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An American Hero Remembered

David Eisenhower's excellent and incisive memoir of his grandfather.

By From the February 2011 issue

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Going Home to Glory: A Memoir of Life with Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1961-1969
By David Eisenhower with Julie Nixon Eisenhower
(Simon & Schuster, 323 pages, $28) 

"I like Ike" versus "Gladly for Adlai" or "Madly for Adlai."

These were the slogans for the presidential campaigns of 1952 and 1956, Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois against General Dwight D. Eisenhower, former supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. Seldom have political slogans so effectively encapsulated the perceived social, political, and cultural differences between candidates.

"Gladly for Adlai" or "Madly for Adlai," with their off-rhyme -- clever, languid, Noel-Cowardish -- over against "I Like Ike" -- direct, solid, positive -- just right for the poor boy from Kansas with that great wide smile who played football for West Point and commanded the greatest multinational fighting force in the history of warfare, freeing Europe from fascism.

For a majority of Americans, that defined the difference -- one the darling of the Eastern establishment, the other straight from the heartland. Eisenhower lived up to the image, providing a strong and steady leadership tempered by common sense. And beneath that image there was great depth -- a superb military strategist, an historian and author, whose Crusade in Europe was a runaway bestseller; a successful executive and administrator; a diplomat and at times a psychologist, as witness his dealings with some of the most contentious figures of the 20th century -- Churchill, de Gaulle, Montgomery, and even his own fighting commanders, among them George Patton, a favorite he always called "Georgie."

In Going Home to Glory, historian David Eisenhower, author of the Pulitzer-finalist Eisenhower at War: 1943-1945, and Julie Nixon Eisenhower, whose previous books are Special People and Pat Nixon: The Untold Story, take us from Inauguration Day, January 20, 1961, when leaving the White House, "Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower drove north to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the 1955 Chrysler Imperial that Mamie had purchased for Ike on his sixty-fifth birthday," to March 28, 1969, at Walter Reed Hospital, where, "surrounded by others as always, at peace and in the company of his doctors and his lineal heirs, Dwight Eisenhower died."

During those eight years, the man others called Mr. President or General, a title he much preferred, and who David Eisenhower called Grandad, remained active in politics, counseling his successors and other world leaders, commenting on important issues, but always behind the scenes.

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE OF STRAINS between Eisenhower and his former vice president, most of it more imagined than real. But on matters of import, Eisenhower and Nixon were in agreement on the central issues of the day, among them the war in Vietnam.

With the siege and eventual fall of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, every NCO in the First Marine Division knew we were preparing to intervene. Eisenhower, however, said no, emphatically. Although he did not oppose land wars in Asia in principle, "U.S. forces, if committed in 1954, would have been fighting for French colonialism alongside French forces that had proven themselves unable to pacify the region in five years of war. Nor had France promised to grant independence to Vietnam once the fighting was over."

But in the early 1960s, the Kennedy administration committed us in insufficient numbers with unclearly delineated goals. LBJ inherited the war, was indecisive in planning and execution, massively escalated our involvement with the goals still unclear, and ended by attempting to micro-manage the war. Eisenhower believed LBJ should have gone all out: "Once a decision is made to commit American prestige, all else must take a second seat to winning." But LBJ was unable to make that commitment.

In a discussion with Richard Nixon in 1967, "Both men [Eisenhower and Nixon] agreed that it would be difficult to chart the future course of the war because of the volatility of Lyndon Johnson.… Johnson's problem, Eisenhower told Nixon, was that he lacked the inner pressure gauge that told him when to relax." Johnson "was often up at 3 A.M. phoning Honolulu, Saigon, and the Pentagon to get the latest word on the air strikes and ground actions."

Realizing that Johnson's approach to the war was courting disaster, Nixon sent Eisenhower the draft of an article in which he laid out a long-range approach to dealing with Vietnam in particular and Asia in general, with emphasis on China. Eisenhower read the article carefully and telephoned suggestions, "none of which, to Nixon's relief, disputed his foreign policy views. The general took no exception even to Nixon's forward-thinking China views, which were unfurled for the first time in this article."

"Nixon… perceived danger and opportunity in the Vietnam morass," David Eisenhower writes. "Nixon could envision that an 'acceptable' outcome in Vietnam would serve as the basis for an opening to China, which would formalize the breakup of the communist world and the breakup of an obsolete Cold War structure that had become the prop of the
status quo, serving Soviet interests, not American."

And with Eisenhower's tacit approval, that's just what happened. Nixon's strategy in Vietnam, a gradual withdrawal that the historian Robert W. Merry called "the greatest retreat in U.S. history, one of the greatest in world history," combined with intense diplomacy, led to the trip to China in 1972 that resulted in a successful end to the war, ultimately negated by Congress, and a distinct shift in the global balance of power.

Thus, Nixon's much derided "secret plan" for ending the war was in fact a carefully developed, coherent, and largely successful long-term strategy, approved in its initial formulation some five years earlier by Dwight D. Eisenhower.

IN 1961, SPEAKING OF "the virtue of avoiding hysteria in governmental matters" and "the crisis rhetoric of the Kennedy administration," Eisenhower declared: "We should plan our security, defend our rights, and live with the situation in the world -- no Napoleonic brooding, or impulse. Panicky policies condemn people to live in apprehension, not serenity, as is their birthright."

Later in the decade, in 1968, against the backdrop of the panicky politics of the Kennedy/Johnson administrations and nationwide unrest, "the Gallup poll would once again name Dwight Eisenhower the man most admired by the American people" -- a somewhat surprising choice for a man who "had spent the 1960s in the relative obscurity of retirement." But he did give speeches and wrote articles focusing on "patriotism, family, common sense," delivering messages from what Time magazine called, condescendingly, "the remote past."

"But somehow Eisenhower's basic optimism and his confidence in the future as America's leading 'soldier of democracy' was appreciated that troubled December, and Americans were beginning to look back on the peace and prosperity of the 1950s with nostalgia."

We may never replicate those years, but there's no doubt they'll continue to serve as a model for the best that America could be. And interestingly, as the distance increases and today's national leaders lose stature, Dwight Eisenhower's reputation continues to grow.

In 1961, a New York Times Magazine article by Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. ranked presidents in order of greatness. "Eisenhower stood twenty-eighth on the list out of thirty-three." That poll was hardly objective, conducted as it was by the father of Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a devoted courtier at Kennedy's Camelot, who would later take over his father's presidential ranking business.

Lately, however, the Schlesinger monopoly is being broken by scholars like Alvin S. Felzenberg, who moves Eisenhower up to fifth place, one ahead of FDR. And Robert W. Merry, working on a book on presidential ratings, also believes the Schlesinger ratings reflected partisan bias among the respondents, and notes that in the 2005 Wall Street Journal poll, Eisenhower was ranked eighth. 

But whatever the ratings, writes his grandson, his self-assessment stood: "He had understood his responsibility in the White House to be, in addition to making correct decisions and administering the government, one of defusing the atmosphere of crisis that had pervaded national politics since 1932. He felt strongly he had been successful."

DURING THOSE LAST YEARS, Eisenhower brought his grandson along like the brightest and most favored of his junior officers, but was always careful not to show favoritism or the affection he obviously felt. Twelve years old when his grandfather left the White House, David Eisenhower worked at assigned chores on the Gettysburg farm, was rewarded for school grades -- $5 for As, $3 for Bs and a $1 fine for Cs (during his last year, Dwight offered David $100 to cut his hair before his marriage to Julie, but refused to pay when the cut didn't meet GI standards) -- and spent much of his spare time in the company of his grandfather.

Much of this book's interest lies in his description of those idiosyncrasies that show us his grandfather as a man -- and very much the quintessential retired military man. When he gets a driver's license, his sharp corner turns produce "the squeal of rubber against concrete [that] never ceased to surprise him.… Every bump and lurch elicited a faint, 'Damnation.'"

He is a dedicated bridge player, but others are reluctant to join him because each game is waged like a military campaign, with no blunders allowed. The same is true of his approach to golf. He likes to read Westerns, preferably with no romance, doesn't suffer fools gladly, dislikes casual conversation, and no matter the guests or occasion, goes to bed promptly at 10.

A man of his times, Eisenhower was not given to displays of affection. But he was also a grandfather. When he learned from Mamie that David and Julie Nixon were engaged (during a visit, David had been too nervous to break the news), he sent this letter to his grandson:

For many years, I have been struck by the virtual impossibility of men of the Nordic strain to express, in a face-to-face meeting, their affection, even when of the same family and when the ties of sentiment are strong indeed.… I sometimes envy the Latins, who do not seem to be prey to these particular inhibitions.… Because of ties of love and respect for your mind and character, I value every contact I have with you… if at any time you think I might be helpful to you, during whatever years may be left to me, it would be a great privilege to me if you would let me know.…

Even if I could do nothing, it would not be for lack of trying. This I mean very sincerely. I'm not only proud that you are my grandson, but my friend as well -- to whom I give my deepest affection.

As for the engagement, he wrote: "Mamie told me of your telephonic report of the joy you and Julie felt on her acceptance of your great grandmother's ring. I am more than delighted that the two of you feel such a deep mutual affection. You are both the kind of people who will, throughout your lives, enrich America." And with their three children, their quiet but productive lives -- with books like this -- that's exactly what they've done. 

WRITERS TEND TO BE CYNICS, and the writers on the Nixon staff during those last long Watergate-drenched days felt they had plenty to be cynical about, with one notable exception -- the Nixon family, to whom Ben Stein was our unofficial ambassador, and especially the president's youngest daughter, Julie, whose fierce loyalty to her father and concern for the well-being of his staff exempted her from all criticism.

As Aram Bakshian recently wrote, "Julie was a good egg." And still is.

And as this memoir demonstrates, so is her husband, David Eisenhower.

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About the Author

John R. Coyne Jr. a former White House speech-writer, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement (Wiley).