Ike as in “like”

May 2, 2009

 

DWIGHT EISENHOWER

DWIGHT EISENHOWER

I just finished reading “Ike: An American Hero,” the 2007 biography of Dwight Eisenhower by Michael Korda, a former RAF pilot whose books include a biography of Ulysses S. Grant. This book seemed almost as long as the Second World War, but it provides a lot of insight into the military realities of the allied campaign for control of North Africa, Sicily, and ultimately the European mainland via the beaches of France. 

Korda, who is British, tries to sort out the conflicting judgments about Eisenhower’s military leadership, which varies in direct relationship to which side of the Atlantic it comes from. That’s an interesting point in itself, because what Korda finds to be the key to Eisenhower’s genius is that he was able to manage and manipulate the constant head-banging among allied leaders – Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, Joseph Stalin, and Franklin Roosevelt – who seemed to have few common interests beyond defeating Nazi Germany, and – on the other hand – who had many interests that were in conflict.

Scholarly rankings of the presidents – a pointless exercise in many respects – usually place Eisenhower among the top 10. Korda – while acknowledging several embarrasments and failures in the administration – gives Eisenhower a balanced report card for his eight years in office, but devotes most of the book to Eisenhower’s military career and particularly to the war. He emphasizes a point that may be lost on later generations, namely that as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, Eisenhower exercised – and successfully – what was arguably the greatest measure of military and political power ever placed in the hands of a single person, before or since. He acted in some cases – for instance, in dealings with Stalin – as though he himself were a head of state. 

Korda discusses Eisenhower’s analysis of the Korean War – namely that it couldn’t be won without an American military commitment that probably would have sparked another world conflict; his refusal to send American combat troops into what he considered the French colonial war in Vietnam, and his caution against American military involvement in the Middle East – a bitter lesson for Eisenhower himself in Lebanon.

I got to see Eisenhower in person in 1964 or 1965, when I was a graduate student at Penn State. I was working in the public information office and heard there that Eisenhower, who lived in Gettysburg at that time, was going to visit State College to address a group of high school students. Eisenhower was the first person to be protected under the Former Presidents Act, but you couldn’t tell it from his appearance at Waring Hall. I had no business there, but no one stopped me from going in and sitting in a balcony looking down on Eisenhower as he stood alone on the stage talking to those teenagers.

PORTRAIT OF EISENHOWER

PORTRAIT OF EISENHOWER

He spoke to the students about civic responsibility, about not exercising their democratic rights by standing on the sidelines of political life. He was in his late 70s then and had suffered some serious health problems, but he stood ramrod straight with the military bearing that had been drilled into his DNA.  He also had that good-natured ease of manner that Korda repeatedly argues contributed as much as anything else to Eisenhower’s success in the Army and in civilian life.

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