Keith Kyle

  • Eisenhower. Vol. I: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect 1890-1952 Vol. II: The President 1952-1969 by Stephen Ambrose
    Allen and Unwin, 637 pp, £12.50, February 1984, ISBN 0 04 923073 5
  • Ike’s Letters to a Friend: 1941-1958 edited by Robert Griffith
    Kansas, 211 pp, $19.95, October 1984, ISBN 0 7006 0257 7

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’.

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