How they liked Ike! Perret's biography

October 17, 1999|By Joseph R.L. Sterne | Joseph R.L. Sterne,Special to the Sun

"Eisenhower," by Geoffrey Perret. Random House. 672 pages. $35.

Like George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant before him, Dwight D. Eisenhower marched into the presidency after having led to victory the greatest military forces his nation could muster. Unlike Washington, he rose to the heights from a humble beginning. Unlike Grant, he made a success of his years in the White House.

He has risen steadily in the estimation of historians, moving from a lackluster 22nd of 31 presidents in a 1962 listing to eighth of 41 presidents in a 1994 Siena Research Institute poll.

What accounts for this spectacular rise? Is it nostalgia for simpler days, pre-Vietnam and pre-Watergate? Or is it a belated recognition that Eisenhower was far more of a hands-on president than his contemporaries realized, a wise leader who kept his country out of war while constructing a national security system that, in time, would achieve a bloodless triumph in the Cold War?

This new biography by Geoffrey Perret, the first in-depth look at Eisenhower in 20 years, makes a persuasive case that Ike was a president of real substance, a man whose intellectual acuity and management expertise pushed him upward from the moment he graduated from West Point.

Yes, there were frustrations for a young officer who never got to France in World War I because his superiors valued his talents in recruiting and training raw recruits. There were frustrations in being assigned to coach football at Fort Meade when he longed for command of an infantry regiment. Or in having to spend eight years in the domineering presence of Douglas MacArthur. But through it all, Eisenhower learned how to take charge of complicated organizations in pursuit of complicated goals.

When World War II erupted, he leapfrogged past dozens of other officers to win command first of allied forces in North Africa and then as SACEUR -- Supreme Allied Commander Europe -- the man destined on D-Day to lead the mightiest invasion force in history.

Biographer Perret, whose forte is military history, presents this vivid portrait of Eisenhower on that fateful 6th of June, 1944: With his rocketing ascent to high-level command, Eisenhower had assumed an air of authority without which he could hardly have argued with presidents and prime ministers. The projection of power -- the timbre of authority -- was there in his voice; it informed his gestures; it flashed from his large blue eyes. The difference between being a major general in the War Department and being the commander of a wartime theater of operations was of a magnitude almost beyond description, and it had a transforming effect on his already outgoing personality and shrewd, probing mind.

He became an advocate of combined and joint military operations, with a mission to force cooperation upon the impetuous George Patton or the obstreperous Bernard Montgomery or the imperious Charles deGaulle. The lessons learned turned him into an effective internationalist -- a future president uniquely equipped to deal with a planet under nuclear threat.

As he became a military celebrity, he emerged as an instinctive politician, one whose wide warm grin and outflung personality carried him to the White House in 1952. The change in roles is manifest in this biography. The first section on Eisenhower's military career is focused, fast-moving and brilliant in its clarity and narrative flow. A general's key mission, after all, is defeat of a well-delineated enemy.

The second section, dealing with the presidency, is disjointed, episodic, a reflection of the mosaic of decisions crowding in on a chief executive every day. Eisenhower made his share of mistakes -- especially his willingness to appear on the same platform as William Jenner and Joe McCarthy despite their despicable attacks on that great soldier George Marshall.

But he was head of a Republican Party plagued by right-wing zealots who, to this day, detest much of the relatively liberal Eisenhower legacy. He had to outmaneuver them with feints, deceptions and ambiguities that gave the impression he was muddled and disengaged when precisely the opposite was the case.

Under Ike, the U.S. triad of nuclear weaponry stymied Soviet aggression, a national interstate highway system transformed the American landscape, and the Supreme Court shone with such luminaries as Earl Warren, William J. Brennan, Potter Stewart and John Marshall Harlan, the justices who repudiated racial segregation. This biography makes it clear why Dwight Eisenhower deserves to be ranked among the top ten American presidents.

Joseph R. L. Sterne was, for many years, editorial page editor of The Sun and before that a political and foreign correspondent. He is now senior fellow at Johns Hopkins Institute for Policy Studies.

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