Eisenhower in War and Peace, Jean Edward Smith, Random House, 2012, 766 pp
Another long, seemingly endless biography of an American president. For those of you whose knowledge of American history is shaky, Eisenhower was the 34th president and served two terms from 1953 to 1960 as a Republican. In my plan to read the biographies of Presidents under whom I have lived, completing this one puts me at two down and ten to go.
Eisenhower is known for keeping the country out of war, for balancing the budget, for standing firm on desegregation, and for being tough on unions. He was Supreme Allied Commander Europe during World War II and had never declared a political party until the Republicans nominated him in 1952.
According to Jean Edward Smith, Eisenhower's two main strengths were luck and administrative ability. Due to many years of smoking four packs of cigarettes a day and bad eating habits, he had major surgery for a digestive ailment and a heart attack near the end of his first term. He lived to run again, get re-elected, and serve a second term.
He had a long marriage to Mamie but they spent extended periods of time apart during his military career. Their first child died at three from scarlet fever. The second had a military career as well as four children, the eldest of which married Julie Nixon and had Camp David named after him.
It was interesting to realize that this man kept us on a fairly even keel during the beginning years of the Cold War. Despite never having faced combat as a soldier, he had seen enough of war to know that it was not a workable solution to world problems and he abhorred atomic weapons. He tried his best to keep a restraining hand on the military and arms budget but I'm not sure he succeeded. According to Howard Zinn in A People's History of the United States, by the time Eisenhower left office in 1960, the military budget was at 49.7% of the entire US budget.
Despite Eisenhower's warning in his farewell address about the dangers of our "military-industrial complex" that scenario has only increased during my entire adult life. Possibly our 34th President meant well but I came away from the biography with the impression that big business and the military were the power behind him. I can't believe he didn't know that.
I grew up thinking that Eisenhower was an ineffective, middle-of-the-road joke of a President. (My dad was an Adlai Stevenson supporter.) Jean Edward Smith clearly attempted a balanced picture of the man but he didn't change my mind.
(Eisenhower in War and Peace is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)