When Dwight D. Eisenhower was made supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe in 1943, it was not an inflated title. He was handed, in fact, "supreme command." When it came to questions about the D-Day invasion and countless other military and even political matters until the end of World War II, he alone made the decisions. Neither Presidents Roosevelt and later Truman nor George C. Marshall, Army chief of staff, could tell him what to do. The same went for Prime Minister Winston Churchill and those generals who had more stars on their shoulders than he did.
They say power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, but as Michael Korda tells the story in Ike: An American Hero, Eisenhower not only remained uncorrupted, but in most instances made the correct choices. That was why the American people later elected him to two terms as president, an office that arguably had less power than what was thrust on him during the war. And here, too, according to Korda, Ike mostly made the right calls. Had John F. Kennedy followed Eisenhower's advice, America would have avoided both the Bay of Pigs disaster and the Vietnam War, Korda says.
As a career Army officer -- he attended West Point only because it offered a free college education -- Ike seemed to handle every assignment with skill and dedication. During World War I, although he wished to be sent to the front, he was so successful at training recruits that the Army kept him where he was. Between wars he served under Douglas MacArthur and others, getting an education in how to command when the opportunity presented itself, as it did when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and the U.S. went to war again.
Korda writes that the choice of Eisenhower as supreme commander over other generals who outranked him "was perhaps the Allies' most singular piece of good fortune in World War II." Not just a skilled commander, Ike had the ability to get along with just about everybody (including Josef Stalin). British Gen. Bernard Montgomery gave him endless problems, thinking himself the better general, but somehow Eisenhower was able to manage him and, when necessary, prod him into action.
Although this biography is full of praise for Ike, Korda stops short of giving him credit for actually planning the D-Day invasion, as other biographers have done. Montgomery claimed the credit for himself. In fact, says Korda, both Eisenhower and Montgomery just made a few changes to the plan drawn up by Lt. Gen. Sir Frederick Morgan, who had worked on an invasion plan since 1941 and deserves more credit than history has given him.
Korda, who was born and raised in England, focuses mostly on Eisenhower's military career. Just two of 20 chapters are devoted to the White House Years. He covers a lot of ground in those two chapters, however.
Korda seems to throw the word hero around a lot. He has also written Ulysses S. Grant: The Unlike Hero and Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. Yet most of the rest of us tend to restrict the word to fictional creations, especially the larger-than-life variety who wear capes. This Eisenhower biography reminds us that sometimes, however rarely, real people live lives deserving of the word.