Eisenhower by Carlo D'Este
Dwight Eisenhower's elevation to the peak of the Allied forces in World War II was absurdly rapid. The only contemporary rise that even compares is Harry Truman's 3-month ascent from Missouri's junior senate seat to the Oval Office. Eisenhower spent sixteen long years as a major in the inter-war Army before gaining promotion to lieutenant colonel in 1936. Then, in less than four years between 1941 and 1944, he rose from lieutenant colonel to five-star general.
Strange though it may seem, Carlo D'Este's Eisenhower, subtitled "A Soldier's Life," is actually more interesting in the 300 pages before the U.S. entry into World War II. Though the book ends with the close of the war in Europe in 1945, excluding his tenure as chief of staff, NATO commander, and his two-term presidency, the narrative begins with Eisenhower's first ancestor in America, Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer, "who emigrated from Germany's Rhineland to Pennsylvania in 1741." Raised in rather impoverished circumstances with his vivacious mother, emotionally detached father, and five brothers, Eisenhower managed to live a picturesque childhood:
Whenever he was not in school or working, young Eisenhower could be found sipping a sundae at Case's Department Store, riding precariously on the handlebars of a friend's bicycle, wading or fishing in nearby Mud Creek, shooting rabbits, general horseplay, engaging in fisticuffs, or competing in all manner of sports. There was little his boyhood in Abilene had to offer that Dwight Eisenhower did not take part in during an untroubled youth. The Eisenhowers could not afford toys, but with David's encouragement his sons became adept at manufacturing their own from whatever materials were handy. Camping and boating were all part of a life filled with activities, as were acrobatics and balancing acts in the family barn--often futile attempts to defy the laws of gravity that usually cost little more than numerous bumps, bruises, cuts, and scrapes.
Desirous of a college education (and an opportunity to continue playing football and baseball) but cognizant of his family's financial limitations, Eisenhower sought and received an appointment to West Point. A member of the class of 1915, Eisenhower would graduate into a world at war and an American army in disrepair. Despite a professed desire to lead troops in combat (like George Patton and Harry Truman), Eisenhower would spend World War I in staff and training positions, with a particular emphasis on the newly-established tank units:
Eisenhower's hopes were dashed when he was informed that instead of leading the 301st [Tank Battalion] to France, he was being reassigned to command a temporary military garrison adjacent to the Gettysburg battlefield: Camp Colt. Eisenhower's organizational abilities had convinced his superiors that he was more valuable training troops. The curse of being a successful troop trainer had struck again, and "My mood was black," he said. His new assignment was a perfect example of the military axiom "For the good of the service."
In the inter-war years, the Army would severely contract, cut salaries, and promote at a glacial pace (hence Eisenhower's sixteen years as a major). Yet Eisenhower endured. He would later be criticized by many as a bureaucrat who rose to power on his ability to play politics and gain the patronage of powerful men. Whatever the merits of this judgment, it is certainly true that Eisenhower's assignments brought him into close contact with a veritable who's who of Army heavyweights. After World War I he worked for General John Pershing on the American Battle Monuments Commission. Later, Eisenhower would spend most of the 1930s working for General Douglas MacArthur, as an aide to the Chief of Staff and then in the Philippines. Finally, and most importantly, he had been marked down for future success by General George C. Marshall; when the darkening clouds in Europe convinced the Army Chief of Staff he needed an officer with some specific skills, Eisenhower was his man:
In 1942 hardly anyone in the U.S. Army had in intimate knowledge, much less an understanding, of industrial mobilization. One of the few exceptions was Eisenhower, thanks to his extensive investigation of the subject during his service in the War Department a decade earlier. This experience would not only be of immense importance in the coming months but would greatly enhance his role as one of the most important figures on Marshall's staff.
The 400-odd pages that follow cover Eisenhower's role in the European war, from command of the operations in North Africa, the invasions of Sicily and Italy, to D-Day and the continental war. This is a decent operational history of the war, and I guess that's what passes for a biography of the Supreme Allied Commander. He was strikingly distant from any tactical decisions, let alone combat itself. Most of his days seem to have been filled by balancing the egos of the various commanders and politicians. Not to understate the skill and patience this required, when one considers the egos he was dealing with (Churchill, de Gaulle, Montgomery, Patton, Bradley, to name the most famous). But it does not make for great reading. Every so often a major strategic decision will be made, followed by a dozen iterations of ego-soothing while the troops are actually fighting; rinse and repeat:
In early August , Eisenhower's unending "war" with Winston Churchill over the Riviera landings reached a crescendo. Although the date for the landings was barely more than a week off, Eisenhower still had a major fight on his hands with Churchill, who arrived at Shellburst for discussions on August 7. All was calm at lunch as the prime minister delighted in feeding milk to Eisenhower's resident pet, a black kitten named Shaef. But the discussion under the canvas tent turned serious when Churchill employed American battle tactics in an attempt to wear Eisenhower down. The arguments raged for some six hours. The more Churchill cajoled and pleaded, the more strongly Eisenhower resisted. Noted Butcher, "Ike said no, continued saying no all afternoon, and ended saying no in every form of the English language at his command... he was practically limp when the PM departed," with the last words on the subject yet to be heard. Exhausted but unbowed Eisenhower felt secure in the knowledge that he had the full backing of Marshall, King, and Arnold, and--most important of all--Roosevelt.
Perhaps Eisenhower's greatest accomplishment was maintaining the allied relationship with Britain, a proud empire in very rapid decline, while recognizing that by 1944 the former colonies had become undeniably supreme. Numerous military giants feature significantly in the narrative, particularly Patton, Montgomery, and Bradley. While D'Este is entitled to make known his opinions about which generals have been underrated (Montgomery) or overrated (Bradley), in so doing he is taking issue with the unstated judgments of past historians. For those not well-versed in the war's historiography, these passages may seem rather tangential or at least unnecessarily argumentative.
D'Este is not blind to Eisenhower's missteps. He fault the supreme commander for an inability to relieve commanders far after their incompetence or disloyalty has been made manifest. He does not dissuade one from the notion that Eisenhower's stature and survival had as much to do with being the common denominator acceptable to both the British and the U.S. rather than any brilliance in his own right (in fact, it may be the lack of individual military genius that made him more palatable than the eccentrics like Patton and Montgomery). And amongst other specific episodes of weakness, he highlights Eisenhower's decision to approve the execution of Eddie Slovik for desertion, the first such penalty since the Civil War:
When Eisenhower was interviewed in 1963 by historian Bruce Catton, his recollection of the event bore the hallmarks of a faulty memory. Claiming he had sent his judge advocate general to offer Slovik an olive branch if he would express remorse and return to his unit, Eisenhower described Slovik as "one of these guardhouse lawyers who refused to believe he'd ever be executed."
Slovik had actually written Eisenhower a hearfelt personal plea to spare his life, and would willingly have complied with an offer to return to duty. It has not been established if Eisenhower ever saw Slovik's letter, but what is clear is that no one from SHAEF was ever sent to the 28th Division before Slovik's execution on January 31, 1945, in the courtyard of a villa in the town of Ste-Marie-aux-Mines, deep in the Vosges Mountains of Alsace.
D'Este relies on a broad array of sources, and provides 100 pages worth of extensive endnotes. I was troubled, however, by an in-text citation to "controversial historian David Irving." By "controversial," one can only assume D'Este is referring to Irving's many years as the academic face of Holocaust denial. That Irving has so publicly and perversely derailed from historical reality does not necessarily invalidate the early work that D'Este cites, which suggested that "Allied brass were more interested in preserving their reputation than in defeating the Germans," but surely D'Este could find sources for this claim who have not been so widely discredited as historians.
Also troubling was D'Este's handling of the perpetual rumors surrounding Eisenhower's wartime relationship with his driver, Kay Summersby. Truth be told, I don't much care what the relationship was, and would not have missed the issue if D'Este had chosen to ignore it. But what he did instead was worse; he attempts to exonerate Ike, staying that the rumors were "unproved" and that an affair "could not possibly have been hidden." That is all well and good, but D'Este returns to these rumors at least a half-dozen times during the remainder of the book, noting the effect it had on Mamie, stating that Eisenhower was "oblivious to any all adverse reaction to her presence, however inappropriate it was at times," and admitting that "it was common knowledge among war correspondents that something was going on between them." By brushing aside the rumors, only to repeat them ad nauseam, D'Este does no favors to his subject or his text.
More annoying yet is D'Este's obsession with Eisenhower's cigarette smoking, which he mentions at least 8 or 9 times. D'Este suggests that this contributed to health problems later in life, which I have no reason to doubt. But it is a strange aspect to linger on considering that D'Este's text ends in 1945, almost a quarter-century before Eisenhower's death. It is perhaps a symptom of D'Este's inability or unwillingness to offer insights into Eisenhower's inner world that he harps so repeatedly on the man's visible habits.