American history, biographies, book reviews, Carlo D'Este, Dwight Eisenhower, Evan Thomas, Fred Greenstein, Geoffrey Perret, Jean Edward Smith, Jeffrey Frank, Jim Newton, presidential biographies, Presidents, Stephen Ambrose
Like many of the presidents whose lives I’ve explored during the past 4+ years, I found Dwight Eisenhower’s pre-presidency more interesting than his years in the White House.
In order to understand Eisenhower’s character and core principles it is tempting to study his actions as Supreme Allied Commander during World War II or his presidential legacy of peace, prosperity and probity.
But the best insight into Eisenhower is gained by observing his evolution under the guidance of Generals Conner, Pershing, MacArthur and Marshall during the formative period of his long military career. This is where Eisenhower was molded, hardened and prepared for not just the D-Day invasion but, ultimately, the presidency.
During the three months I spent with the thirty-fourth president I read eleven books, including four traditional single-volume biographies of Eisenhower, a two-volume series, a series abridgement and four narrowly-focused books.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Eisenhower actually reminds me in many ways of his predecessor, Harry Truman. Both grew up in small-town America, both served in the military, both had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, and both possessed reputations for absolute integrity and no-nonsense leadership. I’m not sure either man would appreciate the comparison, but we can leave that debate for another day…
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* “Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith – This 2012 classic is the most popular of all Eisenhower biographies and was the first biography I read. It also turned out to be my all-around favorite. Readers familiar with Smith’s earlier presidential biographies (“Grant” from 2001 and “FDR” from 2007) will recognize his writing style and appreciate his consistently comprehensive, colorful and insightful biographies. (Full review here)
* “Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life” by Carlo D’Este – This 2002 biography was written by the author of “Patton: A Genius for War.” Given how much I liked this book, it is unfortunate that it is not comprehensive (it covers Eisenhower’s life up through the end of World War II in Europe). The first half of this book was fantastic; the second half (covering Eisenhower’s military career from about 1942 to mid-1945) was solid but often more focused on the war itself than the future Commander-in-Chief. For readers interested in Eisenhower’s life up through World War II, this is almost perfection. (Full review here)
* “Eisenhower” by Geoffrey Perret – Published in 1999 (two years after his biography of Ulysses S. Grant), this was the first comprehensive biography of Eisenhower following the completion of Stephen Ambrose’s series in the early 1980s. While there is much to be appreciated about this book (the author’s military background yields some interesting observations about Eisenhower and World War II) the review of his early life is far too brief and the “provocative” portrait of Ike which is promised is never fully revealed. (Full review here)
* “Eisenhower: Portrait of the Hero” by Peter Lyon – When published in 1974, this was reportedly the most comprehensive and detailed biography of Eisenhower available. This biography is not only the oldest and longest of the books on Eisenhower I read, but also proves among the most dense and dry. More frustrating than rewarding, Peter Lyon’s book has been surpassed in nearly every way by more recent biographies of Dwight Eisenhower. (Full review here)
* “Eisenhower: The White House Years” by Jim Newton – Given its title, this 2011 window into Eisenhower’s presidency provides unexpectedly broad coverage of Ike’s life. The author’s background as a journalist is not surprising; the narrative is dynamic and revealing and Newton is able to explain complicated affairs in straightforward language. And although this book is no substitute for a comprehensive biography of Eisenhower (the fascinating story of his military career is hardly touched), it proves invaluable as a non-academic reference on his two-term presidency. (Full review here)
* “The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader” by Fred Greenstein – Published in 1982, this book is a well-known study of Eisenhower’s character and leadership style. To my disappointment it is not a review of Eisenhower’s presidency…but it is a sometimes fascinating look at how he approached the task of managing the nation through a period of relative peace and prosperity. Better-suited to readers already familiar with his presidency, this makes a good second or third book on Eisenhower for devoted fans. (Full review here)
* “Ike’s Bluff: President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World” by Evan Thomas – Published in 2012, this book is almost exclusively focused on foreign policy pressures encountered by Eisenhower during his presidency and how he chose to respond. Notwithstanding the book’s dramatic title, readers familiar with Eisenhower will not find much new here. But what is unique is the author’s focus on Eisenhower’s strategy relating to nuclear weapons. This is no substitute for a traditional biography but proves to be an interesting and engaging “ancillary” book on Eisenhower. (Full review here)
* “Ike & Dick: Portrait of a Strange Political Marriage” by Jeffrey Frank – Not quite a dual-biography, this 2013 book provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the unusual (and often awkward) relationship between Eisenhower and Nixon. Readers seeking full portraits of either man will be disappointed (virtually nothing of their early lives is provided) but Frank adds invaluable texture to their conventional portraits. Readers who are at least somewhat familiar with Nixon and Eisenhower are likely to find this quite compelling as a supplementary read. (Full review here)
* Stephen Ambrose’s two-volume series:
– “Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect” (Vol 1)
– “Eisenhower: The President” (Vol 2)
Volume 1 (published in 1983) was long-considered the “standard” account of Eisenhower’s pre-presidency. This installment provides a useful but generally bland introduction to Eisenhower; it lacks a vivid or engaging literary style and provides uneven coverage of important events. Great in virtually no areas, this volume is at least good in most. (Full review here)
Volume 2 (published in 1984) covers Eisenhower’s presidency thoroughly. Unfortunately, the narrative is often detailed to the point of exhaustion and, as a result, cumbersome to read. The high point in this volume – and probably the series – comes in its last chapters. The final sixty or so pages are reserved for a discussion of Eisenhower’s post-presidency and an excellent assessment of his legacy. Unfortunately, many readers will be tempted to abandon the series long before these concluding chapters. (Full review here)
* “Eisenhower: Soldier and President (The Renowned One-Volume Life)” by Stephen Ambrose – This series abridgement was published in 1990 and proves that an abridgement can be better than the sum of its parts. At just less than half the size of the two-volume series, this abridgement is more efficient, far more potent, equally objective and easier to read. Ambrose, an unabashed fan of Eisenhower, is at his best when critical of his hero. But as good as this book is, there are better single-volume biographies of Eisenhower from which to choose. (Full review here)
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[Added February 2021]
* I just finished William Hitchcock’s “The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s” which was published in 2018. Supported by a 517-page narrative, this book proves itself a sober, scholarly, methodical and thought-provoking exploration of Eisenhower’s presidency and assessment of his political legacy. Excellent for readers already well-versed with the basics of Ike’s life, this book is less ideal for those seeking a comprehensive and colorful examination of his entire life. (Full review here)
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Best Biography of Eisenhower: “Eisenhower in War and Peace” by Jean Edward Smith
Best Bio of Eisenhower’s early life: “Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life” by Carlo D’Este
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Related Reading: Several readers have requested I share my thoughts on which “supporting characters” during each presidency are compelling enough to warrant a biographical detour. In Eisenhower’s case there are at least ten such individuals. They, and their biographies which I will someday read, can be found right here!