Times of Trenton: Eisenhower Memorial “Anti-Heroic,” “Pedestrian”

The Times of Trenton (New Jersey) published the following excellent op-ed:

Opinion: The brilliance of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Published: Wednesday, March 14, 2012, 6:38 AM

By Gregory J. Sullivan

“Eisenhower was not a political sophisticate; he was a political genius.”— Garry Wills

The gathering storm of opposition over the anti-heroic design by Frank Gehry for the Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial has had two salutary benefits: It may defeat Gehry’s pedestrian design, and it has engendered a fresh look at the legacy of this extraordinary leader.

That assessment is made very agreeable with the publication of Jean Edward Smith’s absorbing new biography, “Eisenhower in War and Peace.” Smith’s portrait gives us a comprehensive view of the military and political greatness of Eisenhower for our era, which is conspicuously bereft of such greatness.

Born in very humble circumstances (on Oct. 14, 1890) in Texas, Eisenhower was raised in Abeline, Kan. (He later said, without false humility, “I’m just folks. I come from the people, the ordinary people.”) His talent and ambition took him to West Point. The military’s strong emphasis on merit as the criterion for advancement was perfect for the very competent Eisenhower. Moreover, his famous ability to work with exceedingly able but complicated men was developed with his service under Pershing and MacArthur.

With his ascent to supreme command in Europe during the Second World War, Eisenhower displayed his invaluable skills in managing a complex coalition to victory.

The final word on the D-Day invasion was his: “OK, we’ll go.” Thus was launched what Smith calls “an enterprise without precedent in the history of warfare.” Hitler’s murderous empire was doomed.

Eisenhower’s unequaled reputation for leadership from the war made his presidential involvement essentially inevitable. His decisiveness and manly acceptance of responsibility were central to his political competence. In fact, as historian Paul Johnson claims in his magisterial history of the 20th century, “Modern Times,” “Eisenhower was the most successful of America’s 20th-century presidents, and the decade when he ruled (1953-61) the most prosperous in American, and indeed world, history.”

During his presidency, Eisenhower ended the war in Korea, adroitly moved against McCarthy with a masterly behind-the-scenes strategy of indirection, initiated the interstate-highway system, and consistently moved in the right direction on civil rights. His reputation for detachment from the day-to-day functions of the office was, it is now established, completely false. Smith provides the more accurate account:

“Like a true professional, Eisenhower made things look easy. He was a master of the essentials. He appeared to be performing less work than he did because he knew instinctively which matters required his attention and which could be delegated to subordinates. His experience as supreme commander taught him to use experts without being intimidated by them. He structured matters so that he always had the last word, and in a curious way that encouraged his subordinates to do their best. The lines of authority were clear, the national interest was broadly defined, and there was no buck passing.”

The brilliance of Eisenhower’s leadership was most evident in the critical matter of war and peace. As the chief executive of the most powerful nation in the world, Eisenhower twice resisted strong and persuasive pressure to use nuclear weapons – first against Vietnam over Dien Bien Phu and later against China over Taiwan. (“You boys must be crazy,” he told an advisor who favored nuclear escalation.)

It is impossible to imagine him bogged down in Vietnam or fighting in Afghanistan for over a decade for no discernible reason. Rarely in the history of any great nation has such immense military power been managed as prudently as it was during the Eisenhower presidency.

Eisenhower embodied the Lincolnian virtues of directness, modesty, common sense and good judgment. On April 2, 1969, Eisenhower was buried — following what Smith refers to as a “simple soldier’s funeral” — in Abilene, Kan. Smith writes: “He was buried in a government-issue, eighty-dollar pine coffin, wearing his famous Ike jacket with no medals or decorations other than his insignia of rank.”

Whether the Eisenhower Memorial gets it right is an open question; what is certain is that Smith’s biography has done this American hero justice.

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