Randall Payleitner

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Book Review #11: Three Days in January

9 out of 10 books I read are because someone I trust recommended it to me. Then 1 out of 10 are because of something else—maybe a cool cover, an intriguing premise, a timely encounter, a familiar author, etc.

I came upon Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission at Target. I’m a sucker for 20th Century history, great speeches, and creative ways of looking at the past. I got it and read it. I was entertained and learned a few things, but really it was just okay.

It’s mostly an abbreviated biography of Dwight Eisenhower—his unique rise to both 4-star general and president of the United States. But instead of the climax of the story being the planning and execution of D-Day (possibly the greatest military feat of all time) or the securing of America in a new age of atomic weapons (it’s amazing that no more atomic/nuclear weapons were used after 1945)… The climax of this book is the transition of power between two opposite-worldview presidents. A fascinating premise.

Ike was a military man. Having led tens of thousands of soldiers as a general and then becoming the Commander-in-Chief in the atomic age, he made it clear that he was willing to use all the weapons in his arsenal should it come to that, but… “At the same time, he understood true success would be measured by finding nonmilitary solutions. Ike strongly believed America’s wealth and might were not the sole measures of its dominance on the world’s stage. He often cited America’s moral center and spirit as the keys to its success. For what would be the point of being dominant in the world if we had nothing to transmit” (182).

Eisenhower’s personality and demeanor were very “shoot ‘em straight,” but he also had no tolerance for personal attacks. He kept it professional. Upon review of one of his speeches, Ike said this in response to his speechwriter: “A man will respect you and perhaps even like you if you differ with him on issues and principle. But if you ever challenge his motives, he will never forgive you. Nor should he. So don’t ever again, in any document you submitted to me, include a word which questions a man’s motives” (147). Very few presidents, before or since, have held to this. But it worked.

Two of the top 10 greatest speeches ever given by U.S. presidents were given within three days of each other. Eisenhower’s “Military Industrial Complex” speech and Kennedy’s “Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You” speech. They were politically, generationally, ideologically, and culturally opposed and yet they understood the magnitude of the day, the seriousness of the foe in communism, and the need to preserve one of America’s greatest strengths: the peaceful transition of power.

This is a timely book for sure and it is full of good quotes (mostly from historical sources, rather than the author). The end result is a nice historical log of a paradoxically simpler, yet somehow also more complicated, time.

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