A young David Eisenhower asked his grandmother Mamie whether she felt she had really known Dwight David Eisenhower.I'm reading Jean Edward Smith's largish one-volume biography Eisenhower in War and Peace. Better eras in America, from late Victorian on the prairie through our peak in the '50s, as seen through one man's extraordinary life.
"I'm not sure anyone did," she replied.
You have to filter out personality (Ike was fairly personable, blessed with looking more affable than he was, but so what?), nostalgia, the natural affinity of military and conservative values thus my liking of the military (I'm no pacifist but an isolationist without apology so Ike would have thought me stupid), and Allied World War II propaganda ("the saintly FDR and Ike saved the world; we'd be goose-stepping and speaking German if not for them") to ask the real questions, such as did we even have to be in the war? Pre-nukes, Ike strikes me as an Army careerist who ambitiously wanted war. (Madeleine Albright decades later: "You have this big, beautiful military, so why not use it?") It so happened that FDR and the Reds in his government really wanted war too. Along comes likable, reliable Ike, the good staff member (smart, level-headed, got things done) who never saw combat, and he's suspiciously leapfrogged over scores of senior officers to command of the European theater of operations. I give Smith credit for hinting that the British, who once war broke out were literally defending their homes, deserve far more credit for doing the actual fighting (real fighting generals such as Montgomery); in lots of battles, including Normandy, they were the majority. Guess it didn't look good in American movies. (Our narrative/national myth: we saved the world for democracy while the British were our charming, ineffectual sidekicks, like a butler in a screwball comedy.)
From my reading of Smith, it seems the early European war (the invasions of North Africa and Italy) was political theater, but Ike deserves credit later on for taking his responsibility for his men seriously, visiting them and "looking them in the eye" before Normandy.
Some well-meaning apologists for the American narrative think we went to war in Western Europe really to keep it out of the Soviets' hands. I'm not convinced. Ostensibly we (starting with the British in 1939) went to war to free Poland, but as most know, FDR and his men handed half of Catholic Europe, including Poland, to the Soviets at Yalta.
The Communists killed far more than the Nazis but the narrative gives them a free pass, even during and after the Cold War.
Joe McCarthy was (accidentally?) right about there being Communists in our government. We were played.
Here's the real story. Smith doesn't get into this because it's not part of Ike's legend; doing the right thing wouldn't have advanced his career. The isolationists, Lindbergh and America First, were dead right. Not pacifist; they were for a strong military for its real purpose of defense. I understand that Hitler had spelled out his intentions, none of which threatened American sovereignty or citizens. He wanted to clear out Eastern Europe for a continental German empire; nefarious but not our problem. He didn't even want war with Britain, whom he respected as equals (envisioning them as a junior partner of the Reich, keeping its big overseas empire). The Germans had neither plans nor means to invade the United States, which they envisioned as controlling the Western Hemisphere pretty much as it already did. So the real story of World War II was the Eastern Front: Germany vs. the USSR. Operation Barbarossa. A smart president who actually cared about the American people would have let the Nazis and the Communists destroy each other. (Japan? No plan to conquer us. They wanted a local empire too. Revert to our military's original Plan Orange to defend American territory, make a deal with them, and that's that. FDR's war with them was an excuse that stooped to racial hatred to justify itself.) Stay out of it like that underrated, maligned Catholic gentleman, Franco.
Also, if Wilson hadn't gotten us into World War I, the emperors of Europe would have remained so there would have been no Communist revolution and no Nazis, thus no World War II. The Central Powers should have won.
So I'm suspicious of Ike, a shadowy New World Order figure handed power during the war and again in '52, stealing the Republican nomination from the worthy Robert Taft, a real conservative (who would have died months into his term). Another NWO aspect: his rise seems part of the top-secret shift of the center of the old British Empire from Westminster to Washington (decades in the making as the British saw the limits of the empire; a secret wish of FDR?).
Interesting how Ike's parents' radical Protestantism (his mother apostatized to the Jehovah's Witnesses) seemed to naturally lead to their sons' irreligion as adults. Ike had no use for church, only joining his wife's Presbyterianism because it was good politics.
But for all that, Ike literally peacefully governed America at its peak, acting like the experienced soldier who hated war that he said he was: getting us out of Korea, not being provoked even by Communists (he hated McCarthy but I don't think he was a com-symp), at Dien Bien Phu, Quemoy and Matsu (but deftly showing force and speechmaking; he was a skillful liar, "good at bluffing" being a nice way of saying that), Hungary, etc. So of all the hallmarks of his administration I like the New Look in defense ("peace through strength," rightly defense, not war) best, or nukes changed everything.* Moralists argue the rightness of doomsday weapons and they should; the end doesn't justify the means in Catholic theology. But now that nukes exist, better a strong deterrent than lots of brush-fire wars. (Son John, a general himself and lifelong Republican, voted for Kerry in 2004 in disgust over George W. Bush's Iraq war.) His big no to the military-industrial complex was right. His domestic policy? Opening opportunity to blacks and building infrastructure such as the interstate highways (partly inspired by the Autobahn) sound good. Back when a liberal was often just a civic-minded social conservative. That government seemed bland during his terms is to his credit.
P.S. I believe Kay Summersby. Understandable as Smith explains. I believe that Marshall squelched it when, right after the war, Ike told them he wanted a divorce; ambitious Ike obeyed.
*The U.S. Air Force's case for independence from the Army and postwar military doctrine putting air first, arguable now that nukes were in the picture, but a study by John Kenneth Galbraith (my source: an interview with him in Studs Terkel's The Good War) showed that strategic bombing wasn't decisive in the victory; a long-slog land war was.