The Magazine

Understanding Harry and Ike

The uneasy friendship of Truman and Eisenhower

Apr 1, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 28 • By MICHAEL BARONE
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Harry & Ike
The Partnership that Remade the Postwar World
by Steve Neal
Scribner, 324 pp., $26

"HARRY & IKE," Steve Neal's book on the relations between Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower, might well have had a second subtitle--"Great Presidents Behaving Badly." It tells two stories. The first is the collaboration of two able and dedicated public officials in launching the United States on its victorious course in the Cold War, and without whom that struggle might have taken quite a different course. The other is the hatred--not too strong a word--that these collaborators came to have for each other for nearly a decade.

Astonishingly, given the millions of words written about Truman and Eisenhower (as well as the many thousands written by them), the story of their relationship has never been told fully before. To this task, Steve Neal brings the credentials of a scholar and a willingness to burrow through archives and find letters and documents previously ignored--as he did in "Dark Horse," his definitive biography of Wendell Willkie--and the skills of a journalist, which he has exercised as a national political reporter and as a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. He is one of the few writers today who combine a feel for the broad sweep of history with a sure grasp of the arcana of local politics. "Harry & Ike" is good and original scholarship; it is also a darned good read.

Truman and Eisenhower had much in common. They were only six years apart in age and grew up in small towns in the farm country of the very center of America--Independence, Missouri, and Abilene, Kansas, just 150 miles apart. Their families respected learning and education, but they lived in humble economic circumstances--especially grating for Truman, one of whose grandfathers was an affluent landowner. Their lives intersected early: In 1905 Truman lived in a rooming house on Troost Street in Kansas City with Eisenhower's brother Arthur. But they came from different traditions. Truman was southern stock--his grandmother to her death rooted for the Confederacy--and was always a Missouri Democrat; Eisenhower's ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch farmers, and his family Kansas Republicans.

Like other impecunious American boys with a love of history and a yearning for glory, both Truman and Eisenhower aimed at military careers. Truman, rejected for the service academies because of bad eyesight, joined the National Guard in 1905, at 21. Because of his family's straitened economic circumstances, he had to work on the family farm and did not have the money to marry his childhood sweetheart, Bess Wallace. Eisenhower got an appointment to West Point (his second choice, after Annapolis). On his first assignment, to Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, he met Mamie Doud, whose father allowed him to marry her only after Eisenhower gave up his chance at flight training; the great army leader's first ambitions were to be a sailor and a pilot. Eisenhower, the professional soldier, did not serve in combat during World War I, much to his frustration. Truman, called to active duty, served ably as an artillery captain under fire in France; only after this experience did Bess's family consider him suitable for marriage. Post-World War I America had its disappointments for both: Truman's haberdashery business failed in 1921; Eisenhower got few promotions in the peacetime Army.

IN RISING from obscurity, both men had critical help from important patrons. Truman's was Thomas J. Pendergast, cement contractor and Democratic boss of Jackson County, which included booming Kansas City as well as Independence. Pendergast got Truman nominated for judge and presiding judge of the Jackson County Court in 1922 and 1926. He was crucial in getting Truman the nomination for U.S. Senate in 1934; after the boss's downfall in scandal, Truman was opposed in the 1940 primary by the sitting governor, and won by only 7,976 votes.

Eisenhower's patron was General Fox Conner, his commander in the Canal Zone in 1922, who was convinced a second world war was inevitable and insisted Eisenhower read widely in military history and strategy. Conner got him into command school at Fort Leavenworth, where he finished first, as he did later at the Army War College. In the process he impressed General John Pershing and served six years in Washington, where, Neal writes, "he would become a keen student of politics." He also gained a high rank in General George Marshall's little black book.

Throughout their public careers, both Truman and Eisenhower were regarded as ordinary middle-class Americans, regular guys with no dazzling intellectual powers or sophisticated experience. But in fact they were both highly intelligent and as adults read widely even as they gained experience in military and political life. Still, before the outbreak of World War II, they were little known. Truman was about as obscure as a senator could be, and Eisenhower was a lieutenant colonel with little prospect for promotion. No one suspected that they would be the presidents leading America through the sixteen years after the war.

Both were put on the path to the presidency by Franklin D. Roosevelt. In December 1943 FDR named Eisenhower the commander of the cross-Channel invasion, and in July 1944 he (in typically devious fashion) made Truman the Democratic nominee for vice president--in effect, the next president. Truman was still little known, however, when he became president in April 1945; Eisenhower was a popular hero. At the Potsdam conference in July 1945, Truman fawned over Eisenhower. "General, there is nothing that you may want that I won't try to help you get," Eisenhower recalled him saying there (Truman later denied it, unconvincingly). "That definitely and specifically includes the presidency in 1948." Truman said this even though Eisenhower disagreed with him on major policy decisions--he opposed asking the Soviets to enter the war against Japan and, alone among major military leaders, opposed using the atomic bomb.

From their first meeting we see the contrast in their character. Truman, the professional politician, was disarmingly frank and astonishingly open, making no attempt to conceal his admiration and awe for the world-famous general. Eisenhower, the professional soldier, was tight-lipped and circumspect, concealing any ambition he may have had and keeping his options open. You can see the same contrast in their card-playing habits. Truman's game was poker, at which he seemed to be a good but not great player; he played not to win money, but to enjoy the conviviality of a night out. Eisenhower's game, as Murry Kempton noted in a brilliant article in 1967, was bridge, which in the years before World War II he played well enough to provide a substantial supplement to his military salary.

The same contrast was apparent in how they handled their memoirs. Truman helped Eisenhower accumulate a small fortune by making sure the IRS ruled that Eisenhower's sale of his book "Crusade in Europe" would be classified as a capital gain, not ordinary income. This enabled him to earn $476,000 after taxes, $300,000 more than he would have if the payment were classed as ordinary income. But Truman acquiesced in the 1950 repeal of the tax provision used by Eisenhower and earned only $37,000 on his memoirs.

Through most of Truman's presidency the two worked closely together and agreed on major issues. As Army chief of staff, Eisenhower supported Truman on unification of the military services and on the commitment of American power to stop communism in Europe and elsewhere. Truman continued to press his 1945 offer to make Eisenhower president. As late as the fall of 1947, Truman asked Army Secretary Kenneth Royall to offer Eisenhower the 1948 Democratic nomination for president and, astonishingly, offered to be his vice presidential candidate. Only after Eisenhower declined did Truman decide to run for a full term himself. Eisenhower loyally maintained his refusal to run. In January 1948 he demanded that his name be removed from the New Hampshire primary ballot, and in July 1948 he squelched a Draft Eisenhower movement led by three of FDR's sons to nominate him at the Democratic National Convention.

But Eisenhower was not entirely open with Truman. In 1947 and 1948 he asked a number of people whether anyone could be nominated by both parties. Despite his warm letters praising Truman's policies, he voted for Thomas Dewey in 1948. In light of his later actions, the reasons for Eisenhower's course are fairly clear. On domestic issues he supported the Republican party; he did not want to be elected as a Democrat. He did believe in Truman's commitment of American power to the defense of Western Europe. But Dewey agreed with that policy, and Eisenhower could be confident it would be continued, as a bipartisan foreign policy, if Dewey were elected.

Truman and Eisenhower continued to collaborate after the 1948 election. (And they probably would have even if Truman had known that Eisenhower had voted for Dewey; Truman was happy to work with George Marshall, who let it be known that he never voted for anybody but who told Truman that if he recognized Israel he would vote for his opponent.) Eisenhower was willing to take a leave from the presidency of Columbia University in the first half of 1949 to work in Washington for unification of the armed forces, though that year he turned down the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Dewey's offer of appointment to a vacant U.S. Senate seat (John Foster Dulles got the seat instead; Truman offered Eisenhower the Democratic nomination to run against him in 1950). And in December 1950, Truman appointed Eisenhower to serve as supreme commander of the newly formed NATO in Paris.

Despite his oft-voiced opinion that military officers should not become involved in politics, at some point during his service as NATO commander Eisenhower set out to be elected as president in 1952. In this he surely had high motives. But his acts were Machiavellian: He violated the rules of personal morality for what he regarded, reasonably, as the good of the state. Eisenhower had supported Truman's decision to oppose Communist aggression in Korea in June 1950 and his highly unpopular decision to fire General Douglas MacArthur in April 1951. (Eisenhower had worked as a speechwriter for the grandiloquent MacArthur in the Philippines in the 1930s, and had a low opinion of his former boss.) But as Truman's job approval rating plunged to 25 percent and stayed there, it became clear that he could obtain neither victory nor a truce in Korea. Conservative Republicans like Robert Taft assailed Truman for losing China and for not seeking victory in Korea; Joseph McCarthy attacked him (inaccurately) for tolerating Communists in high office. Taft, who had voted against the NATO treaty and opposed stationing U.S. forces in Europe, seemed likely to be the next Republican nominee for president, and the Republicans, after 20 years out of office and running against the record of an unpopular president, seemed to have a good chance to win. A President Taft would likely dissolve NATO, which Eisenhower, like Truman, believed was essential to the preservation of Western civilization. This was something Eisenhower thought he had a responsibility to prevent.

HE PROCEEDED, very much less than straightforwardly, to do so. Truman sent an emissary to Paris in June 1951 to sound out Eisenhower on the possibility of running for president as a Democrat in 1952. The general seemed noncommittal. But in October 1951, he wrote Republican senator James Duff a letter admitting he was a Republican and saying that any American would have to regard a presidential nomination "as constituting a duty to his country which would transcend any other duty." He added, in parentheses, "In this particular case it would compel immediate resignation from the Army." This was the surreptitious opening of a campaign. Duff, a former governor of Pennsylvania, was close to Dewey, who had publicly endorsed Eisenhower back in 1949. Just 11 days after Eisenhower sent his letter, the New York Herald Tribune, the house organ of Dewey Republicanism, endorsed Eisenhower in a front-page editorial.

Why did Eisenhower decide to run as a Republican, when he probably could have had the Democratic nomination for the asking? One reason is that he was a Republican by conviction on most issues; second, he was repelled by the corruption in the Democratic party; finally, he may have calculated that a Democratic nomination would not guarantee victory, given Truman's low popularity.

In a November 1951 White House meeting, Truman again offered to support Eisenhower for the Democratic nomination, according to Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, who spoke with Truman later that day. (Truman and Eisenhower both denied this at the time.) A month later Truman wrote Eisenhower and asked his plans for 1952. "Do what you think best for the country," he wrote. "If you decide to finish the European job (and I don't know who else can) I must keep the isolationists out of the White House." This was almost plaintive--another offer of the Democratic nomination and a statement that if it was refused Truman would run himself, which is what Truman set out to do. Eisenhower wrote back, "The possibility that I will ever be drawn into political activity is so remote as to be negligible. This policy of complete abstention will be meticulously observed by me." This was misleading and duplicitous--from a man who had already set in motion a campaign.

THE CAMPAIGN officially began in January 1952, when Senator Henry Cabot Lodge announced that he would enter Eisenhower's name in the New Hampshire primary, and Eisenhower issued a statement saying that he would not leave the NATO assignment, but that citizens had a right "to place before me next July a duty that would transcend my present responsibility." In other words, he was running, from a military command in Europe. In March Eisenhower won the New Hampshire primary, while on the Democratic side Truman, who was privately determined to run, was beaten by Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee. Later that month Eisenhower wrote Truman asking to be relieved as NATO commander "on or about June 1st of this year," and days later Truman announced he wouldn't run for another term. When Eisenhower returned June 1 and reported to the commander in chief, Truman invited him to the family quarters of the White House and praised him glowingly; later he quietly ordered that Eisenhower's rank and salary be restored if he were not elected in November.

But Truman's friendliness toward Eisenhower turned to antagonism by the end of August. This was probably inevitable in an electoral democracy. Truman was an unpopular president; Eisenhower, as the candidate of the out party, was bound to criticize his administration, and Adlai Stevenson, the candidate of the in party, to Truman's dismay sought to distance himself from the administration too. In August Eisenhower irritated the president by refusing a White House briefing from foreign policy officials and the CIA. He sent Eisenhower a hurt note, which infuriated Eisenhower. Truman was appalled that Eisenhower made appearances with Senators William Jenner and Joseph McCarthy--who had harshly criticized General George Marshall--and omitted from his speech in Wisconsin lines praising Marshall. For this Truman harshly attacked him on the campaign trail. Truman had always prized loyalty; as vice president he had attended Boss Pendergast's funeral. He felt Eisenhower was showing political cowardice and disloyalty: "A man who betrays his friends in such a fashion is not to be trusted with the great office of president of the United States." Eisenhower thought like Machiavelli's prince: Personal disloyalty was justified to save the republic.

But the biggest issue to the voters was Korea. Eisenhower attacked Secretary of State Dean Acheson for his January 1950 speech excluding Korea from the American "defensive perimeter" in East Asia. Truman responded by hitting Eisenhower for "attacking our efforts in Korea." Eisenhower responded with a speech in which he promised, "I shall go to Korea." Truman derided the pledge as a "desperate attempt to get votes." After Eisenhower won with a large electoral vote majority, Truman wired him, "Congratulations on your overwhelming victory. The Independence will be at your disposal if you still desire to go to Korea." Eisenhower was furious. When Eisenhower did go to Korea in December, Truman called his trip "a piece of demagoguery." Eisenhower would have nothing more to do with Truman during the transition period. They even sparred over riding together in the presidential limousine on Inauguration Day.

THEY SCARCELY met again over the next eight years--only at the funerals of Chief Justice Vinson and General Marshall. President Eisenhower seldom wrote Truman, never sought his advice, and did not invite him to the White House until 1958 (Truman declined, three times). Eisenhower refused to attend the opening of the Truman Library in 1957 and sent an official with a perfunctory message instead. When he visited Kansas City in 1959, he met with the governor of Missouri but not with Truman. For his part, Truman made many disparaging remarks about Eisenhower and started rewriting their personal history; he claimed, for example, that he had never offered him the 1948 Democratic nomination. It was an unedifying spectacle all around.

Yet Truman supported, indeed often volunteered his support of, Eisenhower's foreign policy. For it was very much like his own. The Atlantic alliance and the commitment to contain communism were the great achievements of the Truman administration; they were the great achievements of the Eisenhower administration as well. And they were causes that Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower believed in. If we take it for granted today that the United States waged the Cold War against communism for more than 40 years, with no end in sight and victory hard to imagine, we should pause to realize that this defense of freedom was by no means inevitable. Truman might have faltered in 1947 or 1950, Taft might have been elected in 1952, a Congress tired of foreign commitments and foreign aid might have withdrawn America from the world. Truman and Eisenhower made sure that these things did not happen on their watch, and their persistence got Americans in the habit of supporting the Atlantic alliance and the containment of communism so that they continued to do so, though sometimes weakly, even after Vietnam. These two sons of middle-class midwestern America made possible the creation of the world we live in.

SO IT IS a happy duty for Neal to report that, once they had laid their presidential burdens down, they made up. In November 1961 Eisenhower, traveling through Kansas City, asked if he could come over and inspect the Truman Library. The two ex-presidents had a cordial visit. Other invitations and visits followed. They met at the funerals of Sam Rayburn and Eleanor Roosevelt and John Kennedy, where they rode together in Eisenhower's limousine to Arlington Cemetery and then had lunch at Blair House after the burial. Two old friends, reminiscing, sharing their common grief, knowing they were near the end of their lives.

It is sad that they could not have gotten on better between 1952 and 1961, but they were rivals. Truman had started off his presidency humble, aware of his unpreparedness for the job, ready to turn it over to the better prepared Eisenhower in 1948; but Eisenhower, for his own reasons, did not want it then. By 1952 Truman was more self-assured, more possessed of the usual presidential confidence that no one could do the job better; while Eisenhower was convinced he was the one figure who could preserve the foreign policy they both believed in. Truman, open and frank, could not forgive disloyalty; Eisenhower, colder and less candid, unable to believe that a professional politician could not appreciate his Machiavellian course of action, was still a soldier who could not abide attacks on his honor. In important years they cooperated in their common cause, to contain communism and sustain the Atlantic alliance; in their separate attempts to serve that cause in the 1952 presidential election, their collaboration turned to hatred. Neither lived to see their cause prevail. Even so, as Steve Neal puts it in his concluding sentence, "Harry and Ike were the partnership that saved the West."

Michael Barone is senior writer at U.S. News & World Report.