Eisenhower: Allied Supreme Commander

Eisenhower: Allied Supreme Commander

Vallance, Andrew

Eisenhower: Allied Supreme Commander By Carlo D’Este £25.00, 848 pages Wiedenfeld & Nicolson, 2003 ISBN 0-304-36604-8

Dwight D Elsenhower remains the epitome of the great American dream. Born (literally) on the wrong side of the tracks in a mid-West backwater, to impoverished but god-fearing parents, he became the Supreme Commander of great wartime and peacetime coalitions before being elected President of the United States. Carlo D’Este’s biography gives us a well-researched, easy-to-read and meticulously ordered account of the great man’s roots, upbringing and military development. However, it is not the definitive biography of the ‘Allied Commander-in-Chief or ‘Allied Supreme Commander’ (both incorrect terms), as the dust cover claims.

Indeed, one could be forgiven for wondering whether the dust-cover and the book actually belong to each other. Inside the book the subtitle changes from ‘Allied Supreme Commander’ to ‘A Soldier’s Life’: views from different ends of the telescope. The first three chapters are devoted to tracing Eisenhower’s ancestry back to the 18th century Rhineland, and the book ends when Eisenhower still has over six years left to serve in the US Army. Only the latter half of the book is devoted to his time as Supreme Allied Commander, and even this stops abruptly in July 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany. No mention is made of Eisenhower’s time as the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) of the newly established NATO Alliance, arguably one of his greatest contributions to history.

Despite this the book is a very worthy and worthwhile read. The second half is undoubtedly the more interesting. If the book is perhaps lighter on analysis than one could wish (the lack of a final summary chapter is particularly disappointing), it compensates for this by the directness and incisiveness of its judgements. Copious personal anecdotes bring the subject to life and allow readers to form their own impressions of the great man (within the bounds of the information supplied). But they do tend to make the book rather longer than necessary, especially that part covering Eisenhower’s early life.

As D’Este makes clear, there was little in that early life that marked out Eisenhower for greatness. His sole claim to distinction at West Point was as a football player, and he ‘missed’ the First World War because he was too valuable as a troop trainer. He pressed hard but with mixed results for command appointments, but increasingly found that it was his developing staff skills that drove his career development. By the age of 48 he was still only a lieutenant colonel. Pearl Harbor proved the great watershed, for when the Japanese struck, Eisenhower was appointed to work directly for Marshall, the Army Chief. He so impressed his boss that in less than a year he was appointed to command all US forces in Britain. That led him on to command the Anglo-American ‘Torch’ invasion of North West Africa, which in turn led to his appointment as Supreme Allied Commander for the invasion of Europe. In little more than sixteen months he rose from total obscurity to worldwide prominence: from an unknown 51-year old (acting) staff colonel to a 4-star general in supreme command. And all this despite his limited time in command, dearth of first hand battle experience and a somewhat mixed performance in North West Africa.

As D’Este shows, this meteoric rise from slim foundations carried with it inevitable problems. Eisenhower had a powerful intellect, exceptional drive and huge powers of application. But he increasingly became what he had always hated – a rear-area staff officer – a result probably far more to do with his basic character traits than force of circumstances. When Eisenhower was elected President, his former boss Douglas McArthur remarked that ‘he was the best clerk who ever served under me’, a typically ungrateful remark but one which may have contained a germ of truth. Eisenhower was always somewhat in awe of those in the front line and reluctant to overrule them. When a major, he explained to a friend: ‘I’ll tell you my guiding philosophy. When I go to a new station I look for the strongest and ablest man on the post. I forget my own ideas and do everything in my power to promote what he says is right.’ This explains much about his handling of the rivalry between Montgomery and Patton, the post-D-Day strategy disputes and the Market Garden fiasco.

Eisenhower took time to understand how best to use his great talents, and the limitations in his approach continued to re-emerge during times of crisis. While acknowledging this, D’Este’s underlying message is that Eisenhower’s unique strengths far outweighed his limitations as a Supreme Commander. Eisenhower shared many of the minor vices that were common to US Army generals of this period, but he had uncommon political astuteness and diplomatic skills, and he did not subscribe to the virulent Anglophobia then endemic in the US ‘generalitat’. Moreover, his easy charm, strong common sense and the famous grin did much to win over the Brits and smooth relationships with the ever-difficult and faction-ridden French. He always had the wisdom, insight and courage to strike the balance in favour of the Alliance, even though he was roundly attacked for doing so (even by friends such as Bradley and Patton).

In covering all this D’Este does a very fine job; the only pity is that he both starts the story too early and finishes it too soon. Perhaps we shall see a follow-on volume from the author, one that covers Eisenhower’s post-war service in and out of uniform. One certainly hopes so, for there must be fascinating strands threading throughout this period, not the least of which – one suspects -was Eisenhower’s continuing relationship with Field Marshal Montgomery (his Deputy SACEUR).

Air Vice Marshai Andrew Vallance Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE)

Copyright Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies Oct 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved