Eisenhower: Becoming the Leader of the Free World by Louis Galambos

Eisenhower: Becoming the Leader of the Free World
by Louis Galambos
Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018

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The latest biography of Dwight Eisenhower is notable for two reasons: its author is Louis Galambos, the editor of Eisenhower's papers, and the book itself is 200 pages long – astonishingly svelte, in other words, when it comes to US Presidential biographies. Eisenhower's career – five-star general who won World War II for the Allies, president who put a smiling face on an interval of the country's postwar prosperity – has provoked a hundred biographers to bloated page-counts, and Galambos' position as surely one of the world's foremost authorities on Eisenhower leads naturally to the expectation that his Eisenhower: Becoming the Leader of the Free World will tip the scales at a thousand pages.

But no: instead, Galambos is brisk, almost aphoristic, on every stage of Eisenhower's life, and since there's nothing about the subject he doesn't know, the effect is bracingly enjoyable. Some readers of presidential biographies actually prefer the atmospherics that bloat makes possible, and those readers might find Galambos' book a lean and hungry thing, almost raw in its refusal to ruminate. But although this book skirts the danger of bloviation, the very fact that Galambos has dedicated so much of his professional life to Eisenhower raises another worry: might not our author be tempted to hagiography? Archive editors often are.

The book is certainly Ike-friendly, but thankfully, its slippages into hero-worship are rare, although one of these, the author's contention that Eisenhower was “an ardent believer in democracy,” is surely the single funniest thing anybody's ever written about the man.

“Whether he was coaching players or training troops, Ike's personality gave him an advantage. He was comfortable with his men and treated them firmly and fairly,” Galambos writes with the kind of restrained pietism that characterizes the whole book . “His package of small-town values and his instincts about leadership served him well.”

Eisenhower certainly hasn't lacked for enormous biographies, and many of them are superb reading. To that library Louis Galambos has added a comparative anomaly: an Ike biography that can be read with great enjoyment in one sitting.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.