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Jean Edward Smith passed away on September 1, 2019, just two months after releasing his 15th book, The Liberation of Paris. World War II sat down with the acclaimed biographer and nonfiction writer in 2012. 

‘Ike was a superb card player,’ says Jean Edward Smith, author of Eisenhower in War and Peace, “formidable at poker and contact bridge.” Smith, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his bestselling FDR book, has fashioned an imposing biography that humanizes the five-star general and president with shrewd insights into his character, motives, and methods. Eisenhower’s skills at cards, for instance, “suggest why he became a great strategist and leader,” Smith says. “He had an amazing memory, almost total recall, and an uncanny ability to focus on the game.”

You say luck was a key factor in Ike’s life. Why?
That was true almost from the very beginning. There’s no way Ike could have gotten to West Point without it. All appointments then were political, and his parents had no influence. But the newly elected Kansas senator at the time introduced competitive exams, and Ike finished first and received the appointment.

How did luck shape his career?
He was lucky in his assignments, though he worked very hard and knew how to capitalize on them. For instance, had Ike not come under the tutelage of Fox Conner, who was Pershing’s operations officer in World War I and one of the most significant figures in the interwar army, things might well have been very different for him. Conner rescued his career several times. To meet MacArthur early in 1931 and stay with him eight years was a form of luck, although Eisenhower learned to loathe him. Of course, that break in the weather on D-Day, which not only allowed the Allies to land but prevented the Germans from knowing they were there, was surely luck.

How did Conner mentor Ike during the 1920s?
He took Eisenhower with him to Panama as his chief of staff, and for three years conducted a graduate seminar in military education, teaching Ike the military classics, like Clausewitz’s On War. Ike repeatedly requested Conner’s aid when he felt his career had hit a dead end. Conner intervened to see that Ike got to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He intervened again when Ike was assigned to the 24th Infantry, which was considered a dead-end assignment. And he intervened to have Ike become executive officer to General George Moseley, assistant secretary of war. But Ike also consistently justified Conner’s judgment.

When did Ike meet George Marshall?
During the Louisiana Maneuvers of 1941. Almost 500,000 troops were involved. General Walter Krueger’s Third Army faced General Ben Lear’s Second Army. Eisenhower was Krueger’s chief of staff. Third Army beat the pants off Second Army. General Marshall went down to watch the latter stages of the maneuvers and asked Krueger who he would recommend to be head of the War Plans Division in Washington. Krueger said Eisenhower. Marshall didn’t know Eisenhower at the time, but he had known Krueger since the Philippine Insurrection (1899–1902), trusted his judgment, and took his advice.

Ike’s relationship with Marshall became legendary.
They trusted each other implicitly. Ike trusted Marshall to cover his back on military and political issues as well as alert him when he’d overstepped or made misjudgments. And Marshall knew he could count on Ike to hold his coalition together. There’s that famous D-Day story: The phone rings at Quarters One at Fort Myer, and General Marshall is told the troops have landed, says thank you, and hangs up the phone. His wife asks, “Didn’t you inquire how they were doing?” And Marshall says, “No, that’s Eisenhower’s problem.”

Do you see Ike as a political general?
Let’s clarify that a bit. He was a skillful political general who understood the ramifications of events beyond the military ones, and he was a good strategic general. But he was not a battlefield commander. He had to manage all those alpha generals who were constantly jockeying for position. Beyond that, he had to deal with Churchill and Roosevelt, who often didn’t see things the same way. In dealing with them, he had to manage to maintain sufficient flexibility to do what he thought the situation required. This was no easy task with two such masterful politicians.

For example?
Let’s look at de Gaulle. FDR and the State Department wanted no part of de Gaulle. But Ike, who had experience dealing with the French starting with his years in Paris (1928–29), recognized, like Churchill, that de Gaulle was essential to restoring French pride and political order. Neither the State Department nor FDR understood that. So when General von Choltitz informed Eisenhower that he was not going to destroy Paris and that Ike had to get there quickly, rather than sending Americans forward, Eisenhower reached back, brought up the Second French Armored Division, sent General Leclerc and his men into Paris, and de Gaulle went with them. Eisenhower stayed out of Paris for three days after its capture so that Leclerc and de Gaulle could really install themselves there. Clearly he was making it possible for de Gaulle to take power, yet he left no incriminating fingerprints.

Why do all this?
He didn’t want to have to govern occupied France. He wanted France to take care of itself. Once he backed de Gaulle, de Gaulle simply took power and the French establishment immediately rallied to him. So Eisenhower as supreme commander could focus on the other military and political problems confronting him. It’s interesting to note that Ike and de Gaulle were born within a month of each other, had very similar careers and political skills, and for the next 20 years would use each other to their mutual advantage.

How would you describe Ike’s relationship with Kay Summersby, his wartime driver?
It would be wrong to call Kay Summersby Ike’s driver. She was his chauffeur in London during the first couple of months he was there in 1942. But after that, she became his executive assistant and companion, and continued in that role until December 1945, when he returned to the United States to become chief of staff. This was a very close, very intimate, very loving relationship—not unlike many others during wartime. Kay was very valuable. She provided the companionship that Eisenhower needed, was his source of relaxation so he could make all those difficult decisions. But she was also relatively highly placed in the British social structure, and could tell the Americans how to deal with the British. She was intelligent and charming. Churchill liked her. FDR liked her.

How did Ike end their relationship?
In May 1945, he was prepared to go all the way with it, but General Marshall objected vigorously, telling him that if he divorced Mamie, Marshall would relieve him of duty. It was a tough decision, but Eisenhower turned on a dime and cut her off and never looked back. He did the same thing with smoking: he quit cold turkey after smoking three or four packs a day. Obviously his capacity to make tough decisions and his willpower were enormous.

How did Ike view the USSR?
The Soviets were, after all, America’s ally during the war. But beyond that, Eisenhower and Marshal Zhukov got along famously. Ike urged his commanders, in dealing with the Russians, to attempt to understand their perspectives. He understood the importance of dialogue. He did not push on to Berlin, no matter how much Churchill wanted it, because he knew the zonal boundaries had already been drawn, the Allies would withdraw, and many of his men would have died for nothing.

What about after the war?
He was invited to Russia, and flew with Zhukov very low over the country, so he could see the extent of the damage the Germans had wrought. He understood immediately that the Russians were not about to start another war, and believed they should be dealt with even-handedly. He was not a Cold Warrior. His meeting with the Soviet leadership in Geneva in 1955 defrosted the Cold War, at least for a few years.

What was Ike’s key strength as a leader?
His ability to focus on the main issues and not be consumed or distracted by smaller ones. He knew how to delegate responsibility and trusted the people to whom he delegated it. There’s a marvelous story about Eisenhower coming into the White House for the first time as president. The chief usher handed him an envelope, and Eisenhower told him, “Never give me a sealed envelope; someone should always read these things before me, and only the most important should get to me.”

This article was originally published in the July/August 2012 issue of World War II.