Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I like Ulysses... err, Ike!

I've complained a little about my reading lately since I've had more than a fair share of duds – and there are others that I probably won't mention here – so I'm trying to focus more on my TBR list and be choosier about free books I accept to review. One Amazon Vine book I just finished was actually pretty good, though: Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith.

Eisenhower not only commanded the Allied forces that won WWII in Europe, he was "the only president in the twentieth century to preside over eight years of peace and prosperity." (pg 550 of the advance copy) He got America out of the Korean conflict and mostly managed to steer a course that kept Cold War tensions with the USSR from exploding at a time when his advisors regularly advocated using atomic weapons against enemies (yikes!!). At home he balanced the budget and desegregated the nation's schools, and retained a very high public approval. He also seemed possessed of a great deal of luck; so much so that one of his friends said his initials stood for "Divine Destiny."

Ike came across as a very down-to-earth "just folks" kind of person, but as Jean Edward Smith shows it was more than just luck that made him such a trusted leader. He had the kind of personality that made people believe in him as well as an uncanny knack for politics. This is a very detailed biography that shows Ike's level-headed approach that defused events that could easily have gone out of control. It explains Ike's successes (such as walking a fine line with China; standing up to Britain, France, and Israel to win the respect of Egypt; and giving Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy just enough rope to hang himself) as well as his failings (Iran; Guatemala; and the Gary Powers U2 debacle with Russia). And the chapter on the desegregation showdown in Little Rock held me absolutely spellbound. The book is filled with photos that highlight the events and footnotes that provide additional detail.

But it's not without some issues. Smith ends the book with an anecdote of Eisenhower's wife being asked by a grandson "whether she felt she had really known" Ike. She answered "I'm not sure anyone did," and in spite of the tremendous volume of detail included here, Ike remains something of an enigma and I felt a certain lack of depth. Ike's temper is mentioned many times, but we only get cursory examples. Even the war-time affair with Kay Summersby feels like it's kept at arm’s-length. Smith complains in the Preface that "Ike's generalship has often been disparaged" but Smith does the same thing, describing much of Ike's WWII management as a series of errors of inexperience that were rescued by Montgomery and the British. In fact, Smith seems to give undue authority and attention to sniping potshots from generals with axes to grind. (I’m not saying it couldn’t be true and accurate, but it doesn’t have much feel of balance to it.) And readers can be forgiven for thinking that Eisenhower was Ulysses S. Grant reincarnated, since the endless comparisons to Grant grew tiring. (And when a book is 760 pages long it feels like you've lived with that person longer than you really wanted.)

Nevertheless, this is a very good read. Smith highlights many instances where other biographers (especially Ambrose) have ignored or misrepresented stories and facts, and he convincingly corrects them with credible details, and I suspect it might be the best bio on Ike available. It may not have the life and color of David McCullough or the insightfulness of Joseph Ellis, but it's an admirable history of an elusive subject.

No comments:

Post a Comment