the 20th century’s greatest Americans and the man to whom he owed almost every advancement in his life from colonel to supreme commander—from a stump speech he was about to give for fear of a reaction from McCarthy.
Most unquestioning is Smith’s hailing of Eisenhower’s supposedly deft handling of the Suez crisis, which the president called “the most demanding week in my entire presidency.” Eisenhower innately felt that Nasser had every right to seize the Suez Canal, so when the Israelis, French, and British ineptly timed their vigorous response for the final days of the presidential election, he erupted. “Foster,” he told his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, “you tell them, Goddamit, that we’re going to apply sanctions, we’re going to the United Nations, we’re going to do everything that there is so we can stop this thing.” The U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean even had to telegraph Washington to be told who the likely enemy was, should the crisis escalate into a shooting war, only to be informed that the Pentagon wasn’t sure; it might have been the British and French.
Under Eisenhower’s orders, the U.S. Treasury reduced British access to dollar accounts in the United States, thereby threatening a collapse of sterling, while effectively blackmailing London over petroleum imports. Eisenhower drank two scotches before his meal on the train taking him from Philadelphia back to Washington, and three after it, as well he might have.
The United States hastened the process of Western retreat from the Middle East and, in the half-century since, the blood and treasure sacrificed in the region from the extremism that Nasser helped breed suggest that the Suez “triumph” Smith perceives may have been Eisenhower’s greatest failure. It is impossible not to like and respect Dwight David Eisenhower, but it is also impossible not to feel disappointment in a very good man who could have been a very great man.