Review of “Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect” (Vol 1) by Stephen Ambrose

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ikevol1saPublished in 1983, “Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952” is the first of two volumes in Stephen Ambrose’s famed series on the thirty-fourth president. Ambrose was a historian and the author of more than two-dozen books; he is one of the best-known biographers of Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. But numerous, and often convincing, allegations of plagiarism and exaggeration have tarnished his reputation over the past fifteen years. Ambrose died in 2002 at the age of sixty-six.

With 572 pages of text, this first volume in Ambrose’s series has long been considered the most thorough (and, often, the “standard”) account of Eisenhower’s pre-presidency. Proceeding from Eisenhower’s ancestry to his election as president in 1952, it moves steadily – if sometimes slowly – in a strictly chronological fashion.

The first one-third of the book carries the reader up through Eisenhower’s first commanding roles in World War II. The next one-third covers his two years as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe; the remainder covers his service as U.S. Army Chief of Staff, tenure as president of Columbia University and leadership of NATO. The book ends with Eisenhower as president-elect.

Ambrose is a well-known fan of Eisenhower but outside the “Foreward” there is little evidence of his strong admiration. As a result the book reads far more like an objective assessment of his pre-presidency than the first installment of a hagiography. Readers new to Eisenhower will not only learn a great deal about the man himself but also, notwithstanding the author’s protestations to the contrary, much about “his times” as well.

But in contrast to Ambrose’s well-known and incredibly popular “Undaunted Courage” and “Band of Brothers” this book’s style is rarely captivating or colorful. Instead it is characterized by a straightforward, workmanlike and occasionally tedious quality. But if the book lacks a lively and brisk narrative, it is full of interesting observations and seems to be the product of thorough (if poorly footnoted) research.

Ambrose is usually at his best when discussing military strategy and tactics rather than day-to-day affairs. His explanation of Operation Torch, in particular, is excellent. But his personal portraits of Patton and Douglas MacArthur are also unusually compelling. In addition, he provides the best discussion of Eisenhower’s time as Chief of Staff that I’ve ever read and the most interesting discussion of the 1948 movement to draft Eisenhower as a presidential nominee I’ve encountered.

Surprisingly, though, the author’s overall treatment of D-Day is disappointing. This section of the book proves prove far less vivid and engrossing than I expected and often read like a sterile diary of military affairs. And given the book’s reputation for thoroughness, the book’s narrative is occasionally surprisingly light on details or nuance.

Eisenhower and his wife, for example, meet and find themselves married in just over a page; other biographers provide more insight on their early relationship. Ambrose is hardly more revealing when it comes to Eisenhower’s alleged affair with Kay Summersby. But even some military matters are short-changed, including Eisenhower’s cross-country Army convoy, his time in Europe with General Pershing and the court-martial inquiry which nearly derailed his early career.

Overall, Stephen Ambrose’s “Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect, 1890-1952” is a useful but often bland introduction to Dwight D. Eisenhower. If this volume is not quite “best in class” in any particular area, it is at least good in most. But while it was once the standard introduction to Eisenhower, it has clearly been surpassed by more recent, vivid and compelling accounts of Eisenhower’s life.

Overall rating: 3½ stars

* I have rated this biography without regard to allegations of plagiarism by this author (generally directed toward his other books), allegations that Ambrose greatly exaggerated the number of interviews he conducted with Eisenhower in the preparation of this series and allegations he fabricated at least one significant quote by Eisenhower.

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