Friday, March 26, 2010

Eisenhower, Soldier and President

Every time I take a trip somewhere, I always buy a book to add to my library.  As often as possible I try to get a book about the area I am visiting.  About a year ago I took a trip to Washington DC for about the 12th time but since I've seen just about every tourist attraction there is to see there, I decided I would finally visit that which I had been putting off all this time...the Pentagon.  I had never been all that excited about the Pentagon; when you get right down to it it's just one of the world's largest office buildings.  But I did go, and while I was there, I saw a hallway tribute to Eisenhower and thus, the book, Eisenhower, Soldier and President by Stephen E. Ambrose, came into my possession.  I also chose it because I thought it might be a good companion volume to the major biography I read last year, American Ceasar, by William Manchester, a biography of Douglas MacArthur.  Since I knew Eisenhower served as MacArthur's exec officer in the Phillipines, I was curious if there would be a different point of view presented.

Mr Ambrose is known as one of the great US historians, having written some 20 books, several of which have become quite well known.  Among them is a comprehensive 2-volume work on Eisenhower as well as this one which is a consolidation of those two volumes.  In my view Mr Ambrose does a good job of presenting Eisenhower's faults along with his positive traits, his failures as well as his triumphs.  Undoubtedly Eisenhower was a great general and as the primary architect of Operation Overlord (D-Day invasion), he deserves the accolades of his military accomplishments.  But what I really like about a well-done biography is to see the early years, the childhood influences which led to the way the subject reacts to experiences in adult life.  Mr Ambrose provides that for us here, taking the little boy from Abilene Kansas all the way to the Presidency.  Unfortunately, my hopes for the tie-in to MacArthur's Phillipine experiences were dashed as that realtionship was glossed over almost completely.  I suppose a biographer needs to keep to his subject and not let other notable figures of the time take over.

Most of the book deals with the Eisenhower presidency, a time in the 50's that most knowledgeable people refer to as the age of missed opportunities and Eisenhower himself as the "do-nothing president."  While Mr Ambrose does point out Eisenhower's penchant for stearing down the middle of the road, pushing off any responsibility in dealing with the racial divides of the country, and unwilling to deal with McCarthyism in any definitive way, he also spends time on the positive things such as keeping the budget in balance, establishing the Interstate Highway System, and keeping the peace for his entire 8 years as president. 

Along the way we do get to witness some great moments in history and meet the towering figures of the time such as Montgomery, Churchill, DeGaul, Stalin, Truman, Nixon, McCarthy, and his own family of Maime and son David.  I came away from this book with a much greater appreciation for the era of the 50's (I've never studied much from that decade) as well as a better understanding of how all of that led us to the 60's.  Mr Ambrose, I know, came under fire several years ago for plagarism (something about quotes not used correctly) but this book does not seem to ever be mentioned as a case of that.  This biography still is known as the definitive Eisenhower biography and I, for one, appreciate it.  I certainly have a much better understanding and "feel" for one of my nations true heroes while at the same time appreciate one of our more under-rated presidents. 

Sure wish we had him now.

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