Ike: An American Hero

by Michael Korda, HarperCollins, New York, 2007, $34.95.

In 1945 Dwight Eisenhower was the man of the hour, and in 1952 Americans liked Ike well enough to put him in the White House for eight years. But by the end of his administration, overshadowed by the charismatic Jack and Jackie, he was widely seen as an old duffer who paid more attention to his golf swing than he did to running the country.

Since his death, Ike has fared better. This adulatory new biography is just the latest in a long line. Unfortunately, most of the book is devoted to the general’s exploits during WWII and sheds little new light. Even more unfortunately, Korda all but ignores Eisenhower’s postwar years. He was, after all, the first chief of staff of the modern American army and first NATO commander, not to mention the president who disentangled us from Korea, avoided the pitfalls of Vietnam and presided over the first stirrings of the civil rights movement and, with the advent of Sputnik, the beginnings of the space race. Only a small portion of the book covers Eisenhower’s presidency. Sherman Adams and his vicuña coat rate little more than a sentence; Little Rock, four pages.

Korda touches briefly on the topics of whether Ike had an affair with aide Kay Summersby and whether Mamie drank. The other great gossip item is Eisenhower’s relationship with Nixon. There are the familiar accounts, such as the story behind the Checkers speech, in which Eisenhower advised Nixon to make his case via a televised appeal then took his time deciding whether to keep him on the ticket. And his remark when asked about Nixon’s contributions: “Give me a week, and maybe I’ll think of one.” Then there’s the cryptic note about Nixon’s complaint of never being invited to a private dinner—a subject, Korda says daintily, “about which Mrs. Nixon was said to express, to the very end of her life, what was, for her, a very rare degree of personal resentment.”

We are taken through Ike’s boyhood in Abilene, his coming of age at West Point and his postings, ranging from a disappointing stint training troops during World War I to his postwar years in Paris. Along the way, Korda develops an irritating tic of speculating on his protagonists’ reactions: “Ike must have felt a certain gravitational pull toward Miss Doud.… It cannot have been an easy time for Mamie.” Maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. What is sure is that Korda has no way of knowing. Korda also forgets that readers understand this is history and that the characters couldn’t possibly know the results of their actions. Sentences like “Because we know the outcome, the victory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt of course looks inevitable” and “Of course we know now how formidable the Japanese were” may rankle.

Overall, the book serves its purpose for those who don’t know much about Eisenhower, silhouetting the man against the background of his times. While one might disagree with Korda’s conclusion that “no American president had exercised power more surely or more deftly, or under greater pressure of time and events,” it is certain that as president, Eisenhower threaded his way through a minefield of problems both domestic and foreign, respecting the Constitution, keeping the peace and warning of the encroaching power of big business in the guise of the military-industrial complex.

 

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here