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!
AARON MILLION said:
Steve – have you considered adding John Foster Dulles to your list of supporting characters? If I may, a few others that you may find interesting around this time period: Thomas Dewey, Averell Harriman, Joseph McCarthy (admittedly not an enlightening or heartwarming choice), and Robert Oppenheimer. Just some thoughts. Feel free to discard.
I do have Oppenheimer on my “related reading” list and probably should have already added Dewey. Dulles is an interesting name that I’ve thought about but not done anything about – he was never really featured prominently in the biographies I read so I’ll have to think about that one… Harriman I only barely remember seeing referenced so although he might be an interesting subject he would be a stretch in this context. Thanks for the suggestions and do let me know when there are others to think about!
AARON MILLION said:
You will see Dulles again quite a bit when you get to Nixon, as the two were close in the 1950s. He is not the most flamboyant or interesting character that I have encountered, but I do think he was a significant figure during the Ike era.
Tate Lacey said:
I’d suggest putting Lucius Clay as a supporting character for Truman and/or Eisenhower. He had a remarkably important and largely ignored career. Jean Edward Smith, Stephen has reviewed several of his books, wrote his biography in 1990 and edited Clay’s military papers, which were later published. The biography is fantastic.
Thanks – I’m intrigued! I hardly remember reading anything about Lucius Clay during the Eisenhower / Truman biographies and yet, if JES has written a biography about him…! I’ll have to look into this as something to add-
Tate Lacey said:
I am fairly certain I never heard his name in any history class. And he never stuck out in any WWII readings. And yet, he was close to Eisenhower. He was in charge of military procurement during WWII, oversaw Germany after the war till 1949 and ran the Berlin airlift. I only found JES’s book after looking Clay up having seen his name briefly referenced while I was researching logistics. He was also active in New Deal public works and quite successful in business after he retired from the military. An amazing life.
Steve, this is a remarkable project and a joy to follow.
Thanks; it is always a joy getting feedback regarding the project generally and relating to the presidents or “supporting characters” specifically. (And until I got your note I wasn’t even aware there was a JES biography I didn’t already have!)
J.L. Jensen said:
Received “The Age of Eisenhower” today. Haven’t finished it so far, but can already let you know you won’t be a huge fan of the ending. We both like conclusions that offer a good analysis of the individual and their presidency, but this one is very brief. On page 514, Kennedy is assassinated in 1963, and on the next page, Eisenhower dies in 1968, and the book concludes two pages later on page 517. Those two pages offered a great overview, and I wish they had been expanded. Several points he made in those concluding remarks begged for a couple more paragraphs of explanation. The beginning of the book also moves briskly to his presidency (as expected, based on its description). Ike’s presidential election of 1952 begins on page 66, and he’s elected on page 83. Those pages actually offered an excellent overview of that election season. That’s all I’ve read so far. I’ve enjoyed it, despite those caveats.
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William Delancey said:
I haven’t looked at your related reading listen for Eisenhower but some of the newer ones released are worth looking at. I agree with J.L Jensen that “The Age of Eisenhower” is worth a read but not perfect. (the cover, however, is perfect) I think that book maybe leans too hard in some spots on Eisenhower’s faith and relationship with Rev. Graham, something I haven’t seen too much of in other books. “Ike and McCarthy” by David Nichols is also one to pick up.
Also, to J.L Jensen, and to you Steve, “Rising Star, Setting Sun” by John T. Shaw is a good look at the transition from Eisenhower to Kennedy and their relationship. If one of Jensen’s critiques of “Age of Eisenhower” is the rushed ending I think this one does a good job of expanding on that.
I’ve been thinking lately that I’m going to read a few books on Nixon, and whenever I move to a new President I always check here for suggestions. Thanks and enjoy your reading.
Thanks – I’ll have to look into Shaw’s and Nichols’s books. I do have Hitchcock’s “The Age of Eisenhower” on my follow-up list and am looking forward to reading it.
In the end I found Nixon interesting, but exceptionally frustrating. It wasn’t so much the biographies themselves as it was the tragedy that was his personal and political downfall. Reading about Watergate multiple times simply wore me out 🙂
While none of JFK, LBJ or Nixon displayed a particularly robust moral/ethical compass, I was somewhat surprised to find JFK and LBJ utterly fascinating…but reading Nixon’s story was just draining.
J.L. Jensen said:
Agreed on reading about Watergate. I feel the same whenever I see a Nixon documentary…it’s like watching a train crash in slow motion. What makes it more tragic for me is that prior to his presidency, Nixon actually displayed a strong moral/ethical compass. His hardships as a youth and hard work through his early life to be an upright, moral, and honest person are commendable and were impactful on his early life, but then to see how his presidency warped his moral compass, and people around him who lacked moral compasses influenced him in the weakening of his own, is truly a tragic tale. For me, that was a large part of why reading about his fall was so draining. It’s not like it was a natural consequence of who he was growing up, meaning that as I read his life story it came across like a natural continuation of his life trajectory. That wasn’t the case at all. It truly came across as jarring and abnormal compared to the majority of his life previous to the presidency, and left me almost throwing my hands in the air as he sank deeper into the cuckoo’s nest.
NPR report on new Eisenhower memorial from September 2020: https://www.npr.org/2020/09/15/908427868/for-ike-a-monument-unlike-any-other-eisenhower-memorial-is-dedicated-in-d-c 🙂
Hello, have you read Michael Korda’s IKE: An American Hero? I wonder what your thoughts are…
I haven’t read that one yet. I somehow missed it during my initial jaunt through Eisenhower’s biographies, so I’ve got it on my follow-up list. Since I did find a few Ike bios I really liked, I haven’t considered it urgent I get to Korda’s book soon, but it is definitely on my list to get to at some point.
Hello Steve, I am originally from South Korea and found Eisenhower’s efficient handling of the Korean War very interesting. I also have read Ambrose and Hitchcock, but I guess my best one would be Eisenhower: War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith. It was colorful and insightful – I appreciate your recommendation.
And since now I am living in Kansas, planning to visit Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene soon!
I’d be interested to hear what you think of Ike’s library – it’s one of the few that is so far off my usual routes that I’m going to have to go out of my way to visit. I’m curious whether you think it’s worth a dedicated trip 🙂
Eddie Dunn said:
Definitely give yourself plenty of time for your visit in Abilene. Ike’s library is a real treasure trove for serious research, but the museum part becomes most interesting once you’ve read one of the better biographies listed here. D’Estes’s book is my recommendation. (P.S. Treat yourself to a real old-fashioned chicken dinner at the Brookeville Hotel on the north side of I-70 in Abilene.)
Steve, I finally veered off the reservation. Even though I am only on Hayes, I am always looking for future reading at Half Price Books and on line! Was reading your reviews of Ike, while literally sitting in front of the presidential biographies section at HPB, and almost bought the one volume Ambrose book, and then I saw your review where it said his life before World War II is only about 50 pages! Nope, I grabbed Korda’s “IKE” off the shelf, looked it over, checked out some reviews and bought it! I’ll let you know sometime in 2026!
I just noticed I haven’t visited my Home State since pre-pandemic. Maybe I’ll find a way to get back to Texas by the time you read Korda’s “Ike”!
I’m curious about learning more about how Eisenhower accomplished something so bipartisan as building the interstate highway system. Are any of these particularly better than the other in discussing this?