Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life. By Carlo D'Este. New York: Henry Holt, 2002. ISBN 0-8050-5686-6. Maps. Photographs. Notes. Sources and select bibliography. Index. Pp. 848. $35.00.
At first glance, Dwight D. Eisenhower would appear to fall into the category of men who have greatness thrust upon them. Born on the wrong side of the tracks in small town America, denied the chance of combat in 1918, propelled into a marriage that became distant, at times strained, Eisenhower endured the decelerated promotion of the interwar army. On the outbreak [End Page 281] of World War II, he shot up the promotion ladder, largely because he seemed to be in the right place at the right time. His friend Mark Wayne Clark was instrumental in organizing his repatriation from Manila in 1939 and placing him on General Leslie McNair's promotion list to general in 1941. Colonel Eisenhower's easy manner and frank assessments of U.S. weakness made him a particular favorite with reporters covering the 1941 maneuvers. As a result, Eisenhower, together with Mark Clark and George Patton, soon became a household name in America. His fortuitous assignment to head the Observer Group in London made him the man on the spot to lead Torch, the invasion of North Africa, in November 1942.
Even "Ike's" most devoted admirers never ranked him among World War II's great generals. Indeed, he made enough mistakes, especially in the Mediterranean in 1942-43, to have been sacked several times over. The British liked rather than respected him, while many on his own side, including George Patton, accused him of being insufficiently attentive to U.S. interests in the wartime alliance. Eisenhower shared in full measure the strategic shortsightedness of Chief of Staff George Marshall's desire to rush Sledgehammer, the invasion of northwest Europe, even though Marshall was convinced that it would fail.
But as Carlo D'Este's biography makes clear, Eisenhower did not simply stumble fortuitously into supreme command. On the contrary, the ambitious, intelligent, and politically savvy Eisenhower spent a lifetime cultivating important personalities. His rise to prominence was facilitated by his technique of finding "the strongest and ablest man. I forget my own ideas and do anything in my power to promote what he says is right." The "strongest and ablest man" in the interwar army was Douglas MacArthur, who Eisenhower served for most of the decade of the 1930s, both in Washington and the Philippines. In MacArthur's service, Eisenhower honed "his ability to find common ground between competing priorities and people," his greatest asset, in D'Este's estimation. This trait, combined with a robust "old boy" network anchored on West Point and Leavenworth, a practically "religious" dedication to the success of the Anglo-American alliance, Churchill's support for Eisenhower as the "constitutional monarch" of the Western Alliance, and the fact that Marshall regarded him as a placeholder until the Chief of Staff could take over command of Sledgehammer, kept Eisenhower in place despite his obvious shortcomings.
D'Este is not blind to Eisenhower's human frailties—a remarkably insecure man, he craved recognition, especially from his old boss MacArthur, who instead was quick to include Eisenhower and Marshall among the "faceless bureaucrats" responsible for the loss of the Philippines. Eisenhower was extraordinarily thin-skinned when it came to criticism, frequently lashed subordinates with his volatile temper, and held non-Americans in barely veiled contempt. Unlike Patton, however, the diplomatic Eisenhower had the good sense to express his negative opinions in private. D'Este nevertheless rejects the accusation that Eisenhower had an affair with Kay Somersby, if for no other reason than that the Allied Commander's Versailles-like existence [End Page 282] left him no private moments to think through strategic problems, much less carry on an illicit assignation with his driver. Nevertheless, he concedes that Somersby offered Eisenhower much-needed emotional support, and that her presence at Ike's side on unit tours and in high-level meetings invited gossip that caused his wife Mamie much distress.
D'Este dismisses criticism of Eisenhower's deal with Vichy French Admiral Jean Darlan in November 1942 as "contrived hypocrisy," even though it suggests that Eisenhower lacked the political instincts for high command, at least at this stage of the war. Eisenhower also nurtured an intense, and according to D'Este irrational, dislike of Jacob Devers, although the Sixth Army Group commander counted among his better subordinates. At the same time, Eisenhower salvaged the career of his friend Mark Clark, to whom he owed a great debt, despite a poor showing at Salerno and Monte Cassino. D'Este argues that it was Eisenhower's indifference to logistics, rather than his failure to set strategic priorities, that compromised Allied ability rapidly to capitalize on the German collapse in Normandy after August 1944. Montgomery criticized Eisenhower's excitability, and his tendency to micromanage operations from afar by telegrams, lightning visits to the front, and conferences. The December 1944 surprise sprung on the U.S. Army in the Ardennes was the final straw for Ike's numerous British critics, who had already declared Eisenhower's "broad front" strategy in the autumn/winter of 1944-45 wasteful and unimaginative.
While Eisenhower: A Soldier's Life covers ground familiar to
many readers, this biography showcases the strengths that one has come
to expect from Carlo D'Este—meticulous research, an intimate
knowledge of the interwar U.S. Army which he lauds for its tolerance
of eccentric and headstrong personalities, and a detailed command of
Allied operations in World War II. Not surprisingly, Patton's biographer
continues to see the Third Army commander as one of the U.S. Army's great
fighters and Eisenhower's willingness to go out on a limb to protect his
old friend from the consequences of his serial indiscretions as one of
Ike's greatest contributions to Allied victory in World War II.
Naval Postgraduate School