Susan Eisenhower’s book about her grandfather, General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower altered my understanding of who Ike was. Her well written book shines light on a number of turning points in the life of the man who led Allied forces to defeat Hitler then served two terms as president. I recommend the book to people who love history and to people who’ve grown sick of politics.

Photograph of Susan Eisenhower by Miranda Harple

Here’s the link for my Goodreads review of How Ike Led. Scroll down to my review or try this.

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Very caught up with things, so taking off some time from posting here. See you in what we hope will be the merry month of May! Below, I will copy the text of the review, but I hope you’ll check out Goodreads.

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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.

Mindful that the author spent a chunk of her childhood as the granddaughter of a sitting president, readers expect and get a unique insider’s look at the two-term president. Susan Eisenhower’s personal history with people who served alongside and under the wartime supreme commander then president further enriches the picture she paints of the man and the times. The grandfather-granddaughter aspect of the book culminates with power and emotion, which will be satisfying for many readers—it certainly was for me. But the ambitious book does even more.

If I still were teaching and had assigned Susan Eisenhower’s How Ike Led, I would encourage student readers to track each chapter with a question: Which of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s character and personality traits dominate this chapter?

Each chapter shines a light on some driving force or forces within the man, factors that because of his studied privacy (and humility) eluded many observers both at the time and ever since. Ms. Eisenhower helpfully follows a chronological approach in organizing her touching and insightful book about her grandfather, providing readers with a close look at the interrelationship of Ike’s personality and his efforts to control his emotions and behaviors for the better. Aspects of one’s personality might become slightly enhanced over time but character can be shaped through experience, and this man spent much time and effort to become a certain kind of man—a better man, one driven to serve others.

Ms. Eisenhower’s stories reveal both Ike’s nature and his conscious efforts to react rationally rather than emotionally. These admirably told vignettes reveal turning points in his childhood and young adulthood. Family and faith shaped the man greatly, and he showed lifelong interest in learning and self-improvement.

Of all the man’s admirable traits, humility and empathy stick out to this reader, perhaps because they seem less expected in a military leader. I read the book as someone who’d grown up holding the prevailing view of Ike as the likeable military hero who’d been kind of a stick-in-the-mud president. A raggedy old photo of me at nearly 12 years of age shows me beaming beside a Kennedy for President poster. Even at that age, I’d decided that out-going President Eisenhower and his party were ready for history’s dustbin.

The author shows us an Eisenhower who was taught to value other people’s perspectives, a man whose character was shaped by being one of six sons having to rotate all domestic responsibilities. At a young age, he was likely to ask how things looked “to the other guy.” As with all of us, certain experiences changed his life direction, and Ms. Eisenhower’s skillful use of family stories makes these impactful moments of change and learning vivid and palpable to the reader. Her Ike comes across as a principled and thoughtful man.

But to the national media of his time, President Eisenhower seemed simple-minded: “corny” might be a word they would use to describe him.

“At the time many intellectuals simply could not believe that the conduct of his leadership and the relationships that he fostered could be so straightforward. However, they and others did not necessarily look behind the genial general and president to ponder Ike’s spirituality, or the lessons of his simple Brethren upbringing.” (p. 308)

Nothing I read for decades challenged that view. Susan Eisenhower’s well-written and carefully researched book fills in much about the man and his times, enough to warrant a fuller appraisal of Eisenhower by this reader who was probably more influenced by generations of “the chattering classes” than he would care to admit.

While critics can reasonably raise questions about the speed of his response to crises like southern school desegregation, Ms. Eisenhower’s explanation of the president’s long-game perspective makes sense. Her thesis that everything he did was driven by the conviction that his job was to lead a unified nation (and to avoid unnecessary war, civil or foreign) runs counter to the long-established popular interpretation of the man.

“To understand Eisenhower is to understand that in war and peace his primary aim was to foster unity of purpose and to approach every issue from an “architectural perspective”—in other words to begin any significant undertaking by framing it and building a strong foundation for future betterment.” (p. 7)

In many ways Eisenhower’s approach to leadership seems staggeringly passé compared to today’s Manichean zero-sum game approach to political leadership. National politics may always have been blood sport, but leadership norms in more recent times stress domination and destruction over effort to find common ground with one’s opponents. Susan Eisenhower’s book makes clear her grandfather’s grasp of the importance of knowing what and how one’s opponents thought—and his willingness to try to work with them when possible.

His military success came largely through his capacity for empathy and humility, and his understanding of human nature. The whole chapter about D-Day is neatly framed by references to the note Ike wrote before the battle and carried in his wallet, should he need to use it in the case of a failed effort, a practice that he employed throughout the war. Lest others be blamed in the event of a disastrous outcome, he accepted all responsibility for failure and went out of his way to protect officers under him, especially those who disagreed with him.

One of Eisenhower’s first acts as post-war commander of the army was to request that the USMA at West Point establish a psychology department (page 87): “Though it would be a radical step for what was still regarded as an engineering school Ike did not see how West Point could address leadership issues without one.” He also knew that peace in the nuclear age required patience and understanding about humanity.

This wonderful book is full of surprise examples of Dwight Eisenhower’s character, and I’ll close my review with one favorite from page 76.

“Unlike his former boss, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who commanded troops in the Far East, Ike refused the Congressional Medal of Honor. He replied respectfully that the award was given for extraordinary valor in combat, and he thought it inappropriate for someone not facing peril to accept it.”