The Eisenhower Diaries

Dwight D. Eisenhower could lay claim to rather considerable talents as a military strategist, as an administrator, and as a modestly charismatic political leader. He also had a certain pride in his abilities as an author. It is not well-known that in the middle years of his military career Eisenhower frequently wrote speeches for his superiors, and historians have been surprised to discover the care with which he edited and rewrote the streams of Presidential messages and reports issued during his two terms in office. With little assistance from others, Eisenhower produced a highly successful volume of memoirs on his role as commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II (Crusade in Europe, 1948) and two more volumes on his Presidential years (Mandate for Change, 1963, and Waging Peace, 1965). All of this is by way of saying that The Eisenhower Diaries is not a book of some interest simply because it was authored by a President. The Diaries are also well-written, insightful, and thought-provoking both for what they say and for the attitudes they reveal; and this is far more than can be said for the writings of many former statesmen.

It is important to note at the outset the marked difference between Presidential memoirs and Presidential diaries. The former have become an obligatory exercise for every retiring Chief Executive, and for the most part, the results are indistinguishable from one another. Presidential memoirs tend to be defensive in tone, excessively careful not to tread too bluntly on the political toes of others through candor or indiscretion, and earnestly concerned with securing the author’s place in history. Presidential diaries, in contrast, tend to be as varied as their authors’ personalities. Anyone needing evidence on this point need only compare the sober, analytical tone of Eisenhower’s diaries with the more lively style of his predecessor, Harry Truman. While President, Eisenhower once commented in his diary on the objectivity of some leading American newspapers: “Other papers—the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and many others—have larger and more widespread reporting staffs, have bigger circulations, and in many ways are more elaborate and better done newspapers than is the Herald Tribune. But in this one basic qualification—the degree of accurate reporting—these others do not, in my opinion, approach the Herald Tribune.” President Truman approached the same subject somewhat differently in his own diary several years earlier: “The old S.O.B. who owned and edited the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the New York World [Joseph Pulitzer] was in my opinion the meanest character assassin in the whole history of liars who have controlled newspapers—and that includes old man Hearst and Bertie McCormick!”

There are quantitative as well as qualitative differences among the Presidential diarists. John Quincy Adams, for example, wrote religiously in his: the edited version of his diaries runs to twelve volumes. Eisenhower, in contrast, did not begin these diaries until the age of forty-five and wrote in them sporadically, starting a new diary when the mood seized him. Thus, the word “diaries” is appropriate in this book’s title. The first of the diaries was begun before World War II while Eisenhower served as an assistant to General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. A second was begun during the first months of World War II; a third during the time of Eisenhower’s European command; a fourth during his postwar work as Army Chief of Staff, President of Columbia, and first NATO commander; and a fifth during his Presidency. Even within these periods there are sharp discontinuities, for Eisenhower never used the diaries as a vehicle for autobiography, and thus made little effort to narrate events between entries. The editor, Robert H. Ferrell, has dealt admirably with the discontinuous nature of the diaries by providing regular notes between some entries that provide a narrative framework and a smooth context. He has also done an excellent job of footnoting otherwise obscure references. It is thus possible to read the diaries very easily as an ongoing story, but this is certainly one of the least interesting uses of The Eisenhower Diaries; someone seeking a chronicle would be better advised to read the aforementioned memoirs.

The reader seeking titillating revelations will also be disappointed. The Eisenhower anger is well known, and occasionally surfaced in some entries, but highly personal entries and outspoken statements are singularly absent from the diaries. Eisenhower almost always wrote his diary entries in reflective rather than impassioned moments, and he seems to have carefully disciplined himself to moderate opinions on almost every subject. He also avoided using the diaries to write about his family life and his “personal feelings.” Consistently, he seems to have sought to express views rather than feelings.

What, then, can be found in the diaries? They are, for one thing, exceptionally revealing as to the way Eisenhower perceived himself, and vividly demonstrate how much those perceptions changed at different stages of his career. In the...

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