Book Review: “Eisenhower: Soldier and President” by Stephen E. Ambrose

I’ve had this book sitting on my shelf for a long time, always meaning to read it but always finding a new book to take precedence. This past month I finally decided that I was going to read and learn more about Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Mr. Ambrose personally interviewed Eisenhower at least a few times in preparation for writing this book, how many times depends on who you ask. Ambrose himself insists he had a close friendship with the former president, but a study of Eisenhower’s personal correspondence and records suggests that theirs was a short-term, working relationship.

Regardless, this work was eye-opening, and sadly not in a very good way. I used to hold Eisenhower in very high esteem, but now possessed of a greater knowledge about his personal life, I’ve come away greatly soured on him, as a soldier, as a president, as a husband, even as a man.

As a soldier, it would seem that he simply was not a very good commanding officer. His campaigns across North Africa were disastrous, rife with the kind of hesitation and waiting for perfect conditions that plagued so many failed generals in the Union Army during the Civil War. His invasions of Sicily and Italy were ill-timed and generally bungled at all levels. Instead of marching on Berlin, he chose to chase the German army in the field, allowing the Soviet Red Army to reach the city, losing a chance to possibly prevent the Cold War and the split-Germany from ever happening.

Even his crowning achievement, Operation Overlord (aka, the invasion of Normandy), is hardly due to any great skill or strategy from Eisenhower. He was merely the director, the ‘regional manager’ if you will, that oversaw planning and training.

To his credit, he made some good decisions. When he was advised against giving the order for the Normandy invasion, he chose to go forward anyway and achieved smashing success. At the Battle of the Bulge, he was the only flag officer to recognize it as a massive German counterattack and act accordingly. But the fact is that most of the campaigns in which me was the major decision-maker failed or succeeded in ugly conditions, and he spent so much time trying to please each and every subordinate commander that, in the end, no one at all was pleased.

And this continued to plague him as President, when his eagerness to make everyone happy led to no one at all being happy. Rather than confront great problems head on, he preferred to simply wait them out and hope they died on their own. When it came to McCarthyism and ‘Red Panic’, this tactic only just barely worked, but the embarrassing affair dragged on for years before McCarthy devoured himself. But when it came to civil rights, Eisenhower’s dithering directly led to much of the violent clashes that marked that era.

(Sadly, the reason he hesitated to make any decisions when it came to civil rights was likely due to a racist worldview. It was very disappointing to discover the depths of his prejudice.)

As a husband, Eisenhower constantly toed the line between improper relations with other women and full-blown cheating. As a general and as President, he always had one assistant who worked closely with him, spending many hours a day behind closed doors with him, for years, and both times it was a pretty young woman who nearly worshipped him. While Ambrose insists that Eisenhower never had a physical affair with either woman, it’s clear that there was an emotional affair going on. Despite widespread criticism of these two improper relationships and speculation that he was cheating, despite his wife clearly being unhappy with how familiar he was with these women, Eisenhower continued to spend large amounts of his private time with these women.

Simply put, my ideal image of Dwight D. Eisenhower failed to live up to reality. He did some good things, of course. He put down Adolf Hitler and the Nazi empire, he got us out of the Korean War, he refused to escalate the Cold War, but his personal failings leave me unable to admire him any longer.

This was a long book, but it is still an excellent biography! If you wish to learn more about ‘Ike’, go no further than Ambrose’s book!