Dwight David Eisenhower qualifies as an authentic American World War II hero, insists author Michael Korda, at a time when a plethora of recent biographers has portrayed the U.S. military leadership in the 1940s as a bunch of brash, green, naive and bungling would-be warriors.
"Ike" is the unlikely story of the amicable Midwestern youngster who went to West Point, accomplished his modest objective of reaching full colonel during three decades of paper pushing, and then in a six-year period that seemed a lifetime was catapulted to five-star general, supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe, and Army chief of staff -- not to mention two terms as U.S. president later on.
Make no mistake, this book is the detailed story of D-Day and the ensuing Allied victory in Europe. All the rest is just years leading up to or years that followed this world-changing event.
Korda is at his best when he writes about battle, military strategy and troop movement. He makes sense of the overwhelmingly complex D-Day preparations which culminate in his retelling of the greatest invasion story in the history of Western Civilization. The liberation of Western Europe by 2.8 million Allied troops under Eisenhower's command is told with the fluidity of a novelist and the excitement of a dramatist.
If you ever have had the privilege of standing on the high ground overlooking the Normandy beaches, if you ever have crawled into a German pillbox that would become the grave for the defenders of Hitler's Fortress Europe, or if you ever have walked on the sacred ground containing thousands upon thousands of mute marble crosses and stars, each bearing the name of someone's son or daughter, this account will bring tears to your eyes. This is one of the most exciting and chilling tellings of D-Day this reader ever has encountered. One can smell the diesel fuel, the sulfurous smoke and the fear and death all around.
Korda is a Brit by birth, was the long-time editor-in-chief of Simon & Shuster, has been a bit of a self-promoter, and now in his 75th year has settled in as a popular historian and magnificent storyteller. He relies heavily on earlier biographies and published memoirs, but he sees them from the perspective of a new century.
His reassessment of the events of 1940 to 1945 has a distinctly British coloring, but he views both the British and American critics of Eisenhower -- and there were many -- as mostly self-serving.
To Korda, Winston Churchill's great history of World War II is written with the full complement of hindsight, and aims, consciously or not, at personal grandiosity. Field Marshal Montgomery's memoirs are dismissed as sour grapes, more Monty carping. And MacArthur's, Patton's and Bradley's assessments of Eisenhower are rejected in favor of Korda's own: Ike was the one man perfectly fitted by nature to head this grand alliance.
Ike's steel nerves, his prudence, tact, fundamental fairness and total lack of pretense all worked in his favor in commanding a military action on a huge, daring and grand scale.
According to Korda, Operation Overlord succeeded precisely because of Ike, not in spite of him as his detractors would have it. He disputes the British interpretation of the Battle of the Bulge, claiming that Ike was on top of it all the way, and Monty, in his ignorance, got it all wrong.
Eisenhower's strategy of a broad-front attack, which won the West but allowed Stalin to occupy Berlin is seen as the difference between an imperialist leadership in London and a soldier's general who sought unconditional surrender at the lowest cost in American lives.
Korda does not ignore Kay Summersby, but neither does he dwell on her. He describes much of the juiciest gossip as highly improbable, if not totally outside the realm of the possible. And the Eisenhower White House years are treated almost as an epilogue.
If the late Stephen E. Ambrose remains Ike's most devoted biographer, then Michael Korda, from the position of one generation removed, is right up there. This immediate best-seller presents a view of Eisenhower that may eventually become the standard.
Edward Cuddihy is a former News managing editor.
Ike: An American Hero
By Michael Korda
779 pages, $34.95