Eisenhower at War, 1943-1945, by David Eisenhower (New York: Random House, 1986).
Eisenhower at War is an unusual work, a long and detailed historical preamble to an eventual account of Eisenhower’s political Administration. At well over 900 pages, it is an exhausting read, an extended apologia pro vita sua in which a loyal grandson explores the threads leading to Eisenhower’s later decision to run for President.
Personally, I admire the enterprise and hard labor which has gone into this account. David Eisenhower is aware, perhaps over-aware, of the “incredible complexity of the war in Europe” and the “complexity of my grandfather’s role in it.” With great diligence he has “read up” the literature on the Second World War and has applied tenacious intelligence in trying to make sense of it. The picture he gives is like an eighteenth-century studio painting, full of detail and gravitas. Certainly it succeeds in its avowed intention, and we emerge with a better understanding not only of why Eisenhower became a popular choice as the Republican candidate for the Presidency, but also of why ultimately he rose to his historic destiny.
And yet…I have to confess to deep reservations about the work—the first of three volumes. Too often it seems to be the projection of how a dutiful grandson would like the life of Dwight D. Eisenhower to have been. It lacks the incisiveness of a penetrating academic mind, accepting too much at face value. And from a biographical perspective, it fails to get to grips with the personality of its central character, Dwight D. Eisenhower. There is seldom any revealing quotation from Eisenhower’s own personal writings and statements instead we are given his grandson’s summary, recording, describing, intoning, telling: but not reaching into the heart and mind of the subject.
In fact, as we know, Ike was a genial man who in this period of his life was enjoying a romantic relationship with his attractive British PA (promoted from driver). He enjoyed not only the company of women, but of men—often spending whole nights playing bridge with his staff and colleagues. He had a vast staff—the largest command staff a general will probably ever have at his disposal in a field campaign. A large number of the issues and problems facing Eisenhower in the war were handled by this staff, requiring only his signature to orders, memos, and signals drafted for him.
I am not sure that Eisenhower’s grandson realizes this—which leads him to make both the war and Eisenhower’s role in it unnecessarily complex. Just because there are tens of thousands of Eisenhower documents in the Eisenhower Library at Abilene does not mean that Eisenhower wrote them all any more than he wrote his wartime memoirs Crusade in Europe. Shifting between modern knowledge and contemporary sources, David Eisenhower cannot quite decide whether to be biographer or latter-day historian, and tries to be both: Hoping, no doubt, that the more complex the tapestry, the more extraordinary will appear the portrait of the leader who cut the Gordian knots.
The trouble is, it often is not true. Not only was Eisenhower unaware of the perspective which his grandson paints, but he did not take decisions in the way his grandson assumes. Far from having Olympian detachment, Eisenhower was an emotional man, given to quite human “ups” and “downs,” and called upon only to give decisions as and when suggested by his staff. It was in this sense that he was an outstanding coalition commander: for the decisions he gave were accepted as being fair to both British and American allies, whether right or wrong. It is quite erroneous to depict him, as David Eisenhower has done, as a sort of modern Caesar—for Eisenhower was not that sort of man. He initiated almost nothing, but responded to problems with the intelligence and instinct of a military politician. He wanted to satisfy the expectations of others, not his own. Where David Eisenhower pictures him as quasiomniscient he was, quite understandably, ignorant. He knew nothing of battlefield reality, and as was evidenced at Kasserine (before the starting date selected in this book), he relied on others to “save his bacon” when his campaign foundered. This was shown at Tunis, in Sicily, at Salerno, Anzio, and again in Western Europe after Eisenhower took command of the Allied field armies in September 1944.
Too often, I think, David Eisenhower’s determination to discover Eisenhower the later President leads him to misinterpret the war and the way it was waged. Because he lacks a biographer’s insight into personality, he wildly misconceives some of the key characters in this wartime story. Not to have read Martin Gilbert’s multivolume official biography of Churchill puts him at a grave disadvantage here, as does his failure to read Sir David Fraser’s excellent biography of General Sir Alan Brooke, (later Lord Alanbrooke), the British parallel to General Marshall. And, dare I say it, not to have read my own three volume official biography of Montgomery is an omission that is hard to credit in a serious new work about Eisenhower’s war years.
In this sense, there is something monkish about David Eisenhower’s chronicle. The tone is reverential, distant, often hagiographical. And the military historianship is deeply flawed, being all too often the distillation of secondary sources, without any real understanding or curiosity about the battlefield. Details are given in order to provide authenticity—but the details are all too often wrong. American airborne troops cross the wrong river in the advance to Arnhem, a London park is given wholly invented private gates and railings, Churchill’s Private Secretary is supping brandy in a bunker when he was in fact about to take off on a dawn patrol over Normandy as an RAF fighter pilot.
Of course no book of a thousand pages can be right in every detail—but this sort of inaccuracy in giving circumstantial evidence or color is symptomatic. The author wishes to make history conform to his loyal apologia. The dough is mixed, rolled and cut in a preconceived mould; a gingerbread man then emerges who is unreal, biographically and historically.
Consider for instance the story of Eisenhower’s defeat in the Ardennes—the Battle of the Bulge—when three German armies swept through the American First Army front in December 1945. No reader of the war diaries kept by the participants in the drama would recognize in David Eisenhower’s account an honest picture of Eisenhower’s erratic behavior during the battle nor the “atmosphere” of Eisenhower’s headquarters in the Trianon Palace Hotel at Versailles. To say that from December 17—only hours after the first reports of the German attack came in—”Eisenhower’s steps from then on were aimed at accomplishing the transfer of command of the U.S. First and Ninth Armies to Montgomery with as little controversy and obstruction as possible, though he continued to await a British request,” is to fabricate history.
The truth is, Eisenhower was shattered by the news of Hitler’s counteroffensive, and for days—until he eventualiy locked himself in his office with the shutters closed against possible German assassination squads—Eisenhower prayed that the Americans would deal with the German offensive without British help. Between December 16 and 20—i.e., for almost five days—Eisenhower did not even telephone Montgomery. On December 19, he flew to meet Bradley and Patton at Verdun, hoping that by turning Patton’s Third U.S. Army north he could cope with the German onslaught. It was only on his return from Verdun that the “panic” began at Eisenhower’s headquarters. Far from accomplishing some already calmly conceived plan to transfer two American armies to British command, Eisenhower was appalled when his Chief of Staff first suggested the idea on the morning of December 20. Only when General Bedell-Smith explained that there was no other recourse—that Bradley had effectively cut himself off from two of his three armies by remaining in Luxembourg—did Eisenhower reluctantly agree to telephone Monty to ask him to sort out the mess. Even Eisenhower’s own staff admitted that their information during the battle was often thirty-six hours old, and that if Monty had not been put in charge, the commander of the First U.S. Army would have lost control of the battle—with incalculable results.
To maintain that Eisenhower “continued to await a British request” to take over a crucial American battle—the greatest American defeat since Pearl Harbor is shameful historianship—a disturbing example of the way in which David Eisenhower yields to the temptation of inventing the narrative to suit his preconceived mould. No historical source is given for the account, nor can it be, since none exists. Similar inventiveness is to be found in David Eisenhower’s version of the planning for D-Day, the Normandy battle, Arnhem and, above all, Eisenhower’s failure to seize Berlin. Tens of divisions are invented that never existed; dates are falsified and the most slovenly assumptions made about the military performance of battlefield commanders, based upon third-hand rear headquarters documents.
And yet, for all these defects, David Eisenhower’s book performs a valuable service. Torn between the conflicting interests of the historian and the biographer he has often distorted the truth in my view; but the story he tells is an important one, rich in lessons, and one which cannot be told too often. Just as we do not wish to forget the horror of the holocaust lest we ever allow such a thing to take place again, so too we would be failing history if we did not constantly recall the sacrifices made by the citizens of the free world in the war against Hitler. The fact that an American President responded to the plight of Britain and of occupied Europe, and agreed to a “Europe-First” doctrine, is something which, as free Europeans, we would be unwise to forget, however tempting the offers of Mr. Gorbachev. By rechronicling the story of an American general who came over to conduct the military campaign against Hitler, with all its vicissitudes, set backs and eventual success, David Eisenhower is helping to ensure that this episode in world history is not forgotten. Though he has made mistakes of interpretation and of fact, his work is grand in its scope, ambitious in its intentions, impressive in its industry. It is not written with brio, but it is never dull, informed by a pedagogic imperative that I admire, even where it is obviously mistaken.
Propelled into Supreme Command by President Roosevelt, and without ever having commanded in battle, Eisenhower was put into an almost impossible situation, having to meet the demands of his battlefield subordinates while satisfying the conflicting expectations and orders of his masters, both military and political. Few generals in history have ever coped with such a barrage of voices bellowing from above and below, and though he handled the situation with far more simplicity and human ineptitude than David Eisenhower conveys, he did ultimately succeed in his appointed task. For that, the nations of the free world will always be grateful—as they will be for a loyal grandson’s diligent reminder of his grandfather’s achievement.
Republished with gracious permission of Modern Age (Spring 1988).
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