Gentle in Manner, Strong in Deed

by Christopher Caldwell
Eisenhower in War and Peace
By Jean Edward Smith
Random House, 950 pages, $40
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Dwight Eisenhower greets students and the press from the steps of Low Library shortly after his appointment as Columbia University president in 1948 / Manny Warman / Courtesy of Columbia University Archives

Trouble was already brewing in Morningside Heights when Dwight Eisenhower arrived to succeed Nicholas Murray Butler as president of Columbia in the spring of 1948. Six months earlier, the University’s Marxist Study Group had invited the legislative director of the American Communist Party to speak in Pupin Hall, just as tensions were steadily escalating between the US and the Soviet Union. When a member of the Pupin family objected to having “Kremlin agents” speak on campus, Ike responded immediately. “I deem it not only unobjectionable but very wise to allow opposing systems to be presented by their proponents,” he wrote to the family. “Indeed, I believe that arbitrary refusal to allow students — especially upon their own request — to hear the apostles of these false systems would create in their minds a justified suspicion that we ourselves fear a real comparison between democracy and dictatorship.”

What stands out about this letter, aside from its decisiveness and commonsensicality, is the quality of the writing. Eisenhower wrote well because he thought clearly, as we learn from Jean Edward Smith ’64GSAS in Eisenhower in War and Peace. His mind was steady and judicious, not incandescent and original.

Eisenhower’s backers in the interwar military establishment were intellectuals. He was the protégé of the US Army’s two most brilliant generals, Fox Conner and George Moseley. Future British prime minister Harold Macmillan called Eisenhower “a jewel of broadmindedness and wisdom.” Both de Gaulle (whom Eisenhower effectively installed as president of France in 1944, over Roosevelt’s misgivings) and Stalin (with whom Eisenhower carried on a correspondence) trusted him more than they trusted any other American.

It is unjust, then, that the man who led Allied troops to victory in World War II and managed eight years of peace and steadily rising prosperity as president should so often be cast as an eponym of mid-twentieth-century American incuriosity. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., for instance, wrote the year after Eisenhower left office, “We have awakened as from a trance.”

Although he left few traces at Columbia, Eisenhower put the University — which had been suffering from poor fundraising and a dwindling endowment — back on a solid financial footing, unified the campus by getting the city to close 116th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, and impressed a faculty that included Jacques Barzun and Richard Hofstadter with his command of history. When Joseph McCarthy accused a Columbia professor of Communist leanings, Eisenhower defended him publicly and “handed McCarthy his first setback.” Yet, as Smith puts it, Eisenhower had “mastered” Columbia within a few months. By February 1949, he was already taking his first leave of absence (to chair the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and by the spring of 1950 his support at Columbia “had all but evaporated.” Ike soon accepted an assignment from President Truman to go build NATO in Europe.

While there is a good deal of primary research here, Smith’s strength is his sense of where the existing Eisenhower literature is reliable and where not. Smith served as an infantry officer in Berlin in the 1950s and has written biographies of Ulysses S. Grant and Lucius Clay; he is able to do justice to Eisenhower because he knows the military milieu intimately. He understands not just what it must have felt like for an officer to await weather reports on the eve of D-day but also what it felt like for Mamie Eisenhower and other Army wives (“no segment of society is more rank-conscious”) to dismantle a short-term apartment before moving on to another posting.

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