Saturday, December 08, 2007

I Like Ike!

I like Ike.

A version of what became Dwight Eisenhower's 1952 campaign slogan existed in the late-1940s. In an Irving Berlin Broadway musical of that period, after Eisenhower had become a national hero for his work as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, an ensemble sang a satirical overview of prospective 1948 presidential candidates, finding each deficient but one. "We like Ike," they sang.

Born ten months after Eisenhower was inaugurated as President in 1953, he's the first President I remember. In the summer of 1959, when I was five-and-a-half, I was already intensely interested in history and politics and my parents decided to take me to Washington, D.C. for the first time. I liked Ike and when we went to Washington, I was sure that one day, as we sat at a dime store luncheonette counter blocks removed from the White House, Ike would walk in, grinning that trademark smile of his, and have lunch with us.

It didn't happen, of course, but I still liked Ike.

In part, my affection for Eisenhower was inherited. My dad revered him. One of his fondest memories is of the day he briefly met Eisenhower. Dad was stationed in Germany, an Air Force staff sergeant. Ike, dressed in civilian attire, preparing to return to the States to make his first run for the presidency in 1952, was on base. He wore a brown suit and a smile that looked like a million bucks as he shook my father's hand.

It wasn't just because of that brief encounter with Ike that my father revered Eisenhower, though. Like many a school boy during World War II, he followed the efforts of our soldiers, airmen, and Marines as they beat back Fascist tyranny and Japanese empire-building around the globe. He knew Eisenhower's well-deserved reputation as a general who respected his troops, who refused to expose them to unnecessary risks or butchery, but was flint-faced in demanding the complete and total surrender of Hitler's war machine in Europe. Thousands who served under Ike in Europe liked Ike. (Which is more than can be said of everyone who served under Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific. My late father-in-law, who was a navigator on Pacific bombing missions during the war, had no use for Dugout Doug. "We did things to make him look good that I'm not too proud of," he once told me.)

Michael Korda's newest book, Ike: An American Hero, spends a good chunk of its 720-pages discussing Eisenhower's European command during World War II. It spends a scant chapter-and-a-half on his presidency. This isn't because, as has become popular these days, Korda disdains Eisenhower's time in the White House. On the contrary, Korda is even more complimentary of Ike's Oval Office tenure than was the late Stephen Ambrose, who accords Eisenhower something like idolatry as opposed to Korda's laudatory, but balanced view. But, as you read Korda's telling of Eisenhower's life story, it's difficult not to consider the possibility that some unseen hand was guiding Ike to his command in Europe. It was the service he seems destined to have rendered, playing a critical role in ridding the world of Hitler's evil. That, in turn was the event which won Eisenhower the fame that would send him to the presidency.

Korda, like Ambrose, chronicles the critical internships Eisenhower served through a long, often frustrating, military career, under people like MacArthur, Fox Conner, and George Marshall. One insightful West Point faculty member apparently diverged from others who looked at Eisenhower. Ike, he concluded when Eisenhower graduated from the Point, "was born to command." Conner and Marshall, at least, seemed to see this same quality in Eisenhower. MacArthur, ever consumed with himself and his own reputation, relied heavily on Eisenhower, but never seemed to consider what Eisenhower might do as a commander himself. Conner was especially influential on Eisenhower, schooling him deeply in history and strategy, acting as a reassuring father figure at a critical time for both Ike and his wife, Mamie, immediately following the death of a beloved son.

One experience after another in Eisenhower's lengthy Army career prepared him for World War II. More than anything, in spite of being kept stateside during the First World War, because he was regarded as a great trainer and organizer, Eisenhower became the preeminent logistician of the Army. George Marshall, chair of the chiefs of staff in Washington, knew this and when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Marshall called Ike to Washington to piece together the rudiments of US strategy and recommend how to make it work in this new war. Ike came to know more about US industrial capacity than anyone in the country.

Korda shows that Eisenhower was more than just a "military man," as some disdainfully say. Like our other greatest generals--Washington, Grant, and Powell, among them--Eisenhower had a deep respect for the limits of military force, of how it should be employed for purposes established by civilian authorities. He believed that if and when it became necessary for the United States to enter a war, it should do so with defined purposes and with a gathering of all the power that could be mustered. Later in life, for example, he thought that it was a mistake for the United States to go to war in Vietnam. But once John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson put the country into the war there, he deemed it idiocy to hamstring the military only to be defeated and humiliated.

Eisenhower was also a well-rounded person, schooled in history and practical diplomacy. All these attributes helped him during World War II.

Korda's abbreviated overview of Eisenhower's presidency is a bit disappointing even though I understand he regarded it as a coda to Ike's military career. He does however manage to convey the message--with which I agree--that Eisenhower was a much more successful President than he's often credited with being. After ending Truman's war in Korea, with a combination of subtle diplomacy and implied military threats, Eisenhower, which the record now shows was far more hands-on than was thought while he was President, kept the US at peace during the height of the Cold War. This is more than his immediate successors could claim.

Korda, credibly, gives Eisenhower more credit for Civil Rights than other biographers--or I--have previously. Eisenhower, Korda argues, was more interested in results than histrionics. After Truman integrated the military, segregation remained much intact on military installations in the South. Eisenhower changed that. He also pushed through the first Civil Rights law since Reconstruction.

Eisenhower made mistakes, to be sure. He took Richard Nixon as his Vice President in 1952, in order to shore up his reputation as being firm in his opposition to Communism. Insensibly, Ohio Senator Bob Taft and his fellow crazies in the Republican Party, blamed Ike for not marching into Berlin at the end of World War II (though it made no strategic sense and had nothing to do with the aims and goals of the conflict) and for being "soft on Communism" because he had consulted with Joseph Stalin, the dictator of the Soviet Union, with which the US was allied during World War II. But Ike never liked Nixon and wanted to dump him from his ticket in 1956. Shaking Nixon would have entailed overtly going after him, something Ike didn't want to be seen doing.

Eisenhower regretted nominating Earl Warren to be Supreme Court Chief Justice. But, according to Korda, he was as committed to civil rights as Warren and bound in any case to uphold the Court's decision, by virtue of the Constitution.

If one word, above any others, describes Eisenhower, I'm sure Korda would say, it's duty. He felt a strong sense of duty to his country and to the Constitution. He pursued that duty with uncommon diligence.

There are flaws in Korda's book. His sentences can be overly long, interrupted by circuitous comments bracketed by parentheses and hyphens, a flaw to which I myself am prone. Disappointingly, the book is filled with editing errors. Missing words, added words, and lost punctuation abound. This is incredible in light of the fact that Korda himself served for years as an editor with a major publishing house. He was not well served by the editor who he thanks here.

I also would like to resolve the decidedly different view of Korda when it comes to the relative abilities of American and German troops to improvise in what von Clausewitz called "the fog of war" or after superior officers died. Ambrose insisted in his book, Citizen Soldiers, that Americans were better at this than the Germans because of the nature of American life: egalitarian, improvisational. Korda argues that the Americans were lost when their superiors died and they were left to fend for themselves, but that the Germans remained cool, able to keep fighting.

The results of the war suggest that Korda is wrong and Ambrose is right. But, as Korda convincingly argues here, as grateful as we all should be to the "greatest generation" for their service during World War II, the success of the Allies, under the leadership of the United States, had more to do with the strategies and generalships of people like Eisenhower--not to mention the leadership of Franklin Roosevelt, who set the mission and the goals, but gave great latitude to his subordinates, including his military subordinates--and with the enormous industrial capacity of the US.

I read most of this book by myself. But I read some of it aloud to my wife as we traveled around recently. I finished it on Thursday, on a drive to Cincinnati, for a day trip. As I closed the book on the final chapter, I told her, "I'm going to miss spending time with Ike in this way. I wonder if we'll ever see his like again?" Probably not and that's okay; we don't need copies, but originals.

A few days after Eisenhower died in 1969, a local department store ran a tribute to him in the Columbus newspapers. There was a simple picture of Eisenhower in civilian attire. Above him was a quote from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night: ""Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them."

At the time, I remember thinking, what are they saying about Eisenhower? Which of these are they saying was true of him? Was he born great, an achiever of greatness, or one on whom greatness was thrust?

That Eisenhower was ambitious, maybe even for greatness, Korda makes clear enough. But Eisenhower never seemed to define that as soaking up the limelight. He was, mostly, devoid of ego and was instead, dutiful. He wanted to do great things far more than to be regarded as great.

Greatness was clearly thrust upon him, moving from Colonel to Five Star General in four years.

If not born great, he was nurtured for greatness by parents who, contrary to the norms of the time, were both college educated and believed that their children's futures were filled with God-given possibilities. Ike's pacifist mother was probably never happy with his career choice. But she had a lot to do with shaping him to be the kind of general, the kind of president, and the kind of man he became.

However Ike's greatness came, he was undeniably a great man and the world was fortunate to have him when he came along.

I like Korda's book. And I still like Ike!

1 comment:

Charlie said...

Excellent review, Mark. Like you, he was the first president I remember. For some reason, all of my mental images of Ike are on the golf course. Was he perhaps the first avid presidential golfer, or were there others before him?

He gets well-deserved credit for keeping the WWII coalition together and out-fighting Hitler. He was a great tribute to American soldiers.