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Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life (2002)
Carlo D'Este's Eisenhower is first and foremost an exceptionally fine biography of Ike from birth through victory over Nazi Germany. There's no shortage of Eisenhower books, nor even a lack of reappraisals of the man who just twenty years ago was considered something of a dolt and a bumbler, a good staff officer with a commanding presence but nothing more. Mr. D'Este presents a much fuller picture, if not a unique one, of an Eisenhower who was sufficiently well-versed in military theory to hold his own with Patton in the early days of the tank corps and in history to hold his own with Winston Churchill; dogged and ambitious enough to climb from Kansas poverty to the top of the military hierarchy (not to mention, as the book does not, the presidency); and determined and ruthless enough to overcome the combination of personal tension (smoking cigarettes constantly and trying to maintain a long distance marriage), government bureaucracy, and the extraordinary personalities of Churchill, Montgomery, Stalin and Hitler; to win the War in Europe. This accomplishment has tended to be diminished somewhat because of the reality that Allied victory was inevitable. But Mr. D'Este shows just how well Eisenhower more often than not handled all these obstacles, even if he stumbled on occasion, and convinces that the General deserves credit for making what could have been a very messy victory into a rather efficient one. Given that lives, even millions of lives, were at stake, Eisenhower should get more kudos for the relatively quick and entirely decisive defeat of Germany and if this book becomes the standard biography, as it seems it should, he'll get the credit he deserves.
But Eisenhower is also, and this was a revelation, a great American tragedy. Though Mr. D'Este does not play up this angle as fully as he might have, Eisenhower's real greatness, in historical terms, may lie in his nearly Washingtonian democratic reserve. Today we take for granted the notion that the military is subject to civilian control and that even great victors will yield to their elected commanders in Washington. In this assumption we do a disservice to history and to the remarkable men who've served us, for there is nothing less common in the bloody epoch of warfare than for a conquering army and its leader to quietly return home without making any demands first. Whether through luck, through the genius of the system, or through God's "special providence", America has been blessed with generals who have asked nothing for themselves despite winning stupendous victories. Eisenhower not only joins the long list of American heroes in this regard--which includes Washington, Grant, and Pershing--he also, as Mr. D'Este does make clear, was willing time and again to set aside his own strategic judgments in favor of those of the political branch. This becomes clearest in the run up to the fall of Berlin, when, despite his own doubts about the Soviets, Eisenhower held off American forces, at the behest of Washington, in order that the Russians might take the city. Though he might have fought the point harder had he not been ambivalent about the value of the city as propaganda and its worth as a military asset, it is nonetheless the case, as Mr. D'Este shows, that Eisenhower considered such decisions to be ultimately political and therefore above his pay grade. Thus, his greatness as a hero of democracy.
On the other hand, there is a high price to be paid when what are also necessarily military questions are left entirely to the political class and the world was to pay an enormous cost, and Eisenhower was to pay it in his presidency, for clinging to the delusion that the Soviet Union was a reliable ally. If Eisenhower did not comprehend on the intellectual level--as did military geniuses like Patton, Curtis LeMay, and Churchill--that a reckoning with the Soviets was absolutely essential, he appears, from Mr. D'Este's somewhat contradictory account, to have felt it in his guts. Had he turned to the best military thinkers he may well have followed those instincts, but in accepting the views of politicos instead he effectively sentenced the world to a fifty year Cold War. Thus his tragedy, that in doing what was clearly right from a democratic standpoint, he did great harm to that democracy and the rest of the world. He is then, at one and the same time, blameless and blameworthy. There is no easy answer to how he might have done otherwise, though Mr. D'Este does drop some hints.
Even at that early stage there was already significant tension between the Americans and the Russians and it seems possible, maybe even likely, that had Eisenhower simply given his commanders in the field somewhat freer reign they would have come into contact and then conflict with their Soviet counterparts. Likewise, had Patton just been given the go ahead he'd have taken Berlin and provoked a firestorm, possibly a literal one, with the Soviet Union. In this regard, there's an especially poignant moment in the book :
[E]isenhower revealed privately to Patton that he
was soon to halt the First and Ninth Armies at the Elbe River to await
the arrival of the Red
Patton's reaction was incredulity. "Ike, I
don't see how you figure that out. We had better take Berlin, and
quick--and on to the Oder!"
Now even if Ike was not always as obtuse on the question as his statements to Patton suggest (one assumes he may have felt he needed to be overly direct with Patton) and even if his decision was defensible given the time and the place, who today can reasonably quarrel with Patton's devastating judgment? Certainly the amount of room that Mr. D'Este devotes to discussing General Eisenhower's decisions in regard to the Soviets suggests that even a favorably disposed biographer suspects that history agrees with Patton, not Ike.
So, in a fitting sense, the tragedy of Eisenhower is that the very thing that made him great, his democratic nature, made what should have been the pinnacle of his career into a far more ambiguous moment. As important as the defeat of the Nazis was, by leaving the Soviets in control of Russia and the East, we essentially swapped one form of totalitarianism for another, thus calling into question the very point of the war. But it is one of the tragic flaws of democracy (or at least of American democracy) that the deaths of its citizens are so horrible to contemplate that even once provoked into war there's an overwhelming tendency to end the war before it's been fought to completion, a tendency that frequently makes the peace worse than the further war that was avoided. Just in the 20th Century the United States too soon put an end to hostilities--nearly always unilaterally--in WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Somalia. Eisenhower may then be seen to have reflected what is best and what is least fortunate about the democratic way of waging war, making him both the quintessential American soldier and a paradoxical figure of tragedy.
-REVIEW: of Eisenhower (Alistair Horne, Daily Telegraph)
-REVIEW: of Eisenhower (Simon Sebag Montefiore, Daily Telegraph)
Book-related and General Links:
-BOOKNOTES : Patton : A Genius for War with author Carlo D'Este (C-SPAN)
-REVIEW : of Mussolini by RJB Bosworth (Carlo D'Este, Washington Post)
-REVIEW : of THE BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS By Robert V. Remini (Carlo D'Este, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Citizen Soldiers by Stephen Ambrose (Carlo D'Este, NY Times Book Review)
-EXCERPT : Chapter One of Patton : A Genius for War by Carlo D'Este
-BOOK PAGE : Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life (Henry Holt)
-DISCUSSION : Eisenhower : A Soldier's Life (Carlo D'Este, C-SPAN BookTV)
-CHAT TRANSCRIPT : with Carlo D'Deste (Written Voices, 6/12/02)
-CHAT TRANSCRIPT : with Carlo D'Este (Washington Post)
-ARCHIVES : "carlo d'este" (Find Articles)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (Timothy Naftali, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (Steve Martinovich, CS Monitor)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (Steven Martinovich, Enter Stage Right)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (Adrian Marks, January Magazine)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (W.J. Rayment, Conservative Monitor)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (Mike LePore, Crimson Bird)
-REVIEW : of Eisenhower (Laurie Edwards, Culture Dose)