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Book Review of: Eisenhower In War and Peace
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Eisenhower In War and Peace, by Author (Hardcover, 2011)|
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Dwight David Eisenhower holds a special fascination for me, because he was President when I was born. Also, he's from Kansas and I live in Kansas now. So I was delighted to be given the opportunity to read and review this book. Something that struck me right away is that Mr. Jean Edward Smith is a first-rate biographer, researcher, historian, and writer. The typical book about an historical figure is slanted toward the author's personal agenda, but Smith has no agenda other than to inform the reader.
In addition to writing objectively yet engagingly, Smith heavily footnotes the text. One could make the case, also, that his 30-page bibliography in tiny font size indicates he did at least a little research. Most of the references are secondary sources, and some (such as Eisenhower family members) are primary sources. This is the epitome of authoritative research. Smith does tap some tertiary sources, too. For example, some of Rick Atkins' work. Atkins is a fine researcher, but he can't write a book without spewing his political views. Smith uses Atkins' facts, not his opinions, as source material. This book is, in my opinion, an authoritative work.
Because Eisenhower was responsible for the interstate highway system that was basically a huge federal subsidy for Big Oil and which resulted in urban sprawl, I don't share the hero worship that many people reserve for him. We will probably pay the cost of his Presidency for several more generations, and it's a very high cost.
That said, I was a bit let down to discover he also wasn't the great General I had been led to believe he was. As a military strategist, he wasn't very good. Every campaign he did run was an utter failure, and that's partly because he'd never had battle command before being put in charge of things in the Mediterranean theater.
Today, we can look back and understand another reason, a medical one. He was a heavy cigarette sucker, often as many as four packs a day. All that carbon monoxide in his blood, plus the severe constriction of his carotid arteries, left his brain low on oxygen. Even with that physical limitation, his performance as the Supreme Allied Commander, once he was out of the Mediterranean theater, was impressive. One can only imagine how much better he might have been with an unimpeded brain.
While he was lionized in movies such as The Battle of the Bulge and even Patton, he wasn't the military thinker behind military victories. He was a great leader and manager, however. He could pick, empower, and support the best people and get the job done. So where his rather impressive talent of leadership was employed, it worked wonders. Even now, I look back at the Normandy invasion and can still barely believe that people with 1940s technology were able to pull it off. And from there, going forward, the Allied Forces descended upon Hitler's "invincible" armies like the hammer of Thor.
Eisenhower also managed to balance all the massive egos around him and keep people pulling pretty much in the same direction. They say you can't herd cats, but Eisenhower might actually have been able to do so. His political savvy was at a level way rarely seen.
There was much I did not know about him. For example, his martial infidelities. In his day, such things were expected of great leaders (and he was a great leader) and it wasn't made into a circus ala Monicagate. I also didn't know about the many times his mentors reached down and bailed him out of one problem or another. He knew how to make and work his connections.
The first sixteen chapters cover his military career, culminating with his stint as Chief of Staff following World War II. In 1948, he became the 13th President of Columbia University. In 1952, he was awarded the Presidency of the United States, becoming in 1953 the 34th POTUS. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, was not liked by the conservatives in the GOP and would later prove to be a disaster due to his Keynesian economic policies, Watergate, and other gaffes.
Eisenhower's Presidency included some impressive accomplishments that don't seem to get much historical credit. The reason for this is probably the economic downturn in the late 1950s. But it wasn't actually a downturn per se.
FDR created the Great Depression by engaging in vast spending for government activities that were expressly prohibited by the 10th Amendment. The math-challenged may "debate" this, but the fact is when you increase overhead (and all government spending, like an electric bill, is overhead) something has to balance that out. Any business that has high overhead can't compete well and ends up laying people off. Increasing the cost of business via increasing overhead, whether it's inside the business or outside the business (govt cost), always costs jobs.
We got a reprieve from FDR's Depression because our competitors bombed each others' factories. So we had a huge competitive advantage and a ready market at the end of World War II. By the late 1950s, that advantage had greatly diminished, and firms were laying people off here in the USA (that's why my dad entered the Army).
The underlying cause of FDR's Depression has never been corrected. The same high overhead due to illegal spending remained. That's what created the "downturn" in Eisenhower's second term. And it's why we've had Nixon's inflation, Carter's stagflation, and so forth ever since.
Eisenhower did pull us out of the idiotic "police action" (undeclared war) his predecessor stuck us with in Korea. But because the war was never declared so was a truce never declared and the conflict still continues. We just moved the stupidity to Vietnam a few years later (better opium sources there than in Korea). Anyhow, Smith's coverage of this was nothing short of illuminating.
Something else I did not know, and this is probably due to the mudstream media's strong anti-Republican bias, Eisenhower was a champion of civil rights. This was evident in his military record and in his behavior toward people of color (Smith covered that also, and I have read related material elsewhere). Yes, it took a long time to get past the Jim Crow laws and other detritus resulting from the "Reconstruction" era so we ultimately got the rights guaranteed by the Constitution all along clarified with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, but it would have taken even longer if not for actions taken by Eisenhower. For example, his appointment of Earl Warren as Supreme Court Chief Justice, and his appointment of several federal judges who saw the civil rights gap for the injustice that it was.
I don't see that Smith noted Eisenhower's last minute editing of his farewell speech, but in my disclaimer below you will understand why I might not have seen that. Eisenhower's famous warning about the Military Industrial Complex originally read Military Congressional Industrial Complex. Probably out of fear of, say, taking an open limo ride through Dallas, he shortened that. No doubt, Eisenhower was aware who really owns most members of CONgress and he just didn't want to step on that particular crocodile.
I also haven't seen his alleged statement in from the movie Patton (I think it was) when he first entered Auschwitz (or some other concentration camp, I can't remember which). The line in the movie is something like, "I'm ashamed my name is Eisenhower," referring to his German ancestry. It may be fictional. It did add punch to the movie, though.
Smith makes several comparisons to General Grant, and I think these are appropriate. I read Grant's memoirs, and was suitably impressed. Eisenhower and Grant were both powerful writers, political savants and capable organizers whose actions in their respective wars changed the tide of the war.
Eisenhower was a complicated individual who came along at the right time in our history, both as the right pick for Supreme Allied Commander and as the right pick for President of the United States. Yes, he could have done many things better (just like anyone else). But those things that he did well are things that have shaped world history. Not everything shaped it for the better, but the defeat of Hitler, the resolving of the Suez Canal crisis, his desegregation and civil rights accomplishments, and his outgoing warning to the people made for a better world.
Reading a detailed history of him is at once informative and uplifting.
The pre-release copy I reviewed consists of 763 pages of masterfully-written foot-noted text divided into 28 chapters, an informative 17-page preface, 97 pages of notes, the massive bibliography I mentioned earlier, and acknowledgements.
If you have an interest in outstanding leaders in US history, this book is a "must read, must have" for your collection. Eisenhower's generalship was a pivotal position in World War II, a war which might have ended differently had anyone else occupied his position. His presidency was also a pivotal position due to the tide of historical events that preceded it. The nation had just endured almost three terms of FDR. And then it had to endure a Harry Truman who was full of himself after he "defeated" Dewey in the fake "election" of 1948.
The lawlessness and various Constitutional crises could have continued, but under Eisenhower the nation took major steps toward rule by law and moved away from the brink of unbridled dictatorship. While this was surely disappointing to the party bosses, it marked a sharp change in Washington politics and ushered in an era of relative peace and prosperity.
We could use an Eisenhower today, though of course he would not be a chain smoker.
Note: Smith was also the author of FDR, which I have not read. Through egregious criminal activity, FDR was the second most damaging president in US history prior to Obama (who surpassed him in damage in just over two years, an amazing accomplishment). For that reason, I would be interested to see what Smith has to say about that warped individual who caused Teddy Roosevelt's children such angst and the nation such grief.
About these reviews
You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?
I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?
And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.
This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.
My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.
A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.
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About reading style
No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.
Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.