The 40th anniversary of Victory in Europe is a good vantage-point from which to look back on the career of the Supreme Allied Commander under whom in the West that victory was won. It should come as no surprise that in the light of history Dwight Eisenhower’s personal contribution to that immense achievement should appear more considerable than is implied by the titular and public relations role that was sometimes attributed to him. When he went on to become President of the United States, he once more found himself described as a constitutional monarch rather than an executive leader. Yet in the perspective of an unlucky line of successors his completion of two terms of office as popular at the end as at the beginning, with a record of peace and prosperity, a balanced budget for two years running, and a long succession of crises deftly and coolly managed, looks scarcely accidental. The author of this two-volume life, based on prodigious familiarity with the archives and an admirably assured and unfussy style, has been at work on it for twenty years. In the course of that period he has spun off various lengthy by-products, such as a 732-page study of The Supreme Commander: The War Years of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-volume edition of Eisenhower’s war papers, and special studies of Eisenhower and Berlin and even Ike’s Spies: Eisenhower and the Espionage Establishment.
Dr Ambrose’s theme, expressed most explicitly in the foreword to his first volume, is adulatory: that as a soldier Eisenhower was ‘everything that the US Army hoped for in its finest product’, that as President he ‘ran the show’ and that as a human being he was ‘a wonderful man to know or be around’. Yet this is anything but a hagiography, and in a good many respects it provides evidence to support the judgments of Eisenhower’s contemporary critics. For one thing, Ambrose does not write as a conservative; his criticisms of Eisenhower as President do not flow from a shared political outlook.
The Eisenhower family background was a typical American failure story. His father, David, like each of his siblings, had been set up on marriage by his father with a piece of property of his own and a small amount of capital. Raising a mortgage on the property, he then plunged into business; in two years it had folded, the mortgage was foreclosed, and David Eisenhower never tried his hand again. Rescued by his family, he was able to raise six sons in the small Midwestern town of Abilene, Kansas (described by the author as ‘a dull, dispiriting place’) – in a house given him by his brother. It is still possible to call at the Eisenhower house and be shown the drawer in which ‘Little Ike’ was kept as a baby in place of a cot. The father seems to have been an aloof figure, except when beating the living daylights out of his children; his attitude to his wife is regarded by his son’s biographer as un-acceptably chauvinist. From this background sprang six well-adjusted, healthy and successful sons. Dwight seems to have spent his boyhood in fighting, playing and organising football, hunting, outdoor cooking and learning how to be an expert card-player. He was competitive and immensely energetic, with a huge grin and a violent temper which he did his best to keep under control. He was the rah-rah type, constantly shouting encouragement to his team. Although his family belonged to an uncompromisingly pacifist religious sect, Eisenhower wanted to go to the Naval Academy at Annapolis because his best friend was there, it played football and it was free. Instead, he was accepted at West Point, his second choice. He was mainly known there as a football-player, and, when a knee-injury put paid to that, as a football coach and cheerleader.
Frustrated in his desire to see action in World War One, he started publishing his advanced views on the importance of tank warfare: on being told that they were not only wrong but dangerously so, he dutifully relapsed into silence. But he did pass out top of the class at the Command and General Staff School at Leavenworth, and already when working in the Army Department in Washington he was picked out as a protégé by General MacArthur, the Chief of Staff: ‘This is the best officer in the Army. When the next war comes he should go right to the top.’ If this was really what was thought of him, his career structure seems very odd: writing guidebooks to battle monuments in France, drawing up war-mobilisation plans in the middle of the Depression, writing speeches for MacArthur (which in the light of the contrast in their styles seems a mind-boggling task), and spending four years in the Philippines working for MacArthur, who had a retirement job as Field-Marshal of the tin-pot Philippine Army. When Eisenhower was no longer his golden boy, MacArthur termed him ‘a good clerk, nothing more’.
Pearl Harbour brought Eisenhower directly under another Chief of Staff, George Marshall, who immediately sent for him to assist in the central direction of the war. In June 1942 he was appointed commander of the European theatre of operations, having previously commanded troops scarcely at all. Arriving in London in a ‘can do’ frame of mind, he proposed to land in Europe in three months with two divisions which he planned rapidly to build up to a beachhead of six, thereby constituting a second front. He was backed by Marshall, but the plan was demolished by Alan-brooke, who secured acceptance of the North Africa campaign on 22 July – a date which Eisenhower thought would go down as ‘the blackest day in history’. In Ambrose’s view the North Africa campaign brought minimal rewards at high cost, but he adds: ‘considering just how often and how seriously Eisenhower botched things in North Africa’, the experience was worth acquiring. In the planning stage he was correctly adventurous and willing to land as near to Tunis as possible, but when he was overruled by Marshall and thus had further to strike over land, he was too slow in the execution of his plans. His method was to lead by persuasion rather than direct order. Saddled with dealing with such unsatisfactory characters as Admiral Darlan and General Giraud, he got bogged down in politics and administrative matters.
Ambrose’s portrayal of Eisenhower at this stage is a little perplexing, in that he alternately lifts him up high and then casts him down. For instance, he is described as displaying supreme self-confidence in North Africa, so it is disconcerting to find him also described as ‘unsure of himself, hesitant, often depressed, irritable, liable to make snap judgments on insufficient information, defensive in both his mood and his tactics’. At the Casablanca Conference he was given the supreme command in the Mediterranean. ‘We were pushing Eisenhower up into the stratosphere and rarefied atmosphere of a Supreme Commander,’ Alanbrooke wrote in his diary, ‘where he would be free to devote his time to the political and inter-allied problems whilst we inserted under him ... our own commanders to deal with the military situations and to restore the necessary drive and coordination which had been so seriously lacking.’ The trouble was that drive and coordination were the very features that were not present in the Sicilian campaign which was planned by Montgomery and overseen by Alexander.
Eisenhower was chosen to be the Supreme Commander of the Normandy landings, not because he had proved himself to be a brilliant soldier, but because the balance of forces made it inevitable that the top military post should be held by an American; because whatever could be said about the quality of the North African, Sicilian and Salerno operations, he at least had unique experience among available Americans of commanding major amphibious landings; because he was outstanding in his ability to organise and animate an allied headquarters; and, perhaps most important of all, because Roosevelt decided that he could not sleep soundly at night if George Marshall, who would have been his preferred candidate, were not by his side. Eisenhower had two requests to make of Roosevelt: he should be allowed to work with de Gaulle, and the zonal division of Germany, already planned with the Russians in anticipation of the occupation, should be scrapped. Both requests were turned down flat.
Ambrose’s account of the Eisenhower leadership of the Normandy landings and of the subsequent campaign anticipates in many ways the account in his second volume of the Eisenhower Presidency. There are descriptions of moments when Eisenhower, very much in personal charge, overrules high-powered and persistent opposition – for instance, over the Transportation Plan by which strategic bombers were switched onto railway targets in France and Belgium so as to weaken the German power of reinforcement, and when, during critical moments of the Battle of the Bulge, he transferred two American armies temporarily to Montgomery’s command despite the American general Omar Bradley’s threat to resign. But in contrast with these occasions there are others when his failure to assert himself lent credence to Montgomery’s view that Eisenhower was a co-ordinator and not a commander (‘Ike has never commanded anything in his whole career’).
The central problem was Eisenhower’s relationship with Montgomery. That the campaign came to an end without a final break between the two men was the result, on Eisenhower’s part, of a heroic exercise in self-restraint kept up over a long period. There was tension over Montgomery’s slowness in capturing Caen and his failure to break out from it. Later, the argument was whether Eisenhower should concentrate on trying to knock Germany out in 1944 with a daring left hook to Berlin or the Ruhr rather than move all the forces forward on a broad front – which was what happened. The military problem was complicated politically by the fact that the left hook would have involved placing all the emphasis – and the allocation of supplies, which, as controlled by the Supreme Commander, were the real source of his executive power – on Montgomery’s British force, at the expense of the Americans. It was complicated personally by the fact that Montgomery, the British commander who was advocating this daring left hook, had amassed a poor reputation for dash and daring in following up on past opportunities. ‘The feeling at Shaef,’ someone remarked, ‘was that if anything was to be done quickly don’t give it to Monty.’ Moreover, when Montgomery did undertake at Arnhem the type of airborne attack which was to illustrate that the British could be dashing enough when required, the operation was a failure. Ambrose is severe in his judgment of Eisenhower’s willingness to agree to Arnhem and his failure to insist on the strategic necessity of the instant clearing of the Antwerp approaches and the opening of the port. The author blames his hero’s ‘great weakness’ in this situation on ‘his eagerness to be well liked, coupled with his desire to keep everyone happy’.
Eisenhower’s qualities as a soldier were seen at their best at the Battle of the Bulge, when the German offensive which took everyone by surprise was expertly contained. The Allies crossed the Rhine in good order, but there was trouble again over the invasion of Germany. Eisenhower, by now barely on speaking terms with Montgomery, decided not to try to get first to Berlin, an operation for which Montgomery’s 21st Army Group would have had the main role, but to concentrate on Bradley’s thrust for Dresden. Eisenhower took the view, against Churchill’s entreaties, that his strategy should not be influenced by political factors. In fact, the General’s own views were coloured by a political conception which he expressed at the time: that the Anglo-American relationship with Russia was at about the same stage of arm’s length dealing as was the relation between Britain and America in 1941, and would yield to the same sort of emollients once contact was established. Or, as Ambrose puts it sardonically: ‘Anyone who could get along with Montgomery for three years should certainly be able to get along with the Russians.’ The author notes that Eisenhower was subsequently embarrassed by having held this attitude and tried in various ways to rewrite the historical record.
From the time that Eisenhower left for Europe in June 1942 until his triumphant return to Washington in June 1945 he only saw his wife Mamie once briefly and then rather spoilt the effect by calling her ‘Kay’ after his Irish driver and assistant Kay Summersby of whom she was already madly jealous. Ambrose has carefully investigated the widely believed story that at the end of the war Eisenhower wrote to Marshall asking permission to divorce Mamie to marry Kay, and that Marshall and the President decided that they could not allow this to happen to a national hero. He says that this is ‘completely untrue’. Kay Summersby had, however, been very close to Eisenhower and their romance had been an open secret at Allied headquarters (though there is no evidence that she was his mistress and her own account, written after his death when she was dying of cancer, is that she was not). Mamie does not come through as a very clear or focused personality from these books. We are told that as an Army wife she was ideal – that she loved to entertain and play cards in the convivial atmosphere of the ‘Club Eisenhower’ her husband set up wherever he had his quarters, and that she never complained. The next time we find her she is in the Philippines and doing nothing but complaining, staying in bed most of the day and not eating. Her wartime letters to a man beset by anxieties seem to contain a deal of whingeing that must have tried his patience. She was often referred to as delicate, but she apparently rallied when her husband became a Presidential candidate. Ambrose mentions another strong rumour – that she had a severe drinking problem – but only in the context of a question put to Eisenhower with startling bluntness by a Republican Party delegate in Nebraska during the run-up to the 1952 nomination, and he makes no further comment.
Eisenhower was seriously considered as a Presidential candidate from the minute that the war ended with himself as the national hero and the White House occupied by the then little-regarded Harry Truman. But it was 1952 before he decided he was a Republican and was willing to be pushed. The drive to nominate Eisenhower for the Republican Party came from those who thought the Democrats bound to lose and could not contemplate the isolationist Robert Taft. The record of his eight years in office bears a resemblance to his record as Supreme Commander. He was not a roi fainéant. On a number of important issues he was clearly very much in charge. The records make clear that his key decisions related to all major foreign policy issues, contrary to much contemporary belief – though Ambrose is surely going too far when he writes that ‘Dulles carried messages; he did not make policy.’ Secretary of State John Foster Dulles was a powerful formulator of policies. Eisenhower had a rather arm’s-length view of the separation of powers: Congress was not normally to be too much chivvied by the White House, nor was Congressional curiosity about his executive office to be permitted. The Supreme Court had a duty to interpret the constitution but the executive branch did not have any special need to supply instruments to back that interpretation. All that Southerners were concerned about, Eisenhower privately told Chief Justice Warren after the Court had found against racial segregation in schools, was that ‘their sweet little girls were not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.’ His respect for the Court’s decision in the Brown v. Topeka case was quite genuine, as he showed in his frank discussion of it in one of the letters which he used to write to his boyhood friend Swede Hazlett and which have been collected by Robert Griffith: he just thought the Southern states should have plenty of time to adjust.
Forbearance was stretched to the length of scandal in the case of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his systematic demoralisation of whole sections of the Administration, and of national life. Ambrose says that Eisenhower came to loathe McCarthy almost as much as he hated Hitler, and intended to destroy him as he had done Hitler. But this is a somewhat confused analogy in view of his well-known refusal, in the case of McCarthy, to ‘get into a pissing contest with that skunk’. He never explicitly defended General Marshall and others like General Zwicker – who had served with Eisenhower on D-Day and was told by McCarthy that he was not fit to wear the uniform – from the grotesque insinuations made about them. Eisenhower presumably thought his silence was preserving the dignity of the Presidency, but it was at a heavy price.
Eisenhower was a very different kind of conservative President from Reagan. The first order of business, he declared, was the elimination of the annual deficit. But his way of setting about this was not Reagan’s – that of cutting taxes and letting the defence budget rip. It was to refuse to cut taxes and to cap defence spending, a policy on which he was in a unique position to insist. Curiously he chose as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff the extremely hawkish Admiral Radford and spent a great deal of energy keeping him under restraint. Perhaps he admired him intellectually and felt confident that so long as he was in the White House there was no need to worry. Eisenhower believed that having nuclear weapons, including the H-bomb, enabled him to cut spending on conventional weapons, and he said to those who warned that the West was being left behind by the Russians: ‘What you want is enough; a deterrent has no added power once it has become adequate for compelling respect.’
He thought several times about using atom bombs. In Korea he had thought of using them on Kaesong – ‘a good target for this type of weapon’ – and warned the Chinese discreetly that unless the armistice was pushed forward the Americans would ‘move decisively without inhibition in our use of weapons’. In Indochina Radford seems to have given the failing French to understand that they would have the assistance of three atom bombs. When Eisenhower was confronted with this he broke out: ‘You boys must be crazy. We can’t use these awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.’
But if conventional forces were to be cut back in favour of nuclear deterrence, and the use of nuclear force was then found to be repugnant, what was left for the projection of American power? Eisenhower’s answer was the CIA. Under him, its size and scope increased dramatically. He used it to overthrow the Mussadeq Government in Iran in 1953, and the following year did the same to Jacob Arbenz, the democratically-elected and reform-minded President of Guatemala. Milton Eisenhower, the brother whom the President deeply admired, had told him that Arbenz had succumbed to Communist infiltration. In the first case, Britain welcomed, had indeed invited, the CIA’s intervention; in the second, Britain was indignant at the naval blockade of Guatemala imposed by the Americans ahead of the uprising, and undertook, with the French, to back Arbenz in the United Nations. Eisenhower denounced allies who ‘expect us to give them a free ride and side with them and yet they won’t even support us on Guatemala.’ He instructed his UN representative to let the British and French know that if they took an independent line over Guatemala America would feel free to do the same in such matters as Egypt and North Africa – an interesting observation to be made in advance of Suez. Eisenhower’s allies fell into line, Arbenz’s nerve broke, and a cruel curtain of military dictatorship descended over Guatemala. Then as now the American fears were of Communism in Panama and of the plague spreading to the American border.
Running through Ambrose’s account from 1954 onwards like a sub-theme is the skilfully introduced story of the ultra-secret development of the U2 as the super-spy plane for the CIA. U2s came into action for the first time in 1956, Eden first allowing them to fly from British bases over the Soviet Union and then withdrawing permission, so that they moved to Germany. Eisenhower controlled their flight programmes very tightly. Along a different narrative track path go Eisenhower’s views on arms control, which are in practice inhibiting of any progress until he approaches his last year of office, when he is at last willing to take limited risks on verification. The U2 is being used over Russia to prove that the contention that Russia had opened up a dangerous ‘missile gap’ between themselves and the Americans is a myth. In the summer of 1960 a summit meeting in Paris is to crown Eisenhower’s political career with a decisive move towards peace. Then the CIA asks for one flight before the U2s are closed down completely for the sake of the summit, and, being granted it by the President, dispatches it on the last permitted day. Francis Gary Powers is then shot down and Khrushchev dramatically uses the triumph to blow up the summit in Eisenhower’s face.
Seven months later, having contributed to Richard Nixon’s defeat by answering a question as to whether he could name any major idea of the Vice-President’s that had been useful during the eight years they had served together, ‘If you give me a week I might think of one,’ Eisenhower left office with the only memorable farewell address since Washington’s. It spoke of the need to guard against the unwarranted influence of the military-industrial complex, an influence – economic, political and even spiritual – that was to be found in every city, every State House, in every office of the Federal Government. The threat is immensely greater now in Reagan’s America than it ever was in Eisenhower’s.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.