The morning after the 1952 presidential election, I came downstairs to find a letter from my father lying on the dining room table amid tote sheets of electoral votes filled out in his neat hand. Addressed to his three sons, the letter told of how deeply disappointed he was that the American people had been so blinded by “the glitter of hero worship” that they rejected a wonderful intellectual, Adlai Stevenson, and instead elected a shallow five-star general named Eisenhower. My father, a lifelong Chicago Democrat, warned of disaster ahead for the nation.
But my father—bless him—was wrong. Disaster did not befall America in the 1950s. Indeed, our recollections of those times tend to center on pleasant images of tree-lined suburbs, Leave It to Beaver, and Ford Fairlanes with big fins. Ike acted like a semiretired president, shuffling a few papers in the morning in the Oval Office before taking the afternoon off for golf. This was a deeply uninteresting period in American history.
Not so, argues Michael Korda in his new book Ike: An American Hero. The 1950s were dangerous times full of dramatic changes. Ike led the nation through those dangers with such equanimity—especially in foreign affairs—that the Eisenhower years only seem dull. “The roots of the student risings, the civil rights movement, and much of the Sturm und Drang of the 1960s and the early 1970s can be found in the 1950s, when, in fact, there was a good deal more going on in American life than anybody is conscious of today,” writes Korda. Of course, the aging and ailing Ike was going to look stodgy compared to what followed: the youth and vigor of John Kennedy’s administration and the sex, drugs, and revolution of the 1960s. Today Ike has fallen almost completely out of fashion. Republicans venerate Ronald Reagan. Even George W. Bush says he likes Truman, not Ike.
Ike’s image problem, explains Korda, is that the history of World War II is now told though the tales of the ordinary citizen soldiers, hallowed members of the Greatest Generation. It’s all about the Band of Brothers. Korda, however, believes that history is formed by great men, and Eisenhower was truly one of the greatest. Ike had a “core of steel” when he “successfully commanded millions of men in battle” and “made perhaps the most difficult far-reaching military decisions of all time.” In well-written prose, Korda follows Ike from his Kansas roots, where he was poor but committed to education, hard work, and self-reliance; through his days at West Point, where his grades were average but his temperament was “easygoing, good-natured and affable” (despite contradictory indications of a hot temper); to his days as a professional soldier, when he labored under such formidable mentors as John J. Pershing and Douglas MacArthur. Korda is a master at thumbnail sketches of the other great men. He dismisses MacArthur: “Like one of the more difficult Shakespearean kings, [MacArthur] had a majestic sense of self.” George Patton, all glittery in his multistarred uniform, and Bernard Montgomery, baggy and rumpled in his, are equally ravaged as difficult megalomaniacs. Ike’s straightforward personality shines in contrast.
The bulk of this massive, 780-page book is about Ike’s military campaigns in North Africa and Europe. Korda was at one time editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster and something of an intimidating Shakespearean character himself. Probably no editor dared cut the former master’s book down to a more manageable size. So there are lots of pages comparing Ike favorably with other great military leaders, especially Ulysses S. Grant, a general Korda also profiled as a neglected hero, in an earlier book. And there are long, long chapters on Ike’s command decisions in Italy and on D-Day. Ike had as many headaches dealing with his commanders, especially Monty and Patton, as he had coping with the Germans.
By the time the war is won and Ike does his victory laps around the world, there is not much room left in the book for his eight years as president. He successfully applied his organizational strengths to the White House. He was not an ideologue and thus never won the heart of the Republican Party’s right wing. Ike never shared the crass political ambitions of his vice president, Richard Nixon, a man he treated with disdain. He disliked Joe McCarthy and supported—perhaps not vigorously enough—the civil rights struggle unfolding across America. He was, most of all, a talented internationalist who ended the Korean War, managed the recurring crises in the cold war with aplomb, and kept America out of any new war.
As an exercise in restoring Ike to the pantheon of great American heroes, the book is eminently successful. Korda reminds us of Eisenhower’s accomplishments and the strength of his character, which exemplifies the best of America. There’s not a lot of new scholarship here. If the footnotes are anything to judge by, Korda drew most of his information from Ike’s memoirs and those of his friends. Yet although Korda did not bother diving into the archives, he successfully captures the mood of the times and the nature of the man in an easy-reading, albeit lengthy, book.
The night of the 1960 election, my father and I followed the election results on TV together. He was so pleased. JFK, a Democrat—and a Catholic!—won. Things were looking up. America was set for smooth sailing in the ’60s. Wrong again, Dad.
Barry Hillenbrand was a foreign correspondent for Time magazine for 34 years before retiring in 2001. He lives in Washington, D.C.