Richard Reeves

Why I Like Ike

PARIS -- The 34th and 35th presidents of the United States, Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, were never really comfortable together. They began the ride from the White House to the Capitol for Kennedy's inaugural on Jan. 20, 1961, in total silence, which Kennedy nervously broke by asking Eisenhower what he thought of Cornelius Ryan's new book on D-Day, "The Longest Day."

"I haven't read it," said Ike, which made Kennedy even more nervous. The outgoing president finally said that he knew about the book but didn't need to read it. He was there.

On that day, June 6, 1944, Eisenhower's son, John S.D. Eisenhower, graduated from West Point, beginning a 20-year career in the Army. Later he served as the American ambassador to Belgium and then began a new career as a writer of military history, a good one.

This year, the International Herald Tribune, published here and in more than two dozen other countries, produced six days of stories on the invasion commanded by Gen. Eisenhower, including reproductions of the old New York Herald Tribune's original coverage of the invasion.

Amazing stuff, including what President Franklin Roosevelt told Gen. Charles de Gaulle when the Frenchman originally refused to sign the joint declaration issued by the Allies that day -- Sign, or we'll intern you in Algeria! -- and the demotion of an American major general to lieutenant colonel because he almost gave away the invasion date trying to impress a woman at a cocktail party in London.

But the most amazing article in the series was by John S.D. Eisenhower, who wrote: "The war that included D-Day had made a pacifist of the man who bore the responsibility, its supreme commander."

He continued: "The most fundamental conviction that the period of Ike's command in Europe and the Mediterranean imprinted on his mind was the cruelty, wastefulness and stupidity of war. He saw firsthand how war destroyed cities, killed innocent people (in which I would include most of the participating soldiers), wiped out national economies and tore up the structure of civilizations. Its wastefulness cut him to the bone, and its specter never left him."

Historians generally show Ike in his final days of power in 1960 giving a farewell address warning of "a military-industrial complex" thriving on war and threat of war. A great deal of conventional wisdom dismisses that as the sentimental words of an old man going home. In fact, accounts of the speech almost always emphasize that the words were actually written by Malcolm Moos, a speechwriter who went on to become president of the University of Minnesota -- as if President Eisenhower really did not mean it at all.

The old man's son knows better. He discusses what his father told him and then reminds us that in April of 1953, only three months into his presidency, Ike said this:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed ... The cost of one modern bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants. ... It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people."

That is what the hero thought looking back at his war. His son also said that the general who led the greatest invasion in history privately stressed again and again the value of allies and the futility of attempting something called "preventative war."

John Eisenhower then ended his essay with this: "He was the first to admit that situations change, and the policies followed in one generation might be used as guides to future action but never rules. How he would view today's world scene, I repeat that I do not know. But I wonder."

We all should wonder as we plunge ahead without allies to prevent wars that never were and never would be.

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