South of Oxford, England, late on the evening of June 5, 1944, the day before the Allied invasion of Europe, Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower paid a visit to American airborne regiments — the first units that would parachute into Nazi-occupied France. "There was no military pomp about this visit," Kay Summersby, the general's beloved driver, remembered. "Ike got out and just started walking among the men. He . . . shook hands with as many men as he could. He spoke a few words to every man and he looked the man in the eye as he wished him success. 'It's very hard really to look a soldier in the eye,' he told me later, 'when you fear you are sending him to his death.' "
Summersby went on to recall that later, waiting in the trailer for battle reports, she massaged Ike's shoulders: "I could not undo the knots at the base of his neck. His eyes were bloodshot . . . his hand shook when he lit a cigarette."
Eisenhower was a quietly powerful giant who strode through the 20th century leading armies to victory in Europe and, as president of the United States, facing unpredictable foes in a new and perilous nuclear age.
Historian Jean Edward Smith, a member of the faculty at the University of Toronto, senior scholar at Columbia's history department and winner of the Francis Parkman Prize for the highly acclaimed FDR, has written a powerful and revealing new biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace.
In this detailed, engrossing, 950-page work we follow Eisenhower from his birth (third of seven brothers) in the shantytown section of Denison, Texas, on Oct. 14, 1890, through his coming of age in Abilene, Kansas, to his appointment (free of charge; he passed a competitive exam) to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in the Class of 1915, and to his marriage to Mamie Geneva Doud in July 1916.
Ike just missed assignment to World War I combat, but, along with George S. Patton, he took an early, passionate interest in the combat applications of a new military innovation: the tank. While others in the Army saw the untried invention as clumsy, awkward and slow, Eisenhower said that "George and I . . . believed" tanks could be made to "attack by surprise and in mass." But the young officers would have to wait 25 years to see that idea come to fruition on the battlefields of North Africa and Europe in World War II.
Throughout this biography, Smith shows us how Eisenhower, using personal charm and displaying unusually high intellectual capacity in performing his duties as an officer, was quickly catapulted into the upper echelons of the Army — frequently bypassing scores of other officers who were up for promotion before him.
As to Eisenhower's executive abilities as supreme allied commander, Smith quotes Omar Bradley, one of the top American generals to lead the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. Bradley said that Ike "did not know how to manage a battlefield," but he proved a uniquely gifted theater commander. British Gen. Bernard Montgomery praised Ike's ability to get along with the various strong personalities. "No other general officer, British or American, could have dealt with Washington and London, kept headstrong subordinates working in harmony" — including the imperious Free French leader Charles DeGaulle — "and amassed the material that ensured ultimate victory in Europe."
Smith tells of Eisenhower's years as president of Columbia University (1948-51) and of his time (1953-61) as a "progressive conservative," war-hating Republican president of the United States. As president, he brought an end to the Korean War in July 1953, and he rejected advice to use nuclear weapons on France's behalf during the disastrous Battle of Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in May 1954, or on Nationalist China's behalf in defending Formosa against communist China in the mid 1950s.
He took Egypt's side when Britain, France and Israel invaded that country to gain control of the Suez Canal in 1956, Smith writes, and he ordered 500 regular troops from the 101st Airborne Division to aggressively enforce integration by escorting nine black students into Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in September 1957.
Interviewed by a reporter immediately after the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower said, "Sending in the troops was the hardest decision I had had to make since D-Day. But Goddamn it, it was the only thing I could do. . . . otherwise you have people shooting people."
In the meantime he faced an increasingly hostile Soviet Union and Premier Nikita Khrushchev in a hazardous nuclear world.
On March 28, 1969, at 78, Eisenhower died of heart disease at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. In this revealing biography you will meet a Dwight Eisenhower you only thought you knew.
Chris Patsilelis has reviewed books on military history for the New York Times.