John Keegan (review date 22 October 1984)

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SOURCE: “The Good General,” in New Republic, October 22, 1984, pp. 43-6.

[In the following review, Keegan offers positive evaluation of Ambrose's two-volume biography of Eisenhower.]

“Eisenhower,” this magnificent biography begins [Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952], “was a great and good man,” and with that no one of generous spirit would disagree. He was also, for more than half of his life, a poor man—in childhood dirt poor. It is from that fact in his background that a European reader would begin to assess his character. For the officer class in Europe, though often strapped for cash, has never been poor in the American sense. European officers are younger sons, clergymen's sons, sons of officers who have themselves had to scrimp and save. But the scrimping has always had to do with the keeping up of appearances which the haves and have-nots of their social order both accept at face value. Europeans accord their officer class the status of gentlemen, and thereby concede them a standing in society that automatically ensures them authority in their calling.

American officers, in the early days of the Republic, may have enjoyed a comparable head start. But by the time of Eisenhower's birth in 1890, when Manifest Destiny and open emigration had transformed the American class system out of all recognition to Europeans, the social certainties had gone. Some “southern gentlemen” continued to make West Point their goal. A few rich Americans allowed determined sons to go there; Patton, the most overrated of America's Second World War generals, was one of those. But the majority who arrived at the academy in Eisenhower's time were of the middling sort downwards. Marshall's family had fallen on hard times. Bradley had never known anything but the dawn-to-dusk deprivation of log cabin life. For both of them it was the free education West Point provided which drew them to the army. So it was with Eisenhower.

Eisenhower's father was a failed storekeeper (as, incidentally, Grant had also been). The town in which he sought to restore his fortunes, Abilene, Kansas, offered no bonanzas and few ways out for his six sons. But although he had lost his money, he retained two assets of inestimable value, family pride and a wife of character beyond price. The Eisenhowers were old Pennsylvania Dutch stock. So, too, were the Stovers, whose daughter Ida he married in 1885. They shared an upbringing in River Brethren fundamentalism and a veneration for education; indeed, it was the latter that brought them together when they prevailed on their families to let them attend a sort of college the Brethren ran in Lecompton, Kansas, in 1884. There he learned Greek well enough to read the Greek New Testament nightly for the rest of his life and she the Bible so thoroughly that she took pride in never needing to check any reference she chose to quote.

Stephen Ambrose's description of the upbringing this couple gave their sons, often done before but never more tellingly, prompts one to ponder the whole question of whether children got a better or worse start in their century than they get in ours. Neither Abilene High School nor the Eisenhower household could offer any of the Eisenhower boys a hundredth part of the athletic, library, laboratory, or computer facilities that modern suburban—even inner-city—parents regard as their offsprings’ birthright. This did not stop three of the Eisenhowers from making immensely successful careers and a classmate of theirs from becoming president of Cornell. Had the Eisenhowers been Jewish and Abilene High School in Brooklyn, that might not prompt surprise. But neither was the case. Might it not be, however, that what family and school provided in nineteenth-century Kansas was something that few institutions, except perhaps the Jewish family and Bible class (and their power may be waning), do today? David Eisenhower's Greek Testament reading, Ida's mastery of the apt Bible reference, surely translated—linked as both were to an exigent moral code and, through their financial tumble, to an acute concern for social rehabilitation—into rigorous intellectual demands on their sons.

One way of explaining Jewish intellectual excellence is through the concern for textual precision, as a basis for an ethical synthesis, that the biblical tradition demands. The Afrikaners have it, too; so in their time did the Scots who, through the outlets provided by the British Empire, enjoyed career opportunities that the Transvaal could not provide and achieved fortunes, positions, and intellectual reputations as glittering, in a subfusc way, as anything that Vilna or Vienna could display. One effect of modern educators’ devotion to the computer will be to ensure that its devotees will altogether lack that built-in facility for automatic switching and reprogramming of highly charged memory banks—a skill that all those children of the Book imbibed almost with their mother's milk.

Ida Eisenhower transmitted to her sons much more than sustenance, material or mental. She may already have found a biographer. If she has not, she would make a splendid subject for the burgeoning band of feminist historians, for she stands high in the ranks of remarkable Victorian mothers. Like the matriarch of the Buchan brood, she drove her children to great worldly success within a lively fear of the Lord; unlike John Buchan's mother, she did so with wit, fun, and good cheer. One of the most charming features of Stephen Ambrose's book is its reproductions of the family snapshots, in which the famous Ike grin stands forth unmistakably on her very un-Mennonite prettiness. Her husband had the inarticulate goodness of a John Ford itinerant preacher; she overflowed with a zest for life that, as her most famous son freely and gladly admitted, was a major force behind his rise to the White House.

West Point was the first step on the way. Not only was the education it gave free; it was also rooted in mathematics and engineering science. As a result, the West Point product, of which there were only a few hundred each year in Ike's day, was eminently fitted to succeed in his America. A cadet left the academy with a sharp practical intelligence and a personality which four years of subjection, succeeded by the demands of cadet-officer responsibility, had perfectly formed for a life of getting on with the other fellow. Throughout his career, Ike was to display to perfection the capacity to see the other fellow's point of view while working to get his own way—even, sometimes, when the other fellow was his constituted superior. If there is such a thing as the complete West Point product, Eisenhower was probably it.

Yet, though a great academy success, the pattern of American army life determined that his service, into middle age, would be routine almost to the point of inanity. One of the glories of American politics is that the United States is not an imperialistic power. The American officer of Eisenhower's vintage was therefore condemned to a round of posts in the American sticks. Their British contemporaries might, over twenty years, come to know the world from the Caribbean to the Himalayas. Eisenhower did not even see China, the only real overseas post open to an officer of the Old Army; his time in the Philippines was spent, as he later put it with uncharacteristic pith, “studying acting under General MacArthur”—to whom he acted as staff officer in Manila from 1936–39. Chance deprived him even of an assignment “over there”; by the time the tank unit of which he had been given command in 1918, as a temporary lieutenant colonel, was ready for action, the Great War was over.

He was therefore never to come under fire; and it would be eighteen years before he was a lieutenant colonel again. Mamie, the sweetheart whom he married in 1916—the author is less forthcoming than he might be about their lifelong relationship—was uncomplaining about the straits to which his slow promotion through badly paid ranks consigned her. But narrow and constricting though the progression through Fort Leavenworth and Camp Meade was, Eisenhower inched ahead. And in the fall of 1941 he got his break. Appointed chief of staff of the Third Army for the Louisiana maneuvers (which were to be for American military reputation what the Italian campaign of 1796 was for the French), he scored a great success. Three months later, on the day after Pearl Harbor, Marshall's aide in Washington telephoned that “the Chief says for you to hop a plane and get up here right away.” Eisenhower's career had begun.

It may be that Eisenhower's greatest achievement was to survive ordeal by fire at the hands of “the Chief”—George C. Marshall. For Marshall, who may have been one of the greatest of Americans, was certainly one of the most terrifying. Even Roosevelt seems to have held him in awe, perhaps because of Marshall's fixed habit of never allowing himself to laugh at any of the President's jokes. With lesser mortals he denied himself even a smile (there is only one photograph of a Marshall smile) and before subordinates he maintained the great stone face.

Eisenhower had therefore to win Marshall's approval by the only route the Chief of Staff recognized, mastery of grinding hard work. “Give me a few hours,” was Ike's only counter when Marshall asked him, in effect, to map a war-winning strategy in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor. During the next months, in which he allowed himself a bare hour to mourn the news of his father's death, Eisenhower worked every minute God gave to design a scheme for American victory. In a few weeks he had thought through and rejected plans to concentrate American strength in the Pacific. By midsummer of 1942 he was wholly converted to the “Germany First” strategy and was established in a London headquarters where he was to translate principle into practice.

The meandering of Allied strategy, via North Africa and Italy, was to postpone his realization of the strategic concept he formed in the War Plans Division under Marshall. But it was to be the making of his future. Eisenhower may not have been a great field commander—though that could be argued. He was certainly a supreme military diplomat, and in the circumstances of coalition warfare that is a more important talent in a Supreme Commander, which he swiftly became. By the time of Normandy, he had established a masterly touch with the team—Montgomery, Bradley, Patton—that was to beat the German army, and could almost effortlessly defuse the squabbles that regularly arose among them.

Much has been made of Ike's failure to impose his own will on Montgomery and Patton after the break-out from Normandy, when it seemed (though less clearly in retrospect) that the war might have been won, given firmer direction, in 1944. The truth of the matter is that the Allies in France were overwhelmed by the extent of their own success, which was far greater than they had anticipated, and that the prospect of total victory that year was a chimera. Eisenhower saw that, kept his head, and did what was best under the circumstances. If he can be accused of a failure, it was in not insisting that Montgomery clear the Channel ports, rather than striking at Arnhem, a failure of omission rather than commission.

At the time no one, at his own level and above, considered that Ike had done anything less than he should. It was with that reputation that he returned from the war, and the only surprise about his postwar career is that it took one party or the other the time it did to capture him as a Presidential candidate. Stephen Ambrose's second volume, devoted to his Presidency, lacks something of the magisterial quality of the first. It has the appearance of having been written at greater speed and so with less reflection on Eisenhower the President's quality and achievements. Still, it is a superb piece of biography, a detailed and objective assessment of his management of government, spiced with fascinating revelations. Some of these (which carry over from Volume I to II) concern his relations with the aspirant Vice President Nixon. Given the nature of Nixon's pleas for Ike's support during the Checkers affair—his language descended to the level of the latrine—it is astounding that his distinctly prim master kept him on the ticket.

One would have liked, perhaps, more of an assessment of the Presidency than the author supplies. With his broad conclusion, however, one would not disagree. Eisenhower, a man of war, had the balance and moderation in national security policy and foreign policy that perhaps only a man with prolonged exposure to casualty lists—and direct responsibility for them—can exercise. He was deeply skeptical about the efficacy of force and highly suspicious of the argument that security is a function of large defense budgets. He ended the Korean War. He squashed the Anglo-French efforts to bring Arab nationalism to heel by military means. He opposed single-handedly his own military establishment's inclination to settle affairs in Asia by the threat, perhaps even the use, of nuclear weapons. And he bowed out of his Presidency with a warning about the dangers of the growing military-industrial complex which would have fit better into the life of Gladstone than into the career of a man who self-proclaimed liberal opinion-makers characterized as the golf-playing companion of the common man's enemies.

Eisenhower was indeed a great and good man, because power did not deflect him from the values that his humble, high-minded, and God-fearing parents had given him in his Kansas childhood during the years of America's innocence. Those who continue to trust in the United States’ unique capacity to do good in the world do so because they believe that there are still David and Ida Eisenhowers out in the great American heartland, rearing their broods on hope and on respect for the word.

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