Book review, Carlo D'Este, Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life (biography)

Words of
Dwight David Eisenhower

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense, a theft a from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of it's laborers, the genius of it's scientists, the houses of it's children."

- April 16, 1953

"One hundred and eighty-one years ago, our forefathers started a revolution that still goes on."

- April 19, 1956

"In the councils of government, we must guard against the aquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will exist. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together."

- Farewell Address, January 17, 1961

Book review
Carlo D'Este,
Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life
First Edition, 2002, Hardcover - 849 pages,
Published by Henry Holt and Company, ISBN 0-8050-5686-6

I placed huge demands on the book because the author ends the story in 1945, and it is a biography of the man who became President in 1953. Clearly, the author's objective was not completeness of detail. The book places the reader inside Eisenhower's personality, so that, when Ike is satisfied, we're satisfied; when he's aggravated, we're aggravated.

The public knows so little about Ike's character except that he held firm principles defining right and wrong, and he turned out to be an efficient organizer.

Through this new volume, we see through Eisenhower's eyes when he is required to travel where he'd rather not go, or meet with whom he'd rather not meet. We hear what he hears when rumors are spoken about him. Prior to this reading, few of us could phrase a sentence describing Eisenhower's sense of humor; indeed, we didn't know that he had one. It's ironic that we have an image of Truman's idiosyncratic personality, and Kennedy's, but who was Eisenhower, the man? This is the gap that Carlo D'Este has filled.

The author begins in 1741 when Mennonite ancestor Hans Nicholas Eisenhauer (so spelled, the name means "iron cutter") immigrated from Germany to Pennsylvania. [Page 9] We glide hastily through time until Dwight D. Eisenhower is graduating from high school in Abilene, Kansas, and he has no idea what he might do with his life. Not out of any aspiration to become a soldier, but to escape poverty by getting the government to pay for his college education, he applies to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

He didn't know it yet, but he was already behind schedule. Later in life, his career path would be in de facto competition with that of George S. Patton, who graduated from West Point with a commission at the same moment Eisenhower graduated from high school [Page 51], and that of Douglas MacArthur, who was then West Point's superintendent [63]. It would be a long time before Eisenhower would become the boss of his former bosses.

In the meantime, Ike wasn't too successful at abiding by the rules at West Point, particularly the rules that punished students for "independent thinking." He received quite a few demerits. [63-64] His violations of the rules ranged from joining poker games to getting into fights. Overall, at the Academy, until he graduated in 1915, he was "popular but undistinguished." [72] Not surprisingly, years later, when be found himself a combat field commander for the very first time, his performance would be merely mediocre. [376]

It didn't hurt his plan to get out of poverty when he met Mamie Doud from Denver, who had wealthy parents, and he "won her over" in 1916. [99-101]. Ike was then rebounding from another relationship. [103] Later on, as his wife, Mamie would view herself as homemaker, while Ike took care of the soldiering and politicking. [111] Their family life is not the major facet of the book, but we see, for example, Ike writing Mamie a romantic note on their 15th wedding anniversary [211], and we observe his resolve to raise their two sons without the use of corporal punishment [188].

Eisenhower and Patton first met in 1919, marking "a friendship forged." Ike was later to say, "From the beginning, he and I got along famously." [145]

Given no combat assignments during World War I, Eisenhower had administrative and training assignments at Fort Meade and Fort Benning. Feeling that he had been deprived of the sort of education without which he would have "no chance of reaching the higher ranks of the army," in 1924 he requested a transfer to Fort Leavenworth to take a two year class. [176] He feared that his "personal and philosophical disagreements with the chief of infantry" [177] would get him disqualified from the 1925-1926 class at Leavenworth, but he got in. After completing the class, he was transferred back to Fort Benning. [184] Before long, Ike and Mamie had to move to France, which he at first dreaded but later found he enjoyed, for a tour that would end in 1929. [195-196] The year he returned, he became a staff officer in the War Department. [197]

I shall gloss over the interwar period (through chapter 22) and skip a decade (fifty pages) here, for the intensity of the story soars in 1939, when war broke out after Hitler invaded Poland. [250]

Eisenhower, 49 years old, "decided that the time had come to do something constructive to resurrect his career." [251] He was "sick of staff duty" [261] as MacArthur's aide and a "jack-of-all-trades" [237] in the Philippines, an assignment which D'Este calls "Mission Impossible" [234]. Preparation for war now led to Eisenhower becoming a battalion commander in 1940, where he would be "insistent upon military discipline" [262], in contrast to the magnet for pranks and demerits that he had been in his youth.

After Japan declared war on the United States, Eisenhower made the rank of Major General. George C. Marshall, whom in 1939 President Roosevelt had appointed to be the Army Chief of Staff [259], made Eisenhower the Third Army Chief of Staff [chapter 24] and then, 1942-1945, the head of all the U.S. forces in Europe, where he would lead operations in France, Italy and North Africa.

Some believe that we can learn most about the personality of a leader from his leadership itself; if so, see his command of 850,000 troops in the Battle of Normandy [chapter 43]. Some may say that the personality of the general is best known from the disputes about military strategy between Eisenhower and Montgomery [chapters 52-53]. If we can learn something from personality clashes, we may read about Eisenhower's disagreements with Roosevelt [418] or his very public disagreements with MacArthur [296].

But I believe that events of much lesser importance may tell us even more about a person. In telling the story, D'Este illuminates Eisenhower's personality not only in his relationship with Roosevelt, Marshall, MacArthur, Patton, Churchill, Montgomery, and other players of power. The author illustrates Ike's personality also in the way he dealt with everyday bureaucracy, and even his immediate surroundings. For example, at the time of the U.S. invasions of Morocco, Algeria, Casablanca and Oran in 1942, Eisenhower was given a headquarters inside a damp cave in the Rock of Gibraltar, where he was tormented by the incessant sound of dripping water. [351] The author relates Eisenhower's outrage when his driver Kay Summersby transported him through the streets of Algeria and Tunisia, and the men in the streets emitted catcalls and whistles at her -- he was "livid" and she was "amused." [419] This, too, is character. This is not the history; it is the man.

Eisenhower's personality is depicted in the scene where he is hounded at a briefing with British reporters. The reporters demanded that he explain how the U.S. could claim to be fighting Hitler's bigotry at the same time the U.S. Army had black and white soldiers segregated into different units (which was the policy when Roosevelt was Commander-In-Chief, and until Truman ended segregation in the Army in the post-war period). The general knew that only one answer was allowable under the circumstances -- that it was his job to administer the rules, not to make the rules. [320]

The book highlights something of Eisenhower's political preferences. He disagreed with Roosevelt's New Deal programs, but he was nevertheless happy that Roosevelt had beaten Hoover in 1932, and, perhaps ambivalently, happy that the Democrats had seized control of Congress. [214-215]

We see Eisenhower's love of solitude, as when he finds opportunities to sneak away during the 1943 battles in Tunisia. "For a few brief moments he found surprisingly peaceful contemplation in the ominously quiet moonlit desert." [393]

D'Este shines a beacon on Eisenhower's odd sense of humor, as on the occasion when he first met naval aide Harry Butcher in an office in Washington. Eisenhower's behavior as Butcher entered the room sounds more like Groucho than what we would expect from our stereotype images of Eisenhower. The author quotes Butcher's description: "Standing at rigid attention, Ike would fall forward like a wooden soldier. An instant before it looked ... as though his face would be smashed against the floor, his hands would flash forward to cushion the fall." [213]

This is the book for getting to know the man inside. "I am nothing but a soldier," Eisenhower said. [351] A soldier who hated war. "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, it's stupidity." [705]

Finally, I will paraphrase a point that Mr. D'Este emphasized when he read an excerpt at a recent book signing. Eisenhower was sternly intolerant of evil, and the atrocities that the enemies had committed were so evil that he refused the tradition of behaving cordially and shaking hands at the surrender ceremonies of 1943 and 1945. In this excerpt, three pages before the end of the book, "the German surrender was to take effect at one minute before midnight on May 8, 1945." [703] D'Este continues: "Coldly, his voice brittle, Eisenhower curtly said, 'Do you understand the terms of the document of surrender you have just signed?' When Jodl replied, 'Ja, Ja,' Eisenhower declared that he would be held officially and personally responsible should there be any violation of its terms. 'That is all,' said Eisenhower, signaling that the interview was at an end.'" [703]

The author, a well-known military historian, and a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, is now living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

D'Este previously wrote several other books about World War II, including the biography Patton, and Decision in Normandy. He also wrote the introduction to John Toland's book, Battle : The Story of the Bulge.

- - - - - - Book review by M. L. for, August 13, 2002

First edition relased June 2002
54 chapters. 849 pages. 24-page 2-column index.
Glossy insert between pages 498-499 contains 49 black and white photographs with captions.