Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life by Carlo D'Este

Biography Book Review

Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969)


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Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life , by Carlo D'Este
Hardcover - 849 pages
First Edition - June 2002
Published by Henry Holt and Company
ISBN 0-8050-5686-6 / ISBN 0805056866

Book Review


Carlo D'Este , the author of Patton , is back in 2002 with Eisenhower .

I placed huge demands on the book. I thought: A biography of the man who became President in 1953, and the author ends the story in 1945? He had better do a heck of a job. I wasn't disappointed.

D'Este's latest work is much more than one of a million books about World War II. It successfully 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, and 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.

Buy the book - Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life by Carlo D'Este - Bestselling Hardcover Nonfiction : Biography

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," and 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]

All books by Carlo D'Este

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 what I want to know about the man. The author delivers.

Eisenhower's personality is depicted in the scene where he is hounded at a briefing with British reporters to 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]

Quotables from Dwight D. 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

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 even 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 in Duck Soup 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]

To get to know the man inside, this is the book.

"When people speak to you about a preventive war, you tell them to go and fight it. After my experience, I have come to hate war. War settles nothing."

-- Dwight D. Eisenhower

A soldier's life. "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 made by Carlo D'Este 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]

Book review by Mike Lepore for crimsonbird.com

54 chapters. 849 pages. 24-page 2-column index.
Glossy insert between pages 498-499 contains 49 b&w photographs with captions.

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Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life , by Carlo D'Este
Biography -- ISBN 0-8050-5686-6 / ISBN 0805056866

Book Description from the Publisher

About the book

The definitive account of Eisenhower's astonishing transformation from obscure soldier to one of World War II's greatest heroes.

Born to hardscrabble poverty in rural Kansas, the son of stern pacifists, Dwight David Eisenhower graduated from high school more likely to teach history than to make it. With full access to his private papers and letters, Carlo D'Este, the bestselling author of Patton: A Genius for War , traces Eisenhower's meteoric rise to high command and identifies the complex and contradictory character behind Ike's famous grin and air of calm self-assurance.

After four years at West Point -- where he jeopardized his career by repeatedly flouting academy rules -- Ike graduated to the grim hardships of army postings in the South and Washington, D.C., and in the Philippines and the steamy jungles of Panama, which tested his sometimes troubled marriage as well as threatening his professional future. D'Este chronicles Ike's introduction to the inner sanctums of the War Department and Whitehall, his painful apprenticeship on the battlefields of the Mediterranean, the courageous D-Day decision, and the bloody and controversial battles of north-west Europe in 1944-1945.

For the first time D'Este dispels the myths that have surrounded Eisenhower and his family since he first became a public persona. With fresh insight, he probes Eisenhower's clashes with Montgomery and the British chiefs of staff, his enigmatic relations with Churchill, and his encounters with many of the legendary figures of the century, including FDR, George C. Marshall, George S. Patton, and Charles de Gaulle. We learn also the truth behind his much-publicized romance with his wartime driver, Kay Summersby.

As the story of Eisenhower's life through V-E Day in 1945 is unveiled, it becomes evident that no amount of training or experience could have fully prepared him for the most challenging role given to any officer in World War II. His tenacious resolve to fight an allied war was the indispensable glue that made the joint military venture successful. That he was equal to the task is now virtually taken for granted; however, during those desperate years nothing was certain.

Carlo D'Este's riveting appraisal reveals a man of surprising complexity: A born optimist who always expected to win, Eisenhower was also a master manipulator who often concealed an intelligence as sharp and icy as any. And in the hours before D-Day, beset with concern for his men, Ike seemed like the loneliest man in the world. As he remarked to Kay Summersby, "It's hard to look a soldier in the eye when you fear you are sending him to his death."

Based on five years of primary research, this definitive and eminently readable biography will forever change our view of a man who shaped his own extraordinary destiny. As D'Este makes clear, Dwight Eisenhower may not have thought of himself as indispensable, but history has recorded its own verdict.

About the author

A retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, Carlo D'Este is a highly regarded military historian and the author of four classic works about World War II: Decision in Normandy - Bitter Victory : The Battle for Sicily, 1943 ; World War II in the Mediterranean , 1942-1945 ; Fatal Decision : Anzio and the Battle for Rome , as well as the biography Patton : A Genius for War . He lives in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

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This is an Amazon.com link for
Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life , by Carlo D'Este
Biography -- ISBN 0805056866 / ISBN 0-8050-5686-6

Book review by Amazon.com reprinted with permission

There is hardly a shortage of books about Dwight Eisenhower, but Carlo D'Este's Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life stands tall in this forest by virtue of the author's insistence on a too-often forgotten rule of biographers: show -- don't tell about -- the subject. Though D'Este doesn't neglect Eisenhower's early years (his sketch of the man's rambunctious West Point years is hearteningly entertaining), the book concentrates on his military career, including his years of treading water in the Philippines. By far the most trenchant sections, however, deal with World War II (including a keen look at the little-discussed North African campaign.) We see Ike, who had a famous temper and, when angry, a most indelicate vocabulary, chain-smoking cigarettes and unable to sleep in the weeks leading to D-day; refusing -- out of disgust for German atrocities -- to be present at the signing of the articles of surrender; bantering, though his heart was heavy, with enlisted men; wrestling contentiously with MacArthur and Field Marshal Montgomery. We read excerpts of his letters to Mamie and are privy to, perhaps, his laying the groundwork for a political career. Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life , long but brisk, sympathetic but not adoring, rigorous but never tedious, is a commendable biography.

-- H. O'Billovich

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This is an Amazon.com link for
Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life , by Carlo D'Este
Biography -- ISBN 0-8050-5686-6 / ISBN 0805056866