Presidential Biographies: Dwight D. Eisenhower #34

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Dwight Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on those biographies, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

I knew very little about Eisenhower as President going in beyond a vague association of his name with highways. I knew he was a general, and I knew a good amount about his work during World War II balancing the various big personalities on the Allies to bring about a formidable fighting force. Little did I know going in to reading about Eisenhower that I would come out the other side with a genuine appreciate for and admiration for a man I now view as among our best Presidents.

Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace, is a monumental work that traces the life of Eisenhower from a child through his death. Smith does a superb job balancing each stage of Eisenhower’s life with what seems like the appropriate amount of detail. No period of his life feels glossed over or lost in this great book. My own outline of Eisenhower’s life is going to focus entirely on his Presidency, but the biography itself does true justice to his childhood, early adulthood, and military career as well.

Eisenhower as President pursued peace. He pushed hard to get the United States out of Korea and then presided over a period of 8 years in which no United States soldier lost a life in combat. What makes this even more remarkable is that Eisenhower was repeatedly pushed by international crises to the brink of war, but used his remarkable diplomatic skills to navigate the United States out of war each time. China was one of the countries that Eisenhower stared down, using a combination of public words and things left unsaid to imply that he was unafraid to go to war over a few islands, even as privately he was being urged to drop atomic weapons on Chinese forces. Behind the scenes, he put a hard stop to talk of the use of atomics, while publicly he played coy, causing China to stall and eventually defuse the conflict.

Israel and the Suez canal was another major diplomatic victory for Eisenhower. After numerous setbacks in relationship with Egypt–pulling in and out of arms deals, funding for a dam, etc., Eisenhower backed Egypt when Israel was the aggressor, but did so couched in terms of established American policy so that his domestic image would not suffer. By taking the side of a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East and backing the pledge of the United States to give succor to the one against whom aggression was directed, Eisenhower increased the international esteem of the United States to an almost unprecedented level.

The Cold War continued to loom during his Presidency, but Eisenhower actively worked to diffuse the tensions. He offered an “Open Skies” policy to the Soviet Union which would allow each nation to fly over the other with spy planes to take pictures to confirm disarmament or at least lower the arms race. The Soviet Union rejected this proposal, but Eisenhower’s efforts at making peace surely helped diffuse at least some of the ramping up of pressure for war.

Domestically, Eisenhower sensed the possibility of a recession and planned in advance, setting up a hugely ambitious infrastructure plan to make the Interstate system connect all cities with populations of over 50,000 people. This project became the larges public works effort in American history, stopped a recession in its tracks, and created infrastructure on which we continue to rely to this day. Not only that, but he tapped people across party lines (Lyndon B. Johnson, in particular) to help orchestrate a Machiavellian effort to stop an amendment that would have hamstrung the President’s and country’s ability to make treaties or even provide aid internationally.

Eisenhower, described by Smith as a progressive conservative, was on the side of moving America towards racial equality. He ordered the military to desegregate to the point of even ignoring one governor’s pleas to allow a Naval base to remain segregated. He utilized his constitutional power to enforce law to send in the 101st Airborne to ensure that judicial orders of integration in Little Rock were carried out. On his authority, the racist mob that attempted to stop the integration was met by 500 US soldiers, bayonets fixed, showing that the executive branch was serious about enforcing the judicial tide that was swinging towards racial equality. Though Eisenhower was not perfect on this issue, his actions were praised by people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and he was recognized as making strides in the right direction.

Eisenhower was perhaps the most diplomatic President we ever had. He knew how to get people to work together for what he saw as the common good, and he was unafraid to use every means he had–whether through his own persuasion or some Machiavellian tactics of setting up different pieces on the board against each other–to get the job done. He was certainly one of the better Presidents in our history. Eisenhower in War and Peace is a fabulous biography on a truly amazing person.

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Dwight Eisenhower’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

(34th President – Original Ranking #5)- Eisenhower as President got the United States out of Korea and then navigated numerous potentially Earth-shattering conflicts to keep the United States at peace. He was a masterful politician who utilized all the cards in his deck to not only keep the peace abroad but also expand America’s infrastructure with the largest public works project ever–the Interstate System. He utilized the military to enforce desegregation and integration, and remained even-keeled even in the toughest circumstances. He was not a perfect man, but it would be hard to argue he was any but among the best of the Presidents we’ve ever had.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

Presidential Biographies: Harry Truman #33

My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Harry Truman, the thirty-third President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was twofold, and each biography was excellent. The first was The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, and the second was Truman by David McCullough.

Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on those biographies, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.

The Accidental President: Harry S. Truman and the Four Months that Changed the World by A. J. Baime and Truman by David McCullough

The first book I read about Truman was The Accidental President by A. J. Baime, and it was a fantastic read. After a brief introduction to how Truman got to be President, Baime spends hundreds of pages zoomed in on seemingly every aspect of the first four months of his Presidency. During this time, the United States firebombed Japan, gained victory at Okinawa, helped bring about the fall of the Berlin, liberated concentration camps and exposed their brutality to the world, faced mass starvation in Europe, forced the surrender of Germany, founded the United Nations, had a meeting with Stalin that seemingly set the stage for the Cold War at Potsdam, and used the first and only atomic bombs ever dropped on human targets against Japan, bringing about their unconditional surrender. Those four months, in other words, saw some of the biggest changes in history condensed into an incredibly short period of human history.

Reading this book gave me an intimate feel for Truman’s decision making process, his leadership, and the major questions that he faced during the start of his Presidency. One of the most standout features to me was the way it seemed he kept a level head throughout the time, frequently being seen by others as calm and collected even in the most urgent times. It was not aloofness, as the frequent excerpts Baime provides from Truman’s diary show, but rather a personality trait that seemingly kept him even-keeled as he faced some of the most disastrous and urgent times in human history. Of course, much of what Truman did during this time had been started and ushered in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s leadership in his three + terms in office.  But that should not undermine the accomplishments Truman had in this time period, nor did it take away the fact that it was Truman’s decisions that ultimately shaped the outcomes of many of these major historical moments.

The most controversial decision Truman made–and, argues Baime, perhaps the most controversial decision any President has ever faced–was to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Baime spends quite a bit of time throughout the book detailing the development of atomic weapons, Truman’s knowledge of and involvement in the same, and the decision-making process Truman underwent to decide to drop the bomb. It is easy, going on 80 years removed from the event, to judge it acontextually. Some like to dismiss it as the obvious decision–drop the bomb to save American lives. Others find the decision obviously abhorrent–a direct strike on civilian lives and a war crime. The questions that Truman faced were myriad: Were the lives of (actually) 100,000s of Japanese civilians worth less than the estimated 500,000-1,000,000+ soldiers who would have died invading Japan? Were the feelers Japan was sending out for peace through Moscow indications that the conflict could have been ended without such destruction? Given that fire bombing was occurring, was it more inhumane to destroy an entire city in a flash than destroy an entire country with incendiary devices? All of these questions, and many, many more must get factored into any examination of the event. But apart from that, there were also the questions of warning the Japanese about the bomb, questions about whether it would even work, and questions about how humanity could continue with such immense destructive power. McCullough’s biography highlights some of these latter questions even more, as at least one advisor to Truman was horrified by the destructive capabilities of the bomb. After all of this, I am still not personally sure that Truman made the right decision. The intentional destruction of hundreds of thousands of civilian lives is a terrible choice. I mean “terrible” not in the sense of “bad” or “wrong” as much as I do in the sense of “awful” or “extremely unpleasant” to use a dictionary definition. Baime shows that Truman was not ignorant of these questions, but that he came to see it as a dire decision that he made in order to try to balance everything as he saw it.

And the atomic bomb was just one of the many, many questions Truman faced in his first four months. I briefly mentioned fire bombing, but the United States had adamantly declared its opposition to destruction of civilian lives and areas earlier in the war. The actions of the bomber command seemed to undermine those public disavowals of the actions. The founding of the UN was intended to prevent further wars, but even under Truman, the U.S. would get involved in conflict in Korea. Baime notes that it is possible Truman’s somewhat hardline approach to Stalin was likely a contributing factor.

During the first four months of his Presidency, Truman stepped into enormous shoes and, largely, seemed to fill them fairly well. He didn’t back down in the face of enormous decisions and consequences–choices that no human could truly bear. Of course, after reading this detailed examination of the beginning of Truman’s Presidency, I felt an intense need to read more on him and learn about the rest of his life and, indeed, of his time as President.

McCullough’s biography, Truman, shows, over nearly 1000 pages, the development of Truman as a man, politician, and President. I’ll just highlight several unique points from this phenomenal biography. Truman was, like all too many of our Presidents, on the wrong side of questions related to race. In fact, McCullough tells of how Truman was minutes away from joining the KKK, only to back out once the KKK leader he was speaking with insisted he exclude Catholics from public office as much as was within his power. Truman balked at this–not at the awful racism or anti-semitism–because he’d fought with several Catholics in the Great War. McCullough notes that this incident cannot be excused by Truman’s ignorance of the awfulness of the KKK, either. There was a sense in the second rise of that evil organization that they could be portrayed as a kind of “America first” group. But McCullough points out that Truman had already fought in opposition to the KKK earlier when he sided with Masons against them. This shows that Truman was indeed aware of their vile capacities, and still nearly joined them out of political expediency.

It is easy to portray Truman as a callous, aloof man separated from the decisions he made that impacted thousands or millions of people. Korea serves as one counter-evidence to this narrative. The war in Korea features hugely in McCullough’s biography. It is amazing to see how much public opinion shifted on this war over the course of just a few years. Truman faced tremendous public pressure to send American soldiers and support to Korea. There was a nearly overwhelming feeling that failure to do so would lead to Soviet control of all of Asia and extreme danger to Europe. When Truman read his statement in support of sending troops, it was met with thunderous applause, letters of commendation from the public, and extremely lopsided votes in Congress. As it became clear the U.S. forces were under-trained and poorly equipped and getting killed in large numbers, public opinion rapidly shifted. Truman acted decisively, shuffling command of the military and putting people in place who could turn the tide from total defeat. Korea at the time was viewed by many as a victory, despite its continued status as a divided country with the threat of war looming. The reasoning behind seeing it as a victory was because it was believed that it helped show the Soviet Union that the United States would not stand aside in Asia and allow it unrestricted conquest of the continent. Whether this sentiment is founded on truth or not, analysis of Truman’s legacy ought to include that. On a personal note, Truman kept a letter from the parents of a young soldier who was killed in action with him throughout his Presidency. The letter was a scalding condemnation, including a Purple Heart returned and the wish that Truman’s daughter could join their son on the battlefield on which he was lost. Though Truman didn’t publicly mourn the deaths of so many Americans–probably to his cost–it’s clear the lives weighed heavily on him.

Domestic issues also loomed large during Truman’s presidency, whether it was labor questions or how to re-integrate returning U.S. troops, Truman had to navigate them all. He frequently took hardline stances which showed both his decisiveness and his unwillingness to change his mind once he’d made a decision.

Truman is an incredibly difficult President for me to analyze in retrospect. He was faced with a series of incredibly difficult choices–including some of the most difficult choices any President has ever had to face. Did he choose correctly on all of them? Almost certainly not. Based on the information he had at the time, were his choices easily dismissed? Again, no. Weighing in on his achievements has the feeling, more than I have before, of not only having the benefit of hindsight, but also facing problems akin to trolley problem scenarios.

The Accidental President isn’t just one of the most interesting biographies I’ve read of a President. It stands as one of the most fascinating non-fiction works I’ve read, period. It’s very highly recommended. Remarkably, Truman by David McCullough hits that same standard, making this 1-2 punch of Truman biographies essential reading for anyone interested in history.

Harry Truman’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)

(33rd President – Original Ranking #7)- Truman was thrust into some of the most difficult decisions any President ever had to face and somehow navigated through all of it to bring the country out on the other side in largely better shape. Though it is easy to question his decision-making at almost every step, when viewed with the knowledge he had on hand and with the urgency with which he had to make those choices, it is hard to find him at fault for all of them. Whether it was the atomic bomb, Korea, or his handling of the formation of the UN and the early Cold War, these all occurred back-to-back within his administration. I’m not convinced others wouldn’t have done the job better, but I’m also not sure how to fault him for the hand he was dealt and the decisions he made. Truman was decisive in a time that needed decisiveness, and though he didn’t always come out on the right side of history, he did so often enough that he places in the higher rankings of Presidents.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

One Sentence Book Review: “Hunting Eichmann” by Neal Bascomb

Hunting Eichmann by Neal Bascomb

Review

A chilling message and warning is contained in the pages of this fascinating story of capturing one of the worst mass murderers of all time.

Links

One Sentence Book Reviews– Read more one sentence book reviews here. I’ve decided to do one for every book I read, which is a lot. I got started on 5/14/16 so this list will grow from there.

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

SDG.

The Battle of Midway- A Case Study for Historiographical Concerns

One area of historical research I’ve pursued as a side interest for my entire reading career has been World War 2. When I say “my entire reading career” I mean that literally. The first book I remember reading was a book about battleships. I’d read the captions over and over. Later, I picked up a book on the Bismarck, and my mom can attest to the fact that I read it over and over. I think the Library just let me check it out again and again.

Anyway, I did trail off reading about WW2 through college, but recently I’ve started again. I picked up the aptly named The Battle of Midway by Craig Symonds. Now it is interesting to consider the divergence in historical accounts of this famous battle. Symonds notes that there was a widespread “supposition that the American victory at Midway was the product of fate, or chance, or luck, or even divine will” (4). In contrast, Symonds argues that while chance played a role, “the outcome of the battle was primarily the result of decisions made and actions taken by individuals who found themselves at the nexus of history at a decisive moment. In short, the Battle of Midway is best explained and understood by focusing on the people involved” (5).

These two ‘schools’ of thought in a sense represent broadly two competing strands within historical research. One group focuses upon the events, while the other group focuses upon the people who make history move. This is, of course, a great oversimplification of historiography, but it is one that I’ve run into time and again. I tend to think the approach Symonds endorses is more realistic. Events like the Battle of Midway don’t just happen; rather, they are the results of a long string of decisions and movements that have brought one to such a turning point in history.

I want to briefly highlight a couple areas from the Battle of Midway as a case study for this historiographic approach. First, “Operation K” was intended by the Japanese to provide information about whether or not Midway was as open for invasion as they thought. The Japanese intended to send a flight of scout planes via submarine to check on Midway. But when the submarines arrived at the point at which they were to refuel the plains, there were a few U.S. warships stationed in the lagoon. Now an event-focused approach to history might explain this as mere luck, or tie it to the fact that the Japanese had done a similar mission earlier which had alerted the U.S. to the necessity of defending this lagoon. But an action-focused approach would tie it not just to the events but also to the decisions of the commanders. Japanese Admiral Nagumo, upon the failure of Operation K, simply went on with the assumption that the United States was not anticipating a strike at Midway. A more prudent decision may have been to send submarines to scout Midway itself, or to simply call off the attack for the moment.

Similarly, the fact that the American dive bombers found the Japanese aircraft carriers at the exact moment they needed to in order to strike hardest may be attributed to luck on an event-based historiography. But it is clear that while perhaps some luck was involved, the decisions of Nimitz and others opened up the possibility for this fortuitous event. For they had decided to send in the U.S. planes without waiting for them to form up. That meant that the dive bombers, fighters, and torpedo planes often arrived at the target at different times instead of together. But this, in turn, meant that the Japanese CAP (Combat Air Patrol) was off shooting down U.S. torpedo planes when the dive bombers arrived. Had Nimitz et al. decided to wait for their flights to form up, they would have met with a more unified defense from the CAP.

Now I’m open to correction on these points of course, I’m no expert on naval history, but what I hope this post has done is to demonstrate that a historiography that takes into account the actions of people rather than merely the occurrence of events has better explanatory value. Does this preclude the involvement of luck or even divine intervention in history? Certainly not. What it does, however, is provide a more thorough account of those things which historians can more easily investigate: the decisions and actions of people  during the largest moments of their lives.

Source

Craig Symonds, The Battle of Midway (New York, NY: Oxford, 2011).