Solid, well written and researched book which afforded me a much better understanding about this rather complex figure and the times in which he lived. That being said, it should be remembered that any one of the facets of Mr. Eisenhower's life would have made an interesting book. This is more of a high level survey of his life. Many of the most critical time periods are dealt with in a manner which leaves the reader searching for more in-depth information.
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184 of 190 people found the following review helpful
Comprehensive and detailed, but also very entertaining - 5*Dec 24 2011
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I have read Jean Smith's biographies of Presidents Grant and FDR and liked them a lot. I was therefore very anxious to read his Eisenhower biography, and I was not disappointed. The book is quite detailed but is also very enjoyable reading and not the least bit academic or dry. I recommend this book because it provides a comprehensive portrait of a man whose talents are often overlooked. Smith clearly shows that Eisenhower's rise to prominence was due to hard work, garnering superior fitness reports that carried him to jobs with ever increasing responsibilities and visibility. To be sure, Eisenhower had many mentors who protected him and arranged for his appointments to serve under a previous or a current army chief of staff (Generals Pershing, MacArthur, and Marshall). Working for these men was indispensable for Eisenhower's career, but even more importantly was their recognition of the superior work that he did for them. The best way to describe Smith's picture of Eisenhower is to repeat the opinion of a fellow general, cited in the book: Eisenhower was "affable, energetic, dynamic, zealous, original, loyal, capable, dependable, and outstanding."
Eisenhower has been the subject of numerous excellent biographies, so it is reasonable to ask if this one has any characteristics that make it stand out. In my opinion, it is very objective and treats Eisenhower's failings in detail as well as his successes. Smith discusses Eisenhower's marital problems that first surfaced with the death of his infant firstborn son, but which were ongoing. Smith also discusses, in considerable detail, Eisenhower's relationship with Kay Sommersby. Other biographers touch on this (for instance, Stephen Ambrose in his one volume condensation of his two volume "official" biography and Michael Korda, in his biography) but only in passing, whereas Smith sheds considerable light on this subject and provides a lot of support for the contention that their relationship was a deep and loving one. Smith is also somewhat critical of Eisenhower's military performance, particularly during the North African Campaign, which led to his being "kicked upstairs" to deal with political problems and inter-allied conflicts. Smith spends a lot of time explaining why Eisenhower's talents as a politician were important in holding a coalition of nations together, and why he and not General Marshall was chosen to become the Supreme Commander of the European theatre. This book also contains a lengthy chapter on Eisenhower's tenure as President of Columbia University, which is only covered in a handful of pages by Ambrose and Korda. This chapter contains a brief discussion of events surrounding Eisenhower's failure to run for President of the US in 1948.
The final third of this book is concerned with Eisenhower's election and tenure as president. In many ways, this is the most interesting part of the book because it discusses in considerable detail Eisenhower's impact on events that have sometimes been forgotten. Smith shows Eisenhower to be a president who exercised sound judgment and held fast to his convictions, and as president acted decisively to: (1) end the war in Korea through an armistice instead of seeking a victory that might have required the use of nuclear weapons, (2) demonstrate his political acumen by getting his appointments past hostile conservative Republicans, (3) used indirect support for those who opposed Senator Joe McCarthy, but used more direct support to oppose the Bricker Amendment, which would have made treaties subject to continuing congressional review, (4) refuse to aid the French at Dien Bien Phu when this might also have required the use of nuclear weapons, (5) support CIA-led coups in Iran and Guatemala, which have led to continuing problems for the US, (6) force the French and British to leave Suez, (7) send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce court-ordered desegregation of public schools.
Smith shows that it was in the area of civil rights where Eisenhower's contributions have largely been forgotten. Contrary to what is generally believed, Smith shows that he did not consider his appointment of Earl Warren to be chief justice of the Supreme Court to be his greatest mistake, and he did not secretly oppose integration. Smith provides documentary evidence, which shows that quite to the contrary, Eisenhower: (1) enforced Truman's desegregation of the armed forces by actually eliminating the numerous segregated units, (2) desegregated the schools on military bases before the Supreme Court ruled on Brown v. Board of Education, (3) desegregated veterans' facilities and other facilities operated by the government, (4) desegregated the southern navy yards, and (5) appointed federal judges who made the civil rights programs of Kennedy and Johnson possible.
Smith depicts Eisenhower as a man who used common sense to solve problems, as a man of principle who often seemed aloof, and as President, one who seemed not to be doing much more than playing golf, but in actuality was directing things so subtly that his actions were unappreciated. The book quotes historian Garry Wills - "Eisenhower was not a political sophisticate, he was a political genius." In addition, he was a military man who warned against the military industrial complex and was a warrior who hated war.
This is a book that is highly relevant to our times as it speaks to questions of balanced budgets, military appropriations, our relationship with Russia and China, and to the origin of our conflict with Iran. This is a fine book, one that I hardily recommend to anyone interested in history or in reading a well-written non-fiction book.
45 of 49 people found the following review helpful
A great step forward in Eisenhower scholarshipJan. 18 2012
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I was mightily impressed by Smith's biography of John Marshall and have been looking forward to this biography's publication for quite some time. Conversely, I have always found the Ambrose biographies to be massively deficient in more ways than I can possibly count, so it was good to see a full-length biography which is not reliant on Ambrose's scholarship, so called. Is it definitive? I wouldn't go that far, but it represents a considerable improvement in the field and is definitely worth reading.
Smith takes something of a revisionist view in both the areas of Eisenhower's presidency and his role in World War II. Concerning the latter, Smith says as much in a footnote in Chapter 15, where he takes a shot at the Pogue school of thought (which "treated Eisenhower & Marshall as demigods"). Smith skillfully portrays a coalition which somehow, in spite of itself, managed to stumble towards victory with Eisenhower at the helm. Smith is unsparing in his portrayal of Eisenhower as a less than competent ground commander; the chapters dealing with North Africa & the month following the Normandy invasion are not exactly flattering. Eisenhower mismanaged the North African invasion almost from the very start, and prevailed over the Germans only by sheer force of numbers and materiel, rather than superior strategy. Similarly, Eisenhower's failure to press the advantage in France after D-Day resulted in the war in Europe being extended by nearly half a year, and his tactics allowed Germany enough time to regroup and launch its counteroffensive in the Ardennes (although once this was underway, Smith observes, Ike was one of the few command level officers to not to panic). Clearly, Eisenhower's strengths lay in the management of an unbelievably complex political and administrative situation. Even Eisenhower's critics admitted that nobody else could have done this job. However, Smith does not believe that this merits concealing Eisenhower's wartime warts.
After devoting a little less than 300 pages to Ike's 40 months during World War II, Smith devotes barely 200 pages to two full terms of the Eisenhower presidency. Really? Was this an editorial decision, or did Smith look at the work as it was unfolding and realize that if he wrote a truly detailed treatment of the Eisenhower presidency, it would require a second volume? Whatever the reasons, the chapters dealing with the presidency are far from comprehensive and instead focus on some of high points of the presidency. Smith seems to be saying, "I will provide a nice summary, and also point you in the direction of some other more comprehensive studies of Eisenhower as president," which is OK. It does, however, mean that you will need to look elsewhere for a truly thorough treatment. So don't be calling this a definitive biography, because it isn't.
This was a very enjoyable and very readable book. Even at almost 800 pages, it did not prove to be that daunting. So why only 4 stars? A small quibble would be Smith's failure to acknowledge that Churchill's insistence on a wartime strategy that would help preserve the Empire was a major reason that the Allied invasion of Europe was delayed as long as it was; Churchill and the high command consistently advocated a peripheral approach, whereas Marshall & FDR wanted to plunge into the heart of Europe at the earliest opportunity. Smith does argue that there was no way an invasion could have taken place in 1942, but I don't think anyone these days would disagree with that. 1943 is a whole different matter; there is plenty of debate on how prepared the Allies were for a 1943 invasion, but one would never know this from reading Smith.
Of greater concern is how Smith portrays Eisenhower's foreign and civil rights policies. Smith argues that because Eisenhower had better knowledge of Asia (due to his time in The Philippines), his foreign policy concerning mainland China & French Indochina was more prescient than when he was dealing with Central America or the Middle East, where he relied on the flawed advice of John Foster Dulles and company. Seriously? Everyone who knew Dulles understood that he would , if possible, cast any situation in the world into a struggle against Communism. It was his go-to move. Eisenhower blew off the advice of Dulles in Southeast Asia, but for some reason accepted his advice on Guatemala & Iran. So it isn't really Ike's fault, it's Dulles'? Come on already. For a variety of reasons, Smith is more persuasive when dealing with how Eisenhower handled Egypt & the Suez Crisis, but I felt like he was almost making excuses for Eisenhower otherwise.
Smith also goes a bit overboard in portraying Eisenhower as a fearless advocate for civil rights, highlighting Little Rock. Well yes --- if you focus on Little Rock, Ike looks pretty heroic, but there was a whole lot of tepid support for Brown which came before that. Anyone who has read David A. Nichols' A Matter of Justice: Eisenhower and the Beginning of the Civil Rights Revolution knows that the Eisenhower legacy on civil rights is a good deal more complex. While Ike wasn't an obstructionist, he was hardly enlightened in the area of race relations, and definitely wasn't leading any charges in the war for racial equality.
Having said that, the footnote where Smith absolutely DESTROYS Ambrose for basically making up stuff about Eisenhower's views on segregation, and then goes on to lay waste to Ambrose's "pernicious" distortions was one of the most enjoyable things I have read in a long time. I should give the book an extra star just for that.
All in all, a very worthwhile book, which definitely should be on the reading list of anyone seeking a better understanding of Eisenhower.
39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
A New Biography of EisenhowerJan. 4 2012
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Dwight David Eisenhower (1890 -- 1969) served as the 34th President of the United States (1953 -- 1961) following his career as the Supreme Commander of the Allied forces during WW II. His presidency and his generalship have been the subject of varied assessments over the years. I was a child in the 1950s and my first memories of a president are of Eisenhower. To many younger Americans, he may remain an obscure historical figure. Jean Edward Smith's new large biography, "Eisenhower in War and Peace" (2012) is an extraordinarily detailed study of Ike's public and private life. Smith is senior scholar in the history department at Columbia University, where Eisenhower served briefly as president. He has written extensively on American history, including biographies of FDR, Ulysses Grant, and John Marshall.
Although the book consists of over 760 pages of text and an additional 150 pages of notes and bibliography, the narrative flow of the story is absorbing. Smith recounts complex military and political history in a way that is both understandable and entertaining. His writing style, unbiased presentation, and detailed documentation made me inclined to trust his judgment. Throughout the study, Smith draws useful parallels between Eisenhower and other American military and political leaders. In particular, Smith often compares and contrasts Eisenhower with Ulysees Grant in terms of decisiveness, relationship to subordinates, and military accomplishments. The most telling parallel lies in writing and in ability to communicate. Although not having the gift for words that Grant displayed in his Memoirs, Eisenhower was an excellent, clear writer, especially of his own war memoirs, and, when he wished to be, a skilled eloquent speaker.
Smith presents Eisenhower's strengths as a leader and as a person as well as his flaws. The overall impression of Eisenhower that emerges is of a strong, capable, politically masterful individual, as both general and president, who was "a man of principle, decency, and common sesne, whom the country could count on to do what was right. In both war and peace he gave the world confidence in American leadership." Eisenhower's accomplishments are inspiring in an America which frequently seems to be floundering for a sense of purpose and balance. Smith aptly describes Eisenhower as a "progressive conservative" who believed that "traditional American values encompassed change and progress." Eisenhower's moderation, high sense of responsibility, and heroism will appeal to many readers.
The book begins with a perceptive treatment of Eisenhower's early life with its humble beginnings in Texas and Kansas. A military career and attendance at West Point were something of a surprise choice for Eisenhower as they had been for Grant. The first third of Smith's book describes Eisenhower's early life and the many seemingly interminable assignments Eisenhower held as a major in the peacetime army. Eisenhower showed a talent for hard work and for impressing his superiors. He developed an ability to advance himself subtly and to use his contacts with those who would help him. When the United States entered WW II, Eisenhower's rise was meteoric; but it had been prepared over a long course of time.
Smith shows Eisenhower as a political leader in WW II who had the daunting task of coordinating the allied effort against Germany and working with highly driven and egotistical leaders in the United States, France, and Britain. Eisenhower's tact and self-confidence were rare and essential qualities indeed. As a military stategist, Eisenhower had mixed results, but he made critical decisions regarding the Normandy invasion and the Battle of the Bulge. Smith shows that Eisenhower richly deserved the accolades he received at the end of the war.
Following WW II, Eisenhower served as president of Columbia and as the commander of NATO before, with a show of reluctance, accepting the Republican presidential nomination in 1952. With the end of Eisenhower's presidency in 1961, many historians were critical; but Eisenhower's stature as president has grown with time. Smith finds Eisenhower the most successful 20th century president with the exception of FDR. Eisenhower kept the United States out of war, balanced the budget, and displayed firm, subtle leadership that was not always apparent to the public. He acted with care and prudence in Vietnam against the hawkish advice of his staff and he dealt effectively with crises in Berlin, China and elsewhere. (Some of his foreign policy ventures in Iran and Central America were ill-advised and unsuccessful.) In a non-divisive, non-confrontational way Eisenhower helped lead to the discrediting of the red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. He built the national highway system and the St. Laurence Seaway. In 1956, following a heart attack and in the middle of a reelection campaign, Eisenhower showed courage in resolving the most controversial foreign policy issue in his presidency -- the Suez Canal crisis which pitted the United States against its allies, Britain, France, and Israel. In an understanded, politic way, Eisenhower also did more to advance civil rights than is commonly acknowledged. His Justice Department argued before the Supreme Court in favor of school desegregation in the Brown cases. In 1958, Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce a desegration decree against the recalcitrant state governor.
Eisenhower's personal life and feelings remained enigmatical even to those close to him. Smith's book concentrates on Eisenhower's long marriage to Mamie Doud and the difficulties the couple endured over the years. Smith also describes the long relationship Eisenhower had during WW II with a young British woman, Kay Summersby. It appears that at the end of WW II, Eisenhower wrote to George Marshall about his intention to divorce Mamie and marry Kay. Marshall disuaded him from this course in no uncertain terms, and Eisenhower ended the relationship in a callous, peremptory way.
This study of Eisenhower and of what was valuable and decent in him can bring hope and wisdom to a difficult time. Smith's study deserves and surely will receive a wide readership and will stimulate much discussion. I am pleased that it was offered to interested lay readers for an advance review through the Vine program.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
A real epic - but might be tough for amateursJan. 8 2012
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I came to this book with a reasonable background in history, and a variety of preconceived notions about the Eisenhower years. This book did a good job in expanding on blanks, and complementing what I thought I already knew.
It is not for beginners. This is an epic, at times dry, and academic biography that covers a vast scope. It is not easy reading - but for those interested in close-up, detailed and documented history this is a book for you. And really, it's for anyone who wants to know more about a distant time, as long as you're prepared to work for the knowledge.
The pre-WWII section is probably the driest and least interesting, and that's likely because Smith had the fewest sources to work with. There are allusions to Eisenhower's social attitudes; I doubt he was anti-Semitic or racist in any forceful way, but I saw no evidence that he was a step ahead of the culture of the times.
However, in the 1950s, as President, he was much more forceful toward integration than I had known. I had known the quote about integrating Little Rock, that it was "the hardest thing I had to do since D-Day," and I took that as a negative, as in he wrestled with the decision to integrate the schools. I don't think that anymore. Rather, I think he was concerned about the impact on the country to deploy federal troops, but I don't think he had any doubt that integration had to happen, and was the right thing to do.
For those who want to compare the 1950s - and Joe McCarthy, and racism, etc. - to today, it's worth noting that Eisenhower used a recess appointment to name Chief Justice Earl Warren to the Supreme Court. A recess appointment! Imagine that today! But of course, most people don't know their history. I certainly didn't know this.
I could understand why generals like Patton, Bradley and MacArthur were jealous of Eisenhower. He does seem to have a knack for good connections at the right time, and a political sense that clearly eluded Patton, who was a superior tactical officer.
Reading about his bipartisan relationships with Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson (ironically, his relations with fellow Republicans were often not as good) makes me nostalgic for a time I didn't know. Under his administration, he oversaw the construction of the Interstate Highway System - a triumph of infrastructure that I don't think the USA would currently be capable of today, not for a lack of ingenuity, but no ability to cooperate for a common good.
All in all, an excellent biography. Artfully written, even if dry at times. For a motivated reader of history, this will fill in a lot of blanks about a surprisingly active era.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
For the Pre-Presidency OnlyJune 9 2013
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This book has two parts that have two different styles. The first part is a detailed description of Eisenhower's life until he became President. It is thorough and balanced with both praise and criticism. This part is worth 5 stars. ***** As soon as he becomes President, the book undergoes a dramatic change. No more thoroughness, not more criticism. It skips from one highlight of the presidency to another with only unadulterated praise. Written in a style that would be worthy of Eisenhower's press secretary, this part barely earns 2 stars. **