Eisenhower, at War 1943-1945

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

In Eisenhower, at War: 1943-1945, David Eisenhower (hereafter referred to as Eisenhower) attempts to achieve two basic objectives: a thorough discussion of the Western Alliance during the last year and a half of World War II and a balanced analysis of his grandfather’s contribution to Allied victory. The result is a detailed, usually thoughtful, and sometimes ponderous volume of almost one thousand pages. With the exception of occasional flashbacks, the book is organized chronologically. Although the author attempts no final appraisal of his subjects, he does pause from time to time in the narrative to offer evaluations of particular personalities and events. The fact that the book tends to quit rather than conclude is perhaps largely a consequence of its position as the first volume of a projected trilogy on the public life of Dwight D. Eisenhower (hereafter referred to as Ike).

For better or worse, the outstanding quality of Eisenhower, at War is its wealth of detail. The descriptions are in many cases literally day-by-day. Thus when events are inherently dramatic the narrative moves along in good order. The Normandy invasion offers a particularly good example. After months of meticulous preparation, Operation Overlord (the code name of the invasion) was finally ordered to proceed on the basis of predictions that indicated a short period of favorable weather. Once initiated, the operation took on a life of its own. Soldiers became actors in a vast pageant. Each participant had carefully rehearsed his own part and knew that the success of the operation was largely dependent upon the sum of individual faithfulness to assigned roles. The action itself is so compelling that virtually any detail serves to heighten reader interest. The resulting description is crisp and exciting.

A second advantage of Eisenhower’s close description of events is that the reader tends to view the war as a participant rather than an observer who, knowing the outcome, imposes hindsight on the narrative. Again, to use the example of Operation Overlord, the generally informed reader knows well enough that, following moments of savage fighting on the beaches, the Allies ultimately prevailed. All too frequently the reader leaps to the conclusion that the final result was more or less inevitable. The slow but steady movement toward the German border seems inexorable. Although it is certainly fair to conclude, as did most non-Germans at the time, that the weight of superior Allied manpower and resources would eventually crush the German will to continue in the war, the result of particular battles prior to the penetration of the Rhine in early 1945 was very much in doubt. The Normandy beachhead, for example, was tenuously established and precariously maintained during the first seventy-two hours of its existence. The adversary was well trained and well equipped. Had Adolf Hitler resolved to destroy the Allied offensive at its birth, as General Erwin Rommel and Karl Rundstedt urged, rather than during its infancy, the result might have been very different. The failure of Operation Overlord in turn would have severely tested the Western Alliance and undermined Anglo-American claims to equal credit with the Soviet Union for defeating the Fascist partners, Germany and Italy.

A rigorously chronological approach further serves to impress upon the reader the intensely political nature of the Anglo-American relationship. One of the distinctive contributions of this book is the case that it makes for the political significance of Operation Anvil. This operation was conceived as an adjunct to Operation Overlord. As originally planned, a Franco-American force would land in Marseilles to coincide with the Normandy invasion. This army would then proceed up the Rhone River and eventually occupy the right flank of the Allied offensive. The Anvil offensive promised multiple military advantages. Most obviously, it would tie down German units in the south of France and thus insure that they would not be diverted to Normandy. In addition, the liberation of Marseilles would open a much-needed port facility. Finally, the operation would provide a means whereby French troops training in North Africa could be brought into the war in significant numbers.

Inasmuch as Operation Anvil was ultimately delayed until August, it was overshadowed by the already-established front in northern France. Hence it has received little attention from military historians. Eisenhower, however, has discovered Operation Anvil’s importance as a political issue. Throughout the fighting in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy, Great Britain had been the senior partner in the Anglo-American alliance. Whereas the United States was committed to the earliest possible opening of a second front somewhere in Holland, Belgium, or the northwest coast of France, the British favored a more peripheral strategy that centered in the Mediterranean. Although Winston Churchill hotly denied that he opposed the eventual opening of a second front, the priority that he assigned to such an operation was sufficiently low as to cause many Americans to question the distinction between indefinite postponement and outright opposition. At the Teheran Conference in November-December, 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt won grudging British approval for the long-awaited opening of the second front the following spring. Historians are virtually unanimous in regarding this agreement as marking the point at which essential control of the alliance shifted. The United States now became the senior partner. Its will would largely determine Anglo-American strategy for the remainder of the war.

Nevertheless, as Eisenhower repeatedly shows, decision making was never as clean as outward appearances suggested. The British persistently argued for flexible responses to the war effort. Thus they reserved the right to change their minds at a later date if circumstances warranted. Churchill exercised this option after the Teheran Conference, contending until the end of the year that Operation Overlord should be deferred beyond the following spring. His pleas fell on deaf ears. Preparations to convert southern England into a gigantic staging area for Operation Overlord were already under way, preparations that increasingly constituted an imperative for the operation itself.

If the British had become reconciled to the...

(The entire section is 2601 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 9)

The Atlantic. CCLVIII, August, 1986, p. 85.

Kirkus Reviews. LIV, July 15, 1986, p. 1088.

Library Journal. CXI, September 15, 1986, p. 80.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. September 21, 1986, p. 1.

The New York Review of Books. XXXIII, September 25, 1986, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCI, September 14, 1986, p. 1.

Newsweek. CVIII, September 1, 1986, p. 83.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXX, July 25, 1986, p. 176.

Time. CXXVIII, September 15, 1986, p. 95.

The Wall Street Journal. CCVIII, September 12, 1986, p. 30.