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Book Review

‘Eisenhower: A Life’ by Paul Johnson

Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president from 1953 to 1961.

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Dwight D. Eisenhower served as president from 1953 to 1961.

His mother was a pacifist; he was a soldier. (She cried when he left for West Point.) His family read the Bible on their knees in his youth; he didn’t join a church until he became president. (Only then was he baptized.) He rose every day at 6 but is remembered as something of a duffer. (His wife seldom awakened before 10.) He was reared in a Kansas cow town but made his mark in London, New York, and Washington. (Though he may have flourished most in the suburban settings of the nation’s leading golf clubs.)

And yet the Dwight D. Eisenhower we remember was anything but enigmatic.

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His appeal was his regularness, his dependability, his utter colorlessness. Richard Nixon early on identified him as “by far the most devious man I ever met in my life’’ and that perhaps explains why the man regarded as dull-witted achieved a winning score of 87 in a highly competitive exam for a spot at West Point — but cleverly hid his scholarly mastery of military literature in a fog of commentary on schlock Western novels.

Then there was his temper, lost in popular imagination to an image of grandfatherly, or avuncular, companionability.

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In his short biography of Eisenhower, British historian and commentator Paul Johnson — who has produced a torrent of enduring works on American history, Jewish history, Mozart, Socrates, Napoleon, and Churchill — turns his attention and sharp eye to the 34th president, finding him the architect rather than the steward of what he calls a “glorious decade’’ that produced an “unexampled prosperity and calm’’ — increasingly the academic view, as reflected in the latest scholarly assessment, the far more scholarly and intimidating “Eisenhower in War and Peace’’ by Jean Edward Smith.


The elements of success that Johnson identifies in Ike include his “clear, analytical intelligence’’ and his engaging personality, his instinct for compromise and his iron persistence. The glue to all this, in Johnson’s view, was Eisenhower’s “consistent aims in life, quietly but vigorously followed.’’

The virtue of a brisk, analytical volume like this is that the principal themes are articulated starkly. In these pages, for example, we learn of “Ike’s encyclopedic knowledge of how Congress worked,’’ a quality seldom recognized during his presidency from 1953 to 1961 and only now being grudgingly acknowledged, in part because among presidents that is more commonly attributed to Lyndon B. Johnson.

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We also are reminded of the capaciousness of Eisenhower’s mind, even though Douglas MacArthur dismissed him as “the best clerk in the Army’’ and “the apotheosis of mediocrity.’’ We remember him as a smooth political operator in wartime London or as an avatar of ambiguity in Cold War Washington, but he made an early mark with his comprehensive plan for war, of which he was the sole author, prepared for the War Department.

In truth, it was Eisenhower’s mastery of bridge and not of golf that was the most telling. Even so, why did Eisenhower rise to command the world’s most consequential war? The answer, in Johnson’s estimation, is that “unconsciously, Ike had been preparing to do it for many years, and was almost certainly the best available, in general experience, for the top job he got.’’

As general and as president, Eisenhower had a genius for two elements taught at the finest business schools today: personnel assessment and, above all, supply-chain management. The latter is what won World War II and, it can be argued, kept the peace afterward. Eisenhower also looked the part, with square shoulders and a neatly pressed uniform or suit. Said Mark Clark, the WWII general who was Eisenhower’s deputy in North Africa: “Ike always appeared to be wearing his uniform for the first time.’’

This is a sympathetic biography — Johnson exonerates Eisenhower from criticism that he allowed the Russians to capture Berlin and also from charges that he was too easy on Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Wisconsin demagogue. It is also an inviting one, lingering over episodes revelatory about Eisenhower’s character and approach (D-Day, for example) and skimming quickly along on others less instructive (the NATO years, for example).

And Johnson deftly sketches Eisenhower’s political profile, portraying him as a man of inclinations rather than of ideology, surrounded by Republicans, to be sure, but not partisan in nature. A classic Johnson line, and an unforgettable one, about Eisenhower: “The Republican Party was his natural home, but one he did not choose to frequent.’’

Like the Princeton historian Fred Greenstein, whose path-finding 1994 Eisenhower biography is often credited with beginning the Ike revival, Johnson believes Eisenhower had immense political skills, one of them surely the ability to hide those skills. Eisenhower, in Johnson’s view, “seems to have found it convenient and useful for people to get him wrong.’’

The great irony of Eisenhower, and of Paul Johnson’s book, is that the great hero of World War II was so unheroic in so many ways. “His aim,’’ writes Johnson, “was at all times to lower tension, never to raise it.’’ Six times Eisenhower resisted calls for the use of nuclear weapons. Not only was he not heroic — he was not militaristic either.

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.
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