Excerpted from the Hardcover Edition
CHAPTER ONE: Boy's Life
GEORGE KENNAN, the diplomat and thinker whose understanding of world politics was of importance in shaping America's conduct during the Cold War, tells in his Memoirs: 1950-1963 about a return, after many years spent representing the United States abroad, to the American Middle West, from which he had originally come. Superficially, his encounter was not edifying. Walking around Chicago-to which he had gone to give a lecture-he experienced a series of depressing sights and encounters. Nevertheless, he wrote:
I knew myself to be back in the part of the world to which I truly belonged-a part of the world which, in memory, I loved as one can only love the place in which one grew up. I believed then deeply in the Middle West and still do-in its essential decency, its moral earnestness, its latent emotional freshness. I viewed it, and view it now, as the heart of the moral strength of the United States. This was precisely why I was so sensitive to its imperfections.
"Latent emotional freshness" is a quality not many, perhaps, would think to ascribe to the American Middle West. With further visits, Kennan came to an unlikely metaphor: "Increasingly, under the impression of this and other visits at mid-century, I came to see this native region as a great slatternly mother, sterile when left to herself yet immensely fruitful and creative when touched by anything outside herself." And then he saw this as a condition common to many countries: "But was this not, I often asked myself, the character and function of all these regions, everywhere across the world, that would respond to the French meaning of the word ‘province'?"
Kennan and his ideas would have their strongest effect(although not always the one he wanted them to have) in the presidencies of two men from the U.S. provinces-Harry S Truman and Dwight David Eisenhower. This book is a brief narrative of the lives and careers of those two men. Part of the reason I chose to interweave their stories is to compare and contrast these men, in their relationships to the great issues with which they dealt and teach other (they came to have a considerable antagonism, as we shall see; their interaction is an interesting part of the story). Another reason for telling their story jointly is that, together, their careers reveal central aspects of American culture at crucial moments in history. Both were president at times that required important national decisions.
During the fifteen and three-fourths years of the presidencies of these two Middle Americans, bracketed by two Harvard men, the175-year-old United States underwent a major change in the role that it would thenceforth play in the drama of world affairs. The nation rejoined Europe, entered its first peacetime alliance since the time of the Founders, undertook its first permanent global commitments, and coped for the first time in human history with a man-made destructive power that could destroy civilization. The history of the decades to follow-four decades of Cold War, with the bomb looming over them-was much affected by what happened in those Truman and Eisenhower years.
FIRST, as to Dwight Eisenhower: You could not ask for a purer sample of the American Middle West than the Eisenhower family in the small town of Abilene in the state of Kansas-very near the geographical center of the country and near the center of the national culture, as well.
David Dwight Eisenhower (his name in that order originally) was the third of seven boys-six of whom lived beyond infancy-born to David Eisenhower and Ida Elizabeth Stover, an unpretentious and impecunious couple of German Mennonite background in the town of Abilene. After the first two boys were born, their parents wished for a girl, but (like Abraham Lincoln and his wife) they kept having boys. Although farming had been the primary occupation of his forebears, and although the Reverend Jacob Eisenhower, Dwight’s impressive multitasking grandfather, was able to give each of his sons160 acres of Kansas farmland, Dwight's father, David, did not want to be a farmer. He got a college degree from a marginal institution called Lane University in Lecompton, Kansas, but had trouble making a living. He met and married Ida Stover at that university. He tried with a partner named Milton Good to make a living in a dry goods store, but that effort failed; in family lore and some biographies, the failure is blamed on Good's having absconded with the store's earnings, but a later biographer, who gave the story a more careful look, found that that was a stretch; David Eisenhower just was not a good salesman. After his failure with the store, he went at first by himself to Denison, Texas, where there was a laborer's job on the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, or "Katy," Railroad. His wife and family followed, and the next boy was born there. This was David Dwight, who, when his first and middle names were reversed, became Dwight. When he became a world figure, some in Texas tried to claim him, but he was in Texas only as an infant; he always made clear that Abilene, Kansas, was his hometown. After the David Eisenhower family had been in Denison for about three years, the River Brethren back in Abilene offered David Eisenhower a job at the Belle Spring Creamery, which the Brethren operated on the outskirts of Abilene, and the family returned there for all of Dwight’s youth. David, the more somber parent, worked from six to six as a mechanic at the creamery throughout Dwight's boyhood. Ida was an able mother to the bourgeoning crew of boys, much praised by her most famous son, including one full chapter devoted to her in his book of reminiscences, At Ease.
Abilene was a town of some four thousand residents and had once briefly been the center of some lively history. Not long after the Civil War, the railroad reached the town, and promptly there was a stockyard at the northern end of Chisholm Trail, on which cattle were brought from Texas to the market. With the cattle came rough-riding cowboys. Abilene suddenly became notorious as the center of saloons, gambling houses, bawdy houses, and daily shootings. Among the town marshals who tried to bring law and order was a figure of legend, "Wild Bill" Hickock, who would be the town's most famous resident until another son of Abilene landed in England in June 1942.
But by the time the Eisenhowers and the Stovers reached Abilene, that colorful historic moment was over and Abilene had subsided into small-town ordinariness. The reasons those families came had nothing to do with cattle or the railroad or gunfights; they were part of a communal move undertaken by their religious group, the River Brethren.
The religious underpinnings of the normative American Midwestern small town would be pluralistically Protestant, sectarian, individualistic, evangelical-in other words, not liturgical, communal, or Catholic, but also not secular. There would be multiple Protestant churches, leaning toward the free churches. In the special circumstance of Abilene, the River Brethren were one of them.
The Eisenhauers of Bavaria, then of Switzerland, then, briefly, of Holland, then, later-in the early eighteenth century-of “Penn’s woods" in the New World, and still later, after the Civil War, of Kansas, were, throughout all these moves, Mennonites. This religious affiliation was a chief cause of their frequent moves. The Stovers, the family of Dwight Eisenhower's mother, Ida Stover, had a similar history and were also longtime Mennonites. In the New World, both families came to be members of a subgroup of Mennonites, given their name, the River Brethren, because they carried on baptisms in the Susquehanna River.
The Mennonite heritage, which lasted so long and held together in such an impressive way, came right up to the edges of Dwight Eisenhower’s youth and life-but then abruptly evaporated. In its European origins it had the cultural strength of a sect-a group with distinctive affirmations that has to some extent withdrawn from, and rejected elements of, the broader culture. A follower of Menno Simons (thus a "Mennist" or “Mennonite") was to obey the magistrate in all lawful and worldly things-but not himself to be the magistrate. Education was to be simple, Bible-based, and provided within the community. Farming was to be the primary occupation. There was to be no swearing, no taking of oaths, for an explicit biblical injunction forbade it. There was to be no marriage outside the group-a reason, presumably, that the Anabaptist line of the Eisenhowers and Stovers ran without a break through the centuries. Above all, there was to be no killing, no participation in war, no service to the worldly power of the state as a soldier. The pacifist principles of all branches of the Anabaptists was one of the reasons they were so often persecuted in Europe, which, in turn, is one of the reasons they moved so often, and why many finally made their way to that great haven for the persecuted in the New World, the Quaker colony whose very name many in eighteenth-century Europe would speak of with warm respect and admiration: Pennsylvania.
Then, after the Civil War, the River Brethren, like many Americans, saw rich lands and new opportunities in the West; encouraged by the Homestead Act and the spread of railroads, they moved there. This decision was not made by individual families, but by the whole sect's reaching a communal consensus to move to the rich farmland of Dickenson County, Kansas, where Abilene was located.
In the New World, the sectarian distinctiveness faded. In the haven of Pennsylvania, industriously working their farms and making their honest but shrewd business deals, the Mennonites were not as far outside the structures of power, or so far over on the fringes of society, as they had been in Europe. Pennsylvania as a colony and then America as a nation welcomed all religious groups, put none in a preferred place, and sanctioned no official persecution. And then in Kansas, though the River Brethren made the move as a communal venture, they were not enclosed within their own community as closely as they had been in the enclave of the Pennsylvania Dutch. The Mennonite heritage persisted in Dwight's home and in that of his parents: His mother had such a mastery of the Bible that she not only won prizes but also prided herself on not having to look up any biblical quotation, but reciting it from memory instead. His father learned enough Greek that he could read the New Testament in that language. It was he who said grace before the family's meals. There were daily readings from the Bible. But in the generations of David and Ida Eisenhower and then of their boys, the pluralism of the New World, the openness and dynamism of the American West, and the acids of modernity did their work on the centuries-old heritage of the Mennonite sect. After the disillusioning experience of his business failure, David Eisenhower began to search the Scriptures as well as his heart, and he carried the fissiparous tendency of sectarian Protestantism to its logical end as an independent individual thinker joined to no church. His wife turned to a narrower sect of more recent origin, becoming a Jehovah's Witness. None of their six sons, successful in various middle-class undertakings, had the remotest connections to the River Brethren in adulthood. When Dwight went to West Point, he had to attend compulsory chapel services, whose enforced attendance he used in later life as an excuse for not going to any church. There is almost no evidence of his Mennonite youth in the speeches or letters of the mature Eisenhower; the Mennonite heritage would appear only in anecdotes. In Kensington in the early stages of World War II, when the time came to tell family stories in Telegraph Cottage, after Kay Summersby had told tales of her Irish childhood, the central figure in the "family" there, General Eisenhower, would tell about his uncle Abraham, a River Brethren minister, the Reverend Abraham Lincoln Eisenhower, who could gather a crowd anytime he wanted to by going out into the streets, stretching his arm upward, pointing, and shouting, "This way to heaven!"
It is rather a clear symbol of the evaporation of the Mennonite heritage in his life that when Dwight Eisenhower was considering a college education and sought admission to Annapolis or West Point, he does not appear to have been inhibited in the slightest by the fact that going to those places meant becoming a warrior. Some biographers mention in passing the irony of the great military commander with a pacifist mother who wept when he went off to West Point to become a soldier-the only time her youngest son, Milton, had seen her weep. But that certainly did not deter Dwight.
In the future, the Mennonite heritage would mean this tithe supreme commander and president: that unlike his new friend Winston Churchill, he did not come into power conscious of a family heritage of outranking others and holding power. Quite the opposite. The Eisenhowers had outranked nobody.
Excerpted from Two Americans by William Lee Miller. Copyright © 2013 by William Lee Miller. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.