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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...
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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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SOURCE: “Unearthing the Real Ike,” in New Leader, October 29, 1984, pp. 17-18.
[In the following review of Eisenhower: The President, Parmet concludes that Ambrose's work is “by far the best and most authoritative Eisenhower biography available.”]
“Eisenhower gave the nation eight years of peace and prosperity,” declares Stephen E. Ambrose near the end of his comprehensive and approving life of our 34th Commander-in-Chief [in Eisenhower: The President.] “No other President in the 20th century could make that claim. No wonder millions of Americans felt that the country was damned lucky to have him.”
Ike's most outstanding quality, as Ambrose sees it, was his deft management of crises—from Dien Bien Phu to Little Rock to Sputnik. And contrary to a widespread impression, the White House was not run by assistants. Ike “kept all the power in his own hands,” says the author, who confesses that even he—a scholar steeped in Ikeiana for most of two decades—was impressed by “how completely Eisenhower dominated events.” American responses all over the world were his, “no one else's.” Virtually nothing uncovered contradicts the President's claim that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles “never made a serious pronouncement, agreement, or proposal without complete and exhaustive consultation with me in advance and, of course, my approval.”
En route to such conclusions, Ambrose has virtually guaranteed that it will be a very long time before anyone succeeds in climbing to the next plateau of biographical research on Dwight David Eisenhower. For his work is enriched by access to revealing sources, so that not the least of its virtues are gems of new information shaped by the talents of a judicious and meticulous historian into a smooth, essentially chronological narrative. (What better way to recall the poisonous atmosphere of the period than to point out that of the 221 Republican Representatives in the 83rd Congress, 185 sought membership on the House Un-American Activities Committee?)
Although Ambrose clearly thinks well of his subject, he delineates rather than celebrates Eisenhower's Presidency, thus preserving his credibility. On two issues, in particular—civil rights and Joe McCarthy—he confirms received opinion by admitting that Ike did not so much lead as attempt to reconcile his personal views with the demands of growing national sentiment and political expediency. The “sum total of Eisenhower's program” to help blacks consisted of appeals to Southern governors chosen by practically all-white electorates “for some sign of progress.” When the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its 1954 Brown v. Topeka decision, Ike merely commented that the desegregation of public schools was now the law of the land.
His role in the McCarthy affair is equally familiar. Nonetheless, Ambrose manages to enlighten us by making an incisive point: It “was not the things Eisenhower did behind the scenes but rather his most public act”—the assertion of executive privilege during the Army-McCarthy hearings—“that was his major contribution to McCarthy's downfall.” As with civil rights, the President's public stance consisted largely of ducking and weaving, hemming and hawing. Once more we are left to ruminate on the possible consequences had the junior Senator from Wisconsin been wise enough to avoid challenging the U.S. Army.
McCarthyism and race relations, however, did not evoke the real Eisenhower. Defense spending did. Ambrose explores in detail the path leading to the celebrated Farewell Address, which pointed to the dangers of the Military-Industrial Complex. He leaves no doubt that the President was not merely the innocent reader of a controversial script sneaked in by political scientist Malcolm Moos.
During the ’50s Capitol Hill Republicans, riding the national mood, wanted to raise military outlays and to perform whatever budgetary surgery might be needed on foreign aid instead. To Eisenhower, though, cutting back defense spending was a prerequisite for all major goals: reducing the deficit, taxes and unemployment, as well as promoting trade and world peace. Consequently, Richard Nixon's attempt to match John Kennedy's call for a defense build-up during the 1960 campaign worsened Eisenhower's already frosty relationship with his Vice President. Nixon's defection, writes Ambrose, was “the deepest wound of all.” Eisenhower felt it was a “cold rejection of everything he had stood for and fought for over the past seven and a half years.”
These and other insights provide a clearer view of Eisenhower. The golfer not only read, he also wrote. He thought for himself, and was hardly the “captive hero” of liberal columnist Marquis Childs’ imagination. Ike was a general, of course, but his refusal to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu led opponents of the Vietnam War to cast him in retrospect as an “antimilitarist in the White House”: He was a powerful force for peace and sanity guiding with a barely visible hand—while surrounded by would-be bomb-throwers like Nixon and Dulles, who began urging military intervention in Indochina as early as 1954.
In addition, this study of Eisenhower's Presidency is especially timely because there could be no more emphatic demonstration of how much the Republican Party has changed. The forces that would ultimately spawn the Reagan Revolution were admittedly flexing their muscles in the ’50s, but the President worked to keep the Yahoos at bay. He sided with the conservatives seeking to prevent a takeover by the reactionaries. In fact, the threat from the GOP's Right-wing was one of the major reasons Eisenhower agreed to run in the first place, and its opposition grew steadily.
“Either this Republican Party will reflect progressivism or I won't be with them any more,” was Ike's characteristic rejoinder. At a 1957 press conference he cautioned that “any modern political philosophy [has] to study carefully the needs of the people today, not of 1860.” Furthermore, he said, “I believe that unless a modern political group does look these problems in the face and finds some reasonable solution … then in the long run we are sunk.” Occasionally he was agitated enough to contemplate a realignment of our parties.
Ambrose reaffirms Eisenhower's stature. At least among academics, the recent revisionist trend has had its effect. Arthur Schlesinger Sr.'s 1962 survey asking historians to rank past Presidents placed Ike 22nd, saved from the very bottom of the “average” category by Andrew Johnson. Twenty years later, when Robert K. Murray and Tim Blessing tabulated the results of their own canvass, the man formerly best known for his golf landed in 11th place, high in the ranks of “above-average” Chief Executives. After almost two decades of research, Ambrose suggests that Ike deserves to be ranked among the greats—of those who served in this century, behind only Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt.
That is a doubtful conclusion. Ambrose has written a substantial book that constitutes by far the best and most authoritative Eisenhower biography available, and others will draw upon his own evidence to challenge his lofty ranking. For one thing, it is rather hard to give such a high standing to someone who flunked the two great moral tests of his White House years: civil rights and Joe McCarthy.
Then too, his Administration bungled the diplomatic aftermath of the Cuban Revolution. Even more seriously, at the end of eight years in office, his cherished designs for détente lay in ruins, partly because one of our U-2 spy flights—a program he had personally authorized—was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960, prompting Nikita Khrushchev to cancel Ike's scheduled trip to Moscow. Finally, despite the author's comprehensiveness, he mysteriously skirts the question of Ngo Dinh Diem's coming to power in Vietnam, a legacy that surely weighed heavily on Kennedy.
These minor quibbles do not detract from the author's achievement. Readers can rank Ike themselves. Thanks to Ambrose, it will be easy to find the real Ike.
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SOURCE: “The Real Ike,” in Commentary, Vol. 79, No. 4, April, 1985, pp. 81-4.
[In the following review, Warren offers favorable evaluation of Eisenhower: The President, but concludes that many questions concerning Eisenhower's complex personality remain unanswered.]
As early impressions have given way to historical judgments, the reputation of Dwight D. Eisenhower as President has risen sharply. The release of a great mass of private papers in the past decade has inspired a number of accounts of the Eisenhower Presidency which have undermined the widely held view of Ike as a lazy, bland, uninvolved chief executive, one who remained above politics and let others run the government for him. The revisionists have established that Eisenhower most certainly was in control. He is now seen as a shrewd, even cunning, President, who, working through subordinates like John Foster Dulles and Sherman Adams, practiced a studied mode of indirect leadership that he believed made him most effective. As Richard Nixon, himself an object of Eisenhower's craft, observes in his inimitable style in Six Crises, Eisenhower “was a far more complex and devious man than most people realized, in the best sense of these words.”
We now have what is likely to be the leading biography of Eisenhower for some time, by the historian Stephen Ambrose. The first volume [Eisenhower: The President] took Ike up to his election as President in 1952; this one recounts his Presidency and final years.
Describing Eisenhower as a “great and good man” who gave us eight years of peace and prosperity, Ambrose places him just below the top rank among Presidents. Eisenhower's reputation undoubtedly has improved by contrast with the failed Presidencies of the men who held the office in the twenty years after he left. This is particularly true in foreign affairs, where his leading claims can be made. He faced a series of crises during the tensest period of the cold war, more in number and more threatening than any (except for the Cuban crisis in 1962) faced by his successors. Eisenhower patiently resolved each crisis in a way favoring U.S. interests, without war and without losing a single American soldier. He ended the Korean war, kept the U.S. out of war in Indochina, twice prevented war with the Chinese Communists over Quemoy and Matsu, limited Western losses in the Suez crisis (though many would disagree here), and successfully diffused the 1958–59 Berlin crisis.
Ambrose recounts how, on repeated occasions, Eisenhower withstood strong pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of State Dulles, Vice President Nixon, and many in Congress, and decided against military intervention while still preserving the U.S. position. In meeting these challenges, Eisenhower demonstrated powers of incisive analysis, great coolness under pressure, independent judgment, confidence, and courage. And it was he alone who made the decisions; Dulles executed them. It is quite possible that without a man of Eisenhower's military judgment in the White House, we would have gone to war in the 50's, perhaps even nuclear war. Ambrose builds a persuasive case for the point advanced by Murray Kempton in his 1967 revisionist article on Eisenhower, namely, that, at least in the foreign arena, he was the “President most superbly equipped for truly consequential decisions we may ever have had.”
Eisenhower succeeded in averting war while preserving America's worldwide position because he understood the proper relation of power to peace. In the great crises he faced, Eisenhower pulled off the difficult feat of maintaining U.S. credibility without resorting to force. His support for a strong defense, his military reputation, and the tough rhetoric he and Dulles employed enabled him to make credible threats—calculatedly ambiguous ones—that on several dangerous occasions helped to avert war and, in the case of Korea, to settle conflict. This masterly conduct of a policy of peace-through-strength, by a man who was not afraid to use force if need be, merits study by those today who are loudest in their professed desire for peace.
Yet during his second term, especially after the launching of Sputnik in October 1957, Eisenhower came under sharp attack for allegedly neglecting U.S. defenses. It seems a bit odd today to read the criticisms made by Democrats, The New York Times, and other liberal bastions about bomber- and missile-gaps and other supposed strategic deficiencies. In Ambrose's view, Eisenhower was at his finest in calmly opposing the national clamor for a crash build-up, including a ＄30-billion nationwide fallout-shelter program, during the near-panic that followed Sputnik. We now know that Ike was right and his critics wrong; there were no gaps in the strategic area, and under his defense program the U.S. enjoyed vast nuclear superiority over the Soviets in the 1950's and into the 1960's.
Eisenhower was the great general who struggled both to insure America's security and to slow the arms race. His supreme effort went into the search for nuclear disarmament; his greatest disappointment was probably the collapse of the 1960 summit following the U-2 incident. At the meeting with Khrushchev, he had hoped to reach a test-ban agreement as his final, crowning act of statesmanship. He had decided to accept a ban on all nuclear testing above and below ground, including a temporary moratorium on all underground tests below the verifiable level. The Pentagon, the CIA, and many atomic scientists were staunchly opposed, particularly to the moratorium, for which we would have had to rely on Soviet good faith. It is questionable whether agreement would ever have been reached on the details for on-site inspection, some form of which the Soviets had agreed to, and it is even more doubtful that the Soviets would have abided by the moratorium. But Eisenhower felt so strongly about the dangers of the arms race that, relying on his own military judgment, he overrode his advisers.
Any President must also be assessed on his economic policies, which, unfortunately, this book hardly touches upon. Eisenhower believed strongly that excessive government spending endangered the nation's economy. His tight-fisted budget policies were seen by many during the Keynesian heyday of the 1960's as hopelessly narrow-minded, but the rampant inflation and stagnating living standards of the 1970's, which followed the explosive growth of government after he left office, make them appear rather more far-sighted today. Yet Eisenhower's austerity policies—he opposed major tax reductions—and the two recessions that occurred during his Presidency, particularly the severe one of 1957–58, set the stage for the Republican debacle in the 1958 elections. This relegated the Republicans to the Depression-era minority status from which they had only just recovered in the 1940's, and from which they may only just be reemerging today more than twenty-five years later (though Watergate is perhaps equally responsible).
Alas, on the two most controversial domestic issues of his time, Eisenhower fell short. The confidence and command he displayed in facing our enemies abroad were missing at home when he confronted the problems of racial segregation and Senator Joseph McCarthy.
On the great moral issue of civil rights, Eisenhower failed, badly. Ambrose documents his callousness to the problem of racial segregation. He refused to endorse the Supreme Court's watershed 1954 Brown decision. He always said segregation was wrong, but just as often explained it was a problem that could be solved only by an evolution in attitudes, rather than by legal compulsion. In this he was proved wrong, as is demonstrated by the vast change in racial attitudes that followed the judicial and legislative reforms of the 1950's and 60's.
While paying lip-service to equality and proposing mild civil-rights legislation, Eisenhower often expressed as much or more sympathy for Southern segregationists as for their victims, who, he sometimes said, were too aggressive in pressing their claims. In 1957, when vacationing in Georgia, he refused to meet with Martin Luther King, Jr. His “moderation” and support for an “evolutionary” approach was in reality a policy of indifference that encouraged the South in its efforts to defy the Supreme Court and set the stage for the crises of the 1960's. Had he taken the lead, Republicans might, indeed, have regained much of the black vote they had lost in the 1930's.
Eisenhower has long been criticized for not challenging McCarthy, notably in the famous incident during the 1952 campaign when he excised from a speech he was to give in McCarthy's presence a paragraph praising General Marshall. (Marshall, who had largely made Ike's career in the war, had been viciously attacked by the Senator.) With new evidence, we now know that, true to his indirect style of leadership, Eisenhower surreptitiously maneuvered to help topple the Senator before and during the fateful Army-McCarthy hearings in 1954. Nevertheless his handling of McCarthy (and of civil rights) demonstrates the limitations of his mode of leadership.
Eisenhower recognized that the President must perform two functions, as sovereign head of state and as head of government. In the former, he is the embodiment of the people and must appear above politics and controversy. To be effective in the latter, he must do just the opposite. Eisenhower performed this second function in secret. He followed Machiavelli's advice to the Prince, “Everyone sees what you appear to be. Few experience what you really are.” He was so successful at this that it took more than ten years after he left office for people to begin to learn the truth about his Presidency.
But in striving to separate his sovereign and prime-ministerial functions, Eisenhower often went too far. As the embodiment of the nation's ideals and principles, the President needs not only to enunciate them as generalities, but to apply them to matters at hand. Eisenhower's neutralist stance on civil rights demoralized millions of Americans, black and white, who looked to their President to bring reality to the nation's ideals.
With regard to McCarthy, Eisenhower's secretive campaign may have been the only way to deal with the popular Senator, as Fred Greenstein argues in his Eisenhower book, The Hidden-Hand Presidency. But it carried heavy costs. McCarthy intimidated thousands of Americans, many of them federal employees who looked to Eisenhower as their defender. These people, most of them innocent of wrongdoing, needed Ike's visible protection and support, but they did not get it until he moved to protect the Army against McCarthy's charges in 1954. Many were victimized by Ike's own loyalty program. While he was President, many careers were ruined, 830 employees of the Voice of America were dismissed, and books in its libraries were burned, all to appease McCarthy. How far above controversy must the chief of state stand?
Ambrose does not provide many details on what motivated Eisenhower's indirect mode of leadership; without these it is difficult to understand his character. Apparently his strategy was conscious and well thought-out. But was there more to it? The question needs to be asked because at times there is a pattern of inaction in Eisenhower's career that can be interpreted as indecisiveness rather than as evidence of a shrewd understanding of power. Often he appeared flabby and vacillating.
One example has to do with Eisenhower's relationship with Richard Nixon. Ambrose explains that while Eisenhower respected his lieutenant's intelligence, industry, and loyalty, he had outweighing reservations about him, and preferred to have another running mate in 1956. Indeed, in 1960 Eisenhower tried to persuade others to enter the race against Nixon. In 1956 he gave strong hints to Nixon, and used others, to try to persuade him to remove himself from the ticket. But Eisenhower would never act directly to remove Nixon. Ambrose concludes that he retained Nixon because he appreciated some of his qualities, the party wanted him, and because no one better could be found. But it is difficult to accept that this popular President was so limited in his choice of a likely successor, particularly given the strong misgivings he had about Nixon.
Dwight D. Eisenhower radiated honesty and sincerity, and he was a leader much loved by the American people. He was also an elusive man with a number of contradictions. He was the soldier-hero who often clashed with the Pentagon over policy and spending and at the end of his term denounced the “military-industrial complex.” He was the supreme commander known for his empathy with his troops, who in a 1963 interview at the Omaha Beach cemetery movingly spoke not of the battle but of the parents whose sons lay buried there; but as President he was unable to summon imaginative sympathy for the millions of victims of segregation. He could be decisive in ordering the greatest amphibious invasion in history, or in turning back united pressure from his military advisers; but he often temporized and hesitated at home. He was a practical man, apparently not given to abstract thought, but also a Machiavellian figure shrewdly practicing an evidently elaborate theory of leadership.
Ambrose has performed an immense task, in what was obviously a labor of love, in mastering the Eisenhower papers. His manifest enthusiasm sometimes skews his judgments, but he is usually fair and always sound and comprehensive in recounting the Eisenhower Presidency. The complexities, however, remain; we need to know more in order better to understand Eisenhower and his Presidency.
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SOURCE: “The Man Who Would Be President,” in Washington Post Book World, May 3, 1987, pp. 1, 14.
[In the following review, Harwood offers positive assessment of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962.]
Richard Nixon marked his 74th birthday on Jan. 9, one of those bittersweet occasions, I assume, in which laughter triumphs over tears. His life invokes both. He has been a major actor in many of the searing episodes of this bloody century and has been a witness to the rest. There was nothing trivial about his victories or defeats; they were on scales more grand than most of us would imagine (or could handle) in our own lives. By the age of 47, his new biographer, Stephen Ambrose argues, “he was the most hated and feared man in America—and next to [Dwight] Eisenhower himself, the most admired and wanted.”
Today, almost 15 years after the dishonor and infamy of his resignation from the presidency, he is enjoying what one of his friends, Leonard Garment, has called “his astonishing final, final comeback.” Writes Garment in a recent issue of Commentary, “It is [now] hard to find anyone who wants to kick Richard Nixon around.” However that may be, it is doubtless true that the passage of time has made it possible to “reconsider” the man from a more detached perspective and to contemplate with less commitment and passion his obsessive quests for a place in the sun.
In that spirit, historian Ambrose has undertaken a two-volume Nixon biography, obviously determined to examine with a surgeon's neutrality all the clichés and stereotypical assumptions about the character of this strange and fascinating man. This first volume, covering the years 1913 through 1962, is subtitled The Making of a Politician but it is something more than that. It tries to explain how Nixon became Nixon and to explore that central question: “Why did so many people hate him so much?” Ambrose's answer to the question, offered as a series of clues and intuitions, seems to be this: that Nixon invented a political personality for himself—a stage role, as it were—and that he continued in the part (the humble, self-righteous character assassin) long after it played well in Peoria. The “real” Nixon, Ambrose believes, was never allowed to emerge, except fleetingly, for reasons that are not made clear. In any event it was the contrast between the artificial Nixon—the actor on the public stage—and the “real” person that produced throughout his career speculations about an “old” and a “new” Nixon.
Psychoanalytic explorations into his personality usually begin, as Garment has said, “in Nixon's boyhood, describing the early emotional impoverishment that produced an adult character based on resentment.” Yet Ambrose provides little support for those kinds of speculations. His researches into Nixon's childhood are meticulous to a fault and lead him to conclude that the boy, far from being emotionally impoverished, “grew up in an atmosphere of security, surrounded by [the] love” of a large and extended family. But it was not a “fun” family. Its rhythms were defined by precepts of moral conduct—piety, thrift, hard work, self-sacrifice, self-improvement and prayer—which Nixon, even as a small child, took to heart. When he was 5 or 6, his mother said many years later,” ‘He always carried such a weight.’ That's an expression we Quakers use for a person who doesn't take his responsibilities lightly.”
In contemporary jargon, he was molded by this loving, pious family into a virtuous nerd; schoolmates called him “Gloomy Gus”: “He went to great pains to brush his teeth. He would ask his mother to smell his breath to make sure he would not offend anyone on the bus. He insisted on a clean starched shirt every morning.” He was bookish, argumentative, physically awkward and a poor athlete. He disliked hunting and fishing but loved music and reading. He had no close friends. He was clumsy and standoffish in his dealings with girls. And he was quite aware of his unpopularity. Years later, Ambrose reports, he told one of his White House assistants, “What starts the process [of character development], really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid. … If you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.”
He made A's in the classroom, was the grammar school valedictorian and the champion debater. It was the same in high school: he was an admired but virtually friendless scrub athlete, an honor student, a whiz on the debate team, a compulsive joiner and winner of a Harvard University scholarship (which he couldn't afford to accept) as the “best all-around student” at Whittier High School.
His capacity for hard work was remarkable. Even as a toddler he had regularly done family chores. When he entered Whittier College at the age of 17, his day began at 4 a.m. with a drive into Los Angeles to buy vegetables for the family store in Whittier. In the afternoons and on weekends he kept books for the store and, according to Ambrose, usually studied until midnight. And he managed in one way or another to carry on an active social and political life on campus: “president of his class, member of the Joint Council of Control, president of the newly formed men's club, reporter for the campus newspaper and sweater winner on the freshman football team.” That was typical of his years at Whittier, as the human whirlwind—campus politician, academic grind, amateur thespian, fourth-string football player, public speaker, debater and dutiful son. “But one thing he never found there was friendship. … He was always lonely even though his frenetic life style meant that he was almost never alone.”
The “Gloomy Gus” nickname followed him to Duke University law school where he was later remembered by one classmate as “the hardest working man I ever met” and by another as “a very studious individual—almost fearfully so. I can see him sitting in the law library hunched over a book, seldom even looking up. … He never smiled. Even on Saturday nights he was in the library, studying.” At one period during the Duke years Nixon lived alone in an abandoned, unheated tool shed lined with cardboard. But, Ambrose writes, “to Nixon there was no sacrifice involved in this Spartan style of life. He was indifferent to creature comforts. He really did not care what he ate, so long as it would sustain life, nor where he slept … nor what he wore … He got up each day at 5 a.m., studied until classes began, worked afternoons in the library at menial jobs paying thirty-five cents an hour, and studied again in the evening until midnight or later … He never had a single date at Duke.”
Obsessive forms of self-denial and self-discipline are often associated with mysticism on the one hand and with materialistic greed on the other. But in Nixon's case the need, in Jesse Jackson's formulation, was to be “SOMEBODY!” Money, popularity and love meant little to Nixon. He was driven, Ambrose concludes, by a lust for “prestige, power … leadership,” by “an insatiable hunger for success.”
The campus years, especially at Whittier, were the apprenticeship for his true vocation—politics. He returned to Whittier from Duke, joined a law firm, married and served as a Naval supply officer in the Pacific when World War II came along. The Navy interlude was unusual for Nixon. It seems to have been the only time in his life when he was able to put aside ambition and compulsive behavior and allow a friendly, generous and uncalculating personality to emerge. His comrades, Ambrose writes, remembered him fondly as a sort of genial Mr. Roberts. But after the war those friendships, like other fleeting friendships in his life, were quickly forgotten. “It is noteworthy,” says Ambrose, “that in his spectacularly successful postwar career, no one from the Navy, nor from Duke Law School, none of his classmates from Whittier High School or Whittier College, not even any member of his family, save only Pat, played a significant role, in public or private.”
Nixon's emergence in politics as a Red-baiting Republican in the postwar years has been recounted in numbing detail by a variety of biographers and by Nixon himself in various memoirs. Ambrose attempts to bring to that subject a judicious perspective on the temper of the times. In a real sense, he argues, “anti-Communism” and the “Cold War” were bipartisan creations: “Except for the [Communist Party] itself, and its fellow travelers, everyone in politics … joined in the … anti-Communist crusades. [President Truman] led the way with his fire-breathing Truman Doctrine speech and his questionable executive order dismissing federal employees thought to be sympathetic to Communism.”
This crusade became, for Nixon, a life-long preoccupation and a campaign tool to bludgeon the Democrats, including such cold warriors as Truman and Dean Acheson. Liberals especially resented his scurrilous campaign for the Senate against Helen Gahagan Douglas in 1950. He smeared her as the “Pink Lady.” But, with a revisionist's touch, Ambrose reminds us that it was Douglas who initiated the Red-baiting by accusing Nixon of having “voted with [radical leftist] Representative [Vito] Marcantonio against aid to Korea.” She also declared that, “On every key vote Nixon stood with party-liner Marcantonio against America in its fight to defeat Communism.” Nixon, of course, responded in kind to the delight of Marcantonio who disliked Douglas intensely. She was also disliked by another congressman, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts. Kennedy passed on to Nixon a ＄1,000 campaign contribution from his father with the comment, “I obviously can't endorse you but it isn't going to break my heart if you can turn the Senate's loss into Hollywood's gain.”
Ambrose makes the interesting argument that it was not Nixon's policies as an elected official that enraged his enemies. As a lawmaker and vice president he was essentially a “mainstream” or “moderate” Republican, a supporter of the Marshall Plan, a defender of the embattled physicist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and an early and consistent “progressive” on civil rights issues. He was an ally in the mid-1950s of Martin Luther King Jr. who supported the Republican ticket in 1956. But it was Nixon's unprincipled and vicious campaign style that defined his political personality in the public mind. On the stump, he was outrageous, a quality enhanced by his saccharine self-righteousness. The obsessive theme in his speeches was an implication that the Democrats—including Truman, Acheson and Adlai Stevenson—were treasonous in their “softness” toward Communism.
His patron, Eisenhower, deplored Nixon's campaign personality but recognized and exploited its political usefulness. It enabled him to take the high road while Nixon worked the gutters. But it also marked Nixon, in Eisenhower's mind, as “immature.” He suggested repeatedly in his first term that Nixon withdraw from the ticket in 1956 and take a cabinet post in the second term to prepare himself for the presidency.
Their relationship, characteristically, was not based on friendship. Nixon remained the loner, a man who was comfortable haranguing a crowd and standing in the footlights (as he had learned as a debater and public speaker in school) but who was incapable of productive personal relationships outside his immediate family: “He disqualified himself for love by refusing to ever open himself and become vulnerable.”
Nixon stepped off stage for a while after his defeat for the presidency in 1960 and his defeat for governor of California in 1962. His resurrection and return to politics, his fall into the lower depths and his final effort at vindication will be the subject of Ambrose’ next volume. It should be a marvelously good read.
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SOURCE: “Resurrecting Poor Richard,” in New Leader, May 4-18, 1987, pp. 23-5.
[In the following review, Parmet offers positive assessment of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962.]
In the aftermath of his Presidency, the consensus view of Richard M. Nixon was nowhere more sharply put than in Jonathan Schell's The Time of Illusion. What characterized the Californian's politics, we were told, was the pursuit of a deliberate policy of “positive polarization.” Now, a decade after Schell's analysis, we are reminded that this singular propensity was displayed well before Nixon became Chief Executive. By the time he reached the age of 47, he had “polarized the public more than any other man of his era.” He was “the most hated and feared man in America—and next to Eisenhower himself, the most admired and wanted.”
The first half of historian Stephen E. Ambrose's projected two-volume biography [Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962], though, focuses on Nixon's personal ordeal, which is no less striking than the talent and political conditions that combined to produce the dominant figure of America's first three postwar decades. The account is a fascinating one, amply bolstered by factual details and shrewd insights. Ambrose is not discouraged by the familiarity of much of his material; he even manages to enliven the oft-told story of the Milhous and Nixon family backgrounds. But he also illumines many relatively little known incidents, such as the White House power struggle in the days following Dwight D. Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack.
The author is precise about Nixon's early work as a member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC)—especially his successful pursuit of Alger Hiss—and makes it clear that Nixon was the Congressman responsible for giving the Committee what credibility it had. During the same period Nixon went abroad with the Herter Committee to assess Europe's postwar economic needs, only to find upon his return that California's 12th district was 3:1 against foreign aid. Undeterred, he voted for the Marshall Plan and waged a campaign to win over his constituents.
An uncompromising anti-Communist (without being a nationalist of the Robert A. Taft school), the young Nixon consistently supported President Truman's European containment program. However, he joined many in his party and some Democrats (including John F. Kennedy) in hitting the Truman Administration for the “loss” of China, and later protested the firing of General MacArthur. Eventually, he abandoned bipartisanship, together with most of the GOP; as Eisenhower's running-mate in 1952, he went along with John Foster Dulles’ critique of containment.
The most important part of this volume deals with Nixon's vice presidency. One of his more visible roles in the office involved helping to lead his fellow Republicans away from their traditional isolationism. He was among those within the Administration who opposed the Korean armistice, and he favored military intervention to assist the French at Dienbienphu.
Unlike many Republican hardliners, Nixon was not what was termed in those years a “hard-shell” conservative. For all his opposition to unionism, he was not sufficiently anti-labor to support “right-to-work” laws. And as Ambrose shows, he was sympathetic to the struggle for racial equality, perhaps more so than anyone else high in the Administration (this has been noted by David Garrow, too, in his recent biography of Martin Luther King Jr.). Indeed, while for reasons of political necessity he adopted a “Southern strategy” that ruled out overt gestures of support for the civil rights movement, Nixon's personal conviction hurt him in the South during his first run for the Presidency.
The years under Ike were a period of almost unrelieved frustration for the young man from Whittier. Ambrose, who is also Eisenhower's principal biographer, gives us a fascinating description of the relationship between the two men, furnishing copious evidence for the claim that Ike “used Nixon in the most cynical fashion.” He recounts how Nixon became completely infuriated at Eisenhower's conduct during the 1952 “secret fund” flap; how the President wavered before agreeing to retain the squirming Nixon as his running-mate in 1956; and how, after making that decision, Ike failed to lift a finger to stop Harold Stassen's campaign to dump Nixon in favor of Christian A. Herter. Yet Nixon's interest in expanding the constitutional responsibility of the vice presidency was fine with Eisenhower—as long as it did not involve giving too much leeway to this “immature” young man. As with Hubert H. Humphrey under Lyndon B. Johnson, Nixon suffered humiliations that almost seem built into the office.
Ambrose contends that, deep down, Ike “felt warmly toward Nixon, indeed regarded him almost as a son.” The avuncular President simply “came out of one of those 19th century American families in which the son could never, not ever, live up to his father's expectations.” The author adds that “Eisenhower treated his own son that way.”
A further insight is gleaned from the diary of Ike's personal secretary, Ann Whitman, who watched the two during their eight years together from a privileged corner. The difference between them, Whitman wrote, is obvious: “The President is a man of integrity and sincere in his every action. … He radiates this, everybody knows it, everybody trusts and loves him. But the Vice President sometimes seems like a man who is acting like a nice man rather than being one.”
Nixon's secretary, Rose Mary Woods, must have seen things differently, for she understood the difficulty of his position within the Administration. The Vice President was nonetheless loyal, dedicated and competent in every sense, observes Ambrose. Although undermined by Eisenhower, he managed through diligence to be fairly effective, particularly at binding together discordant elements of the GOP. Repeating a pattern he exhibited at Whittier College and again at Duke law school, he was the thorough student, working overtime to master his job so that he would be ready, if necessary, to assume the Presidency. Party chairman Meade Alcorn thought him the best informed person in the Administration.
Still, as Ambrose demonstrates, many of Nixon's troubles were self-inflicted; his need to succeed created friction throughout his political career. During the 1946 House campaign against Jerry Voorhis, Nixon “made the transition from nice Quaker boy to ruthless politician without even noticing.” His combativeness drew fire, and saddled him with the image later dubbed the “old” Nixon.
Helping to bring down Hiss hardly endeared the Congressman to liberal intellectuals, and Nixon knew this. Yet no matter how much the Eastern Establishment preferred to ignore what James Burnham called “the web of subversion,” something had to be done about internal security. Whittaker Chambers’ efforts and the Harry Dexter White case confirmed that those guilty of laxity were not rushing to assume responsibility. If the Republicans exploited the issue by Red-baiting and doing everything possible to fan hysteria, the Democrats made themselves vulnerable by denying not merely their own accountability but the very existence of a problem.
Nixon's performance during the HUAC hearings—especially his interrogation of witness Jack Warner on why Hollywood studios failed to show the same zeal against Communism that they had against Hitler—and his vitriolic Senate race against the wife of movie actor Melvyn Douglas led to unfair whispers of anti-Semitism. Actually, Helen Gahagan Douglas threw the first bit of mud by likening her opponent's record to that of fellow-traveling Congressman Vito Marcantonio and attempting to stick Nixon with the “soft-on-Communism” stigma; nevertheless, all that was remembered was “what Dick did to Helen.”
In his first campaign with Eisenhower, Nixon did his job all too well, questioning the loyalty of such figures as Harry S. Truman, Adlai E. Stevenson and Dean Acheson. Ike admonished his young running-mate for being too partisan, even though he had sent him out to give the Democrats hell. Since childhood, Nixon had learned to use words instead of fists; now it was his extravagant campaign language that made him the favorite target of Democratic leaders.
The Eisenhower-Nixon tension persisted into Nixon's Presidential campaign against Kennedy. When asked at a news conference for an example of a decision Nixon had helped him make, Eisenhower replied: “If you give me a week, I might think of one.” He called Nixon afterward to apologize, but the damage was done.
Despite additional frustrations caused by the White House and the lateness of Ike's campaign efforts in his behalf, Nixon managed to push Kennedy to a photo-finish. Then, just two years later, his political life seemed to expire with his loss to Pat Brown in the California gubernatorial contest, made memorable by a parting shot at the press: “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference. …” Ambrose concludes this volume by describing how Nixon “drove home from his last press conference … already discussing his future.”
Today, nearly 13 years after he was forced to resign from the Presidency, Richard Nixon is again gaining prominence, his former Secretary of State has linked arms with him to issue foreign policy pronouncements, and the release of his White House papers by the National Archives has begun without causing any great stir. A third resurrection, if not a complete rehabilitation, is under way. A new set of judges apparently is ready to leave behind the old Herblock caricatures. And Ambrose has made an important contribution to advancing the remarkable turn of events.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1115
SOURCE: A review of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 21, 1987, p. 12.
[In the following review of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, Hoff-Wilson finds weaknesses in Ambrose's reliance on dubious primary sources and his lack of original analysis.]
On the face of it, Stephen E. Ambrose has written a balanced, descriptive account [in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962] of the life of Richard Milhous Nixon from birth in 1913 to premature retirement from politics in 1962. Yet, underneath the polished prose and paced narrative, Ambrose's first volume of a projected two-volume biography of the 37th President of the United States makes perplexing reading, for two reasons.
First, instead of analysis, we are offered description or, worse, tantalizing one-liners. In connection with the death of Nixon's oldest brother, Ambrose asserts that Nixon “felt sorry for himself not Harold … [and] was to never again give his love and admiration … for fear of the pain of separation.” Later, in reference to Nixon's close loss to John F. Kennedy in 1960 and win over Hubert Humphrey in 1968, we learn that his 1946 campaign against Rep. Jerry Voorhis in California “marked the beginning of what would become a lifelong obsession with percentages.” Another one-liner occurs when Ambrose insists that Nixon's conduct in the Alger Hiss affair presaged that “in every future crisis of his life” he would “lash out in an uncontrollable fit of temper.” (Of course, Nixon handled his last crisis—Watergate—with excessive calculation.) Finally, we learn that one of Nixon's “outstanding characteristics” was an ability to absorb facts. (Again, how about Watergate?)
The second perplexing aspect of the book is related to this inability to make historical sense out of Nixon's formative years and pre-presidential political career. It stems from both the sources Ambrose employs and his uncritical use of them. Unlike his best-selling and well-received biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, which took 20 years, the gestation period for this present book has been three or four years at most.
It is to Ambrose's credit, let it be said, that he ignores the largely contradictory studies of Nixon's psyche. After rejecting psychoanalytical accounts, which rival those written about Adolf Hitler, he re-creates Nixon's early life and career, alas, primarily with an engaging synthesis of such books of dubious provenance as the Nixon biographies by Bela Kornitzer, Earl Mazo, and William Costello, together with some miscellaneous oral history interviews.
Ambrose thus portrays Nixon's formative years as not particularly traumatic for someone of his generation and background, growing up in two towns near Los Angeles. This most unloved of American politicians, he writes, was not unloved as a child. But he proves this point in part by relying on an even more questionable source, a still unpublished campaign biography by Charles Richard Gardner, created for the campaign of 1952. Freelancer Gardner hoped that this 262 pages of typescript, suitably printed, would advance his candidate, but it did not see the light of day (until now) even after he misrepresented himself to several publishers as a regular speech writer for Nixon. Ambrose's use of this partisan account hardly constitutes “thorough” or “meticulous” original research. Curiously, he has excised Gardner and Mazo's references to young Nixon's sense of humor and popularity. One can only assume that the purpose was to reinforce today's view of Nixon the friendless, frustrated outsider. As for oral history, Ambrose relies on interviews conducted by a group of undergraduates at Cal State Fullerton, who talked with officials of the Nixon Administration when they were still in office, in 1969–1972. These unsophisticated interviews hardly add scholarly cubits to the book under review.
Even when Ambrose begins to use Nixon's vice presidential papers—rather than a pastiche of unreliable biographies and oral histories—Nixon's personality and political significance do not come into focus. We learn late in the book that “Nixon was no demagogue” because he did not attack “Negroes, union men or Catholics,” yet in early campaigns for the House and Senate and as Eisenhower's vice president and hatchet man, his “ruthless” (and strongly implied demagogic political behavior is described in detail.
Nor does Ambrose come to a conclusion about Nixon's 1952 “Checkers” speech. In his biography of Eisenhower, he concluded that there had been a serious effort to dump Nixon after the exposure of a slush fund, and that the Checkers talk not only saved his career but became “one of the great classics of American political folklore,” giving Nixon “a solid power base of his own.” Relying on many of the same sources, this biography relates that Nixon's position on the 1952 ticket had always been secure and that the entire incident amounted to a “charade.”
Ambrose quotes extensively from Nixon's Six Crises to describe his political life, but in the final analysis, he suggests that they were all false crises, which is probably true. Still, one would never know it from the exciting narratives and extensive coverages. Equally ambiguous, he asserts that with respect to civil rights, Nixon “was well within the mainstream of the Republican party,” only to belie that description with references to his unusually positive relationship with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1950s.
Probably the most original interpretation is the account of Nixon's early California campaigns against Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas. Despite anti-communist tactics, he was far from the McCarthy of California. Contrary to most liberal descriptions of Voorhis and Douglas, Ambrose leaves the impression that they were intellectual and political lightweights compared to Nixon and would have been defeated without the smear tactics attributed to him. There are also several insights into Nixon's significance as vice president. He differed with Eisenhower by supporting “lower taxes, a more action-oriented foreign policy, more social spending, more defense spending, and a willingness to live with debts.” As for McCarthy's anti-administration attacks, anti-Communist reputation notwithstanding, Nixon “exerted all his considerable powers of persuasion on McCarthy to get him to back off.”
Most of what we learn from this biography about Nixon's early life and career hence is in older biographies. And we are left with few clues about how experiences in Congress and as vice president may have formed or changed ideas. Ambrose has given a “mix and match” version of Nixon—not a “color-coordinated” foundation.
Ambrose's book will remain a graceful, if ambiguous, synthesis of what is well known about Nixon's life to 1962. [C. L.] Sulzberger's [The World and Richard Nixon] seems, sadly, a tired effort that accepts the standard paradoxical view of Nixon's career without adding any new insights into his foreign policies. Despite these new studies, we are left with the formidable task of divining for ourselves the purposes and procedures of this recent President of the United States.
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SOURCE: “A Classical Hero with Blue Jowls,” in Spectator, July 4, 1987, pp. 32-3.
[In the following review of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, Charmley praises Ambrose's study of Nixon as “a superb biography which comes as near to explaining its subject as any biographer can hope for.”]
In an era when appearances count for so much in politics, especially the American brand, Richard Nixon was bound to have a hard time of it; those blue jowls and that ski-slope nose ensured that whatever else he was, he was not telegenic. The famous 1960 debates between him and Kennedy saw a confrontation not between age and youth (the two men were almost of an age), but rather between the old politics, based upon hard work in the country, and the new politics, based upon meretricious performances on the television screen: Nixon's personality was always too complex to lend itself to successful exposure in that most transient medium. His own memoirs were a startlingly successful attempt to fix his character in print, and now, with the first volume of Professor Ambrose's Nixon, we have a superb biography which comes as near to explaining its subject as any biographer can hope for.
Aptly subtitled ‘the education of a politician,’ the book triumphantly succeeds in elucidating the mainsprings of Nixon's character and then in describing how it evolved during his early political career. From the very start young Richard was an unlovable outsider, but this fact fuelled his ambition; as he put it,
What starts the process, really, are laughs and slights and snubs when you are a kid … [but] if you are reasonably intelligent and if your anger is deep enough and strong enough, you learn that you can change those attitudes by excellence, personal gut performance while those who have everything are sitting on their fat butts.
If he could not be loved, he would command respect.
Tragically, on the personal level, what he came to command was a mixture of respect and loathing. The immense effort which, even with intelligence and courage, was required to raise Nixon from Yorba Linda to a heart-beat from the White House, turned him ever more in on himself, emphasised his loneliness and did nothing to make him more lovable; this, in turn, spurred him on to yet greater efforts to win success. Within six years of entering politics he had won the Republican nomination for Vice-President and, after eight years in that office, he was poised to take the Presidency itself; but all this was, as Professor Ambrose brilliantly shows, at tremendous personal cost.
Never have the narrowing effects of a political career been better illustrated than they are here. If Nixon's emotionally crippled personality provided the motor for his political career, the demands of that career inflicted further blows upon it. At one level it denied him the happy family life which, with an adoring wife and two charming daughters, was available and which could have provided Nixon with all the love he could want; time would not permit him to have a private life. At another level the very lack of fastidiousness endemic in American political life encouraged the less desirable traits in his character: thus energy and ambition all too easily became a determination to win at any cost, whilst courage and patriotism deteriorated into bellicosity and flag-waving. The fruits of success turned out to be those of the Dead Sea.
Nixon is neither hagiography nor demonology. It is a magisterial biography by a superb historian whose command of his sources is equalled only by the compelling hold he quickly establishes over the reader. The final portrait is definitely of the school of ‘warts and all’ and the fact that he sets nothing down in extenuation nor condemnation makes Professor Ambrose's book all the more impressive. His pellucid account of the Alger Hiss case makes it plain that Nixon's instincts here were correct, and even if some of his methods were rough, his opponents were not playing by the Queensberry rules either. This was true throughout his career, but as the dog with the bad name suspicion was always directed at Nixon.
The formative period in the ‘education of a politician’ was the Vice-Presidency. As a biographer of Eisenhower, Ambrose is well-equipped to bring out the shabbiness with which the President treated Nixon. Desiring to remain above the arena of party strife, he sent Nixon down there to fight the battles and then condemned him in public for tactics which, in private, he condoned. Despite Nixon's long and loyal service, ‘Ike’ did nothing to help his political career, almost dropping him in 1956, and refusing to give him a clear endorsement in 1960 until it was too late. It is little wonder that ‘Tricky Dick's’ character was soured by the experience.
But with the tenacity which has always marked his career, Nixon persevered only to see, at the climactic moment, victory taken from his grasp by dubious methods by one of those who had ‘everything’ just by sitting on his ‘fat butt’. For a man with the reputation of fighting dirty, Nixon's campaign against Kennedy was remarkably clean, making nothing of his reliance on drugs because of his injured back, nor of his compulsive (and to a man of Nixon's character, distasteful) womanising. To have lost so narrowly and in such a manner would have been galling to any one, especially to a man of Nixon's ambition, but to stand by and see your opponent then compared to King Arthur must have been unbearable—if Washington was Camelot then Kennedy was surely Launcelot.
This first volume ends in 1962 with what seemed to be Nixon's last campaign when he lost the Californian gubernatorial contest. But even if we did not know it, we could predict that he would return to politics. The story so superbly told is that of the hero of classical tragedy, the man who is brought low by defects in the very qualities which enabled him to rise. I shall wait impatiently for the next volume.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3551
SOURCE: “He's the One,” in New Republic, July 6, 1987, pp. 30-4.
[In the following review of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, Blumenthal writes that Ambrose's “old-fashioned sort of biography” serves as a “standard” point of reference for Nixon studies, but Ambrose's “professionally ‘balanced’ approach to an unbalanced subject does not penetrate deep enough.”]
The night of John F. Kennedy's inauguration, after the oratory about the torch being passed, the loser toured the mostly deserted Washington streets. Until the bewitching hour of midnight, Richard Nixon still commanded his official vice presidential car. He ordered his chauffeur at last to take him to the Capitol. He marched alone past the Senate chamber, down a corridor to the vast and empty Rotunda, and on to a balcony, where he gazed at the darkened horizon. Nixon had virtually willed himself to within a few thousand votes of the presidency. And in this portentous scene of departure, his will was almost palpable. Yet the story did not end here; his lonely leave-taking became the prelude to a return—and worse.
Stephen E. Ambrose's book [Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962] is an old-fashioned sort of biography. The author, a historian at the University of New Orleans who has written the definitive two-volume biography of Eisenhower, seeks balance, not irony. Ambrose's facts are lined up in rows and made to march to a very measured judgment. His prudent interpretations do not stray from the accumulated details. There are no great themes, no theories of history, no analytical leaps. In short, Ambrose has written the standard, a middle point of reference, around which all Nixonia may be organized.
Ambrose's extension of the historian's empathy to his subject seems at first to make Nixon's motivation understandable. But the more we know, the more unknowable Nixon becomes. There is no searching point of view; and finally the professionally “balanced” approach to an unbalanced subject does not penetrate deep enough. Still, this sheer massing of material on Nixon cannot help but evoke a certain reaction. Ambrose's affectless prose is not without effect; this vanilla has an aftertaste.
The first of two volumes, the opening of an American tragedy, Nixon is utterly chilling in its inexorability. Even as we begin the first page the last terrible one is known. Nixon does not exactly drift toward his fate. Instead, his ambition builds into a juggernaut, driving him toward rule and ruin. Each of his passages was final, sealing him off from possibility. The more tightly Nixon coiled his ambition, the more he became entangled in forces outside himself. The biographer's piling up of facts seems almost heartless, because they are ultimately crushing; yet Ambrose's naturalistic style implicitly fits the amoral rise and fall of his subject. Richard Nixon's story belongs in Theodore Dreiser's world.
Nixon's trajectory has been described conventionally (and unconventionally in Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes) as a parable of the Protestant ethic, according to which work and ambition produce virtue and success. Perversely, the worldly-wise Nixon twisted his success into failure: the self-made man unmade. Nixon, however, is at least as much about environment as it is about character, about a mechanical politician in a mechanistic universe, who was found by forces he eagerly rode.
Nixon, for his part, projected the impersonal as the enemy. Always he faced a faceless conspiracy that had to be brought under control. He was the individual against the crowd below and the elite above; the choice was always between order and chaos. Though his ascent to power was amazingly rapid—elected vice president at age 39—he believed he was constantly being thwarted. He sought to conquer a society with which he was radically at odds. And he never felt that he had arrived, that he could loosen his grip on himself. Thus his spirit was stunted by a fierce obsession with survival. “I had to win,” he said, justifying his sordid first campaign. The situation was always desperate; he was always cornered by circumstance.
Nixon's most enduring piece of writing, Six Crises, about his struggle, is Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography with a paranoid subtext: half-banal, half-mad. Any self-revelation on Nixon's part was unintentional. He was certain that he risked destruction if he displayed authenticity; against his enemies, he carried insincerity as a shield. The political obliterated the personal. “In my job,” he said in 1959 to Joseph Alsop, “you can't enjoy the luxury of intimate personal friendships. You can't confide absolutely in anyone. You can't talk too much about your personal plans, your personal feelings.”
Nixon grew up, surrounded by a loving family, in a religious Quaker community. Like many Quakers, he was bred to be reserved in private but confident in public. The great mystery is his inability as an adult to trust. There is “nothing” to explain it, according to Ambrose. The death of his little brother, Arthur, made him strive harder to please his parents. He recited poetry, played the piano, debated like a champion, and rose every morning at 4 to pick up vegetables at a farmers market for the family store. In high school, he ran for class president, losing to an “athlete and personality boy.” He had no close friends; but he was widely respected, and he had no enemies.
When he won a scholarship to Harvard, necessity demanded that he choose the hometown Whittier College. His family could not afford his living expenses elsewhere because his older brother, Harold, had contracted tuberculosis. Nixon, however, showed no discernible bitterness. Harold's death two-and-a-half years later apparently intensified his will to succeed. Nixon was the Big Man on Campus—class president, founder of a fraternity, rotten football player but good sport, and winner of the Reader's Digest Southern California Extemporaneous Speaking Contest of 1933. He was also the lead actor in the school play, so skilled that he could cry on cue. “Buckets of tears. I was amazed at his perfection,” said the drama coach. The school yearbook recorded:
After one of the most successful years the college has ever witnessed we stop to reminisce, and come to the realization that much of the success was due to the efforts of this very gentleman. Always progressive, and with a liberal attitude, he has led us through the year with flying colors.
Then on to Duke Law School, where he closed the library every night, including weekends, and lived in a small shed lined with cardboard, without heat. He graduated with honors, third in his class. “His life to date,” says Ambrose, “had been an unbroken record of achievement and success.”
Nixon's political career had its origins during the war, on a remote Pacific island, where the Navy man ran a small store, just like at home, and was an expert poker player, known for his disciplined bluffing. He carefully guarded his winnings, exhibiting the virtue of frugality, and saved the money for his first campaign. He came rushing out of the war, and almost immediately a goal for his energy materialized.
In his congressional district, a group of small businessmen called the Committee of 100 had formed, searching for a bright young man to support against the long-time incumbent, a New Dealer, Jerry Voorhis. “Like their counterparts throughout Southern California, and indeed through the nation,” writes Ambrose, “these middle-class Old Guard Republicans were in a mood close to desperation.” They believed they were true-blue Americans, but they had lost their rightful place in the world because of the unnatural Depression for which they had no explanation. Roosevelt's presidency was a warp in time. Yet again and again they had been frustrated. Liberalism was leading to socialism, which led to communism. What kept this un-Americanism in power was an unholy alliance of labor unions and minorities, Hollywood celebrities and federal bureaucrats. (This enemies list—cast as special interests, radical chic, and big government—has lasted for decades.) Two systems were in conflict, according to Nixon: “One advocated by the New Deal is government control in regulating our lives. The other calls for individual freedom and all that initiative can produce.” With this formulation, Nixon convinced the Committee of 100 that he was the man to slate.
“Had enough?” was the Republican slogan of 1946. (These magic words were manufactured for the GOP by the Harry M. Frost advertising company.) Like the late 1970s, the late 1940s was a period of economic and foreign policy turmoil. And the right had ready answers. Communists and fellow travelers were “gaining positions of importance in virtually every federal department and bureau,” Nixon told an American Legion crowd. “They are boring from within, striving to force private enterprise into bankruptcy, and thus bring about the socialization of America's basic institutions and industries.” What's more, he elaborated at another campaign stop, “There are those walking in high official places … who would lead us into a disastrous foreign policy whereby we will be guilty of … depriving the people of smaller nations of their freedoms.” Here was an anticipation of McCarthyism, and the prehistory of rollback and the Reagan Doctrine.
The symmetry between the right's frustration on the domestic scene and its frustration with the international scene was striking. At the war's end, communism, or more precisely the Red Army, was on the march. To conservatives, no explanation made so much sense as that President Roosevelt had betrayed Eastern Europe at Yalta. For the right, the acceptance of the cold war, and of containment, and later of deterrence, meant reconciling itself to permanent frustration. The incumbent Democratic stewardship of this policy provided the opportunity to taint the Democrats as unpatriotic. By contrast, the right began to move away from the old isolationism toward an eschatological anti-communism—a program of simple vengeance that would result in an America once again untroubled by foreign problems. Nixon, in time, supported the Marshall Plan, the pillar of containment. Yet he cultivated the right's anxieties about a tense world; they were useful as a political instrument.
Nixon's campaign for Congress consisted of unalloyed lies, innuendos, and distortions. The words the judicious Ambrose uses to describe it are “vicious … snarling … dirty.” Many of the neighbors and friends who had known Nixon since he was a boy were shocked by the apparent transformation of character. “To them, this was a ‘new Nixon.’” Later, a group of them prevented the Whittier City Council from naming a street after their most famous son, then vice president. “I had to win,” was Nixon's rationale—the Protestant ethic without ethics. This Nixon was the only “new Nixon” that ever really mattered.
But the emergence of the first “new Nixon” involved more than a question of character. From the beginning, Nixon's lack of principles was in the service of the principle of partisanship. He was very much a member of the resurgent Republican class of ‘46, and within that a creature of the embittered right wing. U.S. News, a purveyor of mostly uncritical Republicanism, immediately proclaimed 1946 as Year 1 in “a new cycle in American political history.” This was wishful thinking, but it contained some truth, as Nixon's progress would bear out.
The realignment theory that emerged in the wake of Ronald Reagan's election has tended to overlook realignment's true origin in the old Republican minority and in its reaction against the New Deal, which brought it little but sorrow until the midterm elections of 1946. For the GOP, no greater gains have been recorded since: 56 House and 13 Senate seats. This shift was traumatic enough to inspire Senator J. William Fulbright to call for President Truman's acceptance of the electoral returns as a vote of no-confidence and, in the British way, to step down. Despite the shock, though, the general features of the old party system seemed stable, as the Truman victory two years later confirmed. Beneath the surface, however, there were deep cracks.
The 1946 results were a tremor, a premonition of the coming Republican strength in the Sunbelt and Mountain states. In Congress, the conservative Southern Democrats and the right-wing Republicans made an alliance of convenience that was not defeated until Lyndon Johnson assumed the civil rights cause as his own in 1964. The Democratic setback in 1946 also exposed the party's ideological confusion about the post-New Deal era, a confusion that is still to be resolved. But the right wing demonstrated its willingness to engage in a single-minded politics of desperation. This sentiment was later made into a complex formula by Kevin Phillips, an aide to Nixon's 1968 campaign manager, John Mitchell. In The New Republican Majority, Phillips proposed a polarization of the electorate along racial, ethnic, and regional lines. It was Nixon's historic mission to exploit these tensions to create a lasting GOP advantage.
Nixon's entrance onto the political scene was a sign to the old right of both hope and vengeance. He was loved for his enemies. His early Washington years illustrated the evil of the conspiracy that the Old Guard believed had been in power since 1933. “I was elected to smash the labor bosses,” he declared upon arriving in the capital. He was tutored by Father John Cronin, one of the communism experts who attached themselves to the right, to expose Communists “in the State Department.” So Nixon chose an assignment on the House Un-American Activities Committee.
That Alger Hiss turned out to have been almost certainly guilty was Nixon's great luck. He did not enter his first “crisis” as a disinterested party, but out of sheer partisan impulse. At a crucial juncture in the case, Nixon secretly met in a New York hotel room with the “senior brain trust of the Republican Party, and had this group decided to withhold its approval, Nixon would have had to drop the case.” These men (John Foster Dulles, who was Thomas Dewey's chief foreign policy adviser; Allen Dulles; C. Douglas Dillon; Christian Herter) were the personifications of the GOP Eastern Establishment, held in contempt by the Old Guard. Yet Nixon's determination had made the case such a partisan cause that they were drawn into it. And Nixon convinced them to bless his continuing struggle.
Nixon had hit upon a theme that Republican candidates used with tremendous effect in the 1950 midterm elections. It was a theme that the GOP had been marketing at the lower frequencies for years, without much result. Now it worked: “Fear. Nixon knew that fear was the way to get to the public. Fear of Alger Hiss and his kind; fear of Stalin and his bombs and rockets; fear of change; fear of someone getting ahead in the arms race; fear.”
When Hiss was convicted, Nixon immediately intensified his partisanship. “This conspiracy,” he said, “would have come to light long since had there not been a definite … effort on the part of certain high officials in two administrations [Roosevelt's and Truman's] to keep the public from knowing the facts.” Among the congratulatory notes he received was one he “cherished most,” from the Old Guard icon-in-exile, Herbert Hoover: “At last the stream of treason that existed in our government has been exposed in a fashion that all may believe.”
By now, Nixon was running for the Senate, attacking the Democrats as the blame-America-first party, a party that “has been captured and is completely controlled by a group of ruthless, cynical seekers after power—committed to policies and principles completely foreign to those of its founders.” His campaign against Helen Gahagan Douglas was as noteworthy for its scurrilousness as his effort against Voorhis. Ambrose notes that Douglas herself was not entirely innocent of mudslinging. But once the campaign turned to mud, she was vastly outdone by the master.
Senator Nixon became Vice President Nixon in a thoroughly characteristic way: by becoming indispensable to the aspirations of a force larger than himself—those seeking the nomination of Dwight Eisenhower at the 1952 Republican convention. His role required nothing less than the betrayal of the Old Guard that had previously sustained him. Nixon had already been handpicked for the position by talent scout Dewey, who escorted him into a meeting with the Eisenhower political directorate months before the convention. Thus Nixon allied his ambition publicly with the force he had initially and privately encountered in the Hiss case.
The nomination turned on the outcome of a credentials fight between competing Southern delegations—one group pledged to Ike, the other to Senator Robert Taft, the Old Guard standard-bearer. And the key to the outcome of this issue was the vote of the big California delegation. Within the delegation, the central figure was Nixon, who, with great aplomb, fostered the notion that Taft was unelectable. Nixon then gave an eloquent speech on the convention floor swaying delegates to vote for the Eisenhower Southerners, who were then seated. Years later, in 1969, while swearing in Nixon as president, Chief Justice Earl Warren, who, as governor, had been the nominal leader of that California delegation, confided to Nixon aide Herb Klein “that but for Nixon he might have won a compromise nomination for president himself in 1952.”
Two months after the convention, Nixon was revealed to have maintained an ＄18,000 “slush fund,” set up by friendly businessmen, for his personal use. His famous defense in the “Checkers” speech commingled themes from Horatio Alger with themes from Alger Hiss. There was the paean to hard work—“every dime we've got is honestly ours”—and the resolve to root out the all-encompassing conspiracy—“I am going to campaign up and down America until we drive the crooks and communists and those that defend them out of Washington.” Quickly, Eisenhower embraced him: “You're my boy!” Back home, his old drama coach at Whittier College, Professor Upton, watched his former student on television put his head on Senator William Knowland's shoulder and weep tears of joy. “That's my boy?” Upton shouted. “That's my actor!”
For Eisenhower, Nixon served as the partisan id. He spoke the unspeakable, earning him Adlai Stevenson's sobriquet as “McCarthy in a white collar.” Ike kept his distance, while gaining the benefit. Nixon was his bridge to the Old Guard, his conduit to McCarthy, and generally a source of political information. The vice president's many suggestions for foreign intervention, including dropping atom bombs on Vietnam in 1954 when the French were besieged at Dien Bien Phu, were uniformly rejected by the commander in chief. But he learned a great deal, traveled widely, and ran for the White House in 1960 on his superior experience.
Within a year of his honorable defeat by Kennedy, he was thinking of running for governor of California, a base from which he could again venture forth to win the GOP presidential nomination. The party establishment, “from Eisenhower on down,” feared that the California right would seize control of the state party. Since 1946 the Southern California right had grown more confident and virulent. Its motor, in the early 1960s, was a forerunner of the New Right, founded in the bitter aftermath of Taft's 1952 convention defeat: the John Birch Society. The shift from the time of Representative Nixon was apparent in the election as congressman of John Rousselot, the Birch regional director for Southern California and five Sunbelt states. Rousselot's 1962 fund-raising dinner featured the renowned toastmaster Ronald Reagan.
The suggestion that Reagan might be a candidate for governor quickened the pressure on Nixon. After he announced, his fund-raising lunch at the Bohemian Club was attended by the massed corporate titans of California—“quite a contrast to the Committee of 100 from the 1946 campaign,” writes Ambrose. But Nixon was not anointed. Instead he endured a primary against a right-wing candidate, Joe Shell, a former college football star turned oilman. Nixon attempted to denounce the Birch Society while giving credence to its anti-communist passion; he also did not want to alienate its activists and the many Republican officeholders who were Birch members. In the meantime, liberal Republicans deserted him to support the incumbent Democrat, Edmund “Pat” Brown. Soon Nixon was giving his most memorable performance since the “Checkers” speech: “You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore, because, gentlemen, this is my last press conference.” But he was wrong. There would be new Nixons; for them we must await Ambrose's concluding volume.
The Reagan years, filled with rhetoric about “a new cycle in American political history,” have curiously obscured Nixon. After all, it was Nixon, the native Californian, who began what Reagan hopped aboard. Unlike Reagan, he was painfully self-conscious about what he was doing, and about the price that was being exacted from him and others. Nixon actually lived and bore the scars of the social Darwinism that to Reagan has always been romance.
Moreover, the achievements of what is called the “Reagan revolution” pale next to the transformations that Nixon accomplished at all levels. Nixon in China is still breathtaking. By contrast, the most celebrated Reagan accomplishment—the change in the national brain waves from worried to happy, partly intended to induce amnesia about Nixon—has been the most ephemeral. Reagan's current bouts of cheerfulness, while the special prosecutor prepares his briefs, are more detached from reality than ever. In retrospect, Reagan may be seen as the end of the era that Nixon inaugurated.
As Reagan's benumbing optimism wears off, many of those who had faith in its powers are returning to a primordial resentment. Conservative activists and placemen, columnists and policy-makers are getting themselves in the mood for a young Nixon. If he cannot be found in 1988, a reconstituted Committee of 100 undoubtedly will begin the search.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4665
SOURCE: “The Best Man,” in New York Review of Books, July 16, 1987, pp. 10-3.
[In the following review of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, Brinkley finds shortcomings in Ambrose's unwillingness to offer speculative analysis of Nixon's psychological profile. However, Brinkley concludes that, while offering no new information, Ambrose's biography relates “a familiar story with uncommon balance, skill, and grace—and with a fullness and detail that no previous work can match.”]
Stephen Ambrose began his distinguished biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower with open admiration for his subject. Eisenhower, he writes, was “a great and good man … one of the outstanding leaders of the Western world of this century.”1 He offers no comparable evaluation of Richard Nixon in this first of two volumes on the life of the thirty-seventh president; indeed, there is no preface or foreword of any kind. Ambrose opens the book, almost abruptly, with a discussion of Nixon's ancestors. He ends, equally unceremoniously, with the defeated candidate driving home from his “last press conference” in 1962. Yet even without saying so, Ambrose has produced a study of Nixon [in Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962] that is in many ways as powerfully “revisionist” as his earlier study of Eisenhower. Other biographers have scrutinized Nixon's youth and early career for the seeds of his later failures. This book makes it possible to understand why, through most of his life, Nixon was a great success.
Ambrose's reluctance to draw general conclusions from his work suggests that he may have surprised even himself with what he found. Like other liberal academics, he spent many years as a confirmed Nixon hater—so much so that in 1970 he helped lead a demonstration that disrupted a presidential visit to Kansas State University.2 Ambrose retains a certain skepticism still; he makes no apologies for the many unsavory moments in Nixon's early career, and he takes his subject to task for his frequent distortions of his own past. But the Richard Nixon who emerges from this thoroughly researched, impressively written, and remarkably balanced book is not, in the end, the dark, brooding, bitter figure whom so many hostile writers have described. He is a talented, successful, complicated man who at a very young age emerged as one of the most accomplished and admired public figures of his time.
Ambrose's challenge to the existing literature begins with his discussion of Nixon's childhood. Psychohistorians (and others) have pointed repeatedly to the difficulties of these years: the straitened circumstances that kept his family constantly moving from house to house and business to business; the deaths of two brothers from tuberculosis; the frequent separations from one or both parents; the severe father and the stern, miserly mother. In searching for explanations of Nixon's later problems, biographers have often pointed to the psychic scars he presumably absorbed in his youth. Fawn Brodie talks of an early “warping in his capacity to love” and a pattern of pathological lying “to bolster his ever-wavering identity.”3 Bruce Mazlish speaks of feelings of “betrayal,” “guilt,” and “anxiety” that remained forever unresolved.4
Ambrose has little patience with such speculation. Nixon's childhood, he argues, was not always comfortable and not always happy. But neither was it traumatic. Nixon grew up in a strict but stable home. His family's means were modest, but never desperate. In most respects, “his childhood was so normal as to be dull. No one abused him; there were no traumas, no betrayals, only love and trust.” At Whittier College, he was a good student and a respected campus leader—“a human dynamo in student government, the man everyone counted on,” “unanimously popular on and off the campus.” At Duke Law School, he displayed an almost alarming diligence; a classmate called him “the hardest-working man I ever met.” But he demonstrated as well both leadership and moral decency. As president of the Student Bar Association, he spoke frequently against racism and did volunteer work at a local legal clinic.
Nixon's young adulthood was, similarly, remarkable only for its relative normality. He became a successful lawyer in Whittier, California; began to make a name for himself as a civic leader; pursued and married an attractive and popular schoolteacher (Pat Ryan). He worked briefly in Washington for the Office of Price Administration in the first year of World War II, then served inconspicuously in the Navy as a supply officer in the Pacific. He was popular with his fellow officers during the war. They remembered him later as a warm and friendly man much like the movie character “Mister Roberts.” (They remembered him, too, as a dedicated and talented poker player; his wartime winnings provided the stake for his first political campaign.)
In 1946, Nixon defied all predictions by defeating a popular incumbent, Jerry Voorhis, in a race for Congress. Four years later, he defeated the actress Helen Gahagan Douglas in a race for a vacant California seat in the United States Senate. Ambrose offers no defense of Nixon's harsh tactics in the race against Voorhis (other than to acknowledge that he was hardly alone that year in attacking Democrats for their ties to organized labor); the 1946 campaign was, he acknowledges, a “dirty” one, characterized by “a vicious, snarling approach that was full of half-truths, full lies, and innuendos.” Indeed, Nixon anticipated almost all of the scurrilous charges and many of the vicious tactics that Joseph McCarthy would later employ. “REMEMBER,” one Nixon advertisement proclaimed, “Voorhis is a former registered Socialist and his voting record in Congress is more Socialistic and Communistic than Democratic.”
The campaign against Douglas in 1950 was another matter. Other biographers have seen in it the clearest evidence of Nixon's unscrupulousness and have cited his references to a “Douglas-Marcantonio Axis” (a link between Mrs. Douglas and the left-wing New York congressman Vito Marcantonio) as proof of his preference for the political low road.5 Ambrose reveals that it was Douglas, not Nixon, who first raised the issue of “being soft on communism” in 1950; it was she who first tried to link her opponent to Marcantonio by making selective and dishonest use of voting records. Nixon responded in kind. Even the devastating, red-baiting (and vaguely sexist) nickname Nixon bestowed on Mrs. Douglas, the “Pink Lady,” was in response to her use of a far more devastating (and more enduring) nickname for him—“Tricky Dick.” Ambrose does not suggest that Mrs. Douglas's tactics excuse Nixon's own behavior; he does, however, help one to see the campaign in a different light.
Nixon was a highly respected young member of Congress. Ambrose describes him as the most adept and responsible member of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, “careful and exact with the facts,” courteous toward witnesses, a “moderating influence” on that often reckless body. When Joseph McCarthy launched his crusade against Communists in government in 1950, Nixon at first denounced him for it. (Only the Communists were benefiting from McCarthy's charges, he said.) When J. Robert Oppenheimer came under attack that same year, Nixon publicly defended him. (I have complete confidence in Dr. Oppenheimer's loyalty,” he declared.) His famous pursuit of Alger Hiss was relentless and effective; without Nixon, there would likely have been no Hiss case. But as Ambrose portrays it, Nixon's behavior throughout was honorable. His evidence was solid, and he allowed Hiss to ruin himself with his own lies and evasions.6
Nixon's later claims that the pursuit of Hiss proved a political liability were almost certainly disingenuous. In fact, the case transformed him into a major national figure almost overnight. By 1950, he was the most sought-after speaker and fund-raiser in the Republican party, a man already (at the age of thirty-seven) discussed as a future president. Yet Nixon profited from more than his reputation as an effective anticommunist in these years. He was also an important conciliatory force within his party, helping to nudge it toward the center on numerous issues. He opposed the powerful China Lobby and supported the Eurocentric foreign policy of the Truman Administration, including the initially controversial Marshall Plan. He avoided an open break with Joseph McCarthy, but he never endorsed McCarthy's tactics (and later, as vice president, participated quietly in the campaign to discredit him). “Thus,” Ambrose notes, “both the Old Guard and the more moderate Republicans thought of Nixon as a friend and ally, as he indeed was.” He even earned the admiration of the leaders of the party's eastern establishment. Thomas E. Dewey described him as being considered “an absolute star, a man of enormous capacity” and helped to persuade Eisenhower to offer him the vice-presidential nomination in 1952.
Nixon's experience in the campaign of 1952 was an ordeal few politicians could have survived. He was cut adrift by Eisenhower and forced to fight alone for his political life by denying spurious charges of financial impropriety; the result was the mawkish “Checkers” speech, which—effective as it was—so humiliated him that he was barely able to get through it without breaking down. On instructions from Eisenhower, Nixon became the “hatchet man” of the campaign, earning the contempt of the liberal press and making himself the butt of such attacks as Herblock's famous savage cartoons. The rigors of 1952, Fawn Brodie claims, “left him cynical, soured, and obsessively suspicious of political friendships.”7
Yet whatever scars Nixon may have absorbed in 1952, they were seldom evident in his performance as vice president, which was, Ambrose claims, exemplary. He was, in fact, the most visible and successful vice president of this century. He endured frequent snubs and humiliations from Eisenhower without complaint and served the president faithfully and well. Eisenhower was reluctant to admit it (and in fact, in 1960, greatly damaged Nixon's presidential campaign by denying it), but he came to rely heavily on his vice president's advice on political matters and to respect (if not always to share) his views on international affairs. Nixon's many trips abroad won him the respect and admiration of even the most skeptical world leaders. Drew Middleton of The New York Times described the impact of a Nixon visit to London in 1958: The vice president “who arrived billed as an uncouth adventurer in the political jungles, departed trailing clouds of statesmanship and esteem.” In 1955, when the president suffered a heart attack, Nixon behaved with grace and prudence. Emmet John Hughes, an Eisenhower speech writer and frequent Nixon critic, described him then as “poised and restrained … a man close to great power not being presumptuously or prematurely assertive.”
Because Eisenhower chose to remain largely aloof from partisan politics, Nixon served as the Republicans’ principal spokesman and most important leader throughout the 1950s. He campaigned strenuously in off-year elections; and while the party declined steadily in national strength during the Eisenhower years, Nixon's efforts probably prevented the hemorrhaging from growing even worse. By the end of the decade, moreover, he had emerged as one of the party's most dynamic and progressive figures. Long before it became politically profitable, he was an outspoken supporter of civil rights (and an important actor in the passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act). Far more openly than Eisenhower (or, for that matter, John Kennedy), he supported the aims of the NAACP and spoke sharply against the rise of “massive resistance” by whites in the South. “I believe the issue is a moral one,” he wrote southern editors in 1957, “and is of such transcendent importance that all Americans must face it.”
Nixon began calling for a federal tax cut to stimulate economic growth well before John Kennedy seized on the issue and made it his own. Although as vice president he could not voice such feelings publicly, he complained in private of the “standpattism” of Eisenhower's leadership. “I am concerned,” he wrote in 1958, “about the tendency in this Administration to be sort of a care-taker. … We must go out and look for new ideas.” By 1960, he had, Ambrose claims, “identified himself with idealism and challenge every bit as much as Kennedy.” Like Kennedy, he beckoned the nation to undertake great deeds, to work together “in a cause greater than ourselves, greater than our nation, as great as the whole world itself.” (He was also, like Kennedy, a far more committed cold warrior than Eisenhower. He privately agreed with Kennedy's public criticisms of the administration in 1960: that it was spending too little on defense and that it was behaving too cautiously in resisting communism in the third world.)
Nixon made many mistakes in his campaign against Kennedy, but he did little to discredit himself. He steadfastly refused to raise the issue of Kennedy's Catholicism and repudiated those supporters who did so. He lost many black votes when Kennedy, not he, publicly intervened to have Martin Luther King, Jr., released from a Georgia jail. But while Nixon received no public credit for it, he too took action on behalf of King, appealing quietly to the attorney general to intercede—an appeal that came to naught because Eisenhower refused to get involved. The 1960 election was the closest in American history, so close that an investigation into vote-counting irregularities in several states might have reversed the outcome. Nixon refused to demand a recount, fearful that the result would be a protracted constitutional crisis. He accepted defeat with grace.
Had Nixon's public career ended more happily, had there been no Watergate and no Vietnam, it would be these features of his early life that historians would likely emphasize: his intelligence, talent, diligence, even decency; the traits that made him the most enduring and resilient political leader of his generation and, for a time, one of the most successful presidents of this century. But Nixon's public life did not, of course, end happily. And while it would be a mistake to examine his early career only for clues to his later problems, it is impossible to look at those years without asking how they help us to understand why things ultimately went so wrong.
Ambrose's otherwise impressive objectivity proves something of a handicap here, for he steadfastly refuses to speculate about the sources of Nixon's character. In fact, one might be tempted to conclude from the portrait here that Nixon's later problems emerged not from defects in his own character but simply from the extraordinary problems he encountered in the White House. Anyone elected president in 1968, Ambrose seems vaguely to imply, might have behaved similarly. Yet even if inadvertently, Ambrose provides ample evidence of several characteristics of Nixon's personality that almost certainly contributed to his eventual downfall.
One such characteristic was the burning resentment that seemed to settle on him in his youth and that he never managed to shed: the sense of himself as somehow an outsider, constantly at odds with the establishment. That was the source of the constant refrain, throughout his career, describing the hardships he had endured rising up through an unwelcoming world; and it was the source of the enduring bitterness toward those more “fortunate” than himself that seemed always to surface in moments of stress. Even when he became a man of wealth, fame, and power, part of him seemed always to remain the provincial boy from Whittier College who had been compelled to turn down a chance to attend Harvard because his family couldn't afford it; or the struggling scholarship student at Duke Law School who for a time lived in an unheated toolshed to save money.
Nixon's preoccupation with the Hiss case, for example, seemed at least in part a result of his personal resentment toward the elegant former diplomat whose manner he described as “condescending” and who, unlike Nixon himself, was constantly surrounded by what Ambrose calls “highly placed friends from the Washington social community.” In the Checkers speech and throughout the 1952 campaign, he spoke frequently of the degree to which Adlai Stevenson (“who inherited a fortune from his father”) had enjoyed “advantages” that Nixon himself had been denied. He liked to quote Abraham Lincoln: “God must love the common people—he made so many of them.” In 1960, late in the campaign when things began going badly, he once again fell back on a vaguely pathetic appeal to the sympathy of the voters for his lack of the wealth and connections with which John Kennedy had been born. Murray Kempton later described him as “wandering limply and wetly about the American heartland begging votes on the excuse that he had been too poor to have a pony when he was a boy.”8 And in 1974, in his painful farewell to the White House staff after resigning the presidency, he talked again of his humble origins, as if they were somehow to blame for his predicament.9
What is perhaps equally striking about Nixon in his youth, just as it was striking in his maturity, was his inability to form close personal relationships. Even as a child, he was a conspicuous loner—dour, serious, known within his family as “Gloomy Gus.” The pattern continued throughout his life. Nixon always had companions, but seldom real friends. “From grade school and then out into the world,” Ambrose writes, “he left behind his old associates. … When an acquaintance could only be called ‘a friend from the old days,’ Nixon lost interest in him.”
Except for his warm and affectionate relationship with his two daughters, Nixon's adult life was, apparently, as emotionally barren as his youth. His marriage was stable and reasonably successful: but that was, Ambrose suggests, largely because Pat Nixon made so few demands of her husband, subordinated herself to his career, and became accustomed to a lack of intimacy. “I've given up everything I've ever loved,” she once confided to a friend.10 Only rarely, however, did she complain about what Ambrose calls an indifference from Nixon that “bordered on cruelty.” In 1952, for example, she heard that her husband was to be nominated for the vice presidency not from him (he had promised her earlier he would not accept), but from a television news broadcast in a hotel restaurant in Chicago. She rushed to the convention hall, battled through the crowd to her husband's side on the podium, and kissed him on the cheek. He never looked at her. She never stopped smiling.
Outside his family, Nixon's most important (and most revealing) friendship throughout his adulthood was with the much-ridiculed Bebe Rebozo, a rich Florida real-estate magnate whom Nixon first met in 1950. Their relationship continued for three decades. It survived, however, not because of a close personal bond between them, but because of the absence of one. Rebozo subordinated himself to Nixon's solitary desires and asked nothing in return; he was as much a loyal servant as a friend, content to provide boats and vacation spots and, perhaps most important, silence to a man who had no interest in intimacy. “Bebe is like a sponge,” Pat Nixon once said; “he soaks up whatever Dick says and never makes any comments. Dick loves that.” Another mutual acquaintance remarked, more sardonically, “Nixon likes to be alone, and with Bebe along, he is.”
Ambrose has no explanation for this intense, perhaps even pathological, personal isolation. “The inability to trust anyone is one of the principal personality traits of Nixon as an adult,” he writes. The reason, he confesses, remains a “mystery.” But he is almost certainly correct in seeing in this isolation a source of some of Nixon's later political problems. The absence of trusted friends and advisers, people in whom he could confide and on whose advice he felt he could rely, removed a critical check on his own, at times reckless, inclinations.
A second, and clearly related, characteristic was Nixon's literally obsessive preoccupation with politics. He worked compulsively, and the only work that interested him was political. He had no hobbies (other than a largely statistical interest in sports). He took vacations only at Pat's insistence and for nearly twenty years cut every vacation short to return to work. He saw his family seldom, ate dinner at home only once or twice a week, often spent the night on the couch in his office. He threw himself into every political campaign from 1946 through 1972, even when he was not himself a candidate, traveling widely and exhaustingly like a man possessed. He read and talked and apparently thought about almost nothing but politics; it was the only world that seemed to have any meaning to him.
After the 1960 election, Nixon moved to Los Angeles, established a lucrative legal practice, and prepared for life as a private citizen. Two years later, against the wishes of his wife (and, he later admitted, against his own better judgment), he launched an ill-fated campaign for governor of California, an office in which he had little interest and for which he had few qualifications. “Why,” he asks in his memoir, Six Crises, “would anyone risk these advantages of private life and decide to re-enter the political arena?” Because, he replied, “once a man has been in public life for any period of time, his interests and ambitions change. … It just happened, because my fate sent me to Congress in 1946, that I became a primarily public man and must, therefore, remain in that channel.”11
According to an epigram widely circulated in the 1950s, “when Nixon's public and private personalities meet, they shake hands.” This missed the point. Nixon seemed to have no private personality. It was almost as if he ceased to exist once removed from the public stage. And like the lack of intimate friends, the lack of a private self—an internal balance wheel against which to measure one's actions—may help to explain why his judgment so frequently went awry.
Nixon is not alone among politicians in having these qualities. Franklin Roosevelt had similar difficulties forming intimate relationships. Lyndon Johnson was at least as obsessed with politics as Nixon. But Nixon possessed another characteristic that set him apart from most of his predecessors: his distinctively combative view of politics. Not for him LBJ's gregarious, backslapping, wheeling and dealing or FDR's artful manipulation of subordinates. His own instinct was for combat, crisis. Perhaps because he lacked close friendships or other interests, it was only in the midst of crisis that he could achieve emotional intensity, a sense of release. Perhaps, too, it was only through his combative political style that he was able to vent the deep grievances that at other times he felt obliged to repress.
Whatever the reasons, Nixon seems to have felt fully alive only when he could convince himself that he was engaged in battle. He wrote in Six Crises about “why men who have been in public life seldom leave it voluntarily” in extraordinarily, if perhaps unintentionally revealing, terms:
Probably the greatest magnet of all is that those who have known great crisis—its challenge and tension, its victory and defeat—can never become adjusted to a more leisurely and orderly pace. They have drunk too deeply of the stuff which really makes life exciting and worth living to be satisfied with the froth.12
And so, throughout Nixon's public career, he felt a compulsion to approach every contest, every controversy as if his own (and the nation's) future depended on the outcome. If no crisis existed, he manufactured one and then used it to rationalize behavior that he might otherwise have abhorred. In his first campaign in 1946 against Jerry Voorhis, he developed a battlefield mentality that shocked many old acquaintances who had seen few signs of such combativeness in him in the past. Nixon himself apparently found nothing jarring about the “transition from nice Quaker boy to ruthless politician.” According to Ambrose, “there is no evidence that there was any soul-searching involved. To him it was all of a piece—you did whatever you could to win.” When every campaign was a crusade for the future of the Republic, when every opponent was a threat to peace and freedom, it was, as Ambrose notes, an easy step to believe that “any means were justified to reach the end.” Thus, year after year, election after election,
the basic message never changed. It was that a Democratic victory would lead to socialism at home and surrender to Communism abroad. … His sly use of innuendo, his denials that he had just said what everyone had just heard him say, … his trickiness with figures, his flights of hyperbole, his shameless hypocrisy—all these combined to make him hated, and admired.
His political tactics “were all directed toward deepening the political split rather than narrowing it.” “He polarized the public more than any other man of his era.” And as Jonathan Schell argues in his perceptive 1975 study of the Nixon presidency, he continued to do so throughout his public life, deliberately and apparently eagerly. Even after he claimed publicly to wish to “bring us together,” as he did in 1968, when he finally captured the presidency, he embarked on a course that rested on the principle of “positive polarization”—a belief in the value of isolating and discrediting his enemies.13 In 1972, after his landslide reelection victory and at a point when one might have expected him to feel some satisfaction and generosity, Nixon told an interviewer:
I believe in the battle, whether it's the battle of a campaign or the battle of this office. … It's always there wherever you go. I, perhaps, carry it more than others because that's my way.14
So it had been throughout his long, often brilliant, and ultimately tragic public life.
Almost everyone believed Nixon's career had come to an end in 1962, when he lost his race for governor of California and lashed out at reporters in his celebrated “last press conference.” (He was not, as some have claimed, drunk at the time—only exhausted and frustrated.) But he drove home from his “last” press conference, Ambrose concludes, “already discussing his future”—a future of which no reader of this book can possibly be unaware.
Ambrose has in this first volume added relatively little to the information available to us about Richard Nixon's intensively scrutinized life. Nor does he seem likely to do so in the volumes to come. He has uncovered no new cache of manuscripts (and given the legal complications surrounding Nixon's presidential papers, scholars will probably have little access to them for years). He has conducted few interviews (and none at all with Nixon or his family). He has made no important discoveries. What he has done, however, is to tell a familiar story with uncommon balance, skill, and grace—and with a fullness and detail that no previous work can match; in doing so he recalls a man far more complex and accomplished than the caricature many have come to accept. And so one finishes this absorbing biography eager for Ambrose's account of the dramatic events to come.
Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect (Simon and Schuster, 1983), p. 9; Eisenhower: The President, the second and concluding volume of the biography, appeared in 1984.
An account of Ambrose's role in the demonstration appears in a letter from one of his former colleagues to The New York Times Book Review, May 31, 1987, p. 58. Ambrose subsequently survived an effort by the faculty senate at Kansas State to censure him for his loud and at times obscene heckling of the President; but the episode apparently helped precipitate his departure from the university. He now teaches at the University of New Orleans.
Fawn M. Brodie, Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character (Norton, 1981), pp. 25–26.
Bruce Mazlish, In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry (Basic Books, 1972), pp. 22–26.
See, for example, Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes (Houghton Mifflin, 1970), pp. 85–86.
Ambrose provides a withering picture of Hiss, portraying him as both dishonest and insufferably arrogant. He calls Allen Weinstein, author of Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case (Knopf, 1978), “much the closest and most careful student of the Hiss case” and implicitly endorses, Weinstein's conclusion that Hiss was guilty as charged.
Richard Nixon, p. 271.
Nixon Agonistes, pp. 144–145.
Richard Nixon, Memoirs (Grossett and Dunlap, 1978), pp. 1088–1089.
Lester David, The Lonely Lady of San Clemente: The Story of Pat Nixon (Crowell, 1978), p. 73.
Six Crises (Doubleday, 1962), pp. 424–435.
Six Crises, p. 426.
Jonathan Schell, The Time of Illusion (Knopf, 1975), pp. 73–74.
Quoted in Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Imperial Presidency (Houghton Mifflin, 1973), p. 217.
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SOURCE: “The Vocation of Politics,” in Commentary, Vol. 84, No. 2, August, 1987, pp. 78-80.
[In the following review of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, Neuhaus commends Ambrose's “exhaustive” and even-handed scholarship, but contends that he is not successful in recasting Nixon as a more admirable figure.]
During his 1962 bid for the California governorship, Richard Nixon was not helped by the remark of the master of ceremonies at one of his fund-raising dinners: “Too many people are saying, ‘I don't like Nixon, but I don't know why.’”
People are still saying that. On the other hand, many say that they do not just not like Nixon, they hate him—and they think they know why. During the same 1962 race, the pollster Samuel Lubell found “an almost unbelievable personal bitterness toward Nixon among many California voters.” Toward very few contemporary politicians (Senator Edward Kennedy comes to mind) is there a widespread animosity intense and nasty enough to warrant the word hatred. Richard Nixon has known what it means to be hated since his first, and successful, race for Congress against Jerry Voorhis in 1946.
Now, thirteen years after he resigned from the Presidency in disgrace, we are told that Nixon is back. His rehabilitation, if that is what it is, will likely be advanced by this first volume of Stephen Ambrose's biography [Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962]. Ambrose, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, is given a large part of the credit for the enhanced standing of Eisenhower in recent years. It was no little achievement that Ambrose's two-volume biography helped rescue Eisenhower from the derision of his detractors. To rescue Nixon from the hatred of his enemies is much the more daunting task. Those who have a deep stake in despising Richard Nixon are almost certainly not going to be converted by this volume. But those who have disliked him for reasons they did not quite understand will have occasion to think again. They may not turn to actually liking Nixon, but they may leave this book sharing Ambrose's respect for the man.
As Gary Hart has recently discovered to his sorrow, Americans are not very good at separating personality (some call it character) from the issues. Unlike Hart, and despite several efforts to pin him with the charge of taking money on the side, Richard Nixon has been above reproach in his personal life. To put it differently, his personal life has been his political purpose.
The elusiveness of the private Nixon, which is presumably the real Nixon, is a constant theme in this book, as it has been in most writing about Nixon. The absence of evidence on this score is interpreted as an invitation to speculate and has been seized with enthusiasm by writers with an argument to make. Thus we have been favored with David Abrahamsen's Nixon vs. Nixon: An Emotional Tragedy, Bruce Mazlish's In Search of Nixon: A Psychohistorical Inquiry, Fawn Brodie's Richard Nixon: The Shaping of His Character, and Garry Wills's Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. The last, in sharp contrast to Wills's more recent fabulations regarding Ronald Reagan, has the merit of being an imaginative exercise of considerable force. But Ambrose departs from this genre altogether. He appears to be one of those historians who believe that in the absence of evidence you should not make it up.
What is known about the personal Nixon—and Ambrose's researches seem to be exhaustive—is told here with care and economy. Nixon's private life is, for the most part, his family life. In this connection, Ambrose's treatment of Pat Nixon is extensive and unstinting in its admiration. Far from her being “Plastic Pat,” always playing whatever role her husband dictated for the moment, one gains the impression of a gracefully determined woman who had securely ordered her loves and loyalties, putting Richard Nixon and his public career at the top of the list.
It seems that Nixon was intimate with no one else. Those who, like Bebe Rebozo, were deemed to be close friends appear to have been useful sycophants, although Ambrose does not use the term. From his school days in Whittier, California, through his law-school years at Duke, and during his time in the Navy, many people respected and trusted Nixon, but almost to a person they say they never really knew him. In the early years, before he ran for political office, Ambrose reports that everyone agrees Richard Nixon was precisely the kind of man from whom one would not hesitate to buy a used car. But from the first campaign his politics was the politics of division, and then many began to dislike, distrust, and hate him, even as many others came to support and admire him, but seldom to like, never mind love, him.
Ambrose is telling a story more than he is making an argument. And yet the story is interspersed with judgments, and his judgments are frequently inconsistent. One consistent judgment, however, is that Richard Nixon was always much more at ease before a crowd than in person-to-person contacts, especially with his peers. We are told that Nixon was one of the great politicians of the century but he could never, like FDR or Lyndon Johnson, work personality and friendship to political purpose. To support Richard Nixon was to support his policies, and the career that advanced those policies. His life, we are led to conclude, is one of sweated earnestness, of competition without camaraderie. There were personal alliances but few personal bonds, and those alliances were always aimed at moving the crowds, which is to say, the voters. The goal was to get a majority by division. Ambrose observes: “He divided people along party lines, but he refused to use race, class, or religion as his issues. In these areas, where the American people were already sharply divided, Nixon tried to bring them together.”
That observation comes in connection with the 1960 race against John F. Kennedy, which Ambrose thinks was Nixon's finest. Throughout the period covered by this first volume, however, Nixon refused to exploit some of the deepest fissures in the American public, especially that of race. Some readers may be surprised to learn how deep and consistent was Nixon's support for civil rights. He was much respected by key black leaders, although that respect was seldom translated into votes, and Nixon's position on race placed a severe strain on his relations with the right wing of the Republican party which was his core constituency.
Ambrose, who apparently started out not thinking very highly of Richard Nixon, says at several points that Nixon was a great man. What makes for greatness is a subject of interminable debate, but Ambrose's telling of the story fails to persuade at least this reader that the Nixon portrayed here is a great man. He is convincingly presented as a man relentless in the pursuit of his goals, possessed of a powerful sense of political responsibility, and unswervingly faithful to a few guiding ideas.
The word faithful has a religious ring, and that seems entirely appropriate to the Nixon portrayed. Formal religion, in his case Quaker religion, played little evident part in Nixon's life after his teen-age years. Presumably his many and long discussions with Billy Graham had something to do with religion (it is hard to imagine Mr. Graham discussing much else for very long). But one is led to believe that the religion to which Richard Nixon was faithful was the religion of political purpose.
This is to say something more than that politics—in the sense of the contest for power—was Nixon's religion. To make politics one's religion is, religiously speaking, idolatrous and, psychologically speaking, disastrous. Nixon's religion of political purpose was more elevated than that. Although Ambrose does not put it this way, the Nixon of this book had a calling, a vocation, to advance a great truth, and that truth was political freedom.
It was a truth well worth dividing people over. More precisely, Nixon's purpose was to bring to political expression the fact that people were already divided over the importance of freedom. Nixon, in short, was an anti-Communist. That was the most important political thing he was, and the most important thing he was was political.
In Alger Hiss the calling and the occasion converged to make Nixon a national figure of consequence. Alger Hiss was in his view neither eccentric nor deviant but a representative of the enemy. For Nixon, the nature and mission of the enemy were discovered in the Hiss case and diagnosed in Whittaker Chambers's Witness. This was the dark antithesis to freedom's truth and, in the opinion of many, the dark side of Richard Nixon. Behind Herblock's caricature of a sleazy and tricky Nixon they detected a sinister Nixon in the grips of a metaphysical obsession with the threat of Communism.
The argument might be made that Nixon would not have encountered such animosity had he been as musical in articulating freedom's cause as he was combative in opposing freedom's foes. But that would be to overlook the fact that there were, and are, enemies of the democratic proposition whose hatred of Nixon was eminently sensible from their viewpoint. No mere change of “style” would have won them over. As for those who were put off by Nixon's belligerent manner, Ambrose's account suggests that he rendered a service by tempering and bringing into the mainstream of democratic discourse whatever was legitimate in the screeds of the reckless and extreme, such as Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society.
The meaning of the subtitle of this first volume, The Education of a Politician, is not self-evident and is not explained. If education means growth and learning, there is little education here. There is no indication that Nixon read anything or talked with anyone about matters not directly related to the advancement of his political purpose. There is no evidence of intellectual curiosity ranging beyond the boundaries of the work that was his to do. By the end of his formal education Nixon knew that he had a remarkable capacity for leadership by virtue of hard work, combative engagement, and persuasive talent. By the end of his first term in Congress he knew that he had found his cause in anti-Communism. The rest is detail.
That is not to say that the rest is dull. In fact this telling of Nixon's story entails all the dramas, high and low, that shaped our political culture as we entered the night of the 60's. Nixon is competently, sometimes brightly, written, and one gets the impression that Ambrose is striving, above all, to be assiduously fair. In that he seems to have succeeded. As for the Richard Nixon we meet here, the subtitle might better have been “The Vocation of a Politician”—and to that vocation he was faithful. Of course this volume takes us only to 1962 and we are inclined to read the story through the lens of subsequent events. It is the notable achievement of Stephen Ambrose that he compels us to reread subsequent events through the lens of the story he tells.
Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2344
SOURCE: “Richard Nixon Revisited,” in Virginia Quarterly Review, Vol. 64, No. 3, Summer, 1988, pp. 525-34.
[In the following excerpted review essay, Strong offers positive evaluation of Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962, but concludes that many questions about Nixon's personal motivations remain unanswerable.]
Winston Churchill, in one of his many memorable observations, once described a Russian action on the international scene as “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” If you were to add a few more qualifying phrases and a few more synonyms suggesting bewilderment, you might come close to describing the problem Americans have in understanding our 37th president. There are multiple riddles, mysteries, and enigmas about Richard Milhous Nixon that his many biographers, critics, defenders, and political opponents have been unable fully to explain. Two new books—a biography of his pre-presidential career by the historian Stephen Ambrose [Nixon: The Education of a Politician: 1913-1962] and a collection of conversations with more than 20 of his closest associates and observers, edited by the director of the White Burkett Miller Center, Kenneth W. Thompson—go a long way to improving our public portrait of Nixon as a person and as a politician. These books do not provide a full-fledged revisionist account of Richard Nixon and are not intended to do so. They do, however, add much needed balance and detail to the existing accounts of his life and administration, and make it possible to see, not another “new” Richard Nixon, but the old one in a broader perspective.
Ambrose, in the first volume of his biography which covers the period from Nixon's birth to his “last” press conference in 1962, gives us an unusually objective account of Nixon's early years. Ambrose avoids the temptation to seek out some crucial traumatic event in Nixon's childhood which would explain the remainder of his life, a search that has preoccupied several of Nixon's psychobiographers. He discounts the importance often attributed to the death of Nixon's brother from tuberculosis and to the months that family members spent at the child's sickbed. There is, in Ambrose's view, no psychological “rosebud” which would unlock the mysteries of Nixon's personality; instead there is only the early and largely unexplained emergence of those mysteries.
For Ambrose, Richard Nixon's childhood was, in most respects, “so normal as to be dull.” Frank Nixon, Richard's father, was a moderately successful businessman, who managed to miss out on the easy money that came to many in southern California, but was always able to provide for his wife and family. Nixon's later claims of “log cabin” origins and childhood poverty are, Ambrose notes, the product of exaggerated campaign rhetoric or understandable feelings of inferiority from a candidate who competed for national prominence with John Kennedy and Nelson Rockefeller. Compared to them, Richard Nixon was poor; compared to the rest of the American people, particularly during the depression years, he came from a comfortable household. Like his father, Nixon's mother was a hard worker who invested enormous energy in caring for her children and handling her share of the family enterprises. She was a strong and loving woman who encouraged her children to do well in school and to get as much education as they possibly could. The years of Richard Nixon's youth, other than those of his brother's illness, were happy ones with a large extended family in and around the small towns in which he grew up, regular religious training in the Quaker church, solid accomplishments in school, early responsibilities in the family store, and a healthy variety of childhood activities.
From this dull and normal background Nixon developed an unusual set of seemingly inconsistent qualities. The most important of these contradictory combinations, which is highlighted throughout the Ambrose book, involves the relationship between his public and private lives. From a very early age, Dick Nixon was shy in his personal dealings with individuals and small groups but at ease when performing in concerts, plays, and debates. On a stage, in front of a crowd, he had confidence and great success, easily winning high school debates, elections, and the acclaim of his schoolmates. At the same time, he seems to have had difficulty forming lasting friendships or intimate relationships of any kind outside his family. As a child he was both accomplished and awkward, widely popular and genuinely alone, combinations that would remain in evidence throughout his adult life. What accounts for these characteristics? Henry Kissinger, according to one of the transcripts in the Thompson book, is reported to have said that Nixon was never truly loved and could have been a far greater man and leader had even one person shown real affection for him. Ambrose disputes that claim and believes that Nixon came from a loving home. Later his own wife and daughters would provide him with the same sort of solid support he had received from his parents. Why then was he ill at ease outside his family circle but dynamic in the public arena? Ambrose suggests that it may have had something to do with his religious training. The Quaker church teaches modest individual behavior without public displays of affection at the same time that it encourages church members to speak out before the gathered congregation. But Ambrose offers that as only a partial explanation. In the final analysis, the dichotomy between the public and private Nixons, according to Ambrose, was “just the way he was.”
Furthermore, Ambrose wonders whether Nixon really was all that comfortable with the public parts of his life. He was clearly good at acting, debating, public speaking, and almost anything that put him in a spotlight, but he was also extremely sensitive to criticism. Throughout his life he constantly placed himself in positions where criticism was virtually inevitable. Why did he choose to do this? Was his ambition so strong that he willingly opened himself to the likelihood of personal pain? And where did that ambition come from? Ambrose is not sure, concluding again that this, too, was part of the way he was.
In college and in law school Richard Nixon demonstrated considerable intelligence (a quality constantly mentioned by his former associates in the Thompson book), a moderately conservative set of political opinions, and an incredible determination to learn. Having turned down a scholarship to Harvard because the cost of cross-country transportation was prohibitive, he attended Whittier College, where he excelled in many of his classes and participated in the same kinds of activities he had enjoyed in high school—debates and student government. He also played college football with a gutsy enthusiasm that impressed his coach and teammates who were otherwise unimpressed by his ability to play the game. After graduation, he worked his way through Duke law school with a scholarship, a variety of part-time jobs, and an austere student life style that made it possible for rather short ends somehow to meet. When he finished law school and returned to southern California, Nixon was a typical, perhaps even an ideal, young professional. He was clean-cut, conscientious, honest, hard working, a serious young man widely respected by his colleagues. He was, Ambrose believes, precisely the sort of individual from whom you would have purchased a used car.
He was also bored with the practice of law. American entry into the Second World War, shortly after his marriage to Pat Ryan, ended that boredom, or at least gave him more exotic locations in which to be bored. After a stint in Washington as a lawyer for the federal government agencies that regulated the wartime economy, he enlisted in the Navy and served as a supply officer in the South Pacific. Once again he showed himself to be an industrious and efficient young man who carried out his rather mundane duties with notable success. He also became a first-rate poker player. In Ambrose's biography, poker serves as a minor metaphor, and Nixon's talent for the game becomes a clue to some of his behavior in his subsequent political career. The accomplished poker player, Ambrose reminds us, is a shrewd judge of character able to read an opponent's mood, degree of drunkenness, financial position, and skill while simultaneously hiding his own; he can quickly calculate the complicated odds that give clues as to whether a particular hand is likely to win; and, most importantly, he can bluff. “Bluffing is poker's great art form,” and Nixon, Ambrose argues, was a master in its performance. When the war ended and Nixon returned to California, he had won enough money, perhaps as much as ten thousand dollars, to finance a campaign for congress.
Nixon's early political career, his meteoric rise to national importance and almost equally rapid fall, is a saga made up of familiar stories—the vicious campaigns against Jerry Voorhis and Helen Gahagan Douglas, the Alger Hiss investigation, the Checkers speech, the ambiguous relations between Eisenhower and his vice-president, the controversial trips to Latin America and Moscow, the crucial debates with John Kennedy, and the bitter and false farewell to the press after the unsuccessful gubernatorial campaign in California. Ambrose retells these stories with fairness and flair.
He does not excuse the redbaiting that Nixon used so effectively in his early political campaigns—campaigns that earned him the enduring nickname, “Tricky Dick”—but he does place those campaigns in the context of American political culture in the years following World War II when anti-communism was on the rise. Even before there was a McCarthy, there was McCarthyism and, as Ambrose points out, the “soft on communism” campaign label was such a tempting political weapon that even one of Nixon's opponents, briefly and rather foolishly, tried to use it against him. Nixon's anti-communism was, of course, unique among its many postwar practitioners because he not only talked about the influence of Communists in American government, he also played a significant role in gathering evidence against the most notorious of the reputed Communist sympathizers in high places. As a congressman, Nixon worked hard to prove that Whitaker Chambers was telling the truth and that Alger Hiss was lying (or bluffing, in Ambrose's account). He also devoted considerable energy to supporting a moderate internationalist foreign policy. Nixon was an early and solid supporter of the Marshall Plan, despite the fact that it was generally unpopular in his conservative congressional district. He voted for European economic assistance and then made a concerted, and largely successful, effort to change public opinion in his district. His congressional career, in Ambrose's account, was not without substance and accomplishment.
As a senator, and shortly thereafter as vice-president, Nixon became embroiled in a nearly endless series of political campaigns. He ran for the Senate in 1950 and had the second position on the national ticket in 1952 and 1956; he represented the Republican Party as its most prominent spokesman in the off-year elections of 1954 and 1958; and he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1960 and for governor of California in 1962. In the 1950's and early 1960's more votes were cast for Richard Nixon (and against him) than for any other American political figure. Much of Nixon's negative reputation comes from those years of campaigning when, particularly compared to Eisenhower, he became one of the most effective partisan politicians on the national scene. He did take time from his frequent campaigning to carry out his vice-presidential duties as well as the constraining circumstances of that office permit, showing particular grace and tact during Eisenhower's periods of serious illness, learning a great deal about foreign affairs during extensive travels, and preparing himself for the presidency more thoroughly than almost any candidate in recent decades. These accomplishments did not, however, impress a majority of the American voters. In 1960 he lost a close election to a young, handsome, and charismatic Democrat who promised a new frontier; in 1962 he lost by a larger margin to a middle-aged, burly, and traditional Democrat who promised to keep things in California very much as they were. For all intents and purposes, Richard Nixon's political career had ended, and his long-suppressed sensitivity to news media criticism exploded in a premature promise that Richard Nixon would, henceforth, no longer be available for newsmen to kick around.
At the end of Ambrose's book it is difficult to realize that much of Richard Nixon's career, including many of the most important episodes in that career, still lay ahead. The next volume of the biography will tell the story of Nixon's years in the “wilderness” (if New York City can be appropriately described by that term), his political comeback, his controversial presidency, and his final and dramatic fall from power in the aftermath of the Watergate break-in. Serious students of American politics and history will await that volume with genuine anticipation. …
Riddles, mysteries, and enigmas about Richard Nixon clearly remain. Even after 700 pages of Ambrose prose, important events in Nixon's youth and early career are largely unexplained. We do not fully know the forces that shaped his personality, and Ambrose is at his best when he warns us against believing that those forces are easy to find. We do not know enough about the character and the dimensions of Nixon's political ambitions, though it is clear that those ambitions were formidable factors in his adult life. We do know that there were evidently important dichotomies in Nixon's character and behavior, but it is sometimes difficult to explain their origins and trace their consequences. We know a great deal about the men who surrounded Richard Nixon during his presidency, but not nearly enough about the complicated relationships that existed among them. We cannot even say that we know all the facts about Watergate, the most exhaustively investigated presidential transgression of the 20th century. When Winston Churchill told the British public about the problems associated with the interpretation of Russian foreign policy, he meant to warn them against those who would suggest benign and superficial explanations of potentially dangerous events. That is good advice, not only for students of history coming to grips with complicated figures in our nation's past but also for citizens deciding how to cast their votes in years divisible by four.
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SOURCE: “Nixon Before the Fall,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 15, 1989, pp. 1, 9.
[In the following excerpted review, Dallek concludes that Nixon: The Triumph of a Politician, 1962-1972 adds little to existing information about Nixon and, furthermore, includes contradictory assessment of Nixon's foreign policy skills.]
Like the mythological Egyptian bird that consumed itself by fire and rose renewed from its ashes, Richard Nixon is a latter-day phoenix. Defeated by John F. Kennedy for the presidency in 1960 and by Pat Brown for the California governorship in 1962, Nixon told a press conference: “You won't have Dick Nixon to kick around any more.”
As so often in his career, his words masked the reality of his actions. He at once began working toward the comeback that culminated in his two victorious campaigns for the White House in 1968 and 1972. Resigning the presidency in 1974 rather than face impeachment and conviction for Watergate crimes. Nixon began his final battle: the vindication by history. Making the case for himself in his 1978 memoirs, he has worked to convince Americans of his greatness as a foreign-policy leader and to obscure the truth of Watergate and other improprieties by blocking release of documents and tapes that might further blight his reputation.
His current campaign enjoys some success. A November, 1988, Louis Harris poll, asking a cross section of Americans to rank the last nine Presidents from F.D.R. to Reagan in 11 categories, rated Nixon as “best in foreign affairs,” well ahead of all the others, except Reagan, who was a close second.
Although a decisive plurality of the poll said that Nixon had set the lowest moral standards of all these Presidents, he scored better than Johnson, Ford, and Carter in several other categories. Having suffered the worst public humiliation of any President in U.S. history by resigning from office and having continued a spirited fight for vindication, Nixon has partly redeemed himself with some Americans who find considerable appeal in a man who doggedly struggles to overcome self-inflicted defeats.
Two new biographies by Roger Morris and Stephen Ambrose will undercut Nixon's efforts to create a positive historical image. …
Stephen Ambrose's biography [Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913-1962], the second of a three-volume work, begins in 1962 when, he says, Nixon launched his second drive for the presidential nomination, and ends with his reelection to the White House in 1972. Ambrose, a distinguished professor of history at the University of New Orleans and author of a fine two-volume biography of Eisenhower, has produced a study that is equally damning of Nixon but less convincing than Morris’ book [Richard Milhous Nixon: The Rise of an American Politician].
Ambrose's biography rests on a more limited body of sources. Although he makes extensive use of Nixon's jottings on news summaries compiled during his first term and of some letters and memos in his presidential papers, the book largely rests on printed materials, memoirs and secondary accounts by journalists. Ambrose has also done some interviewing, but much less than Morris.
The result is a book that does not take us much beyond what we already knew about Nixon in the decade after 1962. Ambrose says that “It is not news that he [Nixon] was devious, manipulative … passionate in his hatreds, self-centered, untruthful, untrusting, and at times so despicable that one wants to avert one's eyes in shame and embarrassment. Nor is it news that this same man could be considerate, straightforward, sympathetic and helpful, or that he was blessed with great talent, a superb intellect, an awesome memory, and a remarkable ability to see things whole, especially on a global scale and with regard to the world balance of power. If he was the ultimate cynic, a President without principle in domestic politics, he was also the ultimate realist, a President without peer in foreign affairs.”
The most interesting feature of Ambrose's book is the extent to which he contradicts his own assertion about Nixon's matchless leadership in world affairs. Ambrose has warm praise for Nixon as a President with a world view who understood the need for a “new era of negotiations” with the Russians and the Chinese. Indeed, Nixon had the imagination and foresight to do what no other post-1945 President had done—seek detente with the Soviets and normal relations with China that became essential steps in the developing end to the Cold War. Yet Ambrose is sharply critical of Nixon's slow withdrawal from Vietnam, which cost so many additional lives for no productive end. He also faults Nixon's policies toward Cambodia, Chile, India and Pakistan, describing them as leaving a legacy of serious unresolved problems.
In time, Ralph Waldo Emerson said, every scoundrel becomes a hero. Richard Nixon is not there yet.
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SOURCE: A review of Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952, and Eisenhower: The President, in Presidential Studies Quarterly, Vol. XX, No. 3, Summer, 1990, pp. 623-26.
[In the following review, Wilz offers positive evaluation of Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952 and Eisenhower: The President.]
Three years after leaving the White House, in 1964, former-President Eisenhower put through a phone call to Stephen Ambrose, a twenty-eight-year-old assistant professor of history at Louisiana State University. Impressed by Ambrose's recent biography of the Civil War general Henry Halleck, Ike wanted Ambrose to assist in the project, just getting under way at Johns Hopkins University, of publishing Eisenhower's private papers. Flabbergasted, Ambrose acceded to the great man's wishes, and over the next five years, during which he had numerous private conversations with Eisenhower, assisted in editing the first five volumes of the Eisenhower papers. He also began to assemble information for a full-dress biography of the onetime general and president, and in 1983–1984 his enterprise came to fruition. The result was the two-volume biography that is the subject of the present review.
Ambrose is an unabashed admirer of Eisenhower. He sets out the overarching theme of his work on the opening page of Chapter One [in Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952] when he writes that “Dwight Eisenhower was born to command and became one of the great captains of military history. He also was born to lead, and … became one of the most successful Presidents of the twentieth century.” Still, he does not refrain from criticizing the subject of his biography. Most importantly, he questions various decisions made by Eisenhower during the North African and Mediterranean campaigns of 1942–1943, and (during the White House years) his cautious approach in the matter of the demagogic communist-hunter from Wisconsin, Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, and his manifest absence of enthusiasm for the crusade to eliminate the scandal of second-class citizenship for Americans of African descent.
Relentlessly chronological, Ambrose's biography traces the life of Eisenhower from the cradle to the grave. The author describes the life of the future general and president in the onetime cow town of Abilene. The Ike of the Abilene years emerges from Ambrose's pages as an athletic and hot-tempered youth who, by the time (at age twenty) he departed Abilene for West Point, was endowed with a curious and active mind, remarkable self-confidence, and an engaging personality whose hallmark even at the early stage of life was an infectious grin. Ambrose relates Eisenhower's years at West Point, his courtship of Mary Geneva “Mamie” Doud, and his frustration during the time of United States belligerency in World War I, when he failed to secure an overseas assignment. During an interesting stint at Camp Meade, Maryland, in the aftermath of the Great War, Ambrose observes, Eisenhower and his fellow officer George S. Patton, Jr., each commanded a battalion of tanks. No less than Patton, Eisenhower became an enthusiastic advocate of tanks operating independently of the infantry—only to abandon such advocacy when so ordered by superior officers. Of larger personal moment during that period of his life and career, Eisenhower suffered the loss of his three-year-old son “Icky,” a victim of scarlet fever.
Ambrose describes the 1920s and 1930s as a time of frustration for Eisenhower, inasmuch as advancement in the minuscule Army of that period was almost impossible. Still, senior officers recognized Ike to be a man of rare ability, and various of them actively sought to have him assigned to their commands. One such senior officer was Douglas MacArthur, and, as is well known, Eisenhower spent much of the 1930s toiling under MacArthur, first in Washington, then in the Philippines. Toiling under the grandiloquent MacArthur was rewarding, but the relationship between the two men was often tense. Another senior officer who recognized Eisenhower's talents was General George C. Marshall, who became chief of staff of the Army in 1939, and as the United States edged toward the general war that had broken in that same year, Marshall advanced Eisenhower to positions of high responsibility. Then, in 1942, Marshall arranged for Eisenhower to be appointed the commander of the newly organized European Theater of Operations.
There are no surprises in the author's account of Eisenhower's performance as the commander of the ETO. Ambrose provides a fairly standard account of a commander who had a unique gift for reconciling differences among leaders of a multinational army and keeping such prima donnas as George Patton and the insufferable Bernard Montgomery functioning in accord with the general strategy worked out at ETO headquarters—a commander who had a sure grasp of the political verities of coalition warfare (as when he turned aside a move by British commanders to relegate American troops to a secondary roll after GI's performed poorly in early operations in North Africa, a relegation that would have touched off a popular outburst in the United States—also when assorted advisers proposed that he sack Montgomery, a sacking that would have infuriated the people of Britain).
Otherwise, Ambrose's General Ike was no Napoleon, that is, he displayed little flair for strategic or tactical innovation. He made mistakes. He was unduly cautious in the Torch operation in North Africa and laggard in pressing Montgomery to move against the port of Antwerp in late summer and autumn of 1944. (The opening of Antwerp was essential to any thrust by the Western Allies into the heart of Germany.) He consented to Montgomery's inane operation aimed at seizing a bridge across the Rhine at Arnhem in the Netherlands. Still, Eisenhower, like Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War of 1864–1865, determined to bring to bear the superiority of the Anglo-Americans in men and firepower and simply wear down the enemy. And that was precisely what he did. Certain British commanders may have derided him as one who lacked imagination and boldness. But, as Ike later noted, only eleven months elapsed between the D-Day landings on the Normandy coast in June of 1944 and the unconditional surrender of the Germans in May of 1945.
Ambrose offers a conventional but richly detailed account of Eisenhower's life and career from the end of the global war through his election to the presidency. He intimates that Ike's stewardship as president of Columbia University was more fruitful than critics have thought. But his case for that proposition is not persuasive. He shows how during those years Eisenhower became an intimate friend of a coterie of millionaire businessmen—Ike's “gang”—whose passions were playing golf and bridge and talking politics. The gang lavished gifts, free trips, and the like on the general, and for his part Eisenhower spent as much time with members of the gang as possible. “With them,” Ambrose writes [on p. 476], “he could relax as he could with no one else.”
The second volume of Ambrose's biography—the one that centers on the presidential years—makes larger demands on the reader than the first volume. Because Eisenhower tended to confront only one problem at a time during the pre-presidential years, Ambrose's rigidly chronological account of unfolding events in Volume One is easy to follow. But during the presidential years, Ike was invariably dealing with a variety of diverse and nettlesome problems, foreign and domestic, at any given moment, and as a consequence of Ambrose's determination to keep his account chronological, the reader encounters Eisenhower's handling of the McCarthy problem and his approach to such questions as civil rights and policy regarding China and the Middle East in a variety of scattered sections. The reader who has little or no prior knowledge and understanding of the main currents of the Eisenhower presidency might find it hard to keep the various threads of the narrative in mind as the author moves, chronologically, from one topic to the next.
The organization aside, Ambrose has written a splendid account of Eisenhower's White House years—and the eight years that followed (to his death in 1969). It offers abundant detail, but is not weighted down with detail. The balance is precisely what it should be. Otherwise, Ambrose, like many other scholars who have come to take a warm view of the Eisenhower presidency, is decidedly generous in his assessment of the thirty-fourth occupant of the presidential office. (A graduate student in my colloquium in contemporary American history recently wrote in a summary critique of Ambrose's second volume that the author had obviously “fallen in love with his subject.”) Like Arthur Larson, Fred I. Greenstein, and others, he dismisses the contention of Eisenhower's critics in the 1950s that Ike was a figurehead chief executive who was not in command of his own administration—for example, that John Foster Dulles rather than the president was the architect of the administration's foreign policy. Ambrose's argument appears beyond dispute. The author believes that, overall, Ike the president provided sensible and effective leadership for the North American superpower during a dangerous period. Ike clearly was a man of peace who strove mightily to resolve the problem of the Cold War and find a formula for achieving genuine disarmament. And during his watch, the national economy remained stable and prosperous.
The reader of Ambrose's splendid account may very well arrive at a somewhat less generous assessment than the author regarding Eisenhower the president, the more so when she or he ponders Ike's lackluster record in civil rights, his endorsement of Joe McCarthy's goals if not his methods, his use of the CIA to overthrow existing regimes in Iran and Guatemala, his blunderbuss policy of massive retaliation in the matter of national defense, his seemingly reckless behavior during the crises in the Formosa Strait (although Ambrose appears to view Ike's handling of those crises as a veritable triumph), his tolerance of the dubious methods employed by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI in the quest for domestic subversives. Still, it is hard to quarrel with Ambrose's essential point that Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of the great Americans of our century, a good and decent man, one who was bright and resourceful, a man of good judgment and strong will, one who could confront difficult problems and make difficult decisions—a man who served his country honorably and effectively for a half-century, one who made a deep and laudable imprint on the history of our times.
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SOURCE: “The Rediscovery of Richard Nixon,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 24, 1991, pp. 4, 11.
[In the following review of Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, Phillips commends Ambrose's “thorough and even-handed” approach, but finds fault in the book's inaccurate political history and lack of comparative analysis between Nixon and other U.S. presidents accused of unethical dealings.]
In both tenacity and perspicacity, Richard Nixon's political re-emergence over the last 14 years has proven as extraordinary as his earlier success at hauling himself back from defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race and going on to win the presidency (on his second try) in 1968. Historians and journalists are only just beginning to deal with the forces and circumstances involved.
In “Why Americans Hate Politics,” political writer E.J. Dionne calls Nixon the man who could have made a more moderate Republicanism work. In “One of Us,” New York Times columnist Tom Wicker writes that Nixon's strength emerged from a political communion with middle-class values and Middle America, a communion that inspired many voters to support him as “one of us.”
The other Republican President who began a watershed, Abraham Lincoln, shared this appeal. But the Republicans lost it in the Gilded Age and again in the late 1920s—and may be doing so again under George Bush—by getting caught up in an elite politics of Wall Street and tax breaks for the richest small minority of Americans. Some key Democrats recognize that these old “cloth coat” Republican loyalties have begun to move Nixon beyond his old partisanship. When Mario Cuomo told a Washington Post reporter that Nixon's common-man origins, loyalties and persistence were somewhat like Lincoln's—for which Nixon sent him a thank-you note—the New York governor was acting on a sage realization that cloth-coat Republican hearts are not necessarily with George Bush in 1992.
Indeed, in Nixon's own most recent book, he noted that his father Frank had voted for third-party Progressive presidential candidate Robert LaFollette in 1924, during the Roaring Twenties boom, because the GOP incumbent in the White House, Calvin Coolidge, was too much for the rich. This is another aspect of the rediscovery of Richard Nixon by liberals and centrists: the realization that maybe he meant what he said two decades ago about being for all those Middle Americans, Joe Six-packs and Peoria residents.
It is becoming increasingly clear that Nixon, back in 1968, was the founding father of the Republican era that went on to claim the White House for five of six terms, interrupted only by Jimmy Carter in the reaction against Watergate. Presidents who fill this era-launching role stand out historically, which is already forcing renewed attention to Nixon in the supra-Watergate sense.
Thus it is somewhat disappointing that while Stephen Ambrose's subtitle [of Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990] is evenly split between ruin and recovery, his book's contents aren't. Nixon's ruination in Watergate takes up at least two-thirds of these pages, with only a fifth or so devoted to his recovery over the last 15 years. That allocation could be a mistake. The book itself has more than a few hints that historians may find themselves shifting emphasis.
Take the accompanying blurb from the publisher, Simon & Schuster. It remarks of Nixon that “Within a decade and a half of his resignation, not only had he become America's elder statesman, but he was threatening to become America's beloved elder statesman.” Ambrose's own television appearances discussing the book have conveyed an impressed-with-Nixon quality that presumably would have surprised him when he began his three-volume project a decade ago. This may be telling us something the author's actual words don't.
Most of the book is his usual, well-done arrangement of history. Unluckily for Ambrose, however, the Watergate chapters are already partially dated by the new analyses and revelations in Silent Coup: The Removal of a President, the best-seller by Len Colodny and Robert Gettlin, which appeared this spring. That was too late for Ambrose to note its powerful arguments that Nixon knew less about Watergate than was previously thought, and while hardly innocent, was significantly misled by his White House counsel, John Dean, who was deeply involved. Future historians will not be able to discuss Watergate without taking Silent Coup into account.
Interestingly, Ambrose himself notes that in 1977, when broadcaster Diane Sawyer, then a Nixon aide, prepared a Watergate “flow chart” tracing day by day the events of June, 1972, to August, 1974, Nixon told her, “You know, this is the first time I've really understood everything that happened.” The Colodny-Gettlin revelations, however, suggest he was premature. Facts and relationships are still emerging. Indeed, Silent Coup should be amplified by other new reexaminations from ex-Nixon aides, principally from former Chief of Staff Bob Haldeman.
Fortunately, partly obsolescent approaches to the scandal's origins don't matter to the bulk of the volume, which ranges from the unraveling of Watergate in the Spring of 1973 to the painful days of 1974–75, after Nixon had left office. Besides being readable, Ambrose is thorough and even-handed.
His principal weakness is politics. In fact, the first paragraph of his first chapter begins with two errors: that in the 1972 election, Nixon beat Democrat George McGovern by 60٪-40٪ (it was 61٪ to 38٪) and that the Democrats made gains in both houses of Congress (they actually lost a dozen seats in the House). After beginning so inauspiciously, the limitations of Ambrose's political knowledge don't matter so much for the rest of the book—1972, after all, was Richard Nixon's last election—until the author comes to the Nixon “recovery” years of the 1980s.
Even so, the hundred or so pages Ambrose devotes to Nixon's political and historical comeback between 1977 and the summer of 1990 represent a trailblazer of sorts. This is the first major Nixon chronicle to award the “recovery” label, and others are sure to follow.
In 1992 or 1996, Nixon, as the first GOP President of the post-1968 Republicans era, may face another interesting “first”—in contrast to the other Presidents who presided over the beginning of electoral watersheds. Jefferson, Lincoln, Jackson and Franklin Roosevelt died well before their parties’ cycles in office came to an end. As a result, they did not have to face the ungluing of their old voting coalitions in favor of something new, along with the strain in loyalties that might involve.
Richard Nixon, despite his ongoing Republican fidelities, may be the first President to have presided over one watershed and then lived to confront the shifts and questions of the next one. Cloth-coat Nixon Republicans may be a pivotal swing group in the 1990s, like Jacksonian Democrats were in the pre-Civil War North.
Nixon's re-emergence in U.S. political history has been additionally greased by the increasing disrepute and scandals overtaking other Presidents. John F. Kennedy's reputation was sinking even before the autumn, 1991, revelations by his girlfriend, Judith Exner, that she had to carry money to mobster Sam Giancana, some of which apparently paid for mob help in making Illinois go narrowly Democratic in 1960. That was the election Nixon lost by a very small margin, but declined to contest for fraud because of the divisiveness of such an action.
Lyndon Johnson's integrity also has been tarnished in new biographies; Oliver North, in turn, suggests that Ronald Reagan must have known all about Iran-Contra and thereby participated in a major cover-up of his own. George Bush remains to be seen. Small wonder that the Watergate-era attempt to portray Nixon as a uniquely immoral President has all but imploded as the evidence about other recent Presidents unfolds.
Stephen Ambrose did not deal with any of these points, but I think future biographers will have to. It is unrealistic to call Richard Nixon “America's beloved elder statesman,” as the book blurb does. Beloved, Nixon will never be. However, with a record 60 appearances on the cover of Time magazine to his credit, and with the 50th anniversary of his election to Congress approaching in 1996, Nixon is well on his way to being the most important U.S. politician of the second half of the 20th Century. And with Ambrose's book as one launching pad, new generations of historians will find themselves trying to explain why.
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SOURCE: “The High Cost of Watergate,” in New Leader, December 30, 1991, pp. 16-17.
[In the following review, O'Neill offers praise for Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.]
The first line of Stephen E. Ambrose's smashing conclusion to his biography of Richard M. Nixon [Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990] says it all: “This is the political story of the century.”
In volume one Ambrose described Nixon's rapid rise from small-town lawyer to the Vice Presidency, his narrow loss to John F. Kennedy, and then his humiliating defeat by Edmund G. “Pat” Brown for the governorship of California in 1962. That would have finished any other politician, and at the time everyone except Nixon believed he was through. But no sooner was his “final” press conference at an end than he began planning his future.
In volume two Ambrose showed how over the next few years Nixon positioned himself to become the inevitable GOP candidate for President in 1968, how he narrowly scraped by that year, and how he went on to win re-election with 60.7 per cent of the vote in 1972—the third widest margin in history. Yet Nixon derived no pleasure from his triumph because the Democrats still controlled both houses of Congress and he knew they were out to get him. They would succeed, too, as a result of the crimes and deceptions that we know collectively as Watergate, though not until Nixon had put up a tremendous fight.
Two thirds of Ruin and Recovery's 597 pages of text concerns that fight, and, while many books have already been written about Nixon's fall, none is so absorbing. The tight focus helps, for it is easy to get lost in the telling of the huge and complex Watergate saga. Ambrose relates as much of the story as he needs to, always keeping Nixon at the center. It also helps that the author is a seasoned interviewer and mines the infamous Nixon tapes with skills gained from long experience as an oral as well as a document historian.
Ambrose thinks Nixon could have held on to the Presidency in any number of ways—most obviously by burning the tapes—but mistakenly “chose to try to save all by risking all.” The tapes were important to his strategy, not because they enabled Nixon to keep track of who knew what and what he had said to whom—a major concern, for he was weaving an intricate web of deceit—but because he thought that they would be his salvation.
On June 4, 1973, after listening to hours of recorded conversation between himself and White House Counsel John Dean, Nixon told Chief Adviser H. R. Haldeman that the tapes established his innocence. This will astonish anyone who heard Dean's testimony before Congress, which amounted to a damning indictment of the President and was supported by the tapes. Nixon, however, was buried by then in a tangle of lies and coverups that confused even him. Moreover, as Ambrose points out, he was convinced that if he handled the public relations side of a problem well he had solved the problem itself. Thus he considered using edited versions of the tapes on his own behalf, since they contained exculpatory remarks he had made for that very purpose.
Although Watergate turned out well in that the guilty paid for their crimes, the cost was high. Part of that cost was blowing an outside chance to end the Arab-Israeli struggle. On the morning of October 20, 1973, during the Yom Kippur War and just hours before the Saturday Night Massacre of Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox, Attorney General Elliot L. Richardson, and his deputy William Ruckelshaus, the President sent a long cablegram to Henry Kissinger in Moscow. It instructed the Secretary of State to accept an informal offer made by Soviet leader Leonid I. Brezhnev prior to the outbreak of fighting to cooperate with the United States in a superpower resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nixon had not been interested when Brezhnev initially brought up the idea, but the Yom Kippur War persuaded him that a long-term solution had to be imposed upon the participants. The cable, Ambrose says, showed the President at the top of his form and offered the first real hope for a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Kissinger, who wanted only a simple cease-fire, was furious. He called Alexander M. Haig, the new White House Chief of Staff, to rail against Nixon's change of course. Haig replied angrily that he had problems of his own and could not worry about the Secretary's. Sarcastically Kissinger asked what kind of trouble could there be in Washington on a Saturday night. Haig then told him of the impending confrontation between the President and the Justice Department. Kissinger realized at once that Nixon would be too busy to follow through on the superpower initiative so he could safely ignore it. Perhaps it would have failed, but the fact remains that a potential settlement of the Middle East problem could be torpedoed by Kissinger because Watergate kept Nixon from doing his job.
As this suggests, Ambrose is not a Kissinger fan. Indeed, he represents the Secretary as the one successful liar in Nixon's official family. The principal lie concerned the role he played in the illegal wiretapping of reporters’ and National Security Council staff members’ telephones between 1969 and 1971. Despite his active participation in the scheme, Kissinger blew up when newspapers began reporting the story in June 1974. He went so far as to hold a special press conference to falsely proclaim his innocence, and he threatened to resign if people did not stop questioning his honor. Aghast at the thought of losing the only senior member of Nixon's government who still commanded respect, the media did not call his bluff.
Of the scholars who have subjected Nixon to critical study, and few have examined him in any other way, Ambrose is the fairest. Even so, he concludes that Nixon was unfit to govern, and that he would have been impeached had he not resigned. But Ambrose regrets that much of Nixon's foreign policy and the last hopes for domestic reform went with him.
Everyone remembers the disgraced President's big strokes: détente with the Soviets, the strategic arms limitation talks, the opening to China—all, as Ambrose said in volume two, uniquely Nixonian. Because the new turn in foreign policy was so personal, it depended on Nixon staying in office. After he left détente collapsed and SALT II was never ratified. Another decade of arms races and superpower competitions passed before relations with the Soviet Union improved.
Except for expanding some Great Society programs, Nixon did not accomplish much at home. The choicest idea of his first term, the Family Assistance Program, was sabotaged by Congressional Democrats to prevent Republicans from getting credit for reforming the welfare system. In his second term Nixon tossed out various proposals, including an expanded student loan program, health insurance for all Americans, energy independence, and mass transit improvements. Whether or not he would have gotten any of these through Congress, he meant to try, which is more than his successors have done. And without him to protect it revenue sharing died, a major reason why so many cities and states are in financial distress today.
With Nixon's departure the Republican middle ground collapsed: The GOP fell into conservative hands, Ronald Reagan became President, spending for armaments surged upward, domestic programs were slashed, the income tax was reduced, and a mountain of debt accumulated that has paralyzed government. Almost everything is worse now than when Nixon was President, not solely because he left office too soon, yet that is part of the reason. We lost more than we gained when Nixon resigned, Ambrose finds. This will be resisted by liberals who still refuse to give Nixon credit for anything, and by conservatives who never felt he was one of them and have a vested interest in representing the Reagan years as America's finest. No matter, Ambrose is right.
The last third of volume three describes Nixon's climb back from oblivion. With his usual doggedness he worked hard to rehabilitate himself, continuing to meet with world leaders and to write books. When the Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace was dedicated on July 19, 1990, everyone showed up—the three other living Presidents, four secretaries of state, Bob Hope, and Barbara Walters. He is an elder statesman now, a venerable presence at official occasions and a pompous font of obsolete wisdom on foreign policy issues. He remains as mendacious as ever, as self-serving and as self-righteous, but he is in the game again—forever it appears.
Ruin and Recovery is biography at its best, a fabulous story told with great zest and drive, as fair to its subject as it can be, yet strongly opinionated. Ambrose says he loved writing this book. Readers will love it too.
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SOURCE: “By Hook or By Crook,” in Spectator, February 1, 1992, p. 32.
[In the following review, Howard offers positive assessment of Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.]
‘He went out the same way he came in, no class'—that was John Kennedy's comment on his rival the day after Richard Nixon lost the presidential election to him in 1960. Many would say the same about Nixon's last demeaning exit from the White House 14 years later. For most of this third volume of his epic biography of the only US President ever to be forced to resign, Stephen E. Ambrose seems to belong to their company. The story of Nixon's deceit and dissimulation over Watergate has not lost its ability to chill and, although Ambrose tries hard to tell it dispassionately, the meticulously researched case he builds up ensures that the final result is totally devastating. When, beleaguered and embattled, the 37th President eventually announces at a Florida press conference, ‘People have got to know whether or not their President is a crook—well, I am not a crook', it is hard to resist the conclusion that he was at least being consistent. He was lying to the end.
In that sense, Ambrose's book [Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990] certainly does nothing to restore Nixon's reputation. But by devoting the last quarter of his narrative to his subject's pertinacious climb-back to respectability, the author does at least add something new to the Nixon canon. This part of the story is told with something approaching admiration, and, while not every reader will share that feeling, it is hard to withhold a certain grudging respect for the truly remarkable stamina that Nixon displayed in adversity.
There were moments, of course, of abject self-pity. Nixon always had his maudlin side—and as late as April 1990 he thought nothing of telling Time magazine that ‘no one had ever been so high and fallen so low’ (conveniently ignoring the fact that, unlike his erstwhile Attorney General, John Mitchell, he at least had escaped going to prison). But mostly, it was his sheer determination to fight back from disgrace that prevailed and Ambrose is at his best in describing the various staging-posts on that journey.
At first, there was simply exile. The former Western White House at San Clemente became Nixon's Elba; and Ambrose is right to emphasise that the five years he spent there—‘the paying of penance', as he slightly sententiously puts it—were critical to the whole rehabilitation process. Even then, as in the David Frost 1977 TV interviews, he broke cover occasionally—never, however, by taking the easy way out of offering the American people the forthright apology for which they yearned. Stubbornness was consistently an essential part of Nixon's character and, while he was willing to admit to mistakes, he was determined not to confess to any actual wrong-doing. That was why Gerald Ford's presidential pardon hurt him most of all, since it necessarily implied that somewhere there was guilt.
Yet as early as 1976, with his trip to China, Nixon had even put that behind him. If he was without honour in his own country, he was an idol in the nation to which in his years of power he had arranged the famous ‘opening’. After that, the ice had been broken and by the autumn of 1978 he was being fêted in Paris and even being cheered by students in the Oxford Union. He still had problems with domestic opinion, but Anwar Sadat's death three years later brought him back for the first time to the White House, flying off from there to Egypt in the company of the three other living ex-Presidents (to the Shah's funeral a year earlier he had gone, defiantly, alone). For a President who had always prided himself on his command of foreign policy, it was perhaps only appropriate that the road to recovery should have lain through international globetrotting.
By the beginning of 1980, when he moved from California to New York, Nixon had even begun to restore his fortunes at home. He had started giving newspaper interviews to carefully selected correspondents and in the presidential campaign of 1980, which brought Ronald Reagan to the White House, found himself employed by the NBC network as a commentator on the electoral process. If he had not wholly wiped the slate clean—it was not until 1990 that he got his own presidential library (and then without any input of federal funds)—he had at least achieved a measure of acceptability.
Given what he had to live down, it was—as James Reston originally wrote of Nixon when he won his party's nomination in 1968—‘the greatest comeback since Lazarus’. Ambrose is particularly perceptive on the qualities possessed by this strange, lonely autodidact—the total opposite of the normal extrovert politician—that made the miracle possible. He is a bit given to being portentous—there is far too much about ‘this author’ feeling or doing this or that—but he has crowned the edifice of his impressive trilogy with an admirably fair-minded last volume covering easily the most controversial aspect of what was already a singularly resilient political career.
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SOURCE: “The Man Who Came Back,” in Contemporary Review, Vol. 261, No. 1518, July, 1992, pp. 45-6.
[In the following review, Wright offers praise for Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.]
Despite the high drama of a now-familiar story, and despite the daunting detail, this is a remarkably fair study. Indeed, Ambrose comes gradually to like Nixon [in Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990]. ‘That is not easy to do, as he doesn't really want to be liked.’ What he admires—and what he conveys—is that Nixon never gives up, and is always true to himself.
The main strength of the book lies in its variety: beginning in the triumph in the Presidential election of November 1972 to the slow two-year agony, from the (foolish, unnecessary and unauthorised) Watergate break-in until the resignation of August 1974; the roll-call of the now near-fictional characters, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean and Mitchell, Colson and the Cubans; Nixon's awareness that ‘It will be each man for himself, and one will not be afraid to rat on the others’; and, afterwards, the long and solitary anguish of his own night of the soul, in retirement in California. He was aware that he had made bitter enemies over his twenty-five years in Federal politics, and that they had been unforgiving. Hatred of Nixon became and long remained a national obsession. But the qualities that had ministered to his own undoing—his own lack of trust in others, and his own conspicuous lack of friends—became now his bedrock. He set out deliberately to maximise his strengths, notably his special expertise in foreign policy—in the opening to China, in ending the American involvement in Vietnam, in warning Israel not to go too far, in establishing détente in Europe. The few men he had come to trust were, in fact, the leaders of other countries—De Gaulle and Churchill, Mao and Chou—and they now became his models and his inspiration; they too had fought back, and went on fighting. He became not only a foreign policy expert but an Elder Statesman, listened to with a new, reluctant and hard-won respect at home and abroad. So that Ambrose can conclude that ‘when Nixon resigned, we lost more than we gained.’
Ambrose adds, in his epilogue, his own psychological analysis; he sees much that explained Nixon in the early poverty, the struggle for recognition, the total self-containedness. His verdict is admirably balanced. Nixon was ‘heroic, admirable and inspiring, while simultaneously being dishonourable, despicable and a horrible example.’ As the years pass, he grows in stature. Perhaps Kissinger's view is the shrewdest of all: ‘He would have been a great, great man had somebody loved him.’
This is a superb, readable and scholarly biography of a remarkable and fascinating man.
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SOURCE: A review of Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990, in Historian, Vol. 55, No. 2, Winter, 1993, pp. 372-73.
[In the following review, Giglio offers positive assessment of Nixon: Ruin and Recovery, 1973-1990.]
Bryce Harlow once compared Richard Nixon to a cork: “Push him down and he pops right back up” (583). The enduring resiliency of Nixon is one of the central themes of Ruin and Recovery, the concluding segment of Stephen E. Ambrose's three-volume biography. He covers the “peace with honor” settlement in Vietnam, the Yom Kippur War, Nixon's fascination with China, détente with the Soviet Union, the Watergate crisis, Nixon's exile, and his recovery.
On domestic matters, Ambrose rightly focuses on the national obsession with Watergate, which, of course, cost Nixon his presidency. Largely through the use of White House tapes, Ambrose documents Nixon's complicity in the cover-up and his abuse of power. Like other scholars, he portrays Nixon as a flawed personality who deceived his colleagues, his family, and himself. Yet he argues that other contemporary presidents also relied on dirty tricks, used the IRS to punish political enemies, wiretapped, taped conversations in the Oval Office, and other assorted abuses of power, including using the presidency for personal gain. More than anything, the forced disclosures of the White House tapes contributed to Nixon's demise. Ambrose addresses the key question of why Nixon failed to destroy the tapes by explaining that the president thought that they “constituted his best defense, if used selectively, and because he was certain he could command complete control of them” (197). Nixon had underestimated the persistence of Archibald Cox, John Sirica, and Sam Ervin.
The resignation nearly killed Nixon. Hounded by subsequent suits and possible trials, he not only faced cardiovascular shock following surgery for phlebitis, but he also supposedly verged on suicide. What saved him was his loving family, a few friends, and his own determination not to be thought a quitter: “A man is not finished when he is defeated; he is finished [only] when he quits” (522). Ambrose chronicles his recovery, beginning with the television interviews with David Frost, his speeches in Middle America, his visits abroad, and his published books. Though Ambrose refers to Nixon as an elder statesman, he recognizes the limitations of Nixon's return, for the Republican party has failed to recognize his existence. Moreover, there is no evidence that Reagan or Bush ever adopted his extensive recommendations.
In his final assessment, Ambrose portrays Nixon as a consummate actor, a risk taker, extremely self-disciplined and proud, one who failed to see the limits of power, and as a leader who despised virtue. He labels Nixon as the angriest president, one who found it difficult to trust and love others. In discussing Nixon's weaknesses, Ambrose, without providing alternative explanations, discounts the impact of early relationships, particularly the harshness of Nixon's father. He sees Nixon's resignation as bad for the country for it destroyed his foreign policy initiatives and his domestic commitments. (Didn't Watergate devastate both?) Moreover, the resignation paved the way for the Reagan Revolution, which Ambrose views as a major setback.
Ambrose's study is thoughtful, critical, and empathetic. It seeks to humanize Nixon. It is weak in its sources, for much of Nixon's correspondence and tapes remain unavailable, forcing Ambrose to rely on memoirs, Nixon's writings, and newspapers.
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SOURCE: A review of Eisenhower and the German POWs, in History, Vol. 79, No. 255, February, 1994, p. 186.
[In the following review, Kentleton offers positive assessment of Eisenhower and the German POWs.]
In 1989 James Bacque in Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners of War at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II alleged that Eisenhower as commander of the American army of occupation deliberately withheld food and shelter from captured German forces, causing the death of between 800,000 and one million prisoners of war through starvation and disease. Furthermore, this crime, carried out by the American and French armies, had been subsequently covered up with the connivance of professional historians. To investigate these grave charges, the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans organized a conference in 1990; this volume records its proceedings. In the turmoil of war-torn Europe, with food scarce, transport disrupted, shipping needed for the Pacific and a huge influx of refugees, POWs became DEFs (‘disarmed enemy forces’), thereby avoiding the obligations of the Geneva Convention which the allies simply could not honour, if required to feed five million German prisoners a ration equal to their own soldiers. The camps were rudimentary, often a field with no shelter, a string of barbed-wire and a handful of guards. The Rhine meadow ones were the worst. A small percentage of prisoners died unnecessarily. This much is made clear by the editors in their introduction and the eight papers covering the issue's context, the situation of Germany in 1945, the POW question in German historiography and the problems posed by ‘conspiratorial history’. On Bacque's wilder assertions, the various contributors do an expert demolition job. Indeed, they are at their most effective when most restrained. Just occasionally one or two allow themselves to be provoked into ad hominem rejoinders: ‘Those parts of Other Losses that might rise above a failing grade in an undergraduate term paper are not new’ (p. 53); Bacque's ‘amateur's cookie cutter’ (p. 55); ‘this ex-publisher’ (p. 56). No doubt it is galling that sensational charges against prominent individuals attract undue notice; Nikolai Tolstoy's The Minister and the Massacres is cited as a comparable example; but that Tolstoy's relationship with the great Russian writer may be remote, or that his title of count may have no legal basis, is an unworthy irrelevance (p. 184). The best antidote to bad history is good history. This volume is an example. Moreover, the plethora of essential footnotes are mercifully where they should be in a well-produced book. The publishers, too, deserve credit.
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SOURCE: A review of Eisenhower and the German POWs, in Journal of American History, Vol. 80, No. 4, March, 1994, p. 1526.
[In the following review, Ziemke concludes that Eisenhower and the German POWs does not adequately explain the deaths of German POWs in Allied prison camps.]
World War II as specialty has an occupational hazard: It attracts the attention of persons who create sensational hypotheses for which they lack validating evidence. In 1987, I received a call from a James Bacque, who said he believed Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower had been responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands, possibly a million, German POWs in American hands after the German surrender. Had I come across information that would substantiate such a charge? If not, did I know where it was to be found? I told him I had none and most seriously doubted that any existed.
In 1989, a book appeared bearing the title Other Losses: An Investigation into the Mass Deaths of German Prisoners at the Hands of the French and Americans after World War II. The author, James Bacque, accused Eisenhower of having surreptitiously—by means of “winks and nods”—created a “lethal” DEF (disarmed enemy forces) status that denied the Germans their POW rights and subjected a million of them to death by starvation and neglect. To prove his case, Bacque assumed that “other losses,” a term military personnel officers routinely used in their bookkeeping, was a euphemism invented to conceal the deaths. Other Losses drew little attention in the United States, some in Canada and England, and more in Germany, where it was simultaneously published in German.
On February 24, 1991, in an article in the New York Times Book Review, Stephen E. Ambrose, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, summarized Bacque's most egregious falsifications and distortions and announced that the Eisenhower Center had assembled an international committee of historians “to get at the full truth.” The present volume is the result: eight essays by two German, one Austrian, one Canadian, and four American scholars.
To let the “facts,” as the subtitle indicates, confute Bacque, the committee assembled a mass of German and American evidence against his contention that a million prisoners died—or could have died—because they were denied adequate rations even though no actual food shortage existed. Regrettably, in doing so it has all but lost sight of the alleged perpetrator, Eisenhower. Bacque's sole objective, despite his protestations of sympathy for the POWs, was to enroll Eisenhower in the ranks of mass murderers alongside Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The DEF category was his “smoking gun,” and to it the committee has given a bare nine pages.
Bacque understandably does not look beyond Eisenhower for the origins of the DEF category. The committee rightly ascribes it to the London-based, American-British-Soviet European Advisory Committee (EAC) but draws an astounding conclusion: “the decisions that fated hundreds of thousands of German soldiers to languish for months and even years in Allied camps were not Eisenhower's but Allied occupation policy forged in a spirit of severity toward those who had plunged Europe into unfathomable misery.” In short, the DEFs were victims, not of Eisenhower, but of his superiors’ vengeful policy.
Had the committee given the EAC decision somewhat closer attention it could have ascertained that the Americans in the EAC harbored no desire to see German soldiers “languishing” in camps (as those whom the Soviet Union declared POWs in fact did) but regarded the DEF category as a means of assuring an early and rapid disbandment of the German forces. Having made that observation, the committee might have been able as well to deal more coherently with events after the surrender and to achieve a decisive judgment on the Bacque volume. As the matter stands, however, the prospective reader will find this search for “truth” as much perplexing as enlightening.
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SOURCE: “D-Day: New Book Pays Tribute to the Heroism of Individual Soldiers,” in Chronicle of Higher Education, May 18, 1994, pp. A8-9, A14.
[In the following essay, Jaschik discusses Ambrose's scholarly interests, his use of oral history to compose D-Day, June 6, 1944, and critical reaction to his portrayal of the Normandy invasion in this work.]
Stephen E. Ambrose has revered the veterans of World War II since he was 10 years old. The war had just ended, and former GI's who lived in his neighborhood in Whitewater, Wis., played basketball on his family's driveway.
“I just thought they were giants, both physically and because I knew enough of what they had done during the war,” says Mr. Ambrose. “There would be guys out there with terrible scars, terrible stories. I thought they were giants then and I still do.”
Mr. Ambrose, professor of history at the University of New Orleans, pays tribute to some of his heroes in D-Day, June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II.
The book will be released next month to mark the 50th anniversary of the Allied invasion of France. It argues that the victories in Normandy were less a result of good planning and military superiority than of American values of independent thought and the heroism of individual soldiers. Because the Allied, and particularly American, soldiers were able to think on their feet and respond to changing conditions, Mr. Ambrose says, they overcame tremendous setbacks to win the crucial battles of D-Day.
On D-Day, the Allies landed on a series of French beaches in Normandy and started the drive to Germany to defeat Hitler. The landing came after two years of intense planning for a way to retake France and push the German forces out of Western Europe.
The book is based on interviews with 1,400 participants in on both sides of the battles. According to Mr. Ambrose, those are more first-person accounts than have ever been collected about any battle. He says that he gathered the interviews out of the conviction that, taken together, they would change the way D-Day is viewed.
‘FROZEN WITH FEAR’
Mr. Ambrose sees his book as revisionist, in that it gives credit for the victory to common soldiers, not to the commanders. “What's clear now is that this was a second lieutenant's battle, not a general's battle.” he says. “The Germans were frozen with fear about instituting an action on their own, and the American soldiers were the exact opposite.”
Mr. Ambrose begins his book by reviewing the German and Allied preparations for the invasion and then walks the reader through each phase of D-Day: the air bombardments that preceded the landings, the journey across the English Channel, and the landings themselves. Frequent quotations from the combatants recall how they fought and what they saw.
Some of the vignettes are funny, as in how condoms were used to protect the muzzles of rifles from sand and water. Many others are tragic, particularly the descriptions of the first landings at Omaha Beach, where miscalculations led to terrible Allied casualties.
Sgt. Thomas Valance describes being shot five times and collapsing against a sea wall: “The bodies of my buddies were washing ashore, and I was the one live body in amongst so many of my friends, all of whom were dead, in many cases very severely blown to pieces.”
While most of the stories come from Americans, the book also includes accounts from British and Canadian soldiers, and from men in the German forces as well.
Already, some historians have said that Mr. Ambrose's book will be the definitive account of a battle that was a turning point in World War II and, some say, the 20th century in establishing American leadership of the world's democracies.
Theodore A. Wilson, a professor of history at the University of Kansas and the editor of a collection of essays on D-Day, says Mr. Ambrose's book fills a void. Much has been written about the leaders, he says, and a good deal of popular writing has been done on individual soldiers. But those accounts have been “choppy and without context.” Mr. Wilson says.
“What Steve Ambrose has done is to integrate all of those stories with the larger context.”
Others, however, say that Mr. Ambrose's acknowledged admiration for his research subjects has clouded his objectivity.
“I think he has met all of these people and come to like them. So he ends up praising them more than assessing what they did,” says Russell F. Weigley,” professor of history at Temple University and author of Eisenhower's Lieutenants: The Campaign of France and Germany, 1944–45 (Indiana University Press). “He veers away from a historian's real job of writing history to erecting a kind of monument,” Mr. Weigley says.
30 YEARS OF RESEARCH
For Mr. Ambrose, the D-Day book is the culmination of 30 years of research on the career of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who planned and led the invasion.
Mr. Ambrose was a 28-year-old freshly minted Ph.D. in 1964 when the former President called to ask if he would help edit his papers. Eisenhower had read Mr. Ambrose's first book, Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff, published by the Louisiana State University Press in 1962. “I suspect that maybe 300 people read that book, but I was lucky, that he was one of them,” Mr. Ambrose says.
That led to a job as assistant editor for five volumes of Eisenhower papers that were published by the Johns Hopkins University Press in the 1960's, Mr. Ambrose's fascination with Ike never dimmed.
He has written six scholarly books about Eisenhower. That figure doesn't count a children's book about the man, a biography of Eisenhower's brother Milton, or a three-volume biography of President Nixon that grew out of research on Nixon's role as Eisenhower's Vice-President.
Spending a career studying Eisenhower “was the best decision I ever made,” says Mr. Ambrose. He says Eisenhower—in contrast to many of the politicians who followed him—was honest, straightforward, and concerned foremost with the national interest. “You can't have a better life than living with Dwight Eisenhower. I hero-worship—unabashedly.”
The mistakes at D-Day that Mr. Ambrose writes about in his new book do not diminish his view of Eisenhower, he adds. “Eisenhower set up the situation where these second lieutenants could do the things they did to win.”
Mr. Ambrose credits Eisenhower for giving him the idea of collecting oral histories about D-Day. When talking to Eisenhower, Mr. Ambrose says, he noticed that he could remember “every single detail” about D-Day, even though “he couldn't remember for the life of him” other important events of his military or political career.
“I started to figure that it might be that way for every man who went in on D-Day,” he says. So in 1983, Mr. Ambrose founded the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans to collect oral histories of D-Day veterans. The center took out advertisements in newspapers seeking the names of people who went through the battle, and researchers visited reunions of military units looking for willing interviewees.
The aging of D-Day participants, most of whom are in their 70's, gave the project urgency.
Veterans of D-Day were sent tapes and instructions to tell their stories “minute by minute.” Transcripts of those tapes run anywhere from 5 to 100 pages.
A small team of students helped Mr. Ambrose. In addition, the Eisenhower Center's associate director, Günter Bischof, interviewed German participants. Mr. Bischof is an Austrian native whose father was a soldier in the Wehrmacht.
Starting three years ago, Mr. Ambrose read all of the transcripts, checking the accounts against each other, and preparing his manuscript. He says it is “sort of an art form” to figure out which stories to use and which ones to discard. Some of the transcripts appeared to be a mix of actual memories combined unintentionally with events described in movies or books, and some just did not ring true, he says. In the end, he adds, he made his choices based on whether accounts were confirmed by others or the historical record.
“It becomes probability. It's ‘I know that so-and-so was there and he didn't see this,’” Mr. Ambrose says.
A common theme of the oral histories, he adds, was that the American soldiers were willing to do whatever was necessary to win. They had the gumption to carry off a constantly evolving battle plan—even under a barrage of enemy fire.
Mr. Ambrose is quick to add that using oral history worked only because of the basic honesty of the interviewees. “These guys downplay rather than exaggerate what they have done,” he says. He would never attempt an oral political history, he says, “because politicians lie so much.”
Mr. Ambrose suggests that historians who want to study the Vietnam or Persian Gulf wars should employ similar techniques. “You can study documents and they will tell you how generals came to decide this or that. But if you are writing about war, you've got to get to the men who fought it. You've got to get to the grunts.”
Where historians come down on Mr. Ambrose's new work depends in part on their views of oral history. To those who have been pushing for military history to shift away from battle plans and weapons and pay more attention to the lives of common people, the D-Day book is a welcome reinforcement.
“What is most significant about this book is that he is able to tell a traditional military story with the experiences of enlisted men,” says Judy Barrett Litoff, a professor of history at Bryant College and author of the forthcoming We're in This War Too: World War II Letters of American Women in Uniform (Oxford University Press).
Ms. Litoff says Mr. Ambrose's reputation as Eisenhower's biographer will force more-conventional military historians to take note of oral history. “If anyone's going to bridge that gap, it's Stephen Ambrose,” she says.
Gerhard L. Weinberg, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says he is writing a generally positive review of Mr. Ambrose's book for a publication he declines to name. Mr. Weinberg, author of A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge University Press), says Mr. Ambrose's book will help clarify the world's understanding of D-Day. First, he says, Mr. Ambrose's analysis makes clear that the invasion was “an enormous gamble,” not the “sure thing” many have come to believe it was.
In addition, he says Mr. Ambrose's portrayals of German soldiers help correct the false image of them as “supermen.” In actuality, Mr. Weinberg says, “the Germans goofed frequently, and the German leadership, far from being very sound, was confused and venal.”
At the same time, however, Mr. Weinberg notes that the genre Mr. Ambrose chose—a focus on a single day—placed limits on what he could include, just as Mr. Weinberg's recent book faced different constraints. “There was not room in my book for discussions of combat operations, but if you write about a specific battle, there is not room for a nuanced discussion of the broader picture,” he says.
Other scholars are more critical, Allan R. Millett, professor of military history at the Ohio State University, says Mr. Ambrose's thesis relies on the incorrect belief that a loss for the Allies at Omaha beach would have doomed D-Day as a whole. “I think that the critical thing that Allied planners did was to prevent German reinforcements from getting to the beach quickly,” says Mr. Millett, co-author of For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States (Free Press).
If the Allies hadn't salvaged the landing at Omaha Beach on the first day, Mr. Millett says, other options were available. “Either troops would have been moved from the other beaches or there would have been another landing.”
THE ‘COMMEMORATIVE’ TRAP
Mr. Weigley of Temple says that Mr. Ambrose has fallen into a trap common with “anniversary” books. “There comes with them a strong temptation to write commemorative volumes rather than critical history. The historian somewhat compromises his role,” he says.
The book provides a useful “worm's-eye view” of the action on D-Day, Mr. Weigley says. But Mr. Ambrose's patriotic fervor clouds the story, he adds. “I think he is critical of the military plans to excess, and, conversely, he may emphasize the heroism to excess.”
Mr. Weigley has written a critical review of the book for Parameters, a journal of the U.S. Army War College. “I am a friend of Stephen Ambrose's and this book disappoints me,” he says.
Such criticism doesn't surprise Mr. Ambrose. “This book is triumphalism, and that is the scorn of the academic community,” he says, predicting that the major history associations will ignore his work at their scholarly meetings.
“History departments today aren't interested in politics or war or heroes, but that's what people are interested in,” he says. He adds that the disdain with which he expects many academics to view his book reflects the way they are out of touch with their students. “Young people don't want to know what labor unions were doing about women's rights in 1830. They want to know about Andrew Jackson.”
For his part, Mr. Ambrose is doing his best to tell the story of D-Day. In addition to publishing his book, he is organizing the National D-Day Museum, scheduled to open at the University of New Orleans in 1996.
For next month's anniversary, Mr. Ambrose will travel to France. Asked which site of the invasion he would visit on June 6, Mr. Ambrose says the choice was easy: He will spend the day with a group of veterans at the American cemetery in Normandy.
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SOURCE: “Operation Overlord from the Inside,” in New Leader, June 6-20, 1994, pp. 12-13.
[In the following review, O'Neill offers praise for D-Day, June 6, 1944.]
Cornelius Ryan's classic The Longest Day, though still a wonderful read, came out in 1959 when much vital information about Operation Overlord remained classified or was otherwise unavailable. Thus a need existed that many historians were eager to fill, and early this spring books began pouring off the presses to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the momentous event.
There are at least two reasons why D-Day, June 6, 1944 stands out in what is now a crowded field. Its first advantage is the author himself, Stephen Ambrose, one of the best and most widely read of contemporary military historians and biographers. He brings to his new work the narrative drive, thorough research and muscular prose he is justly famous for. Second, as the director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, Ambrose has been able to draw on some 1,400 oral histories and written memoirs contributed by D-Day veterans. This important collection, the largest number of firsthand accounts of a single battle in existence, has made it possible for him to fill his story with details and observations that could only come from men who had been there.
Ambrose begins by setting the stage in 10 chapters that describe the rival armies and commanders and the problems facing each side. The sequence ends with Eisenhower's decision, one of the most critical of the War, to move out on June 6 despite a heavy rain. Ike staked Overlord on his belief that the 36 hours of decent weather his chief meteorologist was predicting would arrive on schedule. Had he taken the safer course the attack would not have been mounted until two weeks later, when, as it happened, one of the worst storms in many years struck the English Channel. Either it would have wrecked the invasion or forced another delay, jeopardizing the element of surprise on which everything depended. And an Allied failure would have dragged out the War in Europe for another year at the minimum.
The next 21 chapters establish that, if posterity owes much to Eisenhower, it owes even more to those who were called upon to carry out the operation. There is a good deal of exciting battle narrative here, but Ambrose never loses control of the argument he is making virtually from the first page to the last: American productivity alone is not what won the War; American democracy was no less a factor, for it had produced men whose spirit and initiative could not be matched by opponents serving a dictatorship.
At the top, Eisenhower had complete charge of every aspect of the offensive, while the defense of Normandy was conducted by two field marshals, Erwin Rommel and Gerd von Runsted. They had contradictory defense plans, uncertain writs of authority, and were subject to constant interference from Hitler—who personally retained control of the all-important Panzer (armored) divisions. Indeed, a coherent response was impossible under these circumstances.
In contrast, the best American commanders knew that in battle flexibility is everything, and they had the freedom to act accordingly. Nobody demonstrated this better than Colonel Paul Good, who led the 175th Infantry Regiment. At the conclusion of a briefing he picked up the operation plan for D-Day, which was thicker than a big phone book, tossed it over his shoulder and told his officers: “Forget this goddamned thing. You get your ass on the beach. I'll be there waiting for you and I'll tell you what to do. There ain't anything in this plan that is going to go right.” He was correct, especially about Omaha Beach, the most difficult of the five invasion sites, where almost everything did go wrong. Nevertheless, determined men in small uncoordinated groups, relying largely on their own ingenuity, managed to prevail. Only Americans, Ambrose believes, could have done this.
Yet if plans meant little after the attack started, they were critical before. Brilliantly executed deception moves—including a superb air campaign that virtually isolated Normandy from the rest of France while doing damage elsewhere—kept the Germans from knowing where the assault would take place and prevented Hitler from marshaling his numerically superior forces to repel it. The Allies did make a few mistakes. In particular, dropping two airborne divisions at night behind the Atlantic Wall—the chain of fortifications defending France's coast—caused immense confusion and needless casualties that a dawn drop would have avoided.
But the Germans, Ambrose notes, committed far more numerous and costly errors than the Allies. Moreover, Hitler's insistence on directing the battle himself paralyzed his officers at every level. To cite one instance, the vitally important Panzer divisions deployed close to the beaches achieved full readiness by 2:00 a.m. on D-Day, but they were not authorized to counterattack until early afternoon when it was easy for naval gunners to turn them back. The German Navy and Air Force failed utterly to interfere with Allied movements.
Ambrose is scornful of the Atlantic Wall. Rommel reasoned that once ashore the Allies could not be driven off because supporting naval gunfire would break up his counterattacks, and therefore the invaders had to be stopped on the beaches. Runsted, Rommel's nominal superior as Commander in Chief West, disagreed. He wanted to concede the beaches and mass his forces inland beyond the range of the naval guns. Hitler split the difference, giving Rommel three Panzer divisions and Runsted four—although none of them could move without the Führer's authorization.
As Ambrose sees it, Runsted was right. He dismisses Rommel's argument that counterattacks well inland would still fail because of Allied air power. Had Runsted's strategy been followed, Ambrose speculates, the Allied advance would have stalled at the Somme-Seine barrier. Yet when the Germans launched a Panzer counterattack on August 6 against the Americans who had broken out of Normandy, it was destroyed by rampaging tank-killers of the American tactical air arm. The subsequent rout was so complete that one terrified German unit actually surrendered to the U.S. 405th Fighter-Bomber Group.
This suggests that Rommel was right. If the Allies could be stopped at all, it had to be on the beaches. But Rommel lacked the means to do so, and probably still would not have succeeded with all seven Panzer divisions at his disposal. There seem to have been only two things that could have caused D-Day to go wrong: bad weather or German foreknowledge of the Allied landing sites. Absent either of those conditions, the Allies’ overwhelming air and naval superiority, together with the vast stretch of coast to be defended, assured Germany's ruin. On D-Day the Atlantic Wall was pierced at all five points of attack, mostly within the first hour. The best the Germans could do was buy time; the outcome of the invasion was never in doubt.
Historians will of course always disagree on one or another point. It is unlikely, though, that any will produce a book like D-Day, June 6, 1944, with its wealth of detail, absorbing vignettes and rich anecdotal material. Take the following observation by a former ranger who survived the landing and 11 more months of combat. The Allied High Command, he remarked in his oral history, was right to ensure that “there be no experienced troops in the initial waves that hit the beach, because an experienced infantryman is a terrified infantryman, and they wanted guys like me who were more amazed than they were frozen with fear, because the longer you fight a war the more you figure your number's coming up tomorrow, and it really gets to be God-awful.”
By the time darkness fell on June 6 some 175,000 men had gone ashore, of whom about 5,000 became casualties. This was a smaller number than many had expected, but D-Day was only the beginning of America's crusade in Europe. By the time it ended, General Omar N. Bradley recorded in his memoirs, “586,628 American soldiers had fallen—135,576 to rise no more. The grim figures haunted me. I could hear the cries of the wounded, smell the stench of death. I could not sleep: I closed my eyes and thanked God for victory.”
The 50th anniversaries of many famous World War II events—the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal, victory in North Africa, even Pearl Harbor—have passed practically unnoticed in the last two and a half years. The anniversaries yet to come, it appears, will be similarly neglected. D-Day alone holds a place in our collective memory of America's role in World War II. And Stephen Ambrose's compelling book reminds us very graphically of the great things this country once accomplished.
But in remembering D-Day we should not forget the cost of victory. During the War American families who lost loved ones overseas displayed gold stars in their windows. After D-Day, and because the fighting in the Pacific had gotten fiercer too, entire constellations of such stars came out all across America.
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SOURCE: “The Culprits of Market-Garden,” in Times Literary Supplement, December 30, 1994, p. 27.
[In the following excerpt, d'Este concludes that D-Day, June 6, 1944 is “enormously readable and will undoubtedly become a standard work of its genre,” despite its overemphasis on the American role in the Normandy invasion.]
The summer of 1994 marked the commemoration of the fiftieth anniversaries of two famous and very different battles of the Second World War. On June 6, the world's attention was focused on Normandy, where in 1944 the turning point of the war occurred when Allied forces launched their long-awaited cross-Channel invasion on Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah beaches.
There is a dramatic contrast between D-Day and September 17, 1944, the date the Allies launched Operation Market-Garden, the greatest airborne and glider operation in history, and a bold strategic gamble aimed at ending the war in the same year by gaining an Allied bridgehead north of the Rhine. D-Day was characterized in these pages (TLS, June 10) as “a necessary day”, a prerequisite that had to be successfully carried out if the Allies were to defeat Nazi Germany and end the war. Arnhem may best be remembered as “a tragic day”, which began so promisingly but ended, as Martin Middlebrook, the author of Arnhem 1944, writes, as “the last major battle lost by the British Army, lost not by the men who fought there but by the overconfidence of generals, faulty planning and the failure of a relieving force given too great a task.”
Whereas D-Day was the result of months of rigorous planning, Market-Garden was a military disaster thanks largely to the blunders of its architects, who planned it in haste, and in the process not only violated established principles of offensive warfare, but failed to heed the valuable (and costly) lessons learned from earlier airborne operations, including Normandy. In Normandy, bravery and good leadership were rewarded by victory; at Arnhem, valiant men were ill served and died needlessly. Although the stand of Lieutenant-Colonel John Frost's 2nd Parachute Battalion at Arnhem bridge is widely considered one of the most heroic episodes of the Second World War, Market-Garden failed to establish the vital bridgehead north of the Rhine, a strategic objective which has come to be popularly known as “a bridge too far.”
Stephen E. Ambrose's D-Day, June 6, 1944 and Martin Middlebrook's Arnhem 1944 are as different as the battles they chronicle. As both Eisenhower's official biographer and a historian of the Second World War, Ambrose brings impressive credentials to the writing of a fiftieth-anniversary account of D-Day, which he appropriately subtitles The Climactic Battle of World War II. Ambrose's book draws on a vast archive of 1,400 oral histories collected at the Eisenhower Center of the University of New Orleans, of which he is the director, to retell the dramatic tale of the first twenty-four hours of the great invasion.
Unfortunately, readers interested in a full account of the Anglo-Canadian landings are certain to be disappointed. Ambrose's account is unbalanced: twenty chapters (more than 300 pages) are devoted to the American airborne and amphibious landings, while five short chapters (sixty-six pages) detail the Anglo-Canadian landings. The primary focus of the book is bloody Omaha beach, where for a precarious time the landings seemed destined to fail. Ambrose attributes the Allied triumph on D-Day to the valour of the officers and men who snatched victory from what might have been a disaster on Omaha. However, in his zeal to pay tribute to the heroics of the participants, he offers simply too many first-person accounts and too little objective analysis of the decisions and events of that momentous day, which ought to be part of any fifty-year retrospective. For example, the landings and operations of the British 3rd Division in the Sword sector are not even mentioned, despite the fact that what transpired there was the object of later controversy concerning the early capture of Caen, which Montgomery had promised. Despite these shortcomings, however, D-Day, June 6, 1944 is enormously readable and will undoubtedly become a standard work of its genre.
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SOURCE: A review of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No. 3, June, 1995, pp. 872-73.
[In the following review, Wilt offers positive evaluation of D-Day, June 6, 1944, though finds shortcomings in Ambrose's overstated comparison of Eisenhower and Erwin Rommel, his generalizations about the Atlantic Wall debacle, and his predominant focus on the American role in the battle.]
Stephen E. Ambrose's book on D-Day [D-Day, June 6, 1944] has scaled the heights: a selection of the Book-of-the-Month and History Book clubs, nine weeks on the best-seller list, the most heralded of the works commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of that fateful day. A well-known historian in his own right, Ambrose acknowledges his many debts in writing the book, from Forrest Pogue, the noted American military historian, who was actually interviewing wounded men offshore on June 6, 1944, to Cornelius Ryan, whose The Longest Day (1959) became a classic in the use of first-hand accounts to depict the Normandy assault. Ambrose's outstanding work continues that tradition, for at its heart are 1,380 oral histories that, as director, he and others at the Eisenhower Center in New Orleans undertook and gathered from other sources to describe the battle.
Ambrose's intent is to provide a popular, up-to-date version of the invasion and to have it serve as an inspiring reminder of what democracies, when roused, can accomplish. He succeeds on both counts, and even the most knowledgeable historian will gain new insights into the background and execution of the operation.
The book's most noteworthy feature is its gripping narrative. Ambrose writes exceedingly well, and his use of the oral accounts to illustrate the horror and valor of war makes for compelling reading. Ambrose's centerpiece is the American landings at Omaha Beach, to which he devotes nearly one-third of his 583-page narrative. One of the soldiers, Sergeant Harry Bare, described getting ashore as follows: “We waded to the sand and threw ourselves down and the men were frozen, unable to move. My radio man had his head blown off three yards from me. The beach was covered with ‘bodies,’ men with no legs, no arms—God it was awful” (p. 331). As for getting off the beaches in the face of enemy fire, Private Raymond Howell explained his thought process. He remembers thinking, “If I am going to die, to hell with it, I'm not going to die here. The next bunch of guys that go over that … wall, I'm going with them. So I don't know who else, I guess all of us, decided, well it's time to start” (p. 345). Of course, others besides Howell also made it up the bluffs to the commanding heights above, so that “bloody” Omaha could be held.
Ambrose covers not only the combat side of the battle but also delves into seldom discussed aspects, such as telling vignettes about the reactions of individual French citizens in the Calvados landing area, the role of American women doing factory work, and the involvement of the 320th Barrage Balloon Battalion, one of the few African-American formations to take part in the invasion. He also describes the broadcasts of Axis Sally, the Ohio native but longtime Berlin resident who mesmerized numerous GIs and British soldiers with her “sweet, sexy voice,” but who frightened them on occasion with her knowledge about specific allied units.
Ambrose also discusses technological features of the operation in understandable terms. For instance, his description of the German defenses from foreshore obstacles to reinforced concrete fortifications are graphic as well as accurate, and he further gives proper due to a number of British “inventions,” including midget submarines that were to guide DDs (“swimming tanks”) to shore and tanks with flails to detonate land mines. Neither does he neglect the often overlooked American B-26 medium bombers and P-47 fighters, whose pilots and crews played extremely important roles in the successful campaign to gain air superiority over the beachhead and beyond.
Moreover, Ambrose rightly emphasizes allied landing craft, that precious commodity, and its intrepid, civilian developer, Andrew Higgins. Not by chance did the U.S. Congress in 1992 authorize the building of the National D-Day Museum in New Orleans, on the site where Higgins and his employees built and tested his boats.
Besides Higgins, Ambrose fills his book with other heroes, from the lowest in rank to the highest. He is particularly impressed by the airborne and infantry troops, and, as one might expect from a biographer of Dwight Eisenhower, Ambrose accords the American supreme commander a prominent part in the book. The author's attempt to compare Ike with Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the German tactical commander, however, is overdrawn. It would have been more appropriate to compare Eisenhower with his German counterpart, Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, and Rommel with either of the Allies’ ground commanders, the American General Omar Bradley, or the British General Sir Bernard Montgomery. But neither Rundstedt nor Bradley adequately fits the heroic mold, and although the flamboyant Montgomery might have been appropriate, his abrasive egocentrism eliminated him as a possibility. Ambrose carries the Eisenhower-Rommel comparison, despite its being insightful and masterfully etched, too far.
The book also contains other disputable points. Among them is Ambrose's generalization that the Atlantic Wall was “one of the greatest blunders in military history” (p. 577), a statement that ignores the fact that Germany's holding of numerous harbors and their approaches helped cause an allied logistic crisis in the late summer and fall of 1944, which, in turn, helped prolong the European war into 1945. In addition, even though Ambrose dispels the myth that British and American troops did not train sufficiently for the assault, his contention that the Axis soldiers spent their time primarily building defensive barriers is wide of the mark. They both constructed and trained, and their performance on D-Day was not as deficient as alleged. Also, try as Ambrose might to be fair to each of the allied nations, the Americans emerge as the true heroes, and the other partners—the Canadians, the French, the Poles, the Dutch, even the British—at best become supporting members of the cast.
Nevertheless, although Ambrose's traditional approach will bother some historians, none will deny his ability to combine a first-rate narrative with a significant theme. He also does not gloss over what he considers allied military mistakes, such as the dropping of the U.S. airborne troops at night and the unreadiness of ground forces for hedgerow combat. But over and over his main point is that, although the allied soldiers, sailors, and airmen fought well, they would have much preferred not to have been fighting at all. In this sense, D-Day forms an appropriate link with the democratic tradition Ambrose extols.
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SOURCE: “Where the Wild Things Were,” in Washington Post Book World, February 11, 1996, pp. 3, 7.
[In the following review, Harden offers positive assessment of Undaunted Courage.]
Feeling unmoved? Sensing perhaps that you live in uninteresting times? Weary of politicians who define vision as kicking AIDS victims out of the military? If so, historian Stephen Ambrose has a tonic for you.
Undaunted Courage is about a time when America was young, the federal government was bold and the president knew what he was doing. President Thomas Jefferson executed the Louisiana Purchase for a song, doubled the territory of the country overnight and in 1803 dispatched a handsome 30-year-old Virginian to do nothing less than fill in the blanks of our collective future.
Meriwether Lewis, a tobacco grower with an indifferent education, could not remember how to spell his widowed mother's married name. But he could command men, sweet-talk Indians and put a bullet on the mark at a distance of 220 yards. Most important for history, he could, after 12 hours in a canoe, sit down by the campfire and write closely observed and movingly poetic notes about a world that white men had never seen. He explored rivers, mapped mountains and sewed up the West between the Mississippi and the Pacific—and, on his way back home to a hero's welcome in Washington, managed to get himself shot in the butt by one of his own men.
Ambrose, whose 17 previous books include one on D-Day and a highly regarded trilogy on Richard Nixon, showcases himself in this book as an exceptionally shrewd storyteller. In his introduction, Ambrose explains that he and his family have been obsessed with the Lewis and Clark Expedition for 20 years. They have repeatedly followed the explorers’ footsteps across the Great Plains and through the Rockies. That obsession has paid off handsomely. For by digging beneath schoolbook sermons about the expedition, Ambrose has uncovered an extraordinary American character.
Ambrose's Lewis is a tender and tormented soul. Like the West that he conquered, his natural blessings seemed without limit. He was exceptionally good-looking, a kind and loyal friend, an instinctive naturalist and a gifted writer (whose stream-of-consciousness style Ambrose compares to those of Faulkner and Joyce). On meeting the Shoshone, Lewis wrote, “We wer [sic] all carresed [sic] and besmeared with their grease and paint till I was heartily tired of the national hug.”
But he drank too much and he peaked too early.
He was paralyzed after the expedition by what was probably the most significant case of writer's block in this nation's history. The entire world was waiting to read his journals. They would have been a cinch to edit. Yet, for reasons known only to himself, the explorer never turned his journals into a book.
Lewis found it impossible to hold on to greatness. After his grateful friend the president named him governor of the Territory of Louisiana, he did not report to work in St. Louis for nearly two years. He was gamboling in Philadelphia, Ambrose explains, enjoying “too many balls with too many toasts.” When he did take the governor's job, he attempted—and failed—to use his influence to make himself rich. Ambrose believes Lewis was probably a manic-depressive.
In 1809, just three years after his glorious return from the West, his performance as governor came under attack in Washington. While traveling east to explain himself, Lewis surrendered to depression. He was just 35 years old and famous beyond his imagining, and he shot himself in the head. When he did not die, he shot himself in the chest. When he did not die, he cut himself from head to foot with a razor. “I am no coward,” he said as he bled to death, “but I am so strong, [it is] so hard to die.”
With this spectacular young man, then, as the sympathetic heart of his book, Ambrose goes to work as a historian. It's a job he performs with impressive economy and insight. He tells us how Jefferson, “the greatest champion of human rights in American history,” blended paternalism and genocide in his dealings with the Indians. As their “new Father,” Ambrose explains, Jefferson had a nonnegotiable Indian policy—“get out of the way or get killed.”
Ambrose neatly captures the primitiveness of Jefferson's era, a time when no means of transport moved faster than a galloping horse, when the learned president himself believed the Mandan Indians to be a lost tribe of Welshmen, when the cure for the flu was frequent bleeding and massive doses of laxatives.
If this book has a weakness, it's the relative paucity of detail about the Columbia, the great western river that Jefferson had hoped would be the Northwest Passage across the continent. Lewis and Clark disappointed their president by finding that the Columbia did not link up with the Missouri. In seeming sympathy with that disappointment, Ambrose gives short shrift to a river that Lewis and Clark called “inconceivable” and “incredible” and “horrid.” But that, perhaps, is a parochial quibble from a reviewer who was born near the Columbia.
This is a fine and important book, intelligently conceived and splendidly written. It explains how the continental nation was made, flushes out human beings who did the making and reminds us of the magnificent things that government can do when it does have a vision.
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SOURCE: “The Epic Journey of Capt. Lewis: A Young Man's Life on an Incredible Expedition,” in Chicago Tribune Books, March 3, 1996, p. 1.
[In the following review, Theroux offers positive assessment of Undaunted Courage.]
On July 4, 1803, the nation's 27th birthday, the very same day Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States, Capt. Meriwether Lewis was making final preparations for the greatest exploring expedition in the history of this country. President Thomas Jefferson had selected his personal secretary and fellow Virginian to travel up the Mississippi and Missouri, cross over the Rockies, go down the Columbia and reach the sky-blue Pacific. “The object of your mission is single,” stated the president, “the direct water communication from sea to sea formed by the bed of the Missouri & perhaps the Oregon.” Jefferson also wanted Lewis and his party to explore the new land, as well as extend commerce, collect specimens for science and establish an American claim on Idaho, Oregon and Washington.
It was to be a legendary 2 1/2-year trek, and although at the end Lewis’ partner, Capt. William Clark, would write, “Ocian in view! O! the joy,” it fell out that no Northwest Passage existed—there was no all-water route across country, or anything remotely resembling it. Ultimately, the complicated Lewis considered the expedition a failure, fell into depression and in 1809 took his life.
Using previously untapped materials and journals, Stephen E. Ambrose in Undaunted Courage superbly updates Richard Dillon's 1965 biography of Lewis and with as much passion as scholarship takes us again through the details of this epic journey. The 19 men went through hell. They were often exhausted. Although they commonly ate hominy and lard one day, salt pork and flour the next, and sometimes caught fish (or had beaver tail and buffalo tongue as delicacies), they were often badly starved, especially crossing the Rockies. Floggings were not infrequent for sleeping at sentry, insubordination and drunkenness. They often hazarded drowning as they crossed raging rivers, including the Salmon. Needle grass, noted Lewis, penetrated “our mockersons and leather legings and (gave) us great pain.” Ticks and gnats drove them mad. Mosquitoes and the malaria they spread were a plague. Storms, blizzards, lost boats, dysentery, VD all awaited them. They were scorched in the plains by the merciless sun and frostbitten in the mountains, with their keelboat locked rigidly into the ice during the winter of 1804–05.
Much was terra incognita. Indians were everywhere. It was mostly territory where no white man had ever entered. Sioux, Arikara, Crows, Assiniboines, Cheyennes, Kiowas, Arapahoes, Otos and Omahas, Flatheads, Salish, Nez Perce, Osage and Clatsops surrounded them, tribes that were civil, peaceable, at times even distinguished. The men mostly feared the Blackfeet, with good reason, and in one confrontation Lewis shot one dead. Going over the Continental Divide, they met a Shoshone war party, which was quickly pacified by blue beads and mirrors, which they described, artfully, as “things like solid water.” It was thanks to a Shoshone interpreter/translator whom they met at Ft. Mandan that the explorers managed to overcome apprehensions when encountering that people.
Sacagawea, nicknamed “Janey,” was the only Indian, the only mother, the only woman and the only teenage person on the trip, a 15-year-old who was six months pregnant when they met her—one of the wives of a Toussaint Charbonneau, a French Canadian of middle age living among the Hidatsas as a trader. A slave, one of only two in the party—York, Clark's indentured black servant and lifelong companion, was the other—Sacagawea gave birth to her first child, Jean Baptiste, on Feb. 11, 1805. This was the source of some apprehension, as they didn't want to lose her, for, as Lewis noted, she was their “only dependence for a friendly negociation with the Snake Indians on whom we depend for horses to assist us in our portage from the Missouri to the Columbia River.”
With insight and compassionate understanding, Ambrose, a historian very much interested in following the footsteps of his subject, takes us into the world of Meriwether Lewis and, where possible, by way of journals and jottings and note-takings, into the workings of his mind.
Undaunted Courage is, as much as anything, the personal drama of Lewis, for whom Jefferson, 31 years older, was something of a father. Jefferson had opened the president's house (not called the White House then) to the young man as an ideal finishing school, probably taught him how to write and over the course of two years gave his energetic protege “a college undergraduate's introduction to the liberal arts, North American geography, botany, mineralogy, astronomy, and ethnology.”
Lewis was only 29 when he captained the expedition. Self-control, Ambrose tells us, was “not his strongest character trait.” He was a better zoologist than a botanist, more of a scientist than Clark, who was the better waterman and so more often manned the keelboat. Clark was also the better mapmaker. Neither was a trained naturalist. Lewis was a drinker and could be headstrong. (Lewis and Clark, however, got on famously and during the whole expedition supposedly had only one minor disagreement about an overloaded boat).
It is Ambrose's considered judgment that Lewis was a manic-depressive, which, as Jefferson well knew, was a family disorder—he had not only seen the melancholy of Lewis’ father, William, but also witnessed the same in Meriwether in 1801, when they had lived together and Meriwether was given to strange silences. During the expedition, whole months went by without diary entries, and, astonishingly, there isn't a single recorded word from Lewis about their arrival at the Pacific. “We don't have his description of what he saw and how he felt in this moment of triumph,” observes Ambrose, who attributes it to lassitude.
Indisposition or vice, that mood seemed to characterize the last, lost years of this brave American hero, when, sadly, inexplicably, his drinking began to increase as his self-esteem waned. He began taking medicine laced with opium or morphine. (Lewis had been shot and badly wounded during his travels.) Even his snuff-taking became inordinate.
He was luckless in love and couldn't cope, unlike the stronger and more predictable Clark. Lewis never married. Worst of all, especially to Jefferson, he never got around to organizing the valuable journals that the president impatiently wanted to see in print. On top of it all, his finances were in a sorry state. Soon he began telling lies and talking wildly and late one afternoon in Tennessee on his way to Washington, in a poorly built log-cabin inn that took in overnight customers, he shot himself.
With wonderful attention to detail, compiling previously unknown information about weather, terrain, science, food, flora and fauna, native peoples, even the devious political situation Jefferson was facing, Ambrose takes us into the interior of an adventure filled with high romance and personal tragedy, involving, all at once, the greatest of all American explorers, surely one of the greatest presidents and easily the greatest expedition ever undertaken in the history of this country. His vivid portrait of America as the background for this undertaking—forested and wild, vast and mountainous, rich and abundant—brings back the kind of dreams these men actually found, breathlessly stared upon, and awakens them again.
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SOURCE: “The Writingest Explorers,” in New York Review of Books, April 4, 1996, pp. 18-21.
[In the following review, Wood offers favorable evaluation of Undaunted Courage.]
The Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804–1806 is the greatest adventure of exploration in American history. The astronauts of the 1960s knew more about the surface of the moon they were to land on than Lewis and Clark knew about the northwest part of the Louisiana territory they were sent to explore by President Thomas Jefferson. And Lewis and Clark and their party were out of touch with their fellow Americans back home for long periods of time—weeks, months, years—longer certainly than the minutes when the astronauts were unable to communicate with Earth. Besides, the Lewis and Clark expedition had little of the technology that makes even space travel today seem routine. The members of the expedition had only boats, horses, and their legs—all of which makes the expedition seem within the capacity of ordinary campers and hikers in our own time.
Indeed, Lewis and Clark's exploit is more alive for us at the end of the twentieth century than it was for Henry Adams a century ago. Whereas Adams could write nine volumes on the history of the Jefferson and Madison administrations and scarcely mention Lewis and Clark, we today cannot reexperience the adventure often enough. Maybe it is because we have now thoroughly mapped the territory the expedition explored and crisscrossed it with modern highways that the exploit has become all the more fascinating for us—the kind of extended camping trip we might read about in the travel section of our newspapers. We all cannot go to the moon, but Lewis and Clark's expedition seems to be an experience of exploration that ordinary backpackers and hikers can actually attempt to share in or duplicate, complete with L.L. Bean gear, white-water rafting, and extended nature walks.
At any rate, every year dozens of enthusiasts retrace the trail of the expedition. Scholars and laymen have formed an organization exclusively devoted to studying and celebrating the venture. New sites and monuments commemorating the expedition are still being dedicated. And we cannot read enough about it. In the 1970s Donald Jackson edited a superb two-volume edition of the Letters of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and in the early 1990s Gary Moulton and the University of Nebraska Press completed their modern eight-volume scholarly edition of the journals of Lewis and Clark. Over the past several decades we have had numerous monographs on one aspect or another of the expedition—on Jefferson's plans for exploration, on the Indians the expedition met, on the flora and fauna it found, on the medicine it practiced, on the geography it explored. And finally there have been many narrative accounts, stirring accounts, of the whole expedition. This one by Stephen Ambrose is the most recent and it is one of the best.
Although Ambrose has written occasionally on some nineteenth-century events, he is best known for his work on modern America. He has written multi-volume biographies of Eisenhower and Nixon, and most recently an exciting account of D-Day in World War II. But this book is different: it not only deals with events of nearly two centuries ago, but it is, he says, “a labor of love.” Ambrose, it seems, is one of those Lewis and Clark enthusiasts. He has followed the expedition's trail many times; indeed, every summer since 1976 he and his family have journeyed to Montana. He has crossed the Lolo Trail on horseback or foot five times. He has canoed the Missouri River Breaks in northern Montana ten times. He has camped at the Lemhi Pass almost every year since 1976. He and his family, he says, “have been obsessed with Lewis and Clark for twenty years.”
Ambrose has written a very readable narrative [in Undaunted Courage], made for brief attention spans. He has divided his book into thirty-eight chapters; each chapter is about twelve pages long and is headed by the dates of the narrative it covers. Within these short chapters the paragraphs are numerous, many containing no more than a sentence or two. Sometimes there are not even sentences, just short phrases, as if Ambrose were duplicating diary entries: e.g., “Another day on the river. Making about eighteen miles per day. Endless. Exhausting.”
Ambrose brings his experience with military history and military affairs to bear on the story, judging Captain Lewis's and Captain Clark's decisions and actions from the point of view of commanders in charge of a military company, which is exactly what they were. Ambrose's judgments are shrewd and balanced: he makes some harsh criticisms of the leaders at times, but on the whole he supports their decisions and actions. If a reader knows little of the expedition and wants a solid, readable account of it, then this book is a good place to begin.
Lewis is the central character of the book, not Clark. Jefferson, too, is an important character in the story but only insofar as he relates to Lewis and the expedition across the continent. Clark, the former army officer chosen by Lewis to accompany him, remains throughout a somewhat shadowy figure, even though one senses that Clark's solidity, common sense, and way with people were crucial to the success of the mission.
The book opens with several chapters on the youth and early life of Meriwether Lewis. Born in 1774 in the western part of Virginia, not far from Monticello, Lewis grew up expecting to become a member of the minor gentry of Virginia heading a plantation with about two dozen slaves. But he had what he called a “passion for rambling”; and once he joined the army to help put down the Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania in 1794, he never looked back. “Seldom,” writes Ambrose, “would he spend more than a winter at one place for the rest of his life.”
When Jefferson became president in 1801 he wanted a secretary, not only to handle the private affairs of the household but also to advise him on the Ohio Valley and military matters. He especially wanted to know which Federalist officers should be dismissed from service, since he planned to cut the size of the army by half. Who was better for the post than his twenty-six-year-old Virginia neighbor Captain Lewis, who knew the West and the army and was a good Jeffersonian Republican to boot?
Although Jefferson was apparently not thinking of Lewis's leading a western expedition when he appointed him secretary, he certainly had been thinking for decades about supporting some sort of exploration of the far western territory beyond the Mississippi—even though that territory belonged to the Spanish. Jefferson was the greatest expansionist in American history. “[He] wanted land. He wanted empire,” declares Ambrose. Jefferson felt that sooner or later the entire continent would become American—because the Spanish hold on their territory was so weak and the exploding population of the United States would spread everywhere. In 1783 he asked the Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark (the older brother of William Clark) to lead a privately sponsored expedition to explore the West, but Clark declined. When Jefferson was minister to France he encouraged the extravagant and ill-fated hopes of John Ledyard to cross Siberia and reach the western coast of North America. Later, as secretary of state, Jefferson supported several plans for expeditions up the Missouri.
In the meantime, in 1792 an American sea trader, Captain Robert Gray, had discovered and named the Columbia River, and Captain George Vancouver of the British Navy and the Canadian trader Alexander Mackenzie were staking British claims to the northwest portion of the continent and threatening to take complete control of the fur trade around the Columbia River. In 1792–1793 Mackenzie in fact made the first crossing of the continent north of Mexico, at least by a white man. Mackenzie's account of his expedition, published in 1801, was apparently what jogged Jefferson into action.
Sometime in 1802 Jefferson offered Lewis the command of a military expedition that the US government would undertake to explore the trans-Mississippi West. Lewis had volunteered for an expedition, planned by Jefferson, that was to take place in 1793 and never came off; he undoubtedly had conveyed to Jefferson in numerous conversations his desire to explore the West. It was an excellent choice. As Jefferson explained to Dr. Benjamin Rush, “Capt. Lewis is brave, prudent, habituated to the woods, & familiar with Indian manners & character.” Although Lewis was “not regularly educated,” he knew enough about nature to select and describe flora and fauna that were new. And what he did not know he could learn. Jefferson sent Lewis off to Philadelphia for crash courses in astronomy, natural history, medicine, and ethnology with several scientific experts.
Yet so much about the land beyond the Mississippi remained unknown or wrongly understood that no one could prepare fully for what lay ahead. Although Jefferson had the most extensive library in the world on the geography, cartography, natural history, and ethnology of the American West, he nevertheless assumed in 1800 that the Rockies were no higher than the Blue Ridge Mountains, that mammoths and other prehistoric creatures still roamed along the upper Missouri among active volcanoes, that a huge mile-long mountain of pure salt lay somewhere on the Great Plains, that the western Indians may have been the lost tribes of Israel or wandering Welshmen, and, most important, that there was a water route, linked by a low portage across the mountains, that led to the Pacific.
Lewis wanted a co-commander and selected his old army friend William Clark. Clark was four years older than Lewis and had been Lewis's immediate superior for a time, but in 1796 he had resigned his captain's commission and was engaged in family business in the Ohio Valley when he received Lewis's invitation. Since the army regulations for the expedition provided for only a lieutenant as the second officer, Clark did not get his captain's commission back. But Lewis was determined that Clark be treated as his equal and kept his status as a lieutenant a secret from the men of the expedition. Having co-commanders was an extraordinary experiment in cooperation, in violation of all army ideas of chain of command, but it worked. Lewis and Clark seem never to have quarreled and only rarely disagreed with each other. They complemented each other beautifully. Clark had been a company commander and had explored the Mississippi. He knew how to handle enlisted men and was a better surveyor, mapmaker, and waterman than Lewis. Where Lewis was apt to be moody and sometimes wander off alone, Clark was always tough, steady, and reliable. The two men trusted each other completely; they had, writes Ambrose, “one of the great friendships of all time.”
Lewis left Pittsburgh and started down the Ohio River on August 31, 1803, and made the first entry in what became the journals of the expedition. The journals, says Ambrose, “have a driving narrative that is compelling, yet they pause for little asides and anecdotes that make them a delight to read.” Donald Jackson, editor of the Letters of Lewis and Clark, describes the two captains as “the writingest explorers of their time,” men who “wrote constantly and abundantly, afloat and ashore, legibly and illegibly, and always with an urgent sense of purpose.” In often vivid and sharp prose they described much of what they encountered—plants, animals, people, weather, geography, and unusual experiences. In reading the journals we experience the journey as the two captains experienced it. Ambrose is not exaggerating in calling the journals “one of America's literary treasures.”
In October 1803 Lewis picked up Clark in Indiana, and gathered some of the recruits for what was called the Corps of Discovery. The party spent a long winter at River Dubois, across from St. Louis, waiting for the formal transfer of the Louisiana territory from Spain and France to the United States and enlisting more men for the expedition. The group set out on May 14, 1804, with forty-odd men, including Clark's black slave, York. The explorers traveled up the Missouri, and by October reached the villages of the Mandan Indians, in present-day North Dakota, where they decided to spend the winter of 1804–1805.
Since traders had penetrated this far up the Missouri, the expedition had not yet covered completely unknown ground. Lewis and Clark spent time during this first stage of the journey dealing with some disciplinary problems and the death of a sergeant—the only member of the Corps to die on the journey. Although they had a nearly violent confrontation with the Teton Sioux in present-day South Dakota, most of the time the captains left the Indians they met more bewildered than angry. The translation problems were immense. The Indians would speak to an Indian in the expedition, who then spoke in another Indian tongue to someone who understood that tongue but could only speak French, who then passed on what he heard to someone who understood French but also spoke English. Only then could Lewis and Clark finally find out what the Indians had originally said. Their reply, of course, had to repeat the process in reverse. Tedious as conversation with the Indians was, Lewis and Clark worked out an elaborate ceremony for all the Indian tribes they encountered, informing them that the United States had taken over the territory and that their new father, “the great Chief the President,” was “the only friend to whom you can now look for protection, or from whom you can ask favours, or receive good counciles, and he will take care to serve you, & not deceive you.” After what became the standard speech to the Indians, the captains distributed some presents—from the large store of beads, brass buttons, tomahawks, axes, moccasin awls, scissors, mirrors, as well as US flags and medals with Jefferson's visage, that they carried with them.
The Corps of Discovery spent the winter of 1804–1805 in a fort it constructed near the Mandan villages. In April 1805 Lewis and Clark sent back their heavy keelboat and some enlisted men to St. Louis along with a written report, a map, and some botanical, mineral, and animal specimens to be delivered to President Jefferson. Joining the party now was the Shoshone woman Sacagawea with her husband and their infant son; she was to prove invaluable as a translator during the next stages of the journey.
In six canoes and two pirogues the group of thirty-three set out on April 7, 1805, to proceed up the Missouri to the Rockies. Even though Lewis, as he wrote in his journal, was about “to penetrate a country at least two thousand miles in width, on which the foot of civilized man had never trodden; the good or evil it had in store for us was for experiment yet to determine,” he could not have been happier. “This little fleet,” he said, “‘altho’ not quite so rispectable as those of Columbus or Capt. Cook, were still viewed by us with as much pleasure as those deservedly famed adventurers ever beheld theirs; and I dare say with quite as much anxiety for their safety and preservation.”
At this point in the narrative Ambrose really begins indulging in what earlier had been only occasional references to the “first” this and the “first” that. So in addition to having “the first collection of weather data” and “the first election” west of the Mississippi and “the first” American descriptions of the tepees and ceremonial dress of the Plains Indians, we have either the “first Americans” or the “first white men” to see a Sioux scalp dance, view the Rockies, kill a grizzly, confront a Shoshone war party, hear of the Nez Percé Indians, enter present-day Idaho, Washington, and Oregon by land, journey on the Columbia River east of the Cascades, and make the first transcontinental linking of what would become the United States. Even the decision of where to spend the winter of 1805–1806, which Lewis and Clark put to a vote of their party, becomes an occasion for Ambrose's listing of firsts: “the first vote ever held in the Pacific Northwest … the first time in American history that a black slave had voted, the first time a woman had voted.” (This last is incorrect.)
Despite his happiness in getting his expedition going once again in April 1805. Lewis scarcely realized how arduous the rest of the journey to the Pacific would be. It took the party four months just to get to the Rockies, including a month-long portage of the Great Falls of the Missouri. The men suffered badly from their virtually all-meat diet. Most of the time Lewis gave the ailing soldiers some of the fifty dozen pills that Dr. Rush had prescribed for the journey. Generally referred to as “Thunderclappers,” the pills were composed of a variety of drugs, each of which, says Ambrose, was “a purgative of explosive power; the combination was awesome.”
By the time the party reached the Continental Divide, on the present Montana-Idaho border, in August 1805, Lewis (who turned thirty-one on August 18) realized that there would be no simple portage to the waters of the Columbia. Although the commanders did not know it, they could scarcely have picked a more difficult place to cross the Rockies. From the Shoshone Indians the expedition got guides and horses for the journey across what one sergeant called “the most terrible mountains I ever beheld.” The crossing of Lolo Pass in the Bitterroots was the expedition's worst experience. Beset by snow and hail, exhausted and half-starved, the men killed their horses and drank melted snow for nourishment. Yet the expedition made 160 miles in eleven days: “It was,” writes Ambrose, “one of the great forced marches in American history.”
On September 22, 1805, the party finally reached the country of the Nez Percé Indians on the Clearwater River in Idaho, where it built canoes for the trip down the Clearwater, the Snake, and the Columbia to the Pacific. On November 7, 1805, though the group was still in the estuary of the Columbia, Clark described what he saw: “Ocian in view! O! the joy! … Ocian 4142 Miles from the Mouth of Missouri R.” The men built a fort, Fort Clatsop, on the Oregon side of the Columbia estuary and spent a long wet winter there, with the captains writing descriptions of nature and the Indians and making a map. In March they began their return, spending a month with the Nez Percé waiting for the snow to melt in the Rockies. After crossing the mountains Lewis and Clark separated, Lewis exploring the Marias River in present Montana and Clark traveling down the Yellowstone River. On their trip Lewis and his men ran into a party of Blackfoot Indians who tried to steal their horses. In the only real violence of the expedition Lewis and his men killed two of the Indians and were lucky to escape with their lives. In view of all the trouble it caused, Ambrose rightly judges Lewis's entire Marias side trip a big mistake.
Reunited in North Dakota, the captains revisited the Mandan villages where they had wintered in 1804–1805. They left Sacagawea and her husband and child with the Mandans, and moved rapidly down the Missouri to St. Louis, which they reached on September 23, 1806. From the time they had originally set out from St. Louis, they had been gone two years and four months. Nearly everyone had given them up for lost—except Jefferson.
The completion of this “epic voyage,” writes Ambrose, was by itself enough to place Lewis and “his partner-friend” in “the pantheon of explorers.” But he and Clark had done more. In addition to opening up a “fur-trading empire” in the West, the explorers had brought back “a treasure of scientific information.” Their “discoveries in the fields of zoology, botany, ethnology, and geography were beyond any value.” They had discovered and described 178 new plants and 122 species and subspecies of animals. By systematically recording all they had seen—“from weather to rocks to people,” says Ambrose—they introduced new approaches to exploration that affected all future expeditions. Their marvelous journals, which one historian has called “perhaps the most important account of discovery and exploration ever written,” became “the model for all subsequent writing on the American West.”
Without a photographer or an artist present Lewis and Clark had only words to record what they saw. Here, for example, is Lewis's description of the bighorn sheep in the upper parts of the Missouri:
The head and horns of the male … weighed 27 lbs. it was somewhat larger than the male of the common deer, the boddy reather thicker deeper and not so long in proportion to it's hight as the common deer; the head and horns are remarkably large compared with the other part of the anamal; the whole form is much more delicate than that of the common goat, and there is a greater disparity in the size of the male and female than between those of either the deer or the goat. the eye is large and prominant, the puple of a deep sea green and small, the iris of a silvery colour much like the common sheep; the bone above the eye is remarkably prominant; the head nostrils and division of the upper lip are precisely in form like the sheep. …
These were just the opening lines. Lewis went on for another seven hundred or so words detailing the characteristics of this creature.
But the public knew none of these descriptions. It was delighted just to see the explorers, who were cheered and fêted everywhere they went. Jefferson secured Lewis's election to the American Philosophical Society and appointed him governor of the Territory of Louisiana. Although both explorers received double back pay and land bonuses, they expected that publication of their journals would make their fortune. But, alas, Lewis seemed unable to get the manuscript ready for publication. After returning to St. Louis to take up the governorship, Lewis became involved in establishing a fur company and other get-rich schemes and apparently began drinking heavily and taking drugs and running up debts. He had no practical experience in politics or government and, says Ambrose, “had more success than was good for him.” Jefferson pleaded with him to get the manuscript of the journals to a printer, but Lewis never even answered Jefferson's letters. With the War Department on his back over his policies as governor and refusing to honor his drafts of money, Lewis in the late summer of 1809 decided to return to Washington to clear his name. He took the journals with him, intending, he told Clark, to see to their publication.
As he traveled eastward he behaved strangely, drinking heavily and taking pills; twice he tried to kill himself, and on September 11, 1809, he wrote out his last will and testament. At Fort Pickering (present site of Memphis, Tennessee) Major James Neelly, the army's agent to the Chickasaws, agreed to accompany Lewis to Washington. But on October 10, 1809, Lewis with two servants went on ahead of Neelly and that evening stopped at an inn seventy miles west of Nashville. Sometime later that night he shot himself twice, and, failing to kill himself, cut himself with a razor. Lewis begged the servants to shoot him, but they refused and shortly after sunrise on October 11, 1809, he died of his wounds. He was thirty-five.
This strange end has sparked a great deal of historical controversy and a number of charges of conspiracy and murder. The most recent is a 1994 book by the late David Leon Chandler, The Jefferson Conspiracies: A President's Role in the Assassination of Meriwether Lewis, whose descriptions of hidden designs involving Jefferson and General James Wilkinson put even the elaborate concoctions of Oliver Stone to shame.1 Ambrose quite rightly dismisses these imagined murder plots (neither Clark nor Jefferson doubted that Lewis had killed himself), and concludes that the really “great mystery of Lewis's life” is why he did not prepare the journals for publication.
Clark tried to pick up the pieces, and he persuaded young Nicholas Biddle to edit the journals. In 1814 Biddle published a narrative account of the journey that omitted most of the material on the flora and fauna. Because Biddle's History of the Expedition Under the Commands of Captains Lewis and Clark was for the next ninety years the only printed account of the expedition based on the journals, Lewis and Clark received no credit for most of their discoveries in nature.2 Others renamed the plants, animals, birds, and rivers that they had discovered and named, and these later names, not Lewis's and Clark's, were the ones that survived. By failing to publish the journals, says Ambrose, in a bit of hyperbole, “Lewis had cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist.” But he remains, in Ambrose's opinion, “the greatest of all American explorers, and in the top rank of world explorers.” This may not be true, but Ambrose's book has at least made it seem so.
William Morrow, 1994.
In 1893 Dr. Elliott Coues published a new annotated edition of Biddle's History in which he identified many of the plants and animals mentioned in the text. But it was not until Reuben Gold Thwaites, director of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and an experienced documentary editor, published in 1904–1905 his multi-volume edition of the Original Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition that the world discovered what Lewis and Clark and their subordinates had actually written.
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SOURCE: “The Blank Page, the Final Frontier,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 7, 1996, p. 3.
[In the following review of Undaunted Courage, Limerick finds shortcomings in Ambrose's military perspective and uncritical admiration of Lewis and Clark.]
Imagine that you are a student and that the registrar's computer has been playing tricks with your course enrollment. You thought you were signed up to take the standard American history course, but the computer has placed you instead in a history class for ROTC cadets.
Things become puzzling when your instructor's lively stories keep returning to the same theme: the proper behavior and philosophy of a good company commander. Although unexpected and often quite interesting, this preoccupation does not strike you as doing full justice to the rich meanings of American history.
In similar ways, Stephen E. Ambrose's Undaunted Courage is a story on a big scale with meanings squeezed into a framework built on a considerably smaller scale.
There is no question that this is a good and readable story. Meriwether Lewis was an extremely interesting man and writer, and any book with the license to quote him at length carries a competitive advantage. Born on Aug. 18, 1774, on a Virginia plantation neighboring that of Thomas Jefferson, Lewis hunted, learned nature lore and served in the militia. Soon after Jefferson became president. Lewis moved into the White House as his private secretary. The two often discussed exploring a land route to the Pacific Ocean, and in 1803, Jefferson successfully persuaded Congress to fund the mission.
Lewis invited his friend, Lt. William Clark, to help him lead 26 men into a vast terrain, much of which had just become, with the Louisiana Purchase, America's own.
After devoting five opening chapters to Lewis’ origins and relationship with Jefferson, Ambrose's next 25 chapters take their shape from the story of the expedition: the trip up the Missouri River in a 55-foot covered keelboat and two small craft; the cold winter in what is now North Dakota, where they acquired the help of a captive Shoshone woman, Sacagawea; the move from keelboat to canoes before crossing the Great Falls of the Missouri: the strenuous crossing of the Rockies; the wet winter at Ft. Clatsop on the Pacific Coast; the rushed, anticlimactic return to St. Louis.
Repeatedly, Ambrose, a historian best known for his three-volume biography of Richard Nixon and a recent oral history of D-Day, locates the meaning of these stories in lessons of universal military practice. At the Pacific camp, Lewis’ goals in maintaining order and discipline, Ambrose says, were “the goals of every company commander from the time of the Roman Legions to today.” Meanings reaching so far over time can stretch themselves pretty thin. “A good company commander looks after his men,” Ambrose writes, adding that Lewis was like “the head of a family,” evincing concern for his men matching “that of a father for his son.”
A family composed of men accompanied by one Indian woman, however, would seem to be a social unit calling for an awareness of the various meanings and workings of masculinity, especially when a Virginia gentleman undertook to lead a party composed largely of French Canadians. But the call for an analysis of culture and gender is one of several calls from the 1990s that Ambrose has decided not to answer.
In truth, if you concealed the title page and asked readers to guess the publication date of this book, estimates might vary considerably. The subtitle's reference to the “opening” of a presumably locked-up West, the celebration of the “discovery” of lands long occupied by Native Americans and the use of the terms “braves,” “red men” and “squaws” suggest a publication date in the 1950s.
Other phrasings sound very much more like the ’90s: rivers were “free of any pollutants”; Lewis was most likely “manic-depressive”; beyond the Platte River, the expedition entered “a new ecosystem”; Lewis was “sensitive and caring” toward his mother. Ambrose is, moreover, very much a celebrant of hindsight—in his phrasing, “after-action analysis”—and an enthusiast for the identification of “mistakes.”
And mistakes accumulated badly at the end. For those taken by human nature and its weird ways, the final seven chapters of the book, covering Lewis’ last three years of life, may well be the most intriguing.
When the explorers returned after a two-year journey of 6,000 miles, there was much celebration, for they had been presumed dead. But Lewis—the man who rose to every challenge in his crossing of a continent—was laid out flat by the conditions of his return. Preying on his apparent predisposition to mental illness, three prosaic elements of early 19th century American social and cultural life knocked the triumphal explorer off his feet: the difficulty of courtship, the irritations of administering a territorial government and, perhaps worst of all, the problems of preparing a manuscript for publication.
Upon their return, Lewis and Clark both went looking for wives and jobs. Clark got a wife; Lewis didn't. Clark became the capable superintendent of Indian affairs for the Louisiana Territory; Lewis became governor of the same territory, trying to use his office to profit from the fur trade. An extraordinary degree of bureaucratic and factional cat-fighting circled around Lewis’ tour. As Ambrose puts it, “if he was a near-perfect Army officer, Lewis was a lousy politician.”
And then there was the problem of manuscript preparation. After signing up a publisher and illustrators and consulting experts in a burst of activity in Philadelphia, Lewis did absolutely nothing with the journals. Despite big expectations and big promises, Lewis-as-author went into major-league default and denial.
For any writer who has ever missed a deadline, this episode in non-publication shows Lewis at his most human and most in range of empathy. It cannot be a comfort, then, to know that Lewis, in mid-writer's block, went mad. To rescue himself from financial ruin partly caused by the Madison administration's refusal to pay some of his official expenditures, Lewis set off to Washington. He made it only to the hills of Tennessee, however, where he was found dead in an inn. While schoolbooks told us that he was murdered. Ambrose argues that he committed suicide.
By his failure to prepare the journals for publication, Ambrose asserts, “Lewis cheated himself out of a rank not far below Darwin as a naturalist.” In the observation of nature and the describing of specimens, Lewis was a remarkable fellow, alert and observant to beat the band. But if Lewis came up with an organizing idea, a concept anywhere near as powerful as evolution, the record of this breakthrough does not survive. The comparison of Lewis to Darwin tells us, instead, that we are reading a biographer who had become very fond of his subject.
Acknowledging that Lewis is one of his “heroes,” Ambrose argues that the explorer needs to be better appreciated. Lewis’ suicide “hurt his reputation” and deprived him, for instance, of the honor of having a river or another major geographical feature named after him. Those with more of an enthusiasm for word play and puns may notice what Ambrose did not: with a minor twist of misspelling, “Louisiana” Territory stands ready for transformation.
In the interior West today, we are doing considerably better than Lewis did in courtship and marriage and, as the current renaissance in western literature indicates, we are dealing very well with the challenges of preparing manuscripts for publication.
But in matters of governance, the tangled, factional, profiteering, rumor-filled and contentious politics of Lewis’ territory in 1809 seem entirely too familiar. Stymied to find a way to reconcile public interest with personal profit and locked in a struggle over the question of who will benefit from the region's great resources and magnificent scenery, we are indeed residents of Lewisiana Territory.
Ambrose tells us that Lewis, in the spring of 1805, “turned his face west. He would not turn it around until he reached the Pacific Ocean.” The turning around, the looking back, the return to life in one's own contentious home country, proved and proves to be the hardest part. The “after-action analysis” necessarily remains incomplete.
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SOURCE: A review of Eisenhower: A Centenary Assessment, in Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 1, June, 1996, pp. 277-78.
[In the following review, Boyle concludes that Eisenhower: A Centenary Assessment is “a useful addition to scholarship on Eisenhower.”]
In 1990, on the occasion of the one hundredth anniversary of Dwight D. Eisenhower's birth, the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, which is dedicated to the study of the life and times of General and President Eisenhower, sponsored a year-long series of lectures on his career. The lectures, revised for publication and edited by the center's director and associate director, Stephen E. Ambrose and Günter Bischof, constitute the volume under review. Publication of a centenary assessment five years after the centenary suggests an undue lapse of time between the delivery of the lectures and their publication. Nevertheless, the book is a useful contribution to the ongoing reassessment of Eisenhower.
Andrew J. Goodpaster, Eisenhower's staff secretary during most of his presidency, offers a judicious foreword, which is, not surprisingly, very favorable to Eisenhower. Goodpaster argues that the absence of apocalyptic events in the 1950s and the achievement of solid economic growth and social cohesion for the majority of Americans were largely due to Eisenhower's leadership style of good preparation, joint effort, and the deflation of issues. Ambrose and Bischof's introduction is an excellent summary of the trends in historiography on Eisenhower, with a succinct discussion of the most significant works that offered the traditional view of Eisenhower as an ineffective president, the revisionist accounts since the late 1960s that viewed Eisenhower very positively, and postrevisionist accounts since the late 1980s that have added reservations to the revisionist interpretation. The remainder of the volume consists of contributions by both established scholars and younger historians. None of the contributors would accept the traditional jaundiced views of Eisenhower offered by intellectuals of the 1950s and 1960s, but they divide between the revisionist and postrevisionist view.
There are only two contributions on Eisenhower in World War II, by Forrest C. Pogue and M. R. D. Foot. There is a very good contribution by Thomas M. Sisk on a neglected period of Eisenhower's career, his time as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, in 1950–1952. For the most part, however, this centenary assessment is an appraisal of Eisenhower as president.
Some of the contributors summarize the familiar views of authorities, while others break new ground with original research. Fred Greenstein, for example, offers a convenient, brief summary of his well-known conclusions on Eisenhower's “hidden-hand” leadership style; William L. O'Neill summarizes the favorable aspects of the domestic history of the United States in the 1950s in a spirited, vigorously argued piece. Stanley I. Kutler offers an innovative interpretation of Eisenhower and desegregation, suggesting that Eisenhower's choice of judges quietly shaped a judiciary that pushed the South toward the inclusion of blacks as equal citizens.
On foreign policy issues, several contributions are more innovative. Thomas A. Schwartz offers a stimulating analysis of Eisenhower and the Germans, discussing Eisenhower's roots as a German American and his relations with Germans as a general and president. Anna K. Nelson makes good use of the very full minutes from National Security Council meetings in the 1950s to discuss Eisenhower and the foreign policy process. Steven F. Grover makes an interesting comparison between Eisenhower's liberal policy over the issue of Cuban sugar prices in 1954–1956 and his rigid policy toward Fidel Castro in 1959–1960. The essays by Bischof on the Austrian Peace Treaty and Robert A. Wampler on NATO and nuclear weapons are based on detailed research, while Gordon H. Chang largely repeats previously published views on Eisenhower and China, with the exception of some general reflections on the comparative leadership styles of Eisenhower and Mao Zedong. H. W. Brands presents some general reflections on Eisenhower's style in foreign policy. The volume concludes with an overall appraisal of Eisenhower by Ambrose.
A centenary assessment by its nature tends to the laudatory, and this volume is no exception. Moreover, there are significant differences between the contributions addressed to a general audience and the more specialized essays. Foot, for example, recounts familiar material on Eisenhower and the British in World War II and offers a very thin analysis of Eisenhower's relations with British leaders in the 1950s, while Schwartz presents a sophisticated, wide-ranging study of Eisenhower and the Germans. Nevertheless, the combination of the contributions that summarize recent work on Eisenhower, such as the one by Greenstein, and the more specialized original contributions, such as those by Kutler and Grover, make this a useful addition to scholarship on Eisenhower.
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SOURCE: A review of Undaunted Courage, in Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 3, December, 1996, pp. 1007-8.
[In the following review of Undaunted Courage, Furtwangler concludes that Ambrose fails to capture the literary and larger philosophical dimensions of the book's subject.]
This book has had widespread success, including weeks as a national best seller. For thousands of new readers, it may ease the way into the great Lewis and Clark expedition of 1803–1806. It consolidates dozens of studies from the past thirty years to tell the story in short, accessible chapters with full explication.
Nevertheless, the overarching design of this study leaves much to be desired. The full title promises to unite three difficult subjects, but they remain separate and baffling. Meriwether Lewis remains an enigmatic figure, a brilliant explorer on the trail but an inexplicably shattered man after his return who finally took his own life. Thomas Jefferson remains the inscrutable American scholar-statesman, a patron and mentor to Lewis in one mood, a cold and official taskmaster in another. The American West has long been a meeting place and battleground for people from every continent. Its “opening” exploration involves dozens of ill-assorted characters and plenty of bitter conflict. But here that event emerges as a triumph of Jeffersonian intelligence and determination.
Stephen E. Ambrose admits some conflicting aims in his introductory pages [in Undaunted Courage]. He claims to be writing a new biography of Lewis, but that is mainly because he learned in 1992 that James Ronda was already at work on William Clark. In fact, the thick core of this book is a straight chronology based on both explorers’ records, fleshed out with information from recent expert publications in many fields.
More frankly yet, Ambrose offers this book to mark years of happy family life in Montana and along the Lewis and Clark Trail. And Montana as a happy hunting ground is at the dead center of his tale. When Lewis invades from the East, Ambrose says he “stepped forward, into paradise,” and he means it. He goes on to describe a summer-lit world abounding in game, with no threatening Indians in sight. (None appear until desperately needed—for crossing Idaho.) It is in Montana that Lewis reaches the height of his talents and his bliss. Once he drops back east into the world of others’ maps, he becomes entangled in drink, drugs, writer's block, and political corruption. He can never return up the Missouri River. He sinks into despondency and dies.
Ambrose thus rewrites a very bleak Paradise Lost. No Satan, no serpent, no Eve, no heaven, no hell. For God the Father, read Jefferson the mastermind—creating an American Adam and setting him going, then retiring to Monticello like a properly Enlightened First Cause. Wilderness to the west and bureaucracy to the east do all the rest. Ambrose ignores such literary patterns; many historians will feel that he rightly sticks to explaining the facts of diplomacy, science, courage, adventure, and scenery. But the life of Meriwether Lewis embodies a westering motif that begins with Odysseus and presses on to Vietnam. To see it only in Enlightenment terms is to slight its depths of tragedy and transcendence.
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SOURCE: A review of Undaunted Courage, in Historian, Vol. 60, No. 1, Fall, 1997, pp. 123-24.
[In the following review, Emmerich offers generally positive assessment of Undaunted Courage.]
This work is the story of two magnificent obsessions. The first, as is obvious from the title, is the epic of love of exploration that drew Meriwether Lewis and Thomas Jefferson into the partnership that ultimately opened the trans-Mississippi West to European American settlement. The other obsession, revealed more clearly with the turn of each page, is that of the author. Captivated by Lewis and his remarkable journey, Ambrose has spent the last twenty years leading family, friends, and students down most of the same paths and waterways that the expedition followed. Every mile walked along the Lolo Trail, every riffle canoed on the Missouri River, and every starry night spent deep in the Bitteroot Mountains brought the author that much closer to the heart and the spirit of the man he reveres as “the greatest of all American explorers” (475).
Ambrose blends natural history, political history, and biography in Undaunted Courage, giving readers a sophisticated narrative that references every extant source on Lewis and Clark. As well as any biographer can know a subject, the author knows Meriwether Lewis, and he wants his readers to share his appreciation of this remarkable man. Ambrose recounts Lewis's childhood and youth and highlights the evolution of his relationship with Thomas Jefferson. From there, the narrative focus shifts to the expedition, and the reader follows Captain Lewis and his company from the earliest planning stages (1801–1803), through the actual journey (1803–1806), to the triumphant return (1806–1807). En route, the author enumerates the innumerable “firsts” of the trek, including the first Euro-American sightings of buffalo, grouse, condors, prairie dogs, the Rocky Mountains, the Columbia Gorge, the Lakota, Shoshones, Nez Percé, and Blackfeet. The author is, at times, less careful in noticing the native people whom Lewis and Clark encounter along the way and in acknowledging that they knew these “firsts” as familiar components of their cultural landscapes. His account concludes with the sorry denouement of the grand adventure, Lewis's failures as governor of the Louisiana Territory, his deepening melancholy, and his ultimate suicide in 1809.
Undaunted Courage is biographical history writ large by an author who is well accustomed to storytelling on a grand scale. But, in this instance, the effect is less magisterial and much more intimate. Ambrose knows and loves the country traveled by Lewis and Clark. He fully understands and carefully explains the scientific, diplomatic, and ethnographic importance of their undertaking. Ambrose clearly respects and admires Lewis, his indispensable partner, Captain William Clark, and the rest of the group of explorers who accompanied them. Enthusiastic esteem permeates the narrative but does not blunt the occasional criticism of Lewis as an expedition leader and later as a “man-about-politics.” Only once, at the end of the saga, does the narrative distance slip. There, with the spectre of the suicidal Lewis haunting the narrative, Ambrose, the biographer/historian, gives way to Ambrose the fellow explorer, nearly two centuries removed, who cannot fully understand why Meriwether Lewis, this man “of courage undaunted,” would end his life in a backwoods inn on the Natchez Trace, so far away from the western lands that he loved.
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SOURCE: “The Search for American Heroes,” in Yale Review, Vol. 85, No. 4, October, 1997, pp. 146-50.
[In the following review, Lamar offers favorable evaluation of Undaunted Courage, praising Ambrose's narrative skill and successful effort to humanize Meriwether Lewis.]
Stephen E. Ambrose, the author of The New York Times bestseller D-Day and the biographer of Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard Nixon, has always been in search of American heroes. In Undaunted Courage he goes back in time to write about one of the country's first official explorer-heroes, Meriwether Lewis of the famous Lewis and Clark Overland Expedition of 1804–6. Unlike other accounts of Lewis and Clark, however, Ambrose with good reason not only rescues Meriwether Lewis from two centuries of obscurity but presents him as a fascinating, complex, strong, contradictory individual. He also portrays Thomas Jefferson as a more shrewd, highly political, and tough figure than we usually encounter in American texts. For Ambrose, Jefferson was a practical politician standing midway between the opposite categories of dreamer and schemer.
It could almost be said that Ambrose has rescued Lewis from a conspiracy of silence imposed by several generations of historians. Henry Adams more or less dismissed both Lewis and Clark as frontier types who could not have been any good as scientific explorers since they were not formally trained or educated.
Because Lewis died early and Clark lived a long time as a key Indian superintendent in Saint Louis and produced a remarkably accurate and detailed map of their western trip, Clark became the dominant figure in the usual Lewis and Clark accounts. But as Ambrose points out repeatedly, Lewis was the single planner, the quartermaster, and the senior officer who headed the expedition. Even so, Clark, the brave frontiersman who had drawn a superb map, became the hero everyone wanted to write about.
Other historians, almost studiously avoiding what Lewis and Clark had achieved, fastened on the story of the Shoshone woman Sacagawea and called her not only a guide but the savior of the expedition when she persuaded her Shoshone people to furnish the explorers with horses that allowed them to travel through the Rockies on their way to the Pacific. Indian tribes and historians alike have fought verbal battles as to whether Sacagawea was a Shoshone or from another tribe and whether she lived to a great age or died of a “putrid fever” in 1809. Besides getting horses from her brother Cameahwait, as the journals acknowledge, the presence of a woman in the Lewis and Clark party “reconciles all Indians that we are not a war party.” It should be said that Lewis and Clark appreciated her but that she was not their savior.
More recently, the psychological historians have had a go at Lewis and Clark by asking such questions as did Lewis have a crush on Clark and/or did Clark have an affair with Sacagawea? Both tantalizing speculations die from lack of evidence. Now medical historians have gotten into the act by arguing that Lewis was depressed and later committed suicide because he had contracted syphilis from the Indians and died when the disease began to affect his brain.
Fortunately for the reader, Ambrose keeps these questions in perspective. But even more fortunate is that all the known papers and correspondences relating to the Lewis and Clark Expedition have been edited by Professor Gary Moulton of the University of Nebraska in an exhaustive ten-volume edition. With Moulton's edition, Stephen Ambrose had most of his materials right at hand. The Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition put to rest all questions about Lewis's competence as a scientific observer and demonstrate conclusively what an incredible treasure trove of information the two men gathered. Aided by the work of such other scholars as Donald Jackson, James Ronda, and Paul Russell Cutright, Ambrose has synthesized Lewis and Clark's findings brilliantly.
Even so, the real secret of the powerful impact of Undaunted Courage on hundreds of thousands of readers is Stephen Ambrose's contagious enthusiasm for reliving the Lewis and Clark trail over the Rockies, the Lolo Pass Trail, by hiking and riding it on horseback each fall with his wife, children, and grandchildren. There is even an Ambrose grandson named Meriwether.
The question still remains what has Ambrose told us about Lewis himself that could be called new. Besides being the first full biography of Lewis, this is the first book to describe his childhood and life in the context of a Virginia plantation society and economy. Ambrose argues persuasively that Lewis got his sense of authority and command because he and his family were plantation aristocracy and slaveowners.
Ambrose also demonstrates that Lewis was obsessed with getting an education. He left his widowed mother and a brother in Georgia to return to Virginia to be tutored. He fought for what little formal education he got and urged his brother Reuben and a stepbrother to attend school. It quickly becomes clear why Jefferson liked Lewis so much: he was the perfect willing pupil whom Jefferson deliberately trained for the western expedition he had been planning for twenty years.
Ambrose gives us yet other valuable clues to Lewis's character by tracing his early years in the army on the frontiers of the Old Northwest. Army life was rough, crude, and punctuated by violence and hard drinking. What Ambrose has done, however, has been to explain why Lewis was so attracted to the wilderness. He finds that Lewis was always curious about trees, wild plants, birds, and animals. He was almost a John Muir, but with a shotgun. In effect, Jefferson could hardly have found another army officer who had such an overwhelming curiosity about nature.
When Jefferson finally decided to send Lewis west, he packed him off to Philadelphia for crash courses in astronomy, medicine, and scientific descriptions of plants with Dr. Benjamin Rush, Benjamin Smith Barton, and others. Early historians have made fun of this superficial training, but Ambrose argues that Lewis was such an avid pupil that what he learned was substantial.
Moreover, Lewis was in charge of getting boats built to go down the Ohio, buying supplies and guns, and purchasing medicines. In short, this was Lewis's expedition. Clark came on at the last minute and had no role in the planning. Yet Lewis and Clark, both army men and frontiersmen, admired and respected each other. Lewis made Clark co-commander and called him captain even though that rank was formally denied Clark throughout the expedition.
Lewis and Clark's epic journey to the Pacific and back is a familiar story to many but is so well told by Ambrose that it seems a fresh, new saga. After they returned to Saint Louis in September 1806, the country learned of their two-year successful journey and declared them heroes.
We come now to what is the first weakness or troubling part of Ambrose's biography of Lewis. Lewis came home a national hero. He was wined and dined everywhere from Saint Louis to Philadelphia. He had one big task ahead of him: to write up and publish his and Clark's extensive journals. But after writing Jefferson a wonderful summarizing letter from Saint Louis he wrote no more. He never asked for scientific help or chose an editor or a publisher. Ambrose tries to excuse Lewis by saying he was disappointed that he could not report to Jefferson that the West was a future agrarian empire and so felt that he had failed Jefferson. By this time Lewis was drinking heavily and may have been taking drugs. An inebriated Lewis, though handsome and charming, appears to have scared off the women he found attractive and wished to marry.
The next episode we might blame partly on Jefferson himself. He named Lewis governor of Louisiana Territory, but Lewis proved to be no politician and soon came to grief dealing with sophisticated French merchants and aggressive American frontier politicians. Jefferson should have kept him in the East to edit the journals. But Lewis was at fault, too, because he was anxious to get rich in the fur trade and gave friends special deals. Ambrose freely acknowledges this venal side of Lewis's character.
Lewis's periods of drinking and depression became more pronounced as he got deeper into trouble as governor. When he decided to return to Washington via the Natchez Trace, he demanded whiskey and a gun at a frontier home in Tennessee and shot himself not once but several times. Neither Clark nor Jefferson were surprised, and Jefferson himself wrote a kind of a obituary that brilliantly analyzed Lewis and the problem of depression in the Lewis family. It is there that Jefferson described his erstwhile secretary as possessing “undaunted courage”—hence the book's title.
What Ambrose has done is to make Lewis a real person, a hero who was at once a frontiersman and a near poet. Lewis's description of the Great Falls of the Missouri is a beautiful example of his occasional eloquent prose. His excitement over the discovery of a new plant or bird echoes John James Audubon. His being at home in the wilderness and appreciating nature for itself reminds one of Daniel Boone.
Lewis, then, should be listed as a westering nature lover, not quite in the category of Muir, Audubon, Thomas Nuttall, or Henry David Thoreau, but a near relative. Similarly, he was fascinated by the West as the mysterious unknown, as were Jefferson, Jedidiah Smith, John Colter, and John C. Frémont. Ambrose's accomplishment has been not only to rehabilitate Lewis as a person and frontier hero but to point to a new way of seeing other intelligent frontiersmen whom historians have previously made into unthinking macho types. In this context one awaits with anticipation a forthcoming biography of William Clark by historian James Ronda. Meanwhile, Undaunted Courage may well remain the most effectively narrated American adventure story to appear in this decade.
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SOURCE: “Fighting Words,” in National Review, December 21, 1998, pp. 60-2.
[In the following review, Bunting offers positive assessment of The Victors and Ambrose's focus on the military experiences of individual soldiers.]
For whom is serious history written? The American academy has long answered: for other university scholars. On occasion, works of academic scholarship become popular: one can think of any number of such books. But in the eyes of university colleagues, their authors as a consequence soon become suspect—quietly derided, yet envied. Historians vulgarly praised as “good writers” are similarly fretted over. Propulsive narrative, pellucid prose, epigrammatical assertion or conclusion, vivid exemplification: such things virtually guarantee the wary regard of other professional historians.
There is a sub-species of history writing that particularly excites academic contempt. This is the history of men at war: not of ministers of war or defense secretaries, but of military leaders and ordinary soldiers. That military history should occupy the lowest caste in the history profession is unsurprising. The fact of organized slaughter in the service of state policy is deeply offensive to the liberal dream of human perfectibility, a reminder that mankind at the close of the twentieth century remains in the end no more advanced, as Richard Eberhardt wrote, than in our ancient furies. And since the end of the military draft in 1972, not many are those men and women, one day to become scholars and writers of history, who have voluntarily served in uniform. Few historians have any feel for the grit and heft and horror, for the enduring attraction for some, of “making war.”
For these reasons, military history is usually written by historians without either academic credentials or academic appointments. One thinks of the great historian of the British army, Sir John Fortescue; of John Wheeler-Bennett, of Douglas Southall Freeman (who continued to edit a large daily newspaper while he wrote his magnificent histories of Lee and his lieutenants), of Barbara Tuchman, Elizabeth Longford, Brian Farwell, and John Keegan—all of whom wrote or are writing for large audiences.
Writers like these grip hands with the great historians of an earlier century—Macaulay, Parkman, Bancroft, Henry Adams. Their concern is fundamentally with human character and intelligence under the grossest and most unremitting stresses life furnishes: those of sustained military campaigning.
Among such historians, no American now writing is read more widely than Stephen Ambrose. The popularity of his recent books is reminiscent of G. M. Trevelyan's comment about Lord Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome—that their sales might be said to vary directly with the price of coal. Ambrose is an academic historian and brilliant classroom teacher who may be said, using a naval metaphor, to have slipped his moorings.
In his books and lectures Ambrose often concludes by describing small units of young soldiers, walking through towns in the great theaters of war in 1945. Almost alone among such groups, squads of American GIs evoked smiles of delight, reassurance, gratitude, and confidence among those who saw them pass by. They were a soldiery whose military training had not effaced the essential goodness of the people and culture that had bred them. They were instinctively trusted by people who saw them—who perhaps a week earlier had watched enemy armies pass along the same streets, armies whose military men had been instructed that they represented superior races and cultures, with a destiny to conquer and subdue.
The picture is of course somewhat idealized. It reminds us of Saving Private Ryan (for which Ambrose was the principal technical advisor) and dozens of older war movies in which American squads are microcosmic melting pots of citizenship and ethnicity. And it reminds us also—which explains much of Ambrose's popularity—of the degree to which we yearn for the emotional adhesion of a country united in a just and mighty purpose.
His newest book—the author's fifth since 1994—The Victors, bears the subtitle Eisenhower and His Boys—The Men of World War II. It is an integration of several earlier works, including the enormously popular Citizen Soldiers and its various predecessors. Among these are Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne, and D-Day, June 6, 1944. The titles suggest the continuing focus of most of this historian's work: young Americans brought to their country's service by a variety of motives—pure patriotism, the desire to prove something and earn distinction, the felt obligation to serve. But the soldiers Ambrose writes about were sustained in their combat service above all by an irreducible unwillingness to break faith with those of their own small units.
Thus while Ambrose has been criticized for reducing history to an immense series of episodes and anecdotes, strung together loosely in a narrative making few moral judgments, but allowing the facts to speak for themselves, this critique misses the point altogether. Ambrose is determined to show, as Thucydides did in the The History of the Peloponnesian War, and as Lincoln pronounced in the Gettysburg Address, that the essential goodness of a moral, democratic society makes of its citizens military defenders who will triumph over enemies whose soldiers are the products of totalitarian, racist, and authoritarian regimes. Someone once wrote: Churchill speaks of the soft underbelly of Europe, and a private crawls forward three feet in the rain. Ambrose is the recorder of the private's progress. To fasten upon multiple, unregarded lives and tiny incidents is to illuminate the larger thesis by accretion. Ambrose accomplishes this with great power.
So while The Victors summarizes and reconsiders Ambrose's earlier World War II themes, it does so for the declared purpose of making a narrative history of “the Supreme Commander and the junior officers, NCOs, and enlisted men carrying out his orders—generally ignoring the ranks in between.”
Like Emerson's Lincoln, Ambrose's wartime Eisenhower seems in some sense—however ironic the word in 1998—an aboriginal American, the very embodiment of American leadership in war: slow to anger, vast in wrath, yet boyish, bumptious, always able to get a kick out of things, understanding that no crisis, however distended and destructive, can be allowed to register in the persona he presents to those he leads, his soldiers, and those he represents, his countrymen. Ambrose writes: “He spoke with great earnestness, a perfect expression of the devotion to duty that he felt deeply … but all followed by that big grin and a verbal expression of bouncy enthusiasm … he was so big, so generous, so optimistic, so intelligent, so outspoken, so energetic—so American.”
But the soldiers he led are the real subjects of The Victors. Ambrose's mission throughout is not unlike that of Joseph Conrad. The novelist said he wanted to take his audience by the lapels and demand:
Don't you see? Can't you understand? This is what your countrymen are like, in their best selves, in the hearts of their hearts, when once the blast of some mighty and worthy crusade has blown in their ears. Once they were this, and you must be worthy as their heirs, and nothing can make you worthy that does not lift you beyond the petty dreams and ambitions of your contracted lives.
Near the end of The Victors, a representative GI remembers: “We did our duty because our country asked us to, and our comrades depended on our doing it.” That was all. Or as Churchill said of Eisenhower's own hero, George Marshall: Succeeding generations must not be allowed to forget his example.
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SOURCE: A review of Citizen Soldiers, in Journal of American History, Vol. 86, No. 1, June, 1999, pp. 295-6.
[In the following review excerpt of Citizen Soldiers, Dean takes issue with Ambrose's tendency to conflate heroism and cruelty in his portrayal of World War II as a “good war.”]
World War II, despite the fact that it left over four hundred thousand Americans dead and hundreds of thousands of other veterans maimed in body or mind, has until recently persisted in the American imagination as a “good war,” one that was fought for a necessary and noble cause, and one in which American fighting men did their duty overseas and then came home to appreciative civilians and jubilant parades, which eased their reentry into civilian life. However, in the wake of the Vietnam War, we have become acutely aware of the physical and psychological travails of American veterans, and historians have begun to take a closer look at the life of the common soldier and have thereby reexamined the idea of World War II as the classic “good war.” Stephen E. Ambrose's Citizen Soldiers and Gerald F. Linderman's The World within War are part of this reevaluative process.
In Citizen Soldiers, Ambrose takes a broad look at the American campaign in western Europe by considering every level of the war effort, from the strategy discussions of generals to the tactics employed by junior officers and the life of the combat soldiers “on the ground.” The dominant theme is that the “citizen soldiers” of the United States were called from the peaceful pursuits of civilian life and were matched up against the fanaticism of Adolf Hitler's Third Reich; America's men met this test successfully, and through a mixture of effective leadership, courage, and innovation, primarily by junior officers and NCOs (noncommissioned officers), saw the cause through to victory.
America's fighting men were unprepared for much that they encountered, but reacting with resourcefulness and persistence, they devised methods to deal with each problem as it emerged, such as converting tanks to bulldozers to plow through the hedgerows of Normandy or coordinating infantry, tanks, and tank-busting aircraft into a highly effective machine of destruction and doom, which was then deployed against German defenders. Ambrose's thesis that it was the junior officers (“middle management”) who should be credited with victory finds an analogue in John Kenneth Galbraith's The New Industrial State (1978). Indeed, it is Ambrose's assertion that American World War II veterans, all too often dismissed as “men in gray suits,” went on in the 1950s to make this country into an industrial giant and success story and to spread democracy throughout the world.
While Ambrose presents an abundance of evidence for the grisly and awful nature of combat—the noise, shock, and feelings of total helplessness and bewilderment that it could induce (“I dreaded going into combat again”)—his read on the American war effort is that it was heroic, spectacular, and magnificent. In that sense, his narrative sometimes seems to drift into a form of cheerleading that disconnects from the evidence. For instance, he recounts an incident when infuriated American infantrymen took German tankers prisoner and proceeded to execute them by shooting them in the back of the head. The last German was a young man who was sobbing and rocking back and forth on his knees, pleading for mercy with pictures of his family on the ground in front of him. The unmoved GIs shot and killed the German. That is not heroic or magnificent. That is the cruel and ugly face of war.
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SOURCE: “Linking a Nation: Stephen Ambrose's Story of the Building of the Transcontinental Railroad,” in Chicago Tribune Books, September 3, 2000, p. 5.
[In the following review, Weinberg offers favorable assessment of Nothing Like It in the World.]
When I was young, the building of the interstate highway system transformed the U.S. The obstacles were huge, but road crews working heavy machinery got the job done. The time spent driving between major cities was cut in half.
Amazing as the building of the interstate highway system was, something far more amazing had occurred a century earlier—the building of a transcontinental railroad, with no heavy machinery to do the heavy lifting. How tens of thousands of laborers managed to build a serviceable railroad across rivers, through mountains and into deserts with little more than shovels, axes and dynamite boggles the mind.
Stephen Ambrose's new book makes the how of it understandable, but no less mind-boggling. With publication of this book, a lot of minds will be boggled, because when Ambrose writes, a lot of people read. Perhaps no Ph.D. historian has ever reached so many readers. Nothing Like It in the World, about the building of a railroad that made the U.S. accessible from east to west, deserves to be a best seller, much like Ambrose's books about the Lewis and Clark expedition (Undaunted Courage) and the Army during the final year of World War II (Citizen Soldiers), to name just two of his 22 previous works.
Early in the book, Ambrose admits that despite his training as a historian specializing in 19th Century American culture, he balked when his editor suggested the topic. He had stereotyped the men behind the building of the transcontinental railroad as corrupt. “I wanted nothing to do with those railroad thieves,” Ambrose writes. But he and his editor agreed on a compromise: He would spend six months reading “the major items in the literature, so I could see if there was a reason for a new … book on the subject.”
Ambrose found many previously published books to admire, including Maury Klein's 1987 work Union Pacific: Birth of a Railroad, 1862–1893 and George Kraus’ High Road to Promontory: Building the Central Pacific Across the High Sierra (1969). Ambrose decided to go ahead by focusing on a question that previous authors had for the most part ignored: How did they build the railroad? rather than, How did they profit from it?
As it turns out, David Haward Bain, a teacher at Middlebury College, was researching a similar book. Bain's Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad, reached stores in late 1999. It is equally well-written and, at almost 800 pages, nearly twice as long as Ambrose's book.
Bain covers a longer time period. For instance, he opens with a scene from 1844, as Asa Whitney, who has been scheming about how to finance a transcontinental railroad for many years, is on a ship that has to travel halfway around the world to get from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. The journey steels Whitney's resolve when he returns to the East Coast to lobby Congress for a railroad. Another key railroad promoter, Grenville Dodge, does not appear in Bain's book until Page 157.
Ambrose, on the other hand, opens his book with a chance 1859 meeting in Council Bluffs, Iowa, between Dodge and soon-to-be president Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, on the campaign trail in his quest for the White House, hears from his host that Dodge, in the audience, knows more about railroads than anybody in the nation.
At this juncture, Ambrose's skill at setting scenes, using dialogue and building suspense takes over. In Ambrose's telling, Lincoln “studied Dodge intently for a moment and then said, ‘Let's go meet.’” Lincoln and his host strolled to a bench where Dodge was sitting. “Lincoln sat down beside Dodge, crossed his long legs, swung his foot for a moment, put his big hand on Dodge's forearm, and went straight to the point: ‘Dodge, what's the best route for a Pacific railroad to the West?’
“Dodge instantly replied, ‘From this town out the Platte Valley.’
“Lincoln thought that over for a moment or two, then asked, ‘Why do you think so?’”
After hearing the answer, Lincoln “went on with his questions, until he had gathered from Dodge all the information Dodge had reaped privately doing surveys for the Rock Island Railroad Company on the best route to the West. Or, as Dodge later put it, ‘He shelled my woods completely and got all the information I'd collected.’”
Despite Ambrose's storytelling skills, I would recommend Bain's book over Ambrose's for its comprehensiveness. But Ambrose fans, as well as readers who want a shorter version than Bain's, will not be wasting their money or time with Nothing Like It in the World.
The cast of characters is unforgettable. The stars of Ambrose's drama include Dodge, a Civil War Union general who became the chief engineer of the Union Pacific as thousands of workers laid track after the war's end; Theodore Judah, the professional surveyor who conceived the Central Pacific, the second line that met up with the Union Pacific in the Utah wilderness; Mormon religious leader Brigham Young, whose power in Utah made him a key player automatically; financiers who contributed unimaginable amounts of money to the project, especially Thomas Durant, Oakes Ames, Oliver Ames, Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins; Lincoln; Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, who would later become president; and Gen. William T. Sherman, who probably could have been elected president if he had chosen to run.
Of all those men he admires, Ambrose seems to have a special relationship with Judah, who started his labors as an 18-year-old railroad construction manager. Judah possessed great vision, setting out to explore the Sierra Nevada range because there might be a mountain pass that would make railroading from coast to coast possible. How he returned from that arduous, dangerous adventure to team up with his wife, Anna, as Washington lobbyists in favor of railroad construction is a tale of optimism and persistence. There was no choice in Judah's mind: Government funding had to be involved, because only the government possessed the resources to pay for it.
To Ambrose's credit, he does not spend all of his precious space on the tycoons and professional engineers. He also devotes considerable attention to the laborers who sweated day in, day out for years under conditions so harsh that words almost fail. Those laborers, mostly of Chinese and Irish descent, are the mostly unnamed heroes of the saga.
The obstacles that had to be overcome—and the questions that arose because of them—provide the book with endless drama. What route should the tracks follow? There were so many choices, each one tied up in questions of geography, politics and finance. Once started, would the project really be completed given the obstacles? How many lives would be lost during construction? How many individuals and institutions would go bankrupt trying to profit?
Ambrose has the answers, some of them surprising, for his legion of readers.
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SOURCE: “Railroaded History,” in Washington Post Book World, September 18, 2000, p. C3.
[In the following review of Nothing Like It in the World, Limerick criticizes Ambrose's uncritical generalizations about the American transcontinental railroad and his sentimental view of its construction.]
Stephen Ambrose has grown weary of negativity. Finding in the first transcontinental railroad a prime opportunity to reroute U.S. history back to its proper track of pride, he offers Americans a journey to an appealing destination. Nothing Like It in the World gives readers a ride back to an era when people felt good about American history, inspired by the nation's leaders and proud of their triumphs.
Unity is the point and punch line of this book: Just as the Civil War united North and South, the building of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads united East and West. “Next to winning the Civil War and abolishing slavery,” Ambrose declares in his opening sentence, “building the first transcontinental railroad … was the greatest achievement of the American people in the nineteenth century.” “Most of all,” he says, “it could not have been done without teamwork.”
In repeated declarations, Ambrose casts the fighting of the Civil War and the building of the railroad as parallel and similar enterprises in the cementing of national unity. In truth, the analogy may be uncomfortably close. Like soldiers in an army, the workers on the railroads were subordinates in a hierarchy; rather than acting as democratic citizens freely expressing their support of a project for the national good, they followed orders, and if they did not, they soon sought employment elsewhere. As the Chinese men who attempted a strike in the Sierra Nevada certainly learned when construction boss Charles Crocker simply withheld their food supplies, the railroads’ practice of “teamwork” could be enforced with assertions of power that other historians would be hard-pressed to interpret as expressions of democratic unity.
Not once but many times, Ambrose reminds readers that this railroad was an enormous and unique accomplishment, that it resembled the Civil War in spirit and outcome, that it demonstrated American enterprise, toughness and determination at their best. Along with repetition, he makes a full surrender to the necessity of the “meanwhile” mode of narrative construction: The fighting of the Civil War, the building of the Union Pacific, the building of the Central Pacific, the lobbying in Washington are linked by “meanwhiles” deployed in a manner not always notable for its grace (Theodore Judah, engineer of the Central Pacific, “spent the early fall working on his annual report. Meanwhile the Battle of Antietam had been won by the Union …”).
The men in charge of the railroad repeatedly faced the choice between building it “fast” or building it “well.” The companies, under great financial pressure to win the race and claim as much trackage as possible, chose “fast,” and it sometimes seems that Ambrose has modeled his own choices on theirs.
But his willingness to trust nostalgic memory over established scholarship poses even more of a puzzle. In 1965, historian Wallace Farnham published an article in the Journal of American History establishing that stories about Grenville Dodge, chief engineer for the Union Pacific, cannot be verified by any evidence from the time. Written into his published memoirs, Dodge's tales—discovering a crucial mountain pass while being chased by Indians, meeting with Abraham Lincoln in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Washington to influence Lincoln's choice of railroad routes—give every sign of being apocryphal, imagined into being years later. On the day in which legend has him escaping hostile Indians, for instance, Dodge's diary records no word about heroic escapes; on the contrary, as he described his journey to his wife, “The trip would have suited you, if it had not been for the tediousness of it.” (Ambrose in a footnote responds to Farnham's conclusion that this story is false: “For my part, the story rings true; besides, there were plenty of other eyewitnesses.” He does not cite those witnesses.) Nearly all the stories that Farnham found to be poorly supported, if not actively discredited by documentary evidence, appear in Ambrose's book, presented as fact. (In a footnote, Ambrose acknowledges that Farnham concluded that Dodge's story of chatting with Lincoln in Council Bluffs in 1859 was probably false. Ambrose then declares that the story “strikes me as true, even down to the details.” He does not offer an explanation for this impression, or cite counter-evidence.)
Ambrose is, after all, a writer entirely at home and at ease with sweeping generalizations. The race for construction between the two companies, he declares, “was democracy at work.” If so, it shows that democracy is an enormously complicated political animal, capable of working congenially with organizations characterized to their core by elitism and hierarchy. And, by all the evidence, this kind of democracy has proved both resilient and highly exportable.
The omnipresence of railroads around the globe makes the book's repeated claims for American uniqueness difficult to understand. The title, Nothing Like It in the World, certainly describes the transcontinental railroad's position at a particular historical moment. But the proliferation of railroads—throughout home countries, empires and colonies—was a feature of late-19th-century and early-20th-century life virtually everywhere on the planet.
If uniquely American virtues and strengths of character made possible the building of this particular railroad, how was it that railroads involving comparably strenuous engineering and financing have appeared all over the world, in places where these singular American qualities did not prevail?
“The truth,” Farnham wrote in 1965, in an era when historians were much more comfortable using absolute terms like truth, accuracy and fact, “is too complex for romantic legend.” “The species of legend fashioned out of magic, heroism, and vanity still prospers,” Farnham said, and “nowhere more vigorously” than in the story of the transcontinental railroad. As Stephen Ambrose himself observes, “Exaggeration is endemic to railroad historians.”