A Life Made Large by War ; Dwight Eisenhower Saved the Allies - and Himself - from Oblivion

Article excerpt

It took World War II to rescue the careers of both Dwight Eisenhower and Winston Churchill, two of the most famous personalities of that conflict. Like Churchill, who had desired the ultimate prize of leadership but could never quite reach it, Eisenhower was languishing in career doldrums before World War II. Having missed World War I, he was known more as a football coach than an experienced battlefield commander. Sitting at the rank of lieutenant colonel at the age of 50, Eisenhower's career, it seemed, would be a solid but uneventful journey.

The outbreak of war changed all of that. Less than three and a half years after Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was the supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe and held the rank of five-star general. Carlo D'Este's remarkable and compelling biography eschews a look at the entire life of the man and instead focuses on his early life and the resulting military career it spawned.

Although today the name Eisenhower is synonymous with military expertise, the picture that D'Este paints is less than flattering at some points.

Although he was trained to, and longed for, the day he could command troops, much of Eisenhower's career was spent as a desk officer. And it showed when he was given command of forces in North Africa early in America's participation in the war.

Faced with British officers who denigrated the fighting prowess of American soldiers - rightly, early on - Eisenhower's performance in the Mediterranean theater was occasionally shaky before the Americans gained traction against Rommel's Afrika Korps.

Nor did he earn high grades for a few of the decisions he made in the European theater after being picked to head the Allied war effort by FDR.

From his propensity to keep favored and occasionally incompetent men in positions of responsibility around him, his inability to curb the infighting between the British and American officers serving under him, and his sometimes maddening bouts of indecision, D'Este shows a man who seemed, though never was, more interested in compromise than ruthless determination to win the war.

Although the president was confident in his abilities, it was fortunate for Eisenhower that FDR preferred to keep George Marshall, one of Ike's mentors and career guardians, in Washington, rather than send him to Europe.

Yet despite that sometimes unflattering portrait, D'Este also shows that Eisenhower was a man of calm determination and a quiet and vast intelligence. A superb poker player, Eisenhower was no less a master manipulator than Churchill, something the British leader learned firsthand. …