Daily Archives: 24 April 2020

Rating Eisenhower in Africa, 1943

From An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943, Volume One of the Liberation Trilogy, by Rick Atkinson (Henry Holt, 2002), Kindle Loc. 7906ff:

On Friday, March 12, as Rommel lamented his plight, Eisenhower wrote his own son at West Point: “I have observed very frequently that it is not the man who is so brilliant [who] delivers in time of stress and strain, but rather the man who can keep on going indefinitely, doing a good straightforward job.”

A “good straightforward job” was now called for, and in this homely requisite the Americans found their genius. If the winter campaign in North Africa had revealed Eisenhower’s infirmities, just as it revealed those of his army, spring would elicit strengths of character and competence in both the man and the host he commanded. Eisenhower had been naive, sycophantic, unsure of his judgment, insufficiently vigorous, and a more titular than actual commander. The U.S. Army had been sloppy, undisciplined, cavalier, insufficiently vigorous, and a more titular than actual army. These traits did not abruptly slough away, molting into brilliances of generalship and élan. But new martial lineaments emerged, and they became the stuff of victory and liberation.

After months of sailing with the wind in his face, Eisenhower now found a fresh breeze at his back. His health returned. Alexander and Patton shouldered many of his battlefield burdens. Axis weakness and the weight of Allied material strength became increasingly evident. The praise he craved was forthcoming—from Churchill, who publicly extolled his “selflessness of character and disdain of purely personal advancement,” and from President Roosevelt, who sent word: “Tell Ike that not only I, but the whole country is proud of the job he has done. We have every confidence in his success.” With his equilibrium restored and his job apparently secure, Eisenhower’s leadership ripened with the season.

“I have caught up with myself and have things on a fairly even keel,” he assured Marshall in early March. He sensed the power of a few fixed ideas compellingly preached, and these became tenets of the armies he commanded, even if sometimes practiced more in the breach than the observance. Foremost was Allied unity. “German propaganda is trying to convince the world that [the] British and Americans are at each other’s throats in this theater,” he told Alexander in a handwritten note. “We’ll show them.” He also radiated certitude of victory, which he saw in raw terms: good triumphing over evil after a struggle to rival the primordial brawl of angels. “We have bitter battling ahead, even in Tunisia,” he wrote an old friend on March 21. “Beyond this is the more serious, long-termed prospect of getting at the guts of the enemy and tearing them out.” To his brother Edgar he asserted, “We’re going to clear the Axis out of Africa—and that’s something!”

He was busier than ever, but more focused. “Political questions are not plaguing me as much as formerly,” he told Edgar. He announced that visitors to Algiers were unwelcome unless vital to victory. “American Legion commanders, princes, and others of that stripe are nothing but a deadly bore,” he wrote Marshall. “I am cutting everybody off my list [who] has not something specific to do with winning the war.” He took a personal interest in fielding better mine detectors, better tank sights, even better colored smoke for battlefield signaling.

Endearingly modest, he retained the homespun authenticity that was part of his charisma; men would do much to evoke that remarkable grin. “Eisenhower’s genius seems to be that of a good chairman,” the reporter Philip Jordan, once a harsh critic, told his diary in the weeks after Kasserine. “I have changed my views of this man: he has something.”

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Filed under Africa, Britain, education, France, Germany, Italy, Mediterranean, military, U.S., war