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Eisenhower: a hero-worshipping retrospective

In his new biography of the post-war US president Dwight Eisenhower, Jim Newton rightly praises the former Allied commander's myriad achievements, but glosses over his flaws.
Eisenhower: The White House Years
Jim Newton
Eisenhower: The White House Years Jim Newton Doubleday Dh100

When Dwight D Eisenhower was elected president of the United States in 1952, the country was involved in a protracted war in Korea, which the president-elect was determined to end. "I know how you feel, militarily," he told his old colleague General Mark Clark, commander of UN forces, when the two met in Korea that year, "but I feel I have a mandate from the people to stop this fighting. That's my decision." The mandate Eisenhower referred to was his strong showing in the general election, in which he'd received 33 million votes, winning 47 per cent of the popular vote and ushering in Republican victories in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. In a reaction critics called "the revolt of the moderates", the American people, still reeling from depression in the 1930s and war in the 1940s, had thrown their support behind the smiling, avuncular candidate who had accepted the surrender of Nazi Germany. To voters, Eisenhower was immediately recognisable and reassuring, a living embodiment of the kind of stability to which they longed to return.

Eisenhower himself was ready, even eager, to deliver exactly that kind of stability. In front of the newly ubiquitous television cameras, he was folksy and upbeat, fond of bridge and golf, dedicated to American peace and prosperity. The Second World War had provided him with his only claim on the US electoral process. At the time of his nomination, he'd neither voted in a presidential election nor cared about them enough even to define his own party affiliation clearly - indeed, when President Harry S Truman enthusiastically put him forward as a candidate, he assumed Eisenhower would run as a Democrat.

This may have been wishful thinking on Truman's part. Eisenhower's temperament, and the methods he'd used throughout the Second World War to unite often bickering staffs of commanders from many countries, was perfectly suited to the Republicanism of the 1950s: administrative, non-prescriptive, consensus-driven and deeply conservative ("The best leadership," he'd once written to his son John, "does not demand theatrics."). This essentially laissez-fair style, it's often been noted, ended up bringing him into conflict far more often with radical members of the Republicans than with the Democrats who were supposed to be his ideological opposites.

Initially, however, as Eisenhower took office, amid the dismantling of the Korean War and resounding approval ratings often as high as 70 per cent, party strife was the last thing on the minds of most Americans. It's true that Democrats bemoaned his choice of cabinet members - "eight millionaires and a plumber", as they were described by commentators worried that newly resurgent big business in the US would now be calling the shots in the White House, a worry enlarged by comments like the one Charles Wilson, the secretary of defence, made to Congress: "What was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa." This sounded echoes of the election of President William Taft, when government watchers had commented that the new president was a very amiable man - surrounded by men who knew exactly what they wanted.

The game of presidential echoes is a familiar pastime in the United States, and it's one Jim Newton plays with some relish in his new book Eisenhower: The White House Years. The natural comparison is with General Ulysses S Grant, likewise a successful army commander in a high-stakes conflict, likewise an amiable man, likewise seen by some as a political neophyte. Newton hesitates to make the Grant comparison, not only because he's no doubt loath to invoke the spectre of Grant's administrative incompetence but because Newton has bigger game in his crosshairs. "All presidents save Washington are measured against their predecessors," he tells us. "As he ascended to the presidency that January morning [1953], Eisenhower naturally was most compared to Truman, just as Truman had been so unfavourably, and unfairly, been found wanting in the shadow of FDR. In fact, the president whose background and service most resembled those that Ike brought to the office was Washington himself."

The comparison is apt in many ways, as are the parallels with Grant. Like George Washington, Eisenhower's plain and upstanding exterior could mask a fairly ruthless and even questionable businessman, sometimes raising awkward issues for an admiring biographer. Washington had his less than scrupulous land dealings, and Eisenhower, as Newton reports with po-faced dispassion, had the "novel interpretation of the tax code" by which the general claimed the publication of his 1948 memoir Crusade in Europe as capital gain rather than income, thereby avoiding paying nearly half a million dollars in federal taxes. And as in Grant's case as well, the production of that memoir was hardly a solo effort. Newton tells us that Eisenhower was "new at this" and was "aided" by his long-time friend Bill Robinson, three secretaries, and Kenneth D McCormick, the editor-in-chief of Doubleday, which is much like saying Eisenhower was "aided" in his conquest of Germany by the armed forces of the US, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union.

There's far too much hero worship in Eisenhower: The White House Years - beginning, despite the book's subtitle, with his military career in Europe. It's an unfortunate way to start proceedings, since it shows Newton's historical reasoning at its weakest. "The relationship between Eisenhower and MacArthur stretched over decades and defies glib analysis," we're told.

Newton then relates the awesome simplicity of President Franklin Roosevelt's order to Eisenhower on the eve of the D-Day landings: "You will enter the continent of Europe and, in conjunction with the other Allied nations, undertake operations aimed at the heart of Germany and the destruction of her armed forces". But he muddies his account with needless apologetics. "Much would be made in later years over Eisenhower's willingness to let Russia take Berlin," he tells us, "There is something to be said for holding Eisenhower accountable for broad strategic and political decisions." Well, yes, considering that those decisions were his sole responsibility, perhaps so.

Newton concludes that "though the Soviet occupation of Berlin would have consequences for the Cold War to come, there was no avoiding it in the early months of 1945" and calls allegations to the contrary "unfair". But allowing the Soviets to pass through US lines to seize a chunk of Germany for themselves, with no written conditions or terms, was certainly a blunder on Eisenhower's part, as were his overreaching tactical decisions at Arnhem and the Ardennes. Like Grant, Eisenhower was most "effective" as a general when he had 10-to-one material superiority over his enemy. And like Washington, his mistakes were obliterated in the blinding sunlight of his ultimate victory. But a biographer ought not to be so blinded.

For Newton, Eisenhower's two terms as president are accurately foretold in his inaugural address, in which the new president "hinted at much of what would mark his years as president: the invocation of God; the resolute commitment to security that comprehended economic prudence. He asked the nation to place country over comfort and convenience, and he pledged to refrain from using American power to impress the nation's values on others." The pages that follow, detailing that presidency in an intimate, fast-paced narrative, hew closely to those inaugural tenets - and seem almost unaware of the fact that Eisenhower's presidency contradicted almost all of those principles.

Even in the certain knowledge of the Soviet Union's lack of operational nuclear weapons, Eisenhower's years in office saw a staggering increase in the US nuclear arsenal and a corresponding increase in military spending (from $1 billion in 1953 to over $7 billion by the time he left office) - neither of which is conducive to long-term security or economic prudence. Likewise his pledge to refrain from impressing American values on others failed to extend to covert operations in Iraq and Guatemala. The bulk of the nation certainly didn't heed the new president's call to put country before comfort, and his ardent belief in big business didn't exactly match the tone of his words.

Almost no presidency is completely devoid of merit and Newton is right to praise his subject's accomplishments. Whatever his critics might say about Eisenhower's disconnectedness, it was he who ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce school desegregation in 1957. It was he who marshalled all the unofficial resistance he could to the craven evil of Senator Joe McCarthy's anti-communist hearings. And as Newton rightly points out, it was he who resisted the strange new siren-call of the age: "Eisenhower was the first American president to have access to atomic weapons and not use them." Ending the Korean War, saving the French from disaster at Dien Bien Phu, protecting Taiwan from China, checking the increasingly belligerent Soviets - in every one of these scenarios, Eisenhower's military advisers urged the "limited" use of nuclear warheads, and in every instance, the president turned them down. For that alone, all future generations owe him deep thanks.

The full complexity of the man who could refuse to use a doomsday weapon - and the full complexity of the new America that was born on his watch - isn't given the examination it deserves in Eisenhower: The White House Years. Newton assures us that Eisenhower "left his nation freer, more prosperous, and more fair", a contention to which minorities, environmentalists, and women (among others) might rightfully object, and for which they - and the rest of us - must wait for a different book than this.

Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.

Updated: November 18, 2011 04:00 AM



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