Friday, October 1, 2010

Ike: An American Hero


Just recently I finished a sizable biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, the President of the United States after Harry Truman. The book in question was Ike: An American Hero, by Michael Korda.
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Positives

This book was a very easy read, despite its length at over 700 pages. It only took me about two weeks of on-again off-again reading. The speed with which I was able to finish it was surprising. The reason is that the biography was well-written. Often a challenge for biographers and writers of history is to make the subject matter have 'action' to it, keeping the reader interested in what is going on despite the fact that the writer can't manipulate or change events in order to do so; after all, this is stuff that really happened, not fiction that can be altered and improved upon.

Dwight Eisenhower's life was one with many ups and downs, particularly with regard to the military. As someone who has read a number of books on wars and military functions, this did not bother me and, in fact, was probably my favorite aspect of the book. We see Eisenhower's growth from child to commander-in-chief of the Allied forces in World War II to President, and all of the military goings-on are very compelling and address the viewpoints of other generals along with those of his own. The World War II section in particular is the best walkthrough of WWII strategies and execution that I've ever read and, if the troop movements, command decisions, and upper-echelon thought processes interest you, then this book fits the bill.

Another good facet of the book is the fact that the author tends to be very fair in his study of Eisenhower. We see him at his best and his worst, and the author does not shy from the controversies that rose up during his life. Actually, he delves into them with great detail, particularly how Eisenhower handled his wife while he was in the military and how the unproven scandal of having an affair hung over him all throughout World War II. As a consequence, I can't say I like Eisenhower very much as a person, but it is good that the biographer went into such depth with Eisenhower's good and bad sides.
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Negatives

My biggest gripe with the book comes with how I felt misled by the end of it. A number of comments on the back of the book state how this is, "the best presidential biography of Eisenhower ever," and similar such remarks. Clearly, these newspapers and authors have not read the book. This statement comes from the fact that Eisenhower's time as President seems glossed over. Eisenhower's time as commander-in-chief during World War II is close to four hundred pages... a time period of about three years. By contrast, his time as President amounts to seventy pages. Given that he was a two-term president over a period of eight years, looking at this long presidency for a mere seventy pages within a seven hundred and twenty page long presidential biography made me feel cheated. Needless to say, this biographer is clearly more interested in Eisenhower's time with the military. This would be fine if it wasn't for the fact that this is advertised as a presidential biography.

Another odd thing is how the author makes constant analogies between Eisenhower's military and presidential decisions with events that happened during the Civil War. This would be less of a issue if it weren't for the fact that the biographer focuses entirely upon the actions of Ulysses S. Grant and his similarities with Eisenhower. The way this was approached made me feel like the biographer read a couple books on Grant and then wrote the biography, but failed to retain any information on any other individual or event within the Civil War. And of course, it is odd to make analogies just based off of one time period, along with focusing on just one person in that time period to connect the dots with. I may not be explaining myself adequately with this, but I just wanted to point out that it seemed very strange to me that all of these Grant analogies were popping up all the time, no others. It is also hard to understand the analogies without a passing knowledge of the commanders and events of the Civil War. I had this, but not everyone does.

Lastly, the biographer had a habit of inexplicably calling attention to his own life and what he was doing during World War II and Eisenhower's time as president. I've no idea why he decided to do this over and over, but it seemed very unprofessional to do so. We read a biography of Eisenhower to read about Eisenhower, not to read about the biographer's own life. His doing so tended to knock me out of my reading groove and distract from the book.
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Conclusion

All in all, the book was a good read, but I'm not very impressed with Eisenhower as a person or as a president. The biographer declared that Eisenhower was one of the greatest. But given the short time spent on the presidency (only seventy pages!) and the biographer's own admission that Eisenhower's second term was a disappointment, it is impossible for the reader to reach this conclusion themselves.

As for Eisenhower as a person, I find it close to reprehensible how he treated his wife throughout the years; she basically had to sublimate all of her own ambitions and desires to follow him around to various army bases throughout the entire marriage. When she decided to put her foot down to move back to the United States instead of staying in the Philippines (which offered nothing for her, made her extremely ill, and still made it so she never saw her husband due to army needs), Eisenhower threatened to divorce her. Similarly, when rumors swirled about regarding Eisenhower and one of his attractive aides in Europe, instead of respecting his wife's sensibilities and wishes, he kept the aide around for the entirety of the campaign; he even planned to bring the aide back to the states with him until he realized that might damage his political chances. Thankfully, once he became president their marriage returned to something closer to normalcy.

In the end, despite my harping on the faults, this was a good read and good book. It really depends, though, on what you want to read it for. This is a great book if you want to read about Eisenhower's military life, his fellow generals, and the campaign of World War II. This is not a good book if you want to read about his two-terms of presidency. Having gone into it expecting the latter, I was a bit disappointed, but I can still recognize that the book was a good one.

8/10

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