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Do You Like Ike?

April 2, 2012 by Reader's Connection

Eisenhower in War and PeaceMy parents voted for Dwight Eisenhower four times, between them, and being the political mushball that I have remained to this day, I followed suit and liked Ike. During the 1960’s, I was just as pliant and allowed myself to be guided by the popular wisdom that Ike had been dim, his two-term presidency an “eight-year golf game while the clouds gathered” (Frank Conroy).

Popular wisdom shifted again, a few decades ago, announcing that Eisenhower had been a shrewd man who allowed, or even encouraged, others to underestimate him. I’ve enjoyed that idea, but who was this man, really?

In his new biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith provides a moving story of Eisenhower’s boyhood (and errant father). During World War II, Smith sees Ike as performing poorly in North Africa and Italy, better during the Battle of the Bulge–with the caveat that the Battle of the Bulge wouldn’t have been necessary if it weren’t for more of Ike’s bad strategy. Overall, though, Smith feels that Ike did a masterful job of leading “the largest multinational force ever assembled.”

There’s little moralizing here about Eisenhower’s wartime romance with jeep driver Kay Summersby, but when Ike sends her his goodbye note at the end of the war, Smith is ticked. Eisenhower’s letter to Kay is cold-blooded and ruthless. FDR would have been incapable of sending such a missive, and George Patton would have said a warmer good-bye to his horse. 

In short, don’t let the Ike-loving blurbs on the jacket fool you: the book seems even-handed. President Eisenhower deals wisely with Vietnam, less so with Iran and Guatemala, and so on. I have to turn the book in before reading about the Suez Canal and Little Rock, Arkansas, but it’s fascinating and I’m going to request it again.

Some of Ike’s farewell words at the end of his presidency (I’m peeking ahead) seem aimed at our factional times. Smith outlines the president’s warnings about the military-industrial complex, and writes:

Then, in a timeless warning for the future, Eisenhower said America “must avoid becoming a community of dreadful fear and hate, and be, instead, a proud confederation of mutual trust and respect.”

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