He was not as glamorous as John F. Kennedy or as scrappy as Harry S. Truman. But Dwight D. Eisenhower continues to fascinate. Just last year three biographies were released, including a major chronicle of his military career by Carlo D'Este. Now comes a "personal reminiscence" from his son, himself a retired brigadier general and a noted military historian.
"General Ike" is mainly concerned with Eisenhower's military career, not his two terms as president, and this is fitting, not only because he saw himself as a soldier first, but also because this is the enduring source of our fascination with him. Ike's presidency was placid and not all that dramatic. But for three brief years he led the largest army the United States has ever fielded in the greatest war ever fought.
Ike and his fellow commanders of World War II occupy a place in our pantheon rivaled only by the generals of the Civil War. These were the two costliest conflicts in American history, and in sheer magnitude they are unlikely ever to be matched, since technological advances have been steadily reducing the size of armies.
Norman Schwarzkopf, Wesley Clark and Tommy Franks can hope, at best, for a place alongside Gen. Winfield Scott (victor of the Mexican War) and Adm. George Dewey (victor of the Spanish-American War) in our military annals. Through no fault of their own, they will never rival the reputations of Eisenhower, MacArthur, Patton, Bradley, Grant, Sherman, Lee, Jackson and the other heroes of our biggest wars.
There is not much new that can be said about these demigods at this late date. John S. D. Eisenhower has already written about his father in his 1974 memoir and in several histories. His son, David, has contributed a book devoted to the years 1943-45. "General Ike" wisely makes no attempt to recap its subject's entire career, nor even his entire military career. Instead John offers a series of studies of how his father interacted with various notable personages, from George S. Patton and Bernard Law Montgomery to Winston Churchill and Charles de Gaulle.
His focus is strictly on Ike's professional life. There is little here on Mamie Eisenhower, John's mother, and nothing at all on Kay Summersby, the comely English chauffeur with whom Ike was intimately involved. Yet, oddly enough, John devotes several pages to John J. Pershing, even though he admits, "Pershing does not seem to have loomed large in Ike's life."
The most charming (and novel) parts of "General Ike" are John's family memories. He recalls, for instance, how Ike reacted to the news of Pearl Harbor by making some vegetable soup -- his invariable response to periods of "excessive stress." Then there is the story of how in 1933 the 9-year-old John was sent by his mother, who couldn't find a parking space, into the old State-War-Navy Building to retrieve his father. He got lost in the cavernous hallways and asked for directions from "a tall, balding, middle-aged gentleman," who gladly helped out. "Once out in the car, Ike turned to me with a grin," John recalls. " 'Do you know who you had running around the halls looking for me? It was General MacArthur.' "
Not many authors can boast of having met Douglas MacArthur. But John, who served as an occasional aide-de-camp to his father, seems to have been acquainted with pretty much all the notable British and American generals and statesmen of World War II. His portraits of these worthies are not etched with acid. Rather, as might be expected from the son of such a genial man, John's character sketches are warm, generous and forgiving, even of those who clashed with his father.
George S. Patton, for instance, had a stormy relationship with Ike and was ultimately fired by him in 1945. (Patton had complained of the occupation policy forbidding the hiring of Nazis, suggesting that Nazis and non-Nazis were "just like Republicans and Democrats.") Nevertheless, John declares, "What a mistake it is to judge an individual by his foibles" and rightly praises Patton for the masterly campaign he conducted during the advance into Germany in 1944-45: "Perhaps another officer could have driven the Third Army eastward with all the energy as that exhibited by Patton, but I don't believe so."
He is equally kind to MacArthur, who was Ike's commander during the 1930's, and who supposedly sneered, upon hearing that his former aide had ascended to high command, "Best clerk I ever had." "MacArthur was a difficult boss to Ike," John writes, soothingly, "but his career by no means can be judged by his performance during those years of the late 1930's."
The only figure who comes in for much criticism is Field Marshal Montgomery, a constant thorn in Ike's side during the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Italy and Europe. The problem was that, as a British officer, Monty was not fully under Ike's control, and sometimes tried to go over his head to the British-American Combined Chiefs of Staff. Tellingly, John faults him above all for lacking his father's diplomatic skills: "Monty's tactlessness caused bitter feelings between Americans and British, some of which lasted for a long time."
Not surprisingly, this is a loving portrait of Ike. To judge from this volume, John thinks that his father's biggest flaw was that he didn't toot his own horn enough. He attributes this excessive modesty to an overreaction to "MacArthur's histrionics," and writes, "I wonder if Ike's abhorrence of theatrics contributed to his being viewed for a while by those not in the know as a 'do-nothing' President."
John is unabashedly partisan in the still-raging debate over the quality of Ike's generalship. The case for the prosecution was summed up by Montgomery, who wrote in his memoirs, "I would not class Ike as a great soldier in the true sense of the word." In support of this view, historians have faulted Ike for various decisions, from advocating what surely would have been an ill-fated invasion of France in 1942 to being caught off guard by the German offensive that opened the Battle of the Bulge.
John concedes that Ike committed some mistakes, such as backing the unsuccessful operation in 1944 made famous in "A Bridge Too Far." But overall, he concludes, "Ike was one of the most successful military commanders of all time." Given the outcome of World War II, that's a hard judgment to dispute.
Max Boot is the Olin senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of "The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power."