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James M. Fenwick

Eisenhower: Portrait in Brass

A Critical Appraisal of a Nurtured Legend

(March 1949)

From The New International, Vol. XV No. 3, March 1949, pp. 72–77.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the ETOL.

In our secular age it is not often that we are given the opportunity to observe the birth, growth and nurturing of a god. In the career of Eisenhower, however, we are witness to just such a phenomenon. The legend began seven years ago and has steadily grown.

It has survived even the publication of his collected speeches and the circulation of over a half million copies of Crusade in Europe.

The quantity of literature in the United States critical of Eisenhower is extraordinarily small. Only Ralph Ingersoll has dared raise a really profane voice. But his Top Secret is a book based on the provincial thesis that the United States was and is the innocent victim of British diplomacy. It is a concept which necessarily vitiates his evaluation of Eisenhower.

A critical appraisal of this public figure has been long overdue.


Contrary to popular opinion, Eisenhower’s main contribution in World War II was not in the military field. Though his military intervention in the European campaigns was constant, it was circumscribed.

Strategic aims were set by the American and British governmental heads in conjunction with the combined chiefs of staff. Tactical problems were resolved by the combined chiefs of staff and lower echelons. Almost all important steps – and many trifling ones – were taken by Eisenhower in consultation with the combined chiefs of staff, to whom he frequently referred as “my bosses.”

Only a very few pressing decisions were made by Eisenhower alone: one was the decision to postpone D-Day for the Normandy assault; another concerned the exploitation of the Remagen bridgehead. There were few others. None required a high order of genius.

The English press was correct (if a bit ... unsporting) in referring to Eisenhower as “the chairman of the board.” In an age of total industrial mobilization, mass armies, world fronts, and unprecedentedly massive coalitions, battles can no longer be directed by one man from a carriage pulled up on commanding ground. Modern war is a corporate effort. “The atmosphere in his quarters,” says Kay Summersby in My Boss Eisenhower, “was that of a business executive, not a five-star general.” That catches it.

His primary role was that of a top-level spot coordinator of the Allied forces in Western Europe. He was a mediator, not a messianic personality. As was the case in military matters, all important political and social policies were worked out on the governmental level. The basic decisions were made at multinational conferences such as took place at Casablanca or Yalta. Other decisions were made by Roosevelt, the State Department, the Treasury Department, and even, on occasion, Congress itself.

Eisenhower did not initiate policy. He lubricated the Allied machinery when friction developed, or threatened to develop, in actualizing these plans.

He absorbed the Churchill pressure for further diversions in the Mediterranean after cross-channel commitments had already been made – and also mollified English and United States Red Cross girls who were squabbling over uniforms. He mediated British inter-service feuds – and also answered crank letters from empire patriots. He worked at getting arms away from the Belgian Forces of the Interior – and also took an honorary degree from the University of Louvain. He overruled air-force opposition, ordering United States strategic bombing units to be used tactically – and also decided how captured liquor should be divided between officers and enlisted men. He took special measures to secure more landing craft from United States shipyards – and also worked to get more home-front publicity for his generals.

Personal Credentials

Eisenhower was perfectly cognizant of what was expected of him. He was deliberately picked out by Chief of Staff Marshall – who was himself a type similar to Eisenhower – over the heads of many senior officers whose nicknames themselves suggest their incapacity for this particular job: Ben (Yoo-Hoo!) Lear, J.C.H. (Jesus Christ Himself) Lee, George S. Patton Jr. (Old Blood and Guts).

It must be admitted that Eisenhower turned in a first-rate performance. His work was no small factor in achieving the Allied cooperation which was so strikingly genuine, especially when compared with the jungle law which governed inter-Axis relations and relations within the German army itself.

That Eisenhower was able to achieve this was due to a happy conjunction of personal qualities which are uncommon enough in civilian life – and so rare in the military one as normally to be construed as a weakness by the professional army officer. Eisenhower’s social presence is composed of the following: modesty, courtesy, sociability, democratic behavior, tactfulness, a trim figure, and a photogenic smile. Charm.

This is backed up by an alert but not profound mind, a good memory, self-confidence, a variegated peacetime military experience at home and abroad, a very competent understanding of his trade, and an ability to speak coherently – this latter in an occupation where speaking ability can normally be registered in decibels only.

On the organizational plane he possesses four prime requisites: the ability to choose able associates, delegate responsibility, back up subordinates, and act decisively.

But beyond this – these are the superficies – what are the man’s beliefs and capabilities? They are not the mystery that newspaper writers would have us believe.


Was he a great general?

“Germany,” wrote Amiel in 1871, “will teach the French that rhetoric is not science.” It remained for the United States to teach Germany that science is not mass production. Under conditions of overwhelming superiority in manpower and material such as the Allies enjoyed over the Axis powers, the skill of a general--or his lack of it – was obscured.

In the final three years of the war the failing resources of the Germans lent very great importance to the qualifications of each German general, thereby making an estimation relatively easy. The best of them were the exceptional generals of this war. Even if Eisenhower’s intervention on the military plane had been more direct than it was, it would be difficult to assess his military capabilities.

Were the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns needless wastes which prevented the mounting of a cross-channel invasion in 1943, one year earlier than it actually took place? Probably. Eisenhower more or less thought so. That he could not firmly oppose them was not basically due to his ambivalent attitude but to conditions of coalition war: Russian pressure for a second front, English pressure for action in the Mediterranean – and pressure from Roosevelt, who wanted our newly conscripted troops to see action.

Tactical Errors?

Was the strategy of the broad front in attacking Germany wrong as against the British proposal for a thrust north of the Ruhr? Possibly. Was the Salerno operation badly executed ? Probably. Badoglio thought so. Was the Ardennes attack by the Germans a product of Allied carelessness and overconfidence? Unquestionably. But these and other probable errors can be written off as representing the normal permissible incidence of mistakes in a long war, mistakes in which Eisenhower shared. But were they mistakes? Unfortunately, battlefields are not chessboards where the problem can be set up again and replayed.

The question becomes somewhat academic. A successful general is a good general. Eisenhower was successful.


Where does Eisenhower stand politically?

Like most professional soldiers, Eisenhower has an aversion for politics, which is regarded as a disturbing element in the classic unrolling of military operations. In Eisenhower’s case this aversion is compounded by the traditional American lack of feel for international diplomacy.

Throughout the war Eisenhower merely followed the State Department line. This was true even in North Africa, where Roosevelt urbanely and publicly placed the responsibility for the Darlan deal on Eisenhower. This is not to say that Eisenhower disagreed with the pro-Vichy policy. He did, in fact, agree with it, basing himself on the practical grounds (which in the end proved not so practical) of military expediency.

He had no specific ideas of his own – just a conservative military bias so ingrained that he simply could not even understand the point of view of the liberal opposition to the North Africa policy. (“The liberals crucified me in North Africa.”) It was many a month before he could establish even reasonable working relations with De Gaulle and the Committee of National Liberation which represented the French resistance movement.

A Political Primitive

Nor is there any evidence in Harry C. Butcher’s semi-official diary My Three Years with Eisenhower that until the outraged roar from the United States reached Africa Eisenhower was at all sensitive to the existence of the Vichy concentration camps maintained in Africa and to the operative anti-Semitic laws. As it was, not until five months after the African invasion were the infamous Nuremberg laws repealed !

Butcher reveals the atmosphere at SHAEF at that time:

“In England we were harassed on the Negro question by liberty-loving provocateurs. In Africa we, apparently, are supposed by these same gentlemen to have a general election of Arabs, Jews and French to elect a congress and president, and then go on with the war.”

In Italy, likewise, Eisenhower betrayed no democratic tremors in dealing with the Fascist general Badoglio (the Duke of Addis Ababa!) and the House of Savoy, which had propped up the shaky Mussolini regime over the years.

Politically, Eisenhower is simply a primitive. He led a hand-to-mouth existence, depending for sustenance on the Allied policy at any given time. He foresaw nothing. To the politically sophisticated Churchill, who insisted that the Anglo-American forces drive on to Berlin, Eisenhower stubbornly replied that it was not militarily necessary. He could not appreciate the political implications motivating Churchill’s proposals.

His opposition to the army’s running of military governments was not based upon democratic principles but upon military exclusiveness and contempt for civilian activities. His analysis of the Russian problem – after he finally got around to seeing one – went no deeper than thinking that everything would turn out all right if the Russians and Americans could sit down and talk things over.

Eisenhower has not committed himself on any non-military domestic issue, a fact of symptomatic importance. But it is not difficult to deduce the conservative nature of his politics.

Here we have to speak of an orientation, for it is doubtful if Eisenhower has ever formulated a concrete political program. His typically mealy-mouthed statement on Roosevelt in Crusade in Europe affords a clue:

“With some of Mr. Roosevelt’s political acts I could never possibly agree. But I knew him solely in his capacity as a leader of a nation at war – and in that capacity he seemed to me to fulfill all that could possibly be expected of him.”

The deprecatory counterposition of the New Deal president to the war president is obvious.

His whole life has been passed within one of the most conservative milieus in society – that of the regular army. And Patton, the authoritarian prototype, was one of his best friends in that army. That Eisenhower is considered “safe” by business has been demonstrated by his post-war career. To become president of Columbia University he had to pass inspection by a board of trustees whose Republican conservatism is irreproachable.


Eisenhower’s own economic position is not calculated to make him a subverter of society. His salary as president of Columbia is reported to be around $25,000 a year; his army pension is $15,000. The sum paid Eisenhower for Crusade in Europe has been rumored at be somewhere between $100,000 and a million dollars.

His handling of the publication deal indicates a real flair for survival in a chancy civilian world. According to the New Yorker:

“The manuscript was finished on March 24th and sold to Doubleday early this month [October 1948] ... The reason for the hiatus, and for the outright sale rather than the usual royalties deal, was a ruling by the income-tax people that in this way Eisenhower would qualify for a twenty- five per cent capital-gains tax on the transaction, instead of being subject to the graduated income tax. The capital-gains tax is limited to twenty-five per cent only in the case of so-called capital assets held at least six months, and apparently writers can get in under it when they are non-professionals.”

It is difficult not to believe the rumor that places him in the Republican Party. There is, however, more explicit evidence.

Party Allegiance

On the basis of conversations with Eisenhower in Europe in 1945, Harry Hopkins stated that Eisenhower “and his family had voted against Roosevelt every time up until 1944; but that he did vote for Roosevelt this last time.” Robert Sherwood, Hopkins’ biographer, states in Roosevelt and Hopkins:

“Eisenhower once told me (it was in London in March 1944) that his family had always been Kansas Republicans but that he himself had never voted in his life. He felt that since an army officer must serve his government with fully loyalty and devotion regardless of its political coloration, he should avoid all considerations of political partisanship.”

Sherwood’s view, which coincides more closely with Eisenhower’s expressed attitude toward politics than does the Hopkins statement, is in any event not in direct opposition to it, since the general Republican atmosphere is accepted in both cases.

That several labor leaders panted after Eisenhower is a measure not of Eisenhower’s pro-labor sentiments but of the desperation induced by their self-confinement in the two-party system.

“As late as the summer of 1944,” notes his biographer Kenneth S. Davis in Soldier of Democracy, “he said repeatedly in private conversation: ‘The liberals crucified me in North Africa. All this talk about my “betraying the common people” – it’s absurd. I am a common man myself, more so than most of those people who are always talking about the “proletariat.” I’ve worked with my hands at about every kind of job there is.’”

Ideological Elements

But Eisenhower is hardly a “common man.” His whole life from the age of twenty-one has been spent in the army. For two years prior to that he worked full time in a creamery, not “at about every kind of job there is.” He was never a member of a labor union. He has never made an explicit statement of any sort which might be construed as indicating sympathy for organized labor. In his talk to the CIO convention in 1946 he stressed “cooperation,” his post-war stock in trade.

Fundamentally, this field, like so many others, is alien ground for Eisenhower. “During the war period when I drove the general and worked in his office,” Summersby notes, “I never once heard him discuss such questions as racial segregation, capital vs. labor, international politics, or any other of the usual signposts to political conviction. He was too busy directing the war ... to put a conversational toe into such dangerous waters.”

But Eisenhower has been portrayed as a democratic military type. Isn’t he?

His democratic attitudes are genuine. On the personal plane they probably derive from Mennonite forebears, Kansas equalitarianism, and personal inclination – nurtured in the socializing climate of a large, working-class family. On the national plane they reflect the traditional democracy of American life, the absence of a feudal military tradition, and the disciplinary latitude which a tremendous industrial potential permits.

But this democratic spirit of Eisenhower’s is limited. It is, after all, synchronized with army norms.

He can visit his enlisted-man driver when he is hospitalized – and also rake his “naval aide” Butcher over the coals for eating with the same driver. He can intervene to retain Mauldin’s cartoons and the B-Bag (letters to the editor) in the army daily Stars and Stripes – and also keep the Patton slapping incident out of the press. He can order supply troops out of Paris – and also take a vacation on the Riviera himself during the final phases of the battle for the Rhine. He can order priorities on supplies for front-line troops – and also maintain a private armored train, complete when en route with billiard table, record player, movie screen and projector, portable generator, jeeps, several dogs, a cat, two cows, and a large entourage including a tailor and a driver used also, on occasion, for retrieving golf balls. He can, without revulsion, have champagne with his meals and dine on oysters sent by air from the United States.

On the Negro question – a real democratic touchstone – Eisenhower is Jim Crow. His typical, ambiguously formulated position is caught by Butcher in a diary entry dated July 14, 1942, describing an early press conference which took up the question of policy toward Negro troops in England:

“... he told them his policy for handling colored troops would be absolute equality of treatment, but there would be segregation where facilities afforded. The colored troops are to have everything as good as the white.”

Neither during the war itself nor after did Eisenhower evince even a desire to abrogate the Jim Crow system in the army.

His democratic role (carefully photographed and recorded in all its phases) served as a front for the benefit of the people back home. In the European Theater of Operations his example – such as it was – was not catching.

In fact it didn’t affect even his chief of staff and close friend, Walter Bedell Smith, of whom Summersby writes:

“Most of the headquarters staff, especially the junior officers, regarded General Smith as a complete Prussian. He could be, too – tough, humorless, driving, with all the sentiment of an SS general. As Beetle himself often put it, ‘Someone around the top has to be an absolute S.O.B. and Ike’s not in a position to do it all the time. So that’s my job.’”

There’s the real ETO atmosphere!


In late 1948 with the publication of Crusade in Europe Eisenhower emerged as a historian. It must be said immediately that the book is unique in at least one respect – it was dictated and finished in forty-six days. There were obviously no problems of intellectual logistics involved.

The first impression is of the failure to establish the locus of the war in the historical continuum. Out of what did it come, and why? And when in the end Eisenhower turns his back upon the lunar landscapes in ruined Germany and returns to the United States no question arises for him of what follows for humanity. There is no tortured sigh for human suffering which even the hard-bitten Churchill cannot keep out of his morality-play prose.

Inept Historical Judgments

Military events are treated descriptively, not analytically. Nothing exists in depth. Only superficial use is made of the key information gained from post-war interrogations of captured German officers, without which it is impossible to present a historically viable work. (“... the German mind, if it is a mind,” remarks Eisenhower, in an access of smugness, of some of the best military brains of his times.)

Beyond the ritualistic reference to Cannae there is virtually no examination of World War II in the light of past military theory, particularly that of the post-World War I period. Even rudimentary technical matters which formed such fierce points of contention during the war Eisenhower does not handle. For instance, the notorious inferiority of United States tanks and anti-tank weapons is not even discussed briefly!

His Estimate of His Colleagues

The virtues of Eisenhower the administrator are the vices of Eisenhower the historian. Almost every positive statement made in Crusade in Europe is immediately qualified to extinction, so that Eisenhower’s real opinion (in those cases when he is not simply confused) is about as sharply defined as the fried mush of which he was so fond. It leads to bloopers like this one concerning the Italian campaign, about whose value Eisenhower could never make up his mind:

“Fundamentally, however, the Italian campaign thereafter became a distinctly subsidiary operation, though the results it attained in the actual defeat of Germany were momentous, almost incalculable.”

Was the Ardennes debacle an Allied error? Was Patton a scoundrel? Was Eisenhower in agreement with the Morgenthau plan? Was Montgomery overcautious? The balanced antitheses that Eisenhower erects in answering these and a hundred other questions would be the pride and joy of a medieval scholastic.

When Eisenhower aims to be critical – as he does occasionally – he employs such an oblique method that the casual reader, or one who does not happen to be acquainted with the background material, can innocently pass over the critical passages.

Eisenhower’s distaste for MacArthur, for example, is well known. To get at him, however, Eisenhower attacks Quezon, who in 1942 sought “the neutralization of the Philippines, with each contestant agreeing to withdraw its troops.” In attacking Quezon, Eisenhower is perfectly aware of what is forthrightly documented in the Stimson biography On Active Service in Peace and War: that MacArthur was sympathetic to Quezon’s view and so radioed Washington.

Later, describing the North African campaign, Eisenhower writes: “Rommel himself escaped before the final debacle, apparently foreseeing the inevitable and earnestly desiring to save his own skin.” When taken with a reference to Bataan in the paragraph which precedes it, this sentence can be construed only as another furtive cut at MacArthur. For, obviously, if Rommel should not have fled, neither should MacArthur have left the Philippines. Otherwise the sentence remains simply a curio.

There are omissions. Eisenhower fails to mention that hedgerow fighting was completely unprepared for. The Huertgen Forest slaughter is dismissed with little more explanation that the “the First Army got involved ...” – a classic of understatement.

There are simple errors. Von Rundstedt, for instance, did not lead the Ardennes offensive. He was actually opposed to it and played only a nominal role in the operations.

There is outright falsification. In Crusade in Europe Eisenhower infers that Darlan’s presence in Africa was an entirely unexpected and unprepared windfall: “We discounted at once the possibility that he had come into the area with a prior knowledge of our intentions or in order to assist us in our purpose.” In a diary entry dated October 17, 1942, three weeks before the invasion, Butcher states:

“Today a succession of messages from ‘Colonel McGowan’ [Robert Murphy] ... Darlan apparently wants to play ball ... Murphy recommends that Darlan be encouraged on the basis of securing his cooperation with Giraud; Darlan expected in Algiers within a week.”

Future historians will find Butcher’s My Three Years with Eisenhower a more useful source book than Crusade in Europe. This day-to-day account of the war as seen from the pinnacle of SHAEF by Eisenhower’s “kibitzer, water boy, cigarette girl, and flunky” (the description is Butcher’s own), edited though it is, gives a much more accurate and colorful account of the Allied inner conflicts, the fluctuations of morale, the inter-service jealousies, the tactical improvisations, the material and logistical problems, and the top echelon Bohemia than does Eisenhower’s olive-drab prose.


Following his quasi-retirement from the army in 1948, Eisenhower became president of Columbia University in New York City. “... it was with no illusions,” he said, “that I could contribute anything academically.”

And in all truth Eisenhower can be considered as a transmitter of “Western” culture only in the most specific American sense. His known tastes run exclusively to cowboy stories, horse operas and Western ballads.

His Academic Role

At West Point, says his biographer, he “stood consistently at the very bottom of the upper one-third of his class.” (A decade later, however, he was to graduate from the Command and General Staff School first out of a class of 275.) He was better in athletics. In view of his general public activity and his role of military adviser to the government, his contribution to the administration of Columbia must be as tenuous as his academic one.

What, then, is the significance of his Columbia job?

The influence of Columbia upon education in the United States – and thereby upon its cultural life as a whole – is exceptional. About one out of every ten Ph.D.s granted in this country, for example, is granted by Columbia. The student body numbers 31,000, the faculty over 4,000. Its income from investments is second only to Harvard’s. It amounts to $6,180,000 annually – which is equal to the income received from $247,200,000 invested in 2½ per cent government bonds.

A university of this size, located in the intellectual and financial center of the United States, is of prime importance for the most conscious representatives of the capitalist class. They have not overlooked their opportunity. In The Goose-Step, Upton Sinclair referred to Columbia as “the palatial University of the House of Morgan.” There has been no reason to change that characterization essentially in the twenty-six years which have elapsed since the publication of Sinclair’s fascinating book.

True, the elder Morgan no longer sits upon the board of trustees, which is the final arbiter of university policy. But the representatives of Wall Street (in the most literal sense) are very much in control.

Of the twenty-four trusteeships at Columbia, seventeen are self-perpetuating: when a trustee dies his place is filled by vote of the other trustees. Six are elected by the alumni. The president of the university, likewise selected by the trustees, serves as a trustee also. The overwhelming majority either have very close ties with the plutocracy of the country or are active members of the plutocracy. A survey by Hubert Park Beck, published in 1947, shows that the known taxable income (based on 1924 data) of the thirteen board members for whom figures were available averaged over $65,000. Figures from the mid-thirties, available for seven trustees, showed an average annual salary of $74,000.

The public spokesman for the trustees – who typically lead a rather anonymous existence – is the president of the university, who is carefully chosen by them. For a generation prior to the appointment of Eisenhower the post was held by the rubbery Nicholas Murray Butler, presidential aspirant, opponent of any further amendment of the Constitution (it was like “proposing amendments to the multiplication table!”), supporter of child labor, director in a Morgan insurance company, and over-all reactionary.

Academic Beliefs

The times, not the least important component of which is the development of a powerful and articulate organized labor movement, call for someone less obviously reactionary. Hence the selection of Eisenhower. His appointment was acclaimed by almost everybody, including the campus chapter of the American Veterans Committee. Nevertheless, a grave precedent has been established: heading up one of the most influential universities in the country is a man whose cast of thought is antithetical to the spirit of free inquiry which should pervade a university.

To date he has trod warily. His concept of academic freedom, though it has not been explicitly revealed, is plain enough, however. Ira T. Freeman, writing in the New York Times, says:

“His conception of academic freedom, however, does not include the right to advocate ideologies hostile to ‘free enterprise,’ since he has threatened to dismiss at once any instructor ‘infiltrating our university’ with ‘inimical philosophies.’ He defended the release of one left-wing faculty member from Teachers’ College.”

The implementing of that credo would guarantee the destruction of academic freedom at Columbia.

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