This biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower places particular emphasis on his brilliant generalship and leadership in World War II, and provides, with the advantage of hindsight, a far more acute analysis of his character and personality than any previously available, reaching the conclusion that he was perhaps America's greatest general and one of America's best presidents. The book starts with the story of D-Day--it was Ike's plan, Ike's decision, Ike's responsibility. But there is more to this book than military history. It is a full biography of a remarkable man, a late starter, a perfectionist, a brilliant leader of men, behind whose easy-going, affable persona was a very different man, fiercely ambitious, hot-tempered, shrewd, and tightly wound. It is as well the portrait of a tumultuous and often difficult marriage, for Mamie was every bit as stubborn and forceful as her husband.--From publisher description.
When I read a presidential biography, I always try to figure out whether an author is a fan or a critic of their subjects or more neutral (and I prefer neutral). I thought Michael Korda offered a pretty balanced approach. Although much of the book was a glowing tribute to Eisenhower, the author doesn’t believe Ike did no wrong.
A biography that concentrates on the World War II era must, of necessity, provide enough detail about the war to provide context and background for readers. I must say that the chapters on Ike’s land-war strategy gave me a much more complete understanding of the European and Mediterranean theatres than any history I've read of the war itself.
The three books I’ve read about Eisenhower have led me to believe he was much underestimated and to appreciate how much he and his wife Mamie sacrificed for his service as a war-time general and president. Ike: An American Hero is well-written and sourced, and reads like a novel for the most part. One of the best presidential biographies I’ve read.
Korda’s coverage of Eisenhower is a bit quirky. In a 722 page book, he devotes only two chapters and about 68 pages to the eight years of the presidency, while spending eleven chapters and over 500 pages on World War II. Korda can’t resist retelling the familiar story of the relationships and interactions among Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin although Eisenhower played only a very minor part in that drama.
Korda’s treatment of Eisenhower’s early career is enlightening. He was a good but not distinguished student at West Point, from which he was graduated in 1915 when Europe, but not yet the United States, was at war. He proved to be such an exceptional trainer of men and student of logistics and equipment that he was considered too valuable an asset to be sent to Europe for any of the fighting. Shortly after WWI, he accompanied a cavalcade of army vehicles to drive all the way across the United States, a feat that had never been accomplished before. [This trip made such a deep impression on him that later he spearheaded the effort to build the nation’s cross-country highway system.] He became a close friend of George Patton and studied armored infantry tactics with him. Patton and Ike actually took apart a French tank (the state of the art at the time) and put it back together. Later, he was assigned to the Philippines and spent five years reporting directly to Douglas MacArthur (where, as Eisenhower explained, he learned “dramatics”). MacArthur later characterized Ike as “one of his best clerks.”
Eisenhower’s organizational talents caught the eye of General George C. Marshall, who picked him to head the American effort in the European theater in WWII. Marshall’s confidence that Ike could come up with a plan, turn chaos into order, and win the confidence of the British was rewarded by exceptional performance.
Before the war, Ike had never commanded combat troops. His first major assignment in the war was to lead the largest amphibious invasion (into North Africa) ever undertaken to date. The attack was ultimately successful, but Ike was severely criticized for moving too slowly in some ways. Interestingly, Roosevelt wanted the attack to begin before the 1942 elections, but he deferred to Ike’s judgment that the attack would not be ready until four days after the elections.
His next assignment was as Supreme Commander of both British and American forces for the invasion of Normandy. Ike made the decision to go ahead despite risky weather reports. He also opted to use airborne troops to a great extent despite the high casualty rate they were bound to and did incur. Ike battled to get control of the air forces of the US and the UK, which wanted to continue bombing German cities rather than support the invasion force.
His greatest challenge in managing the war after establishing a Normandy bridgehead was allocation of force. He had to manage prima donna commanders like British Field Commander Gen. Bernard Montgomery and American General George Patton, both of whom wanted as much glory as could be had. Montgomery and other British generals wanted a single powerful thrust through northern Germany to take the Ruhr and then Berlin before the Soviets could get there. Ike demanded a broad frontal assault, which he believed would wear the Germans down with the superior numbers and production of the Allies. Ike prevailed over both the British and the Germans, although British historians have tried to argue that his strategy was inferior and ultimately prolonged the war.
Monty and the British wanted to push on to Berlin despite the fact that the Yalta agreements had assigned that role to the Soviets. Ike ruled that the Western Allies would leave that to the Russians, thus saving many lives in the rest of the Allied Forces.
Ike’s greatest talent as a general seems to have been his ability to elicit cooperation among parties with diverse interests. He was able to control Montgomery, even though they detested each other. It should be noted that nearly all American generals grew to detest Monty. Ike also was able to get significant cooperation and even some affection from De Gaulle, despite Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s intention to exclude him from the decision making process.
Ike finished WWII as one of the most popular personas in the world, and was considered a cinch to win the presidency once he decided for which party he would run. He waited one election, biding his time as Chief of Staff of the Army and then president of Columbia University.
Korda’s book is disappointing in its coverage of Ike’s presidency. He is particularly weak in his coverage of the Suez crisis of 1956, spending more time glorifying the action of the Israeli army than discussing what happened. He even gives the impression that Nasser was disgraced by those events rather than becoming the leader of the Arab world. In fact, Nasser’s fall was postponed until the 1967 war.
Korda credits Ike with being a wise leader in civil rights, sending the 101st Airborne Division to Arkansas to forcibly integrate the schools. Ike would not rely on the National Guard, which probably harbored segregationist sympathies. He believed in the use of force only when it could be applied overwhelmingly.
Korda also gives Ike credit as the inspiration for the interstate highway system (partially a result of his first cross country car trip with the army) and for his balanced appraisal of America’s defense needs. For example, he was not very concerned about the alleged “missile gap,” and he pushed the development of the B-52.
Korda sums up Ike’s strengths as “the ability to use and apply simple common sense to large and complicated problems. Also like Roosevelt, he had a genius for seeing the big picture, and no reluctance to make major decisions or to accept full responsibility for them. Above all, he knew the difference between right and wrong, and tried to apply that knowledge to politics and diplomacy without preaching or boasting of any inherent, superior morality.”
Korda’s book brings the personality of the man to life. Ike’s presidency and the era of American over which he presided deserve a fuller explication.
They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but as Michael Korda tells the story in "Ike: An American Hero," Eisenhower not only remained uncorrupted, but in most instances made the correct choices. That was why the American people later elected him to two terms as president, an office that arguably had less power than what was thrust on him during the war. And here, too, according to Korda, Ike mostly made the right calls. Had John F. Kennedy followed Eisenhower's advice, America would have avoided both the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Vietnam War, Korda says.
As a career Army officer -- he attended West Point only because it offered a free college education -- Ike seemed to handle every assignment with skill and dedication. During World War I, although he wished to be sent to the front, he was so successful at training recruits that the Army kept him where he was. Between wars he served under Douglas MacArthur and others, getting an education in how to command when the opportunity presented itself, as it did when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. went to war again.
Korda writes that the choice of Eisenhower as supreme commander over other generals who outranked him "was perhaps the Allies' most singular piece of good fortune in World War II." Not just a skilled commander, Ike had the ability to get along with just about everybody (including Josef Stalin). British Gen. Bernard Montgomery gave him endless problems, thinking himself the better general, but somehow Eisenhower was able to manage him and, when necessary, prod him into action.
Although this biography is full of praise for Ike, Korda stops short of giving him credit for actually planning the D-Day invasion, as other biographers have done. Montgomery claimed the credit for himself. In fact, says Korda, both Eisenhower and Montgomery just made a few changes to the plan drawn up by Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, who had worked on an invasion plan since 1941 and deserves more credit than history has given him.
Korda, who was born and raised in England, focuses mostly on Eisenhower's military career. Just two of 20 chapters are devoted to the White House Years. He covers a lot of ground in those two chapters, however.
Korda seems to throw the word hero around a lot. He has also written "Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlike Hero" and "Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia." Yet most of the rest of us tend to restrict the word to fictional creations, especially the larger-than-life variety who wear capes. This Eisenhower biography reminds us that sometimes, however rarely, real people live lives deserving of the word.