Stephen E. Ambrose: Eisenhower, Volume One: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952; Simon & Schuster; New York.
Great athletes, it is said, all are so good that they make their feats look easy. The same was true of Dwight David Eisenhower, first as a career soldier, then as Supreme Allied Commander, and finally as politician and President. Stephen Ambrose traces Eisenhower’s career from his birth up to election night November 1952, when Eisenhower was elected. He details Eisenhower’s early years in Abilene, Kansas, the period at West Point, and his years duringWorld WarII as aide to George Marshall and as Overlord’s Supreme Commander. The 20-odd years between West Point and the onset of World War II are of particular interest, for it was during this period that Eisenhower learned his trade as a soldier and officer in the United States Army.
Eisenhower was a staff officer rather than a regimental leader. His skills were those of organization, detail, supply, personnel, logistics, and accommodating the views of senior commanders, just the qualities that were required to organize American, British, French, and Canadian air, sea, and land forces in their combined assault on Hitler’s Festung Europa. Eisenhower is often faulted for a lack of military leadership in the precise sense of being able to wield armies on the field, matching the opponent’s moves, and bringing in a victory of arms. Ambrose attempts to prove that Eisenhower was just this sort of commander since heled armies in Africa, Italy, and Western Europe, but in truth Eisenhower was no MacArthur, not known for his field generalship. In a sense, however, Eisenhower’s generalship was superior to that of MacArthur, Montgomery, Rommel, or even Napoleon and Caesar. His historic success was one that was only possible in the middle of the 20th century, when technology provided the ability to organize, train, supply, and move millions of men and women and their separate efforts into one objective. Eisenhower did not accomplish the destruction of Hitler’s empire by personally leading armies, but by directing others (including Montgomery, Patton, and Bradley) to do so and by coordinating overall strategy. Eisenhower’s success lay in his abilities to keep thousands of tons of supplies moving each day, to keep Patton and Montgomery from each other’s throats, to deal patiently with Churchill, de Gaulle, and Roosevelt, to project a sense of confidence, and to deal with the press. His were the skills of a bureaucrat. Yet it was precisely such skills that were needed to lead the combined attack on Hitler.
How good was Eisenhower at what he did? He was a general and commander of the largest invasion force ever assembled who successfully prosecuted the end of the European war and the destruction of the nazi army. He was the last two-term President of the U.S., and the third man in American history to be both General of the Army and President, after Washington and Grant. Yet the initial question remains, for despite all of his accomplishments, there is this image of Eisenhower as a likable buffoon, stumbling over his platitudes, not quite up to the technical dimensions of his job, either as Commander or as President.
When John Kennedy sought the Presidency in 1960, he ran on the premise that nothing had happened during Eisenhower’s terms and that it was time to “get this country moving again.” Twenty years later, after race riots, stagflation, Watergate, Vietnam, cultural revolution at home and Soviet expansion abroad, that “nothing happened” sounds awfully good. Eisenhower’s two terms in office now seem like a golden age, for we may wonder if the nation will ever again enjoy the same degree of confidence, peace, and international supremacy that it did from 1952 to 1960. This contrast between the pleasant 50’s and the awful 80’s has recently led historians and social critics to a re-examination of the man himself; Ambrose’s volume is a part of this activity. Isn’t there, they ask, some causal nexus between the kind of man Eisenhower was and the kind of times the 50’s were?
Understanding organized sports is useful for trying to understand Eisenhower. He was, he always said of himself, a team player (his favorite sport, incidentally, was football). The subordination of self to a common goal, the coordination of one’s personal efforts to what the team demands are necessary in football, but even more so in a bureaucracy. Eisenhower’s success as a military officer was due to the fact that he was a team player in the Army of bureaucracy.
Eisenhower had an ego and wanted to shine no less, perhaps, than Douglas MacArthur, but how can that be accomplished when one is a member of a bureaucracy? This was Eisenhower’s problem. One way to shine was through knowledge; Eisenhower enjoyed the tutelage of a remarkable officer named Fox Connor under whom he served in Panama. Connor’s insistence that Eisenhower study military history and replay old campaigns paid off, for when he entered theArmy’s Command and General Staff School, Eisenhower, known chiefly for his friendliness and enthusiasm for sports, came in at the top of the class. There comes a time to get serious about your career, he once said.
Another way to succeed as a bureaucrat is through conformity, which in the Army means following your commander’s orders. For Eisenhower, as a second-in-command for a succession of brilliant officers–Connor, MacArthur, and Marshall–it meant knowing your commander’s mind-set so well that you could anticipate his orders, and act as an extension of the commander. Expressing one’s opinion, except in private, was one thing Eisenhower learned not to do. When he wrote an article for an Army journal advocating tank warfare, his superiors told him that it was contrary to Army doctrine (Rommel!, Patton, and de Gaulle, however, were saying the same things as Eisenhower). Eisenhower never raised the issue again. The biggest problem in any bureaucracy is getting other people to do things.
This requires a means of persuasion, for which Eisenhower used his tremendous personality. His friendliness and magnetism projected very well, which helped him with his superiors, subordinates, and peers, and he became a master at compromise and accommdation between strong egos and competing interests. One of the chief skills of the successful bureaucrat is never to make enemies. Richard Nixon relates how Eisenhower once called him up togive him specific instructions to savage Adlai Stevenson in response to a Stevensonian attack on Eisenhower’s Administration. The net political effect, as both men knew, was that Nixon would reinforce his public image as a streetfighter while Eisenhower would reinforce his as “Mr. Clean.” Eisenhower rewarded Nixon by publicly stating that Nixon was well qualified to be President. One does not learn such skills on Inauguration Day. Eisenhower learned them in the Army.
Unlike John Kennedy, Eisenhower hid talents that no one suspected he had. The usual disparity between public image and private reality found in public figures applies to Eisenhower–but in his case, it works to Eisenhower’s advantage. Thus it is that a generation after their respective presidencies, Kennedy’s reputation has declined, while Eisenhower’s has increased.
Besides the talents of a successful bureaucrat, something else lay hidden at the heart of Eisenhower’s success. In one sense, the popular conviction distilled into a descriptive phrase was precise and intuitively correct. The phrase “Eisenhower morality” is usually used pejoratively by cultural relativists who wish to condemn traditional morality. But “Eisenhower morality” also explains his strength, namely that he was a moral man, a man of virtue, virtue conceived here as a strength of character, not as a code of ethics held to out of fear or conformity. And Eisenhower’s successes were a result of his virtue. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, then the battle for Europe was won on thousands of athletic fields in the high schools and colleges of America.