REVIEWED: Three Days in January

3 days

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission by Bret Baier, with Catherine Whitney. (Historical Biography, 2017).

The title of this fascinating and generally insightful book refers to the last 3 days of Mr. Eisenhower’s Presidency and the dual-purposed personal mission he set for himself over that time. On the one hand, he was intent on using his final,  nationally televised speech as the nation’s Chief Executive to warn the American people of the possible danger of excessive influence on national policy that he foresaw from what he famously dubbed “the military-industrial complex.” At the same time, he was particularly anxious to give young and inexperienced, about-to-be President John Kennedy the benefit of his wisdom concerning this and all the other vexing problems the new Commander in Chief was likely to face.

I wondered going in how much background the co-authors would provide, in part because focusing on those few days alone (no matter how important) would surely result in a lack of context. I was pleasantly reassured to find that Baier (Fox News’s Chief Political Reporter and the author of at least one previous best-selling book) and Whitney (another best-selling author with more than 50 books to her credit) have done their homework (which is to say the book is detailed and impressively researched).

A very large part of the book is devoted to Eisenhower’s basic life story, from childhood on through his military career (including as a protege of Douglas MacArthur), followed by a brief (and somewhat personally disappointing) interlude as the head of a major university, and on into his reluctant entrance into political life as a candidate and finally as the 34th President of the United States. If this had been a full-blown biography of the man popularly known as Ike, I’m sure all that would’ve been explored even more extensively–but as is it provides a very capable and fully realized portrait of this sober, peace-loving soldier.

Additionally, the account of Eisenhower’s Presidency makes abundantly clear that the ideas expressed in his famous last speech were not some sudden flash of insight. It is fascinating to learn that he and his speechwriters had been working on this farewell address for a full 2 years. And of course his far earlier (if less famed) “Cross of Iron” speech shows that his seeing a need to pursue mutual reductions in war-making hardware (especially nuclear devices) when possible was a long-established part of his agenda. If any further evidence is required of his determination to reduce the mutual suspicions of the Cold War, consider his extraordinarily bold “Open Skies” proposal. If it had been approved, this would’ve allowed both the US and the Soviet Union free hands to overfly each other’s territory (thereby removing any opportunity for either side to launch a surprise attack). Alas, the paranoid spirit of the times (and of the USSR’s leadership in particular) made this amazing idea an absolute no-go.

The book also does a good job in explaining Eisenhower’s style as a leader and his tendency toward subtle, behind-the-scenes action. Whether this was the best course of action in all cases is very debatable–dealing with the disreputable Joe McCarthy is a particular case in point. But this was Ike’s natural inclination and consciously chosen method.

The older man’s view of the ambitious JFK is quite interesting, as well. The way this evolved and deepened in the course of the post-election transition is well illuminated and handled evenhandedly. The viewpoint is from Eisenhower’s perspective (and rightly so, for he is the subject of the book), and not overwhelmingly partisan. This indeed is appropriate, considering Ike’s own personal loathing of mindless politics as usual.

I would say the handling of Eisenhower’s far stormier relationship with the often combative President Truman is less bipartisan, but an accurate accounting of things as viewed by Ike and his people.

The co-authors briefly make note of that OTHER very famous and brilliant speech following just after Ike’s (Kennedy’s soaring “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do fir your country” Inaugural Address).

Two of the greatest political speeches of all time, given within days of one another! A volume of similar length as this, centered around BOTH and how they complement and/or contrast would of course be a very different book. And a very worthwhile one, I suspect. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.

Equally involving is what comes after–especially the shaken JFK seeking Ike’s advice in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs debacle. Kennedy’s more mature later actions (bringing the missile crisis this early disaster helped create to a non-lethal conclusion) is mentioned in far less detail, for it didn’t involve Eisenhower directly.

Ike’s last years are covered relatively briefly, as well.

Before an Acknowledgement Page and the full text of Mr. Eisenhower’s farewell address, comes a short chapter entitled “The Last Word.” This brings us into the immediate post-election period of 2016, with outgoing President Obama greeting President-elect Trump after that bitter campaign and ends in January 2017, with Mr. Trump taking office. The explicit attempt to conflate events separated by nearly 60 years isn’t fully successful, in my opinion, but perhaps inevitable.

I do find myself wondering if the co-authors were at all conscious that linking the two transitions so explicitly casts Obama in the Eisenhower role (the experienced and mostly cautious outgoing Chief Executive) and Trump as the stand-in for Kennedy (outwardly bolder, and inexperienced to the point of recklessness).

There were a few (thankfully very few) other moments where I felt this book stumbled. A couple of these were the result of sloppy copy editing (Ike’s funeral caisson was built to transport “cannons,” folks–not “canons”), and therefore not even the authors’ fault.

The account of Ike’s military career fails to make even a passing mention of the time when (as MacArthur’s aide) he was handed the distasteful task of routing the Depression Era “Bonus Army” of WW I Veterans from their “Hooverville” camps in various DC parks. This is one striking omission.

Another, is the absolute failure to go into the difficult decisions the President faced in the Middle East, particularly the Suez Crisis (where he forced usual Allies to back down) and his attempts to increase stability in Lebanon.

Full disclosure: I confess that I’m no great admirer of Fox News and don’t recall ever watching Bret Baier’s program. I do think he and his co-author did, overall, a very good job with this book. But it does bug me slightly (maybe more than slightly) that, in his introduction, Baier feels compelled to adapt one of his network’s dubious catch phrases (the “we report, you decide” bit) to describe his role. Sorry, no. This is very much a pro-Eisenhower volume. And that’s fine. To their credit the authors don’t whitewash certain controversies (again regarding McCarthy and tensions with Truman, as well as other figures in both parties). It’s in keeping with Ike’s spirit that that ‘other party’ isn’t demonized, as well. The evidence largely supports their admiring portrait of the President, but biography and history (both necessarily involving subjective judgments and analysis) are not exactly the same (and should not be considered exactly the same) as day-to-day reporting.

Anyway, again: Overall, a very good and interesting book about President Eisenhower, his life and times, and especially one highly notable moment in history.

 

 

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