Today we think of the 1950’s as a time when everyone had good jobs, all wives stayed home and scrubbed the kitchen floor in pearls and pumps and children were all named Kathy, Suzy, Jimmy and Beaver. But when I was an undergraduate at the time Ronald Regan became president, I studied a different part of the 1950’s and 1960’s–Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), The Domino Theory, Brinksmanship, Massive Retaliation, U-2s. People like Alan Dulles, [John] Foster Dulles, George Kennan (aka “Mr. X”) were as familiar to me as the Khardashians are to today’s undergraduates.
The Good of the Book
When people think of the Eisenhower administration today, they see a genial, bald-headed guy playing golf and his wife, with her bangs, and her signature color of Mamie Pink. What really was going on was much more in tune with what I studied than with the links of Burning Tree or Augusta.
At every point in Eisenhower’s administration we were theoretically on the brink of nuclear war. When Stalin died, there was a two-year gap in established leadership of the USSR to contend with. NATO could only respond to threats to member states. That absolutely none of the nation’s worst fears were realized was due to the leadership and listening skills of one man–IKE. He famously remarked, when handed a 30 page briefing on one of his first days in office that the Normandy Invasion only needed 5 pages.
Ike valued and encouraged a full-on debate for most matters. Unlike JFK, whose leadership and various crises I also studied, in the case of the Cuban Missile crisis alone, for three semesters, Ike did not rush things. I agree with the author that Kennedy was too willing to make his own decisions. Ike listened, checked the facts and when necessary he had the issue re-debated–then he acted. JFK tended to want to decide and move forward. Thankfully, by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, JFK had learned a few valuable lessons. Every issue in that Crisis was debated as thoroughly as anything ever put before a president, and Ike’s influence was party to thank.
The author, a Fox journalist, does clarify for readers that Eisenhower was a religious man–but never in the ways we associate with far-right, evangelical extremism today. He prayed. He knew his Bible. He believed. He agreed with adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. And, he took for granted that this was right. Ike himself did not bring up that his parents had converted to the Jehovah’s Witness–a popular new group at the time of their conversion, following a son’s death. The author was wise to admit this, though it was very apparent that Ike himself did not hold to the tenants of that cult-ish group.
The author is exactly right, too, that Eisenhower’s farewell address was very, very prescient. The President who coined the term “the military industrial complex” knew what was a ahead. It does not matter if he had a committee helping write his speeches (they all do), it matters that HIS vision was articulated so well. The author is also right that the young, impetuous JFK, was far more hawk-ish in rhetoric than the 5-Star General of the Armies ever was as President. The Torch that was passed to the new generation, was a missile apparently.
The author does not even mention, let alone discuss, Ike’s war-time affair with his female driver–a relationship so close that, home on a rare visit, IKE started to call his wife Mamie, “Kay,” the name of his female driver. The Eisenhowers were more or less separated at the time the war began. Like most couples of their era though, they stayed married and made the best of things, making their own peace and living their lives together again in harmony. I felt that by omitting even a brief mention of this affair, that the author gave Ike more “greatness” than he may have earned. Had someone written of FDR and not mentioned Lucy Mercer the book wouldn’t have been published.
He also chooses to ignore that though Ike wasn’t crazy about Richard Nixon (which he does state), the two families spent enough time together that Ike’s grandson, David (for whom he renamed the Presidential retreat “Shangri La” as Camp David) would marry Nixon’s daughter, Julie.
Finally, the author–a journalist– was incorrect on who the first female Cabinet Secretary was. That was Frances Perkins, appointed by FDR. Fact checking still matters.
Overall this is an excellent layman’s account of Ike’s presidency. I thought it jumped around way too much. It also went on much longer than the stated 3 days by going on in time to show IKE advising JFK. That was very interesting, but made the title of the book a bit misleading.
3.75 Stars. Just missed the fourth star for the reasons I mentioned.