My ongoing exploration of presidential biographies led me to explore the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower, as depicted by Jean Edward Smith. With a preponderance of information, Smith is able to develop a fairly comprehensive look at the man who rose to greatness as the Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theatre during the Second World War. This preceded taking the reins of domestic power as he led America in the early stages of Cold War aggression. As the title suggests, Eisenhower was a man who flourished in a period of war, but also thrived during a period of renewed peace. Both are highly important to the man and his legacy, while permitting the reader to visualise the contrasts. Told with a strong narrative and seamless style, Smith is able to present his arguments effectively while entertaining the reader throughout. A wonderful piece of biographical writing for those curious about this most unique man.
As with many who eventually found themselves in the Oval Office, Eisenhower lived a life of poverty in the late 19th century, held together with family love and dedication. Raised in rural Kansas, Eisenhower excelled scholastically, but was not afraid of a little hard work and dirt under his fingernails. After an almost accidental acceptance to West Point, Eisenhower found his niche with the regimented nature of a military education that promoted both conformity and individual thinking. West Point fuelled Eisenhower’s ascendency within the US military and led to a highly structured future four decades. As Smith illustrates, Eisenhower could not only follow orders given to him, but became adept at leading and harnessing decision-making into productive output. His career in the military began with a small family in tow, headed by his wife, Mamie, whose prominent family had high hopes for Eisenhower. While Eisenhower was ushered around, from Washington to Paris and even to the Philippines, Mamie played military wife as she acclimated to a life of constant change. Sometimes accompanying him to his posts and at other times remaining behind with her family, Mamie developed a relationship with her husband that would be tested throughout their marriage. As Eisenhower found himself with more responsibility, he rose through the ranks and continued receiving plum postings. It was during these secondments that Eisenhower grew into the military powerhouse that would be the cornerstone of his ultimate military claim to fame. While Eisenhower worked hard, Smith recounts numerous occasions when Ike enjoyed the finer aspects of the powerful positions, some of which appeared to be quite extravagant. When the Nazis commenced their dominance in Europe, President Roosevelt stood firm with America’s stance of isolationist behaviour, much to the chagrin of Eisenhower, who felt duty bound to protect those who were being overrun. After Pearl Harbour, US forces entered the war on two fronts, with Eisenhower taking up position as one of the highest ranking members in the European Theatre. With his past time in Paris and liaising with some of the most eminent political and military officials in the West, he was soon offered the position of Supreme Allied Commander, tasked not only with pushing back the Nazis, but saving France from Vichy clutches and liberating those areas overrun by the German military juggernaut. As Smith explores in numerous chapters though the middle portion of the biography, Eisenhower had his fingerprints over many of the key offensives that helped push the Nazis back and earned much respect by all those with whom he came into contact, including D-Day, which was the greatest military gamble of the entire war. However, in the aftermath of saving Europe, Eisenhower could look out over the terrain and see that he had made a difference doing what he loved, organizing military efforts in hopes of bringing peace to the region. Smith repeatedly shows Eisenhower’s abilities as a man of war, though never an instigator. This would prove a key character trait in the years to come. Eisenhower’s presence in a warring world proved important, though it was not the only situation in which he excelled.
After a forty year service in the US military, many would likely want to retire to a quiet life. As Smith illustrates, Eisenhower had no interest in this approach, choosing instead to let himself be lured into a prominent civilian post as President of Columbia University. Perhaps a precursor to a political future that paralleled Woodrow Wilson, Eisenhower’s time at the university was short-lived, using it as a stepping stone to the political realm, when one of the major parties came calling. New York Governor Thomas Dewey wasted no time trying to prime Eisenhower for a White House run. After some key political maneuvering, Eisenhower surrounded himself with strong-willed men who helped use his military popularity to sculpt a hero persona for the electorate. Choosing Senator Richard Nixon as his running mate after securing the 1952 Republican presidential nomination might have been one of the worst political decisions Eisenhower made, though Smith chooses to recount some of the famed foibles, including the Checkers speech, which almost cost Tricky Dick the vice-presidency. For a man who had never dabbled in formal political activities beforehand, Smith argues that Eisenhower had been around political figures for much of his military career, including Roosevelt, de Gaulle, and Churchill. After a landslide victory in November, Eisenhower was able to transition nicely from the military battlefield to a political one, equally riddled with hidden enemies and land mines. America was in the midst of an ideological war in Korea and the Chinese were are thumping its own chest in a stance to create supremacy in the region. Smith weaves through some key early Cold War skirmishes that placed peace in the most precarious position, but also exemplified America’s strong stance as a superpower that had tossed isolationism to the wayside. Perhaps Eisenhower’s strong military background helped morph America into a watchdog, ready to pounce when it saw fit. Smith eludes to this repeatedly as Eisenhower remained firmly rooted into keeping the world from falling into the clutches of communists. Riddled with some health concerns, Eisenhower had to trust in his inner circle, a collection of powerful cabinet secretaries, to run things when he was convalescing, though Smith does not spin the narrative in such a way that the President was out of the loop at any point. Eisenhower was equally capable of running a tight ship on the domestic front, where he pushed through a plan to create an inter-state highway system that remains an essential part of travel within the continental United States. Equally important, Eisenhower used his presidential abilities to push early parts of the civil rights movement into reality, especially racial integration in southern schools. Smith presents a succinct narrative about the goings-on in Little Rock, Arkansas, which followed the Brown v. Board of Education rulings by the US Supreme Court. Eisenhower would not stand down, choosing to promote the constitution than seeking to appease the southern segregationists. This push towards equality and respect for the US Constitution lasted throughout Eisenhower’s two terms in the Oval Office and helped to strengthen the importance of his peacetime leadership.
Smith uses the biography to address two further themes worth noting, which reemerge throughout the text. The first is best described as Eisenhower’s fallible nature, more a man with faults than the god-like general that is depicted in the history texts. While no marriage to a soldier can be easy, the strain exemplified by both Ike and Mamie Eisenhower seems to have created numerous fissures that almost cost them their union. Smith discusses Mamie’s long periods of loneliness that were only solved by regular drinking. This abuse exacerbated an already problematic situation of being apart for long periods of time. However, Ike was equally to blame when it came to strains on the marriage, having seeming found happiness in the arms of Kay Summersby, a member of Britain’s Motor Transport Corps during the Second World War. Smith pulls no punches in presenting this amorous connection, though mentions that few early Eisenhower biographers focused too much on their connection, perhaps a sign of the times. That Eisenhower could foster such a connection to a woman other than his wife was only further strengthened in a letter Eisenhower sent to General Marshall around the time fighting ended in Europe. In it, Eisenhower ponders the possibility of a permanent position within the military hierarchy in Europe, thereby facilitating his ability to divorce Mamie and pursue Summersby. While this did not come to pass, it does come up throughout Smith’s narrative and is worth a mention. A theme from the latter part of the biography that finds itself repeated would be the parallels Eisenhower draws between himself and General Ulysses S. Grant. It should be noted that Eisenhower did not seek to inflate his own ego in making this connection, but commented that they had both been powerful generals in prominent wars and ascended to the White House. Military men with no previous political involvement becoming Commanders-in-Chief for eight years, Eisenhower and Grant offered America the best they had to offer on the battlefield and when waging war with Congress. (As a side note, Smith has also written a comprehensive biography of Grant, though I have yet to read it, so these parallels might be partially of the author’s making as he connects dots in the research he undertook with both tomes.) While neither man could be said to have surpassed the abilities of the other, Smith does offer numerous flashbacks to offer similarities in their decision-making processes at key points in their presidencies.
Jean Edward Smith has taken much time to develop and shape this biographical piece of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In it, the reader is treated to not only a plethora of information about the man, but also a cogent argument for his military and political greatness. Rising from the dirt on his Kansas farm, Eisenhower became one of the best-known Americans from the Second World War, who went on to further impact the world in a political capacity. Eisenhower gave his all to every decision he made and answered many of the callings presented to him, choosing never to take the easy path. Predominantly selfless, Eisenhower placed the greater whole before his own benefit while still being a leader at a time many might cower. Smith’s biographical piece offers a wonderful sampling of the life and times of Dwight D. Eisenhower, showing Smith’s superior abilities as it relates to telling a complete story while keeping the reader enthralled throughout.
Kudos, Mr. Smith for another splendid presidential biography. I have a few more of yours to complete, but have not been disappointed up to this point.