Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ike before Ike

  I'm not one of those who drives an automobile for the fun of it, but I can testify I came close to enjoying my late six hour round trip  to Reno thanks to the voice in my ear that kept consoling me with (the first part of) Jean Edward Smith's  biography of Eisenhower--specifically the first part, about his childhood and his long years as an underlaborer in the peacetime Army (I left off just at the point where General Marshall, as chief of staff, plucks him out of the Louisiana war games and brings him to Washington to put him to work on trying to salvage something out of the Philippine debacle).

I had all I could do to keep from saying "plucks him out of obscurity," which is pretty much the way I have always heard it: Eisenhower was nobody until Marshall said let there be Ike and there was Ike. But Smith makes clear that this is a gross distortion. Yes, it was Marshall who finally brought him into the charmed circle. But Ike had spent most of the interwar years making himself the indispensable staff man, the guy who could take a problem off the boss' desk and make it disappear--sometimes, before the boss even knew it was there. Along the way he assembled an array of powerful, and sometimes wise, mentors who educated him and counseled him and moved him along in his career. Indeed the odd part may be that one person who had not functioned as a mentor was Marshall himself. By the time of their fateful encounter Marshall obviously knew about Ike but almost entirely by reputation: their direct interaction had been fragmentary and fleeting.

There's a dark underside to this triumphal narrative which Smith sets for with equal clarity. That is: migawd what a hidebound, reactionary, racist bureaucratic jungle the between-the-wars army was. Setting aside the bureaucratic time servers, it's amazing that so many truly talented people stayed on board at all. Yes, there was a depression going on but I don't think that's sufficient to make the point. Eisenhower had options--bona fide job offers--and he stayed, so it appears, because he had a genuine sense of himself in his career.

Genuine, maybe, but Smith makes clear that Eisenhower like the best of them had to become a master of bureaucratic slash-and-grab. Eisenhower does seem to have one genuine appreciation and admiration from people who could do harm or good. But he also seems to have understood that he needed this kind of protection if he was going to get ahead. Indeed one of the most fascinating episodes in the whole chronicle is Smith's account of how Ike got crosswise with an inspector general who wanted to ruin Ike's career over what seems to have been a $235 misunderstanding--and how Ike did all he knew how to bring down superior firepower to save himself. More amusing, if not more benign, is the account of how the great MacArthur himself got exiled to the Philippines because he had nicked off the wealthy widow whom Pershing had counted has his own (hey, there's a Wiki, it's got to be true).

[Perspective point: I've long wished Ike had had a better take on civil rights.  Yes, he is the guy who pushed through the first modern civil rights  act, and sent the troops into Little Rock.  Yet there is a sense that when it came to race, Ike never quite got it: his concerns had far more to do with good public order than they did with racial justice per se (in this perspective, he sounds an awful lot like William T. Sherman).  Still, reading Smith, I  can see that considering the company he kept, Ike's attitudes can be regarded as damn near enlightened.)

As Smith notes, many--not least his British competitors--reminded Ike that he got into his position of command without ever having led troops in battle. Yes indeed, but he does apear to have accumulated exactly the sort of skills he needed to perpare and organize a war for the battlers to fight. Indeed in a tantalizing aside, Smith points out tht Ike's very paucity of field experience might have been an advantage: he, unlike so many of his compatriates, was not mesmerized by the model of trench warfare and was willing to devise plans--and take risks--of which the old trench warriors appeared incapable.

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