By Jean Edward Smith, Random House, New York, N.Y., 950 pages, $40
As the Republican presidential hopefuls travel the 2012 campaign trail, it is astonishing that Dwight D. Eisenhower’s name is heard so infrequently. Perhaps it is the passage of time. As recounted in Jean Edward Smith’s masterful biography, however, the two terms of Eisenhower’s presidency produced a record of peace and prosperity unmatched by any other GOP president of the 20th century. In elegant prose, Smith reminds us of the reasons why Eisenhower’s rich legacy is still relevant.
The first half of the book covers Eisenhower’s Kansas boyhood, West Point education, service in the peacetime Army, orchestration of the Allies’ victory over Hitler, tenure as Army chief of staff, stint as the president of Columbia University, and startup of NATO. A major theme in this portion of the book is the key role that important mentors played in advancing Eisenhower’s military career, including Generals Fox Connor, Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall.
Eisenhower’s wife of 52 years, Mamie, is quoted as stating that “no man can make a successful career on his own. He needs help.” Smith writes that Connor was especially helpful, teaching Eisenhower the value of poise and patience. Well-read and erudite, Connor’s grey eminence convinced Eisenhower to read history and study the grand strategists, including the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz.
Smith’s skill as a researcher and storyteller provide depth and texture to Eisenhower, the stoic midwesterner. Utilizing an impressive array of source material, the author weaves a thoughtful narrative of Eisenhower the son, brother, student, husband, father, football coach, friend, soldier, author, politician, leader, grandfather, elder statesman, gentleman farmer, golfer and bridge player. With keen analytical powers and an impressive historical perspective, Smith brings to life Eisenhower’s strengths and shortcomings, aspirations and frustrations, triumphs and disappointments, and passions and aversions. At the book’s end, you feel as though you know the man.
For readers of earlier biographies of Eisenhower, Smith adds new and pertinent information on his subject. The new material chronicles the dysfunctions of Eisenhower’s father, Eisenhower’s near court martial in 1921, Eisenhower’s complex relationship with MacArthur, Marshall’s rebuke of Eisenhower over the Kay Summersby affair, Eisenhower’s assiduous involvement in presiding over the National Security Council, and Mamie Eisenhower’s side of the story of her lengthy marriage to the great man. Smith also debunks the myth that Eisenhower ever stated that he regretted appointing Earl Warren as chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Smith’s best new material focuses on the central role that two prominent New York lawyers played in cajoling Eisenhower in the spring of 1952 to run for president as a Republican. At the time, Eisenhower was serving in Europe as the head of NATO. President Harry Truman, fearful that conservative GOP Senator Robert Taft was positioned for a takeover of the White House, told Eisenhower that he would step aside if Eisenhower agreed to run as a Democrat. Equally alarmed by the prospect of a Taft presidency were New York’s Thomas Dewey and Herbert Brownell, who appealed to Eisenhower’s centrist instincts and convinced him to run as a Republican.
At the time of Eisenhower’s election in 1952, he was already an established figure on the international stage. As recounted by Smith, no new president ever brought so much personal prestige with him to the job. Foremost among his credentials was an incomparable judgment. He could adroitly size up men and situations, and had the stature and confidence to deal with both effectively. Although he defeated GOP old guard efforts to roll back New Deal social legislation, he was viewed as a careful steward of the public purse. According to Smith, Eisenhower’s “recipe for success” was focus, common sense, simplicity, and attitude. The book contains dozens of examples where this recipe served Eisenhower well.
In the White House, Eisenhower ended the Korean War and kept U.S. troops out of many others, including debacles in Vietnam, China, Hungary, the Suez Canal and Guatemala. The author explains how, as president, Eisenhower often kept his own counsel and had the gravitas to question the military advice he received. He firmly believed that troops and resources were precious and should not be risked in limited engagements of doubtful utility. A career soldier, he warned the country to be skeptical of the military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower favored covert action against regimes he deemed to be threatening to U.S. interests. Smith explains well how, under Eisenhower, the CIA became a potent instrument in conducting U.S. foreign policy. The prime example of this occurred in Iran in 1953. As a sop to the British, who at the U.S.’s request had backed the U.N. coalition in Korea, Eisenhower’s CIA undermined Iran’s popular Mossadegh government, which had moved to end Britain’s lucrative oil concession. In deposing Mossadegh, CIA operatives reinstalled Shah Reza Pahlavi. After the coup, Eisenhower lied, publicly whitewashing the event as a popular uprising.
Privately, Eisenhower was none too proud of this dirty business. Prior biographers were prevented from discussing Eisenhower’s diary entries on the subject, which were classified by the National Security Council. In 2010, however, the entries were at long last declassified. According to Smith, Eisenhower’s Oct. 8, 1953, diary entry admitted that “the things we did were covert” and that the U.S. would be embarrassed if the CIA’s role in the coup ever became known.
If Eisenhower’s covert actions abroad were regrettable, his behind the scenes undermining of Senator Joseph McCarthy was not. Eisenhower detested strident partisanship, especially McCarthy’s brand. As McCarthy’s probes of alleged communist subversives in the federal government caused outrage, Eisenhower seemingly remained on the sidelines, refusing to denounce publicly the senator’s methods.
As told by Smith, however, Eisenhower undercut McCarthy’s standing through a campaign of slights and counter-measures, including ordering his administration to refuse to reply to any more summonses from McCarthy’s committee.
Believing that McCarthy would soon destroy himself, Eisenhower thought that the worst thing would be to openly denounce the senator, who craved attention. The strategy worked. By Eisenhower’s second year in office, McCarthy was censured by the Senate and drifted into a well-deserved irrelevance.
Jeffrey Winn is a partner at Sedgwick.