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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Eisenhower in War and PeaceSmith, a political scientist at Marshall University, helps us to understand why Army chief of staff George C. Marshall promoted Eisenhower over 228 generals in June 1942 to make him commander of the European theater. Partly through intelligence and partly by accident, Eisenhower had accumulated the perfect resumé for directing the largest war effort in history. He had a gift for, and a fascination with, logistics. He was one of the rare officers of his generation — Patton, de Gaulle, and the German general Heinz Guderian were among the others — to have recognized during World War I that the tank would revolutionize warfare. He had commanded one infantry unit (the 15th) that had spent more than a decade in Asia, and another (the 24th) that was all black. His work in the 1920s surveying World War I battlefields for General “Black Jack” Pershing gave him a firsthand familiarity with the military terrain of northern Europe.

And like a straight man in a screwball comedy, Ike was unthreatened by the megalo-, mono-, and egomaniacs one meets at the top levels of competitive organizations. The lessons he learned working for the narcissist MacArthur and managing Patton’s uncontrolled outbursts would come in handy when reining in Richard Nixon, his vice president, whom he neither understood nor liked nor trusted.

No strategic genius, Eisenhower was a great manager of military and bureaucratic forces, as well as a patient and fast learner. He was versatile, too: in Normandy after D-day, grateful local farmers lent Eisenhower’s headquarters a cow so that the officers might have fresh milk during the Allied advance. Eisenhower was the only one who knew how to milk it.

Smith is much stronger on Eisenhower’s military achievements than on his political ones. There is something in Eisenhower’s unflappability, in particular, his unwillingness to get too riled up about either the Cold War or domestic Communism, that Smith admires a lot. He clearly believes that we, living in an age of partisan extremes, tend to underestimate moderate presidents. Ike was decisive enough to desegregate Little Rock’s schools with federal troops in 1957 but cool enough to avoid a confrontation with the Soviets over Berlin the following year. Eisenhower ended Truman’s war in Korea and didn’t start any of his own, consolidated NATO, kept taxes high, nominated Earl Warren to head the Supreme Court, built the interstate highway system, and brought the federal government into the business of local education.

Eisenhower governed at a time of unprecedented confidence in leadership. He was largely responsible for it. Triumph in World War II had lent enormous prestige to the US military, the hierarchical organization par excellence. The 1950s saw the institutions of politics, culture, and business reformed to imitate the military, particularly as those institutions filled up with returning veterans. American life became more organized, scientific, bureaucratic, uniform, pyramidal. The American system was capable of great feats, but it exacted a high price in individuality. It was inevitable that the next generation would revolt against it. Eisenhower, though, managed the system so that it not only produced few abuses but left a mostly positive legacy. He may have been the only person who could have done so.

Christopher Caldwell is a senior editor at the Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Financial Times.

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