EISENHOWER by Stephen E. Ambrose


Soldier, General Of The Army, President-elect, 1890-1952
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At its most obvious, this is the first half of a rather bland biography of Eisenhower--partly from primary sources, but adding nothing consequential to the record--by a practiced hand and staunch admirer: to Ambrose, Eisenhower was "a great and good man," "one of the great captains of military history," and "one of the most successful presidents of the twentieth century." As a practical matter, much of it approximates a condensation of Ambrose's 1970 account of Eisenhower's WW II role, The Supreme Commander--from which many passages are taken--with the addition of material on Mamie (from Letters to Mamie), Kay Summersby (from her two books), and son John (from his memoirs); once again, too, Ambrose purports to be recreating events from Eisenhower's point of view--now with a "personal" component. In the last analysis, however, the Eisenhower we see--sedulously avoiding controversy, for instance, from 1930s Washington to WW II France to the presidency (and McCarthy)--is not very different from the figure portrayed in Peter Lyon's sophisticated interpretive biography or by military historians. Apropos of the earlier years, Ambrose offers a kind of split image--stressing (almost mechanically) the narrowness of Eisenhower's family-and-Abilene background, his rote learning at West Point, the US military's suspicion of politicians (particularly during the interwar period). And though he moots Eisenhower's wrong-side-of-the-tracks upbringing (insightfully examined by others), he does make subsequent reference to "buried feelings of jealousy and bitterness, like those of his childhood"; though he makes much of Eisenhower's unbroken attachment to Mamie, he does depict her querulousness as a trial (and suggests, reasonably enough, that Ike might have been in love with Kay too). On the war itself, he details "how often and how seriously Eisenhower botched things in North Africa" (from the Darlan deal to Kasserine Pass); justifies Eisenhower's selection for command of Overlord on the basis of his ability to direct combined British-American operations (not "his generalship, which in truth had been cautious and hesitant"); and takes full note of his crucial "desire to appease" Montgomery and Patton--leading to some of the war's "great mistakes" (like the failure to quickly take Antwerp and perhaps end hostilities in 1944). Still later, Ambrose notes that Eisenhower was "ashamed" of not having defended Marshall against McCarthy's charges in the 1952 campaign. None of this, however, differs from the historical consensus--nor does Ambrose's defense of Eisenhower's end-of-war decision not to race the Russians to Berlin. What he adds is a glaze of veneration: Eisenhower is a great man, and a great military captain, and prospectively a great president, because he had great human qualities--above all, the "self-confidence" that inspired trust in wartime and impelled him to seek the presidency ("He knew that he was smarter, more experienced, and had better principles than his competitors. . ."). A curious formulation, but one that will likely appeal--as the book will--to others who feel as Ambrose does.
Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1983
ISBN: 0671440691
Page count: 648pp
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1983


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