Eisenhower: A Biography
by John Wukovits, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2006, $21.95
Dwight D. Eisenhower once described himself as “a cross between a one- time soldier, a pseudo-statesman, a jack-legged politician and a crooked diplomat” and on another occasion as the commander of “the whole shebang.” He consorted with prime ministers and U.S. presidents and served two terms as the latter, but he was always more at home in the company of the common grunt. He could swear like a stevedore, but could also write a very thoughtful letter to a mother who was concerned that her innocent young son had to serve under the “profane” Lieutenant General George S. Patton. He spent most of his career in the military, but ended it by warning his fellow Americans of the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.” He smashed Adolf Hitler’s Germany to bits relentlessly and ruthlessly, but he also cut his losses and took the United States out of Korea. He was concerned with the good of the nation and his own career in equal measure. In other words, “Ike” Eisenhower was a human being: extraordinary in some respects—who else can say he served as both supreme commander of the European Theater of Operations and president of the United States?—but completely normal in many others. Like all of us, he was a complex personality driven by various, even contradictory, impulses.
As one of the dominant Americans of the American-dominated 20th century, Ike has certainly not lacked for biographers. Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume scholarly work published in the mid-1980s is still the standard, although there are many people who prefer the military analysis in Carlo d’Este’s very fine single volume from 2002. In between there have been literally dozens of other biographies by noted scholars and writers such as Michael Beschloss, Geoffrey Perrett and Douglas Kinnard. What all of this means is that the new short biography by John Wukovits, part of Palgrave Macmillan’s Great Generals series, not only faces some pretty stiff competition, it also requires a justification. It needs some angle on its subject that all those other books and authors either failed to provide or did not emphasize sufficiently.
For the most part, Wukovits handles the challenge successfully, and the reader gets a fair amount of bang for the buck here. This account of Ike’s life reads like America at its best, or perhaps America as we all wish it to be. Although most of the 20th century’s armies reserved positions in the officer corps for the gentlemanly class, the United States did things a bit differently. Ike was born, quite literally, on the wrong side of the railroad tracks in the small Texas town of Denison. His origins were hardscrabble. He was poor without really realizing it, and had he been born in any other country on earth, he would almost certainly have lived a life of obscurity. He escaped that fate through a number of fortunate personal attributes: a certain amount of native smarts and a winning personality, not to mention a highly aggressive style of play on the gridiron. It all added up to a scholarship, a free ride to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, courtesy of the U.S. taxpayer. It is true that he didn’t set the place on fire. He seemed far more interested in football, girls and smoking than in studying the finer points of strategy or military history. He finished 61st in a class of 164, and you shouldn’t feel bad if the phrase “academic mediocrity” comes to mind. Given the rote memorization that dominated so much of the curriculum at the Point, however, it was not necessarily a sign of limited intelligence. Indeed, feeling stultified in the classroom may also have helped account for a more troubling statistic on Ike’s transcript: placing 125th in discipline. Wukovits describes the West Point years as bringing Eisenhower “more demerits than accolades.”
Although the “C” student who goes on to invent a better mousetrap (or home computer) is a longstanding part of American lore, Wukovits shows that Ike’s story is more complex than that. His career was a long time in the making, so long in fact that he felt he had reached a dead end more than once. When the United States “went to war” against Pancho Villa in 1916, Ike offered his services to Brig. Gen. John J. Pershing’s punitive expedition against the Mexican outlaw, only to receive an assignment to Camp Wilson to train National Guard units. In 1917 a real war came. While many American officers were boning up on their French and getting acquainted with places such as Belleau Wood, St. Mihiel and the Argonne, Eisenhower’s career trajectory took him on a grand tour of the U.S. Army’s training facilities: Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., Fort Leavenworth, Kan., Fort Meade, Md., and Fort Colt, Pa. He desperately wanted a field command, but he was too good in his role as a training officer. The more conscientiously he performed the latter, the less likely he was to get the former. It was a vicious circle, familiar to anyone who works in a bureaucratic organization.
The postwar peace, which put so many promising military careers on hiatus, had the exact opposite effect on Eisenhower’s. Even in the tiny, underfunded interwar army, Ike managed to do some interesting things, such as taking the transcontinental motor expedition in the summer and fall of 1919. There were postings to the Command and General Staff College at Leavenworth, the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., and the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pa. He also met some interesting people: Brig. Gen. Fox Conner, as close as the Army had to a military intellectual in those days, and a man who awakened Ike to the life of the mind far more than formal schooling ever had; George Patton, whose fascination with the tank and questions of military motorization Eisenhower soon came to share; and, most important, General Douglas MacArthur, who was the first to recognize Eisenhower’s administrative and organizational genius, and who made him his “special assistant.” When war broke out in Europe in 1939, Eisenhower was in an unusual position. He was clearly one of the Army’s coming men, a fact confirmed by his appointment as General George Marshall’s chief plans and operations officer in February 1942, and then to commander of the European theater in June. He had risen to his position with the help of powerful patrons both in and out of uniform, as well as an amount of media savvy that was unusual for his day. Still, he had never heard a shot fired in anger. Sending him up against the professional war-fighting caste of the Wehrmacht was a gamble.
This is all pretty familiar material. The facts, details and even the anecdotes in this book have been well known to scholars and students of the war for years. Where Wukovits shines is his ability to provide the book with a thesis, something that is all too rare in the world of biography. He shapes the narrative so it focuses on one essential characteristic of Eisenhower’s persona, the one that was the key both to his success in rising up in the Army hierarchy and to smashing the Wehrmacht: his affinity for the common foot soldier. Eisenhower’s love of the infantryman was deep, constant and unswerving. From the book’s very moving set-piece—Eisenhower visiting U.S. airborne troops at Greenham Common Airfield on the night of June 5, 1944, spending a last night with a force that was expected to take 70 percent casualties when it jumped into Europe on D-Day— to Wukovits’ final summation of Eisenhower’s qualities as a commander, it is his “empathy” with the troops that shines through. In getting out with the men, Eisenhower was not simply trying to curry favor by clumsily adopting a popular touch that was foreign to him. He really did have the popular touch, and he had to: No one can spot fakery and posturing better than an American soldier.
Eisenhower never forgot his roots, and he always saw himself as a soldier. He really did believe that “humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.” To Ike, commanding American soldiers— with their obstreperousness, their tendency toward individualism and their obsession with personal freedom—was a different calling from that of any other army in the world. You didn’t simply shout orders and expect obedience. You explained. You disciplined, but you didn’t humiliate. And you always remembered that the men under you were free citizens, not your personal property to do with as you wished. He tried to do his best by them, and they, too, offered him something: a grip on his sanity. As Wukovits argues effectively, talking to the men brought Eisenhower back to earth and reconnected him with the gravity of what he was doing.
This is a good biography. It will make you think, and it continually places Eisenhower’s achievement within the context of events in our own day, from the uncertainties of the global war on terror to the lack of armor on so many U.S. vehicles in Iraq. It isn’t perfect, however.
Ike’s story is a big one, an epic, and relating it in less than 200 pages inevitably generates an omission here and a gloss there. The aspect of the Eisenhower saga that gets the shortest shrift, oddly enough, is the operational side. The accounts of Torch, Husky, Overlord and Cobra barely pass muster. It’s clear that Wukovits knows these operations well, and it’s equally clear that considerations of space worked against a fuller and more satisfying treatment of them. Still, it would have been nice to read a more complete discussion of Eisenhower’s art of war. Devoting more space to operations would also have limited the number of times that Wukovits states as fact what are nothing more than controversial assertions. It may well be that “timidity” was behind Eisenhower’s decision not to invade Sardinia; it could be argued with equal justice that it was higher wisdom on the commander’s part.
The discussion of the failed attempt to close the Falaise pocket makes it seem as if all Ike had to do to solve the problem was to order Montgomery to move more rapidly. If only it were that simple. The major operational controversy of Eisenhower’s tenure—the “broad front” versus the “single thrust” approach in fighting the Germans, with Ike opting for the former—also could have used a bit more fleshing out here. There were systemic reasons why the campaigns developed the way they did, factors that might well have been beyond the ability of any one man, even the U.S. supreme commander, to change. Such is the danger of biography, of course. The entire narrative revolves around one individual. World War II becomes Eisenhower’s war.
These points are all worthy of more discussion, but they do not invalidate what is, in the end, a very solid book. The question remains, though: Did we need another Eisenhower biography? True, this one breaks little new ground, but its very brevity and its accessibility are the book’s greatest justifications. It’s not the last word on the greatest military figure in American history, but it will serve the beginning reader well as an appetizer for the immense feast of Eisenhower literature that awaits.
Originally published in the March 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.