Eisenhower in War and Peace

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Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

For much of 2017 I found myself reading non-fiction more than fiction. This has included continue to read books about the two World Wars, but I’ve also started exploring new areas of the past that I haven’t really studied in any detail before. My most recent read was about Dwight D. Eisenhower, our President at the time of Korea, the build-up of the Cold War and nuclear proliferation, and also the architect of the Normandy invasion on D0-Day that was the turning point of World War II’s fight against Germany.

Eisenhower was a president who played an influential part during a time of great crisis and risk, and some of the decisions he made echo forward into our country and some of its current challenges. Despite that, I tend to think of him as kind of forgotten; I know I mostly thought of him in terms of “I like Ike” and the president who guided us out of World War II and through the early days of the Cold War.

That’s all true, but Eisenhower was a lot more than that, and it wasn’t until I read this book that I realized just how formative his work and opinions are for modern America. He is also a very complex man who had to deal with some major crises in his time in the White House.

Eisenhower was a career Army officer, West Point trained, but not really a successful battle officer. His strengths were in strategy and logistics and the politics necessary to make large complex battle plans come together. That is why he ended up leading the operation that led to the Normandy invasion on D-Day, but without actually leading troops: that was left to his battle leaders like Patton and Bradley. But as the leader and organizer and the developer of the strategy, there were few men who could navigate the complex politics of the Allies successfully and bring that invasion to a successful end.

That operation made him a famous person in the states, which ultimately led to him running for and winning the Presidency, serving after Truman. When he left office, his successor was John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated and replaced by Lyndon B. Johnson, and then Richard Nixon, who was Eisenhower’s Vice President (and who was someone Eisenhower never felt was presidential material) — and perhaps that’s one reason why he’s kind of forgotten in our modern history.

That was a time of turmoil through the globe: the rise of Communism in Russia and China, the crisis in Germany and the isolation of Berlin leading to the Berlin Airlift, the conflict in Korea, the growth of the risk of nuclear annihilation. Those were the issues he had to steer the country through.

Some of them he handled very well: he found a way to negotiate an end of the conflict in Korea and stop the fighting there; he out-maneuvered the Chinese and forestalled what was a likely invasion of Taiwan, stabilizing the current country borders there. He spearheaded a massive infrastructure building project which led to our current system of interstate highways (imagine trying to cross the country without them; while in the Army, he took a team and did that, and it took months). This was the time of McCarthy and the anti-communist witch-hunts, and Eisenhower was one of the key figures that ultimately caused McCarthy to falter and end his Unamerican Activity committee.

Other things didn’t work out as well: He was the president that first outlined the Domino theory as a justification for fighting Communism in Asia, and that led to our entry into the fighting in Vietnam. He also approved the covert support of coups in Venezuela and Iran, the latter leading to the installation of the Shah of Iran and his repressive regime. These were done in the name of stopping leftist control of the countries (i.e. Communism) but the coup in Iran led to the beginning of the radical islamist movement that has culminated in our current fights against the terrorists in that region.

Another aspect of his policies I wasn’t aware of: in the name of stopping the growth of communism around the globe, there was a strong interest in some segments of the military to use tactical nuclear weapons at different times during the escalation of the Cold War, both in Korea and in Europe. Eisenhower understood the impact of those weapons and set the policy that their use was catastrophic and therefore should never be used casually, and those policies and the work he did towards convincing the Russians to slow the buildup of the nuclear stockpiles are probably his greatest (and mostly forgotten) legacy to our current society.

Eisenhower was a major pivotal figure in the activities of our past, but that seems to be mostly forgotten today. This book really brings home just how many actions of his made major changes in the policies of the U.S. and how they formed the country that we live in today. This book really brought him and the challenges of that time home to me, both for his successes and his mistakes. We often turn a historical character into a caricature based on a few key half memories of them, and this book really reminded me how complicated all of these people from the past are.