Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: IKE'S BLUFF by Evan Thomas (Little Brown, 2012)

Dwight Eisenhower has long since been "rehabilitated" as an excellent Chief Executive, and Thomas' book contributes its own mite to the reassessment, demonstrating how Eisenhower managed to keep the peace during the supposedly placid, but actually quite perilous, 1950s. Ironically, Ike did this by keeping friends and foes alike guessing as to whether or not he would carry through on his administration's stated policy of "massive" nuclear retaliation against any Communist threat.  At the same time, drawing upon the immense fund of good will and trust that he had banked during his service as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II and later head of NATO, Eisenhower held the line as much as he could against "unnecessary" defense spending.  Hard as it may be to believe today, he had as much trouble defending his defense policies from ambitious Democrats (John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, to name just two) as he did calming the fears of right-wingers in the Republican party.  The famous farewell speech in which Ike warned against the "military-industrial complex" was his parting shot in this sometimes-visible, sometimes-subterranean internecine war.

This is not a full-fledged biography of Eisenhower so much as a review of his foreign and defense policies, though a fair bit of personal and cultural detail is included (Thomas appears to have cribbed energetically from William Manchester's THE GLORY AND THE DREAM on the latter score).  Even those who have a fair degree of familiarity with the 50s will find some interesting tidbits here.  For example, while I knew that Ike had some serious medical problems (including a heart attack) while in office, I was unaware of the extent and severity of many of these problems.  Eisenhower's ability to hold it together despite these physical issues and a terrible temper that only rarely surfaced in public reminded me of a bit of how George Washington suppressed his own inner demons to present that famed surface imperturbability.  With the fate of the world (if not humanity) at stake throughout his Presidency, Ike's balancing act may have been even more impressive.  Like many of the successful modern Republican Presidents, he had the self-confidence and self-discipline to allow himself to be "misunderestimated" while accomplishing many of his goals out of public view.  In that respect, he is a good role model for any ambitious GOP Presidential candidate of today.

No comments: