Paul Johnson’s new book covers Ike in less than 150 pages; it’s that rare thing, a fine biography that can be read in a single sitting.
None of the many books on Ike introduce him to the reader with such admirable brevity: One recent biography weighs in at nearly 1,000 pages. Most of the writers inspect every nook and cranny of his life in exhausting detail, but, unlike Johnson, they often miss the essence of who he was. British journalist Jeremy Clarkson’s quip, originally about lawyers, applies here as well: “[They] are also annoying, never using one word when several thousand will do. And then several thousand more, until the reader has completely lost the point and sometimes the will to live.”
Johnson, who turned 85 last year, is a practitioner of bantamweight biographies like Eisenhower that punch above their class — on such major figures as Washington, Churchill, Mozart, Socrates, and Napoleon. His own semi-autobiographical (and suitably titled) Brief Lives is an amusing account of 200 world figures he’s known — the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The prolific Johnson has penned over 40 books, both long and short, on an amazingly wide range of subjects — histories of the Jews, of Christianity, of the Renaissance, and of America (one of his longest). If you know a student who’s been compelled to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, make sure Johnson’s book, A History of the American People, gets into his or her hands pronto.
Johnson began his career as a journalist, so, unlike many academic historians who never got over the bad habits acquired while churning out scholarly dissertations, he can write a real page-turner. Reading Eisenhower is like listening to a superb raconteur: It’s enjoyable, personal, and leavened with wit, often with an acid tinge. Johnson is bold, and his text is peppered with contrarian, often iconoclastic opinions that challenge received wisdom about his subject. And, best of all, Eisenhower is filled with flashes of imaginative insight that illuminate Ike’s life, sometimes in just a sentence or two.
Johnson is an accomplished visual artist as well as a writer. In fact, he wanted to be a professional painter until his art-teacher father told him not to bother because the art world was being taken over by frauds like Picasso. Often an artist can define a person in a sketch whose essential succinctness captures his or her spirit much better than an elaborate painting of the same subject: Eisenhower is the prose equivalent of this sort of sketch.
What one takes away from Eisenhower, which is often missing from the full-dress biographies, is an immediate understanding of Ike’s character, first formed in his respectable but hardscrabble youth in Abilene, Kan. The values he learned there — hard work, humility, honesty, the need to better oneself, and, above all, a sense of duty — were to stay with him throughout his life, although the fervent Mennonite religiosity of his parents, especially his mother, didn’t stick. His is the American success story, a boy from humble origins who, by dint of intelligence, striving, hard work, luck, and determination, rises to the highest office of the land.
Ike’s mastery of the English language helped him greatly. Like many prominent military men from Caesar to Napoleon to Grant, he could write clear, succinct prose. This served him well in both Army and civilian life, although, as Johnson points out, he could use language in a way — Joe Alsop called it his “verbal glutinosity” — that purposely concealed his real intentions. This he did in a number of his presidential press conferences, leading the unknowing to underestimate him.
Besides using language skillfully, Ike was brainy, something his enemies (to their regret) often failed to recognize. He was also a talented strategist, congenial and, not least of all, blessed with a broad, infectious grin. Field Marshal Montgomery, not the easiest of allies, said: “[Eisenhower] has the power of drawing the hearts of men towards him as a magnet attracts the bit of metal. He has merely to smile at you and you trust him at once.” But Ike’s charm masked an iron will, a fierce determination, and an often fiery temper.
Several influential men who were instrumental in his ascent from unknown infantry officer to five-star general were quick to recognize his potential.
An early mentor was General Fox Conner, a former chief of staff to General Pershing (Pershing had led the American forces in World War I). Conner met Ike in 1919. He recognized in him, as Johnson writes, a number of merits, not least a genius for “resolving differences and promoting compromises that worked,” something that stood him in good stead both in the Army and in politics. Conner secured Ike a place at the Command and General Staff School, where he graduated first in his class.
Ike also impressed Pershing, who sent him to Paris in 1928 to work for the American Battle Monuments Commission on a guidebook to American battlefields of the World War. Because he had been stateside during the conflict, it was his extensive tours of these battlefields that gave him a close look at how the war was fought — knowledge that would prove useful in future conflicts. Generals George Marshall and Douglas MacArthur also helped to advance his career; Johnson debunks the conventional view of Ike and MacArthur as Cossacks who gleefully dispersed the Bonus Marchers occupying parts of Washington, D.C., in 1932.
After serving as commander-in-chief of the victorious Allied Forces in Europe, Ike was recruited to become president of Columbia University in 1948. Johnson is good on Ike’s often-overlooked tenure there, in which he put his organizational powers to use in improving the school’s finances. Ike also took a keen interest in Columbia’s civic mission, declaring that “every student who comes to this place must leave it first, a better citizen, and only secondly, a better scholar,” words not exactly welcomed by left-wingers on the Columbia faculty. As Johnson notes, Ike, along with most university presidents of the time, “opposed appointing known Marxists to teaching jobs.” Yet he does not mention that, at the outset of his tenure, Ike defended several professors who had been, probably unjustly, accused of Communist leanings. He believed that the university should be a marketplace of ideas, saying that “the virtues of our system will never be fully appreciated . . . unless we understand the essentials of opposing ideologies.” One wonders what he would think of the often monolithic ideology of today’s universities.
Johnson judges that Ike’s two terms as president were a success, something that the historians’ rankings have belatedly acknowledged. He calls the 1950s the “Eisenhower Decade,” the “golden age” when “American power, and still more, American prosperity acted as the parameters of a stable and peaceful world.” Viewed from where we are today, that does not seem an unreasonable assessment.
Despite his accomplishments in war and peace, Ike remained a humble man. As Johnson says, he was “self-assured but never conceited — humility was a much prized Mennonite virtue.” In his famous London Guildhall speech immediately following V-E Day, Ike said that “humility must always be the portion of any man who receives acclaim earned in the blood of his followers and the sacrifices of his friends.”
Sadly, none of Johnson’s finely drawn character of Ike, especially his essential humility, is reflected in a grandiose multimillion-dollar memorial envisioned for Washington’s National Mall. (Full disclosure: I’m an Eisenhower Memorial commissioner, but also a critic of the plan.) The memorial, to be paid for with taxpayer dollars, would occupy a four-acre site studded with eight eight-story pillars and a huge woven-steel “tapestry” depicting leafless trees, all surrounding a tiny figure of Ike as a West Point cadet. In fact, the memorial is much more a monument to the ego of Frank Gehry, its starchitect designer, than to Ike.
The Eisenhower Memorial Commission, despite a torrent of opposition and ideas for sensible alternatives more reflective of Ike’s character, has survived for more than a decade although it has received no construction funds for over a year, has already spent over $40 million, and has been the subject of a scathing congressional review aptly entitled “A Five-Star Folly.”
Ike tested major ideas by asking if they were good for America. Similarly, there should be only one test for the Eisenhower Memorial: “Is it good for Ike?” By that test, the Gehry plan fails Ike, and fails the nation. I’m guessing that Paul Johnson would agree.
– Mr. Cole, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.