Eisenhower-A-Life-Paul-Johnson/dp/0670016829">Eisenhower: A Life
By Paul Johnson
(Viking, 136 pages, $28.95)
Paul Johnson’s short book on the long and consequential life of Dwight Eisenhower might well have been entitled, Ike: A Quick Review. Or perhaps, Eisenhower: a Primer. It’s far too elegantly written to be, Ike: The CliffsNotes. But I’m sure the notes on some other Eisenhower biographies take up about as much space as this 123-page (less Further Reading and index) mini-bio. It’s Eisenhower for people who are double-parked.
It’s not that the conservative historian and journalist Paul Johnson can’t write long. I lift up the following of Johnson’s long and fine works to TAS readers:A History of Christianity, Modern Times, A History of the Jews, The Birth of the Modern, andA History of the American People.
But in later years the venerable Johnson, now 86, has taken up short but revealing treatments of important historical figures. Over the past decade Johnson has given us compact editions of Socrates, Jesus, Napoleon, Darwin, and Churchill. Before Ike, Johnson gave us Mozart in 164 pages last December. In these books he gives us the essence of these men, without drowning the reader in detail.
The Mozart, which I had the privilege of reviewing for TAS, was a great stocking-stuffer for the music lover on your list. And perhaps this one can also serve as a gift for those of a certain age who would like a quick reminder of Eisenhower and his time, or for the young reader who recognizes the name but isn’t quite sure why the man mattered so much. Perhaps even for the person with an interest in history but not a lot of reading time.
Eisenhower might even serve as a starter book for those who, appetites whetted, may desire to learn more about a man who is more responsible for American freedom and prosperity than is commonly appreciated. Those so motivated will find many long treatments of a man who served his country in uniform through two world wars, the Great Depression, and as president during the prosperous and peaceful fifties (an unfairly maligned decade). These books can give readers the details of the general and the president that Johnson skips or compresses to give readers a quick brush look at Eisenhower’s singular personality and character, and a feel for how he fit his times.
A humble man from humble beginnings in rural Kansas, Eisenhower rose to the top in the Army and in presidential politics by dent of analytical intelligence, hard work, people skills, patience, and perseverance. He was slow to anger, not impulsive. And willing to allow others to take credit, even for his achievements. He sought not glory but duty. In his Army years this made him the anti-Patton, the anti-MacArthur. In politics he was the anti-Christie.
Eisenhower was not a combat leader. During two wars he was never where shots were fired in anger. He was a staff officer, a planner, and a politician before he was a politician. His was the significant, often the determining hand, in the major operations of the European Theatre from the invasion of North Africa in 1942, until the D-Day invasion of France and the re-taking of Western Europe. His concerns were not just strategy and the incredible logistics involved in keeping millions of men and thousands of tanks, planes, ships, and guns in the fight to its successful conclusion. As important as the strategy, Eisenhower managed to keep Allied leaders, a notoriously fractious bunch, together and on message.
One of the more peculiar notions some held of Eisenhower in his elective years was that he was not realty a politician, just a charming amateur who people liked because he had a nice smile and looked like everyone’s favorite uncle. Be assured that anyone who could not only juggle but get the best out of outsized personalities like Patton, Montgomery, Churchill, Mountbatten, and, not least, the famously difficult de Gaulle had to be a master politician. (Not to mention had to have the patience of a glacier.)
Johnson takes us through Ike’s war years and through his short tenure as president of Columbia University. He covers all the important junctures, but many readers will likely find themselves wishing for a few more details of these important events, especially the war years, and Eisenhower’s part in them. Who wouldn’t want to listen in to Ike working to keeple grande Charlie on the reservation? (It’s not in Johnson’s book, but Ike has been quoted as saying that de Gaulle gave him more trouble than Mussolini did.)
That Ike should wind up a president was hardly a surprise to anyone. He came out of World War II as probably the most popular American on the planet. He joined Washington, Jackson, and Grant as highly regarded generals who moved from the officers’ club to the White House. Ike served as president when America was number one on all scorecards, the most powerful and prosperous nation in the world, and no one wanted to fundamentally transform this. There was the Cold War — Soviet feints in Berlin, a tense border standoff in Korea, Khrushchev banging his shoe, growing nuclear arsenals, the U-2 screw-up, Sputnik, and other difficulties. But with all this it was a peaceful period. And Ike managed to leave office in January of 1961 still popular.
Frequent misconceptions about Eisenhower included that he was inarticulate, used strangled syntax, read only westerns, didn’t work very hard, and let his cabinet members make the important decisions. All wrong, as countless Eisenhower biographers have pointed out, and Johnson reiterates.
Certainly Ike did sometimes use a form of Stengelese when reporters asked about things he didn’t want to talk about. But his vast body of written work shows a man with a firm grasp of the language. His written work is clarity itself. And he could speak clearly when he wanted to.
While Ike was happy to convey the impression of a laid-back and easy-going executive, he was anything but. He was the boss, and he made all the important decisions. Woe be to the cabinet member who went off on his own agenda. His work days started shortly after he rose at 6 a.m. and usually lasted until 11 p.m. He played a lot less golf than you would think by listening to the comedians of the day. (And certainly less than a more contemporary president I could name. Disengaged Ike wasn’t.)
A common but hugely erroneous take on the two presidential match-ups between Ike and Adlai Stevenson was that they were contests between a man of considerable intellectual power, Stevenson, versus a likable but inarticulate know-nothing, Eisenhower. I suppose it’s possible for someone to arrive at that analysis, but only if that someone hasn’t spent five minutes measuring the two men’s accomplishments.
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