Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life by Carlo D’Este (Henry Holt, 672 pp., $35)
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Magazine
Carlo D’Este, a well-respected historian of the U.S. Army’s battles in Europe during World War II and the author of an engaging and sympathetic biography of Gen. George S. Patton, has now written a massive narrative of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s military career. It is comprehensive, well researched, and clearly the result of great diligence.
Because of the plethora of prior Eisenhower biographies, however, the publisher promises new details of Eisenhower’s life and a more honest investigation of some of Ike’s character flaws. Such a reexamination would be welcome, because Eisenhower’s subsequent presidency and his enthronement as an American icon have tended to promote hagiography; his military record has never earned the scrutiny given to that of his rival, Patton, who had fewer political allies and was as unpredictable and uncouth as Eisenhower was (usually) steady and circumspect.
D’Este recounts in great detail Eisenhower’s meteoric career, capped by his appointment in December 1943 as commanding officer of the impending invasion of Europe. How did the relatively obscure colonel of 1941 leap to a five-star generalship in the space of four years? D’Este writes that Eisenhower had developed remarkable talents during the unsung years of his prior assignments. His work, travels, and reading prepared him well for his unexpected moment of destiny. A key moment in Eisenhower’s career came in 1922, when he went to Panama to serve with an infantry brigade in charge of protecting the canal. His commanding officer there was the cagey Fox Conner, who had been instrumental in helping Gen. John J. Pershing create the American Expeditionary Force in World War I.
Conner supervised the 32-year-old Eisenhower’s “graduate education” — assigning him night reading on Napoleon, Frederick the Great, and the Civil War, lecturing him about his own experiences with coalition warfare during the World War, and prepping him on the political intricacies of the peacetime army. Eisenhower later remarked of his time with Conner that “outside of my parents he had more influence on me and my outlook than any other individual.” It was Conner who directed Eisenhower to his next and most influential mentor, George Marshall, who saw the young officer as precisely the organizational man to create a new professional army — one that would marry millions of draftees with new machines, and thus lead the American military through its transition from a constabulary cavalry to a mighty engine capable of defeating the Wehrmacht.
Himself a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, D’Este knows how the military works. He is quite deft in sorting out the shifting relationships of patronage and the other circumstances that explain Eisenhower’s amazingly swift promotion — and also Ike’s uncanny knowledge of the bureaucracy and the difficulties it would face in fighting a coalition war in Europe.
This biography is not nearly as revisionist as advertised, in that it doesn’t detract in the least from Eisenhower’s sterling reputation. But D’Este does bring to our attention some important — and previously neglected — details. Eisenhower did not merely have a bad temper, for example: On occasion he totally lost his self-control — whether beating an apple tree with his fists as a child, banging his head against a wall when playing poor tennis, or punching his fist through the wall of a cafe. And he was an ambitious, career-driven workaholic, toiling seven days a week well before the war. He was plagued by ill health throughout his life, and his occasionally seriously debilitating illnesses — Spanish influenza, amebic dysentery, Crohn’s disease, and bad knees — were exacerbated by lack of sleep, little exercise, and heavy smoking.
In one regard, D’Este is practically an anti-revisionist: He examines in detail the allegations that Eisenhower had an affair with his chauffeur, Kay Summersby, and comes to a rather curious conclusion. He discounts the considerable body of gossip, rumor, and innuendo on the grounds that Ike was too surrounded by aides and visitors for the requisite privacy: “When, where, or how, one can reasonably ask, could Eisenhower and Kay Summersby have carried on an affair had they so chosen?” Surely this is a question that needs no answer, in the post- Monica world. Nonetheless, Mamie Eisenhower — despite rumors of her drinking, petty jealousies, and petulance at Ike’s absence and long hours with Summersby — comes across in this book as a sympathetic spouse, whose lifelong support for a sometimes self-absorbed, unexpressive, and often depressed husband was very important to his career.
D’Este is at his best on more specifically military matters. He skillfully describes Eisenhower’s role in the well-known controversies of the Overlord campaign, and repeats many of the astute assessments he presented in his biography of Patton — most importantly, that Omar Bradley was an especially difficult and often mediocre commander, hardly deserving of Ike’s constant praise and support. Indeed, D’Este is not nearly critical enough of Eisenhower for his backing of the ungrateful Bradley. This naive trust often led to disastrous decisions — for example, the delays in closing the Falaise Gap that allowed thousands of Germans to escape the tightening Allied noose and retreat across the Seine, only to regroup in the Ardennes the following winter (with tragic results for U.S. forces).
D’Este is also a little off-base in his narration of Eisenhower’s questionable decision to cease advancing into eastern Germany and Czechoslovakia in late April and early May 1945. It is easy to count Soviet casualties in Berlin, cite the specter of a new war with the Russians, and rely on the old canard that generals should not intrude too much into diplomacy; but there is good reason to believe that the Germans would not have defended Berlin against U.S. soldiers with the same intensity they exhibited in fighting the Russians. Furthermore, Eisenhower was strangely obsessed with a mythical “National Redoubt” of purported Nazi diehards, even as millions nearby came under brutal Russian occupation; a different perspective at the top of the Allied leadership might have prevented, or at least reduced the scope of, a half-century of Communist domination of Eastern Europe.
What comes through in D’Este’s account — though he doesn’t explore it in any great depth — is a recurring indecisiveness and even occasional timidity in Eisenhower’s command. Throughout the war, Eisenhower seemed more comfortable with mediocrities like Bradley, Courtney Hodges, and Mark Clark than with the more audacious but less likeable Patton and Montgomery. Some of Eisenhower’s crucial decisions — for example, curtailing Patton’s promising advance in the Lorraine and opting instead for Montgomery’s disastrous Market Garden airborne operation — were attributable in some degree to his inability to put aside personal biases and political considerations. In Market Garden and other cases, had Eisenhower made his decisions strictly on the military merits, and rewarded only commanders with proven records, thousands of American lives might have been saved.
D’Este is right, of course, in emphasizing in countless asides the positive attributes of Eisenhower’s character — honesty, incorruptibility, and diplomatic acumen — all of which were critical in managing a coalition war with sometimes zany underlings like Patton and Montgomery, who were both more talented and more erratic than their supreme commander. Still, D’Este’s Eisenhower is less an inspired general with a singular vision of how to defeat the enemy than he is a competent CEO in charge of vast operations on two continents, without the genius to fathom who was doing what best.
The book’s carefully argued litany of Eisenhower’s foibles — coupled with admiration for the general’s sobriety and judiciousness — leaves the reader with a question that D’Este’s one-page epepilogue can’t answer: Was Ike a colorless and mediocre careerist, or a rare rock of good judgment in a sea of craziness, or both? In the absence of a clear conclusion on these matters, D’Este’s evenhanded portrait ends up as yet another tribute to Eisenhower’s basic decency. Thus the central tenet of the historical consensus about Eisenhower stands unchallenged: He oversaw the greatest amphibious invasion in history, and the subsequent overrunning and destruction — in less than twelve months — of the very center of Hitler’s Germany. In managing all that, Ike must have been doing something right.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson