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.