THE AMERICAN WEST (mostly): Fact and Fiction (mostly fiction)

"NOBODY GETS TO BE A COWBOY FOREVER." -- Chet Rollins (Jack Palance) in MONTE WALSH (NG, 1970)

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Saturday, May 6, 2017

IKE: An American Hero by Michael Korda

“I like Ike!”

Of course, I do; doesn't everybody? But I don’t worship at his altar and I bet you don’t either. However, I can’t say the same thing for Michael Korda. He fell in love with his subject and concluded that his man never made a mistake and that those who disagreed with him were always – well, nine out of ten times anyway -- wrong.

He should have ended the book with Germany’s surrender because while he writes of the Eisenhower presidency in glowing terms, he constantly overstates his case and devotes only 60 pages of a 700 plus page book to Ike’s eight years in the office. It comes off as a sprint to the finish line.

Korda writes in the introductory chapter:

Of course there is a natural ebb and flow to historical reputations, however exalted. Sometimes a reputation can be revived by a single great book, as David McCullogh did for Harry S. Truman and John Adams….”

It is obvious that Korda set out to rescue Ike from what he perceived to be historical oblivion – just as McCullogh did for Truman and Adams. The truth is, however, that, among historians at least, the reputations of Truman and Adams had been on the ascendency for a good while before McCullogh published either book. Of course, both books were well received by the reading public and were critically-acclaimed best sellers, so there’s no doubt that they did play a role in enhancing the reputation of two presidents whose reputations did take a hit at the time that they held the office and for some time afterwards. But by no means did McCullogh “revive their reputations.”

And what of Eisenhower? When Korda wrote his book (published in 2007), Eisenhower was still one of the most famous generals in American history and one of the most popular presidents to ever hold the office. True, historians did not rate his presidency very high at the time he was in the office, but that changed through the years to the point that he was given credit for accomplishments that were overlooked at the time.

In an interview Korda admitted that he had not held an especially high opinion of Ike before he began doing his research, but that his admiration increased the more that he learned about the man. And it is evident that he did not know much about his subject before he began his research. There’s the problem. Korda is not an historian – or a journalist – but a writer and book editor and biographer with eclectic interests who sometimes writes about historical subjects. He did write a biography of U.S. Grant (which was not well-received by historians) and it was that experience that led him to wanting to write about Ike. Throughout this book he draws parallels between Grant and Ike, some sound and some overdrawn. More recently he wrote a book about Robert E. Lee, but I haven't read it.

The Eisenhower story is truly one that would have been labeled as far-fetched if it had been written as a novel. Born in Texas and raised in Kansas by parents who were both pacifists, he went to West Point. Four years after being promoted to lt. colonel he was a four-star general who held the title of Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe with three million men under his command. In that position he commanded the most complicated combat operation of his time – perhaps all time – when the allies landed on the Normandy beaches

That is a highly and unprecedented record for a general, especially one who heretofore had never led men in combat.

Historians today give the Eisenhower presidency high marks and they rate him as a good president, but not a great one. But that doesn’t discourage Korda who goes overboard in his assessment:

No American president had ever exercised power more surely or more deftly, or under greater pressure of time and events….”

Really? Not even Abraham Lincoln or Franklin D. Roosevelt? Furthermore, he doesn’t take the time to make the case. He just states it and then moves on.

He also makes the claim that Ike did more for civil rights than either John Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson. He bases that claim on a single occurrence, that being Ike sending in federal forces to enforce the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School. He claims that Ike did it without hesitation because he was a strong supporter of civil rights, which is not true on both counts. He did send in the troops but only after a good deal of hesitation and furthermore he had opposed the landmark school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, handed down in 1954. To his credit, however, he felt constitutionally obligated to enforce the court’s opinion and he did. However, he also stated privately that his appointment of Earl Warren, the Chief Justice who led the court that rendered the decision, was the greatest mistake that he had ever made.

Perhaps Korda should write a book on Lyndon Johnson because he apparently is not familiar with that president’s record on civil rights. In the process, he might learn a lot about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1968.

In an interview Korda even claimed that Ike was a better politician than Ronald Reagan. I have to confess that I was a Reagan critic, but I never doubted his political skills which were his greatest gift. Nor does he mention the fact that Eisenhower’s legislative successes were made possible by the co-operation that he received from two Texas Democrats: Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson, who served as both Majority Leader and Minority Leader in the Senate during the Eisenhower presidency.

In watching the Korda interview on C-Span’s excellent Booknotes program, I have to admit that I found it entertaining. He is a gifted raconteur who loves to tell stories and he tells them well. But like many storytellers he doesn’t hesitate to add little flourishes that add color to make the stories more entertaining, even if the result is a slight distortion of the facts. But while his sins of commission are notable, it is his sins of omission that I find most deplorable, particularly with regard to the Eisenhower presidency.

Eisenhower is an important historical figure who was one of our greatest military leaders and a good president, but it would have been impossible for him to have lived up to the reputation that Korda has manufactured for him. 

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