Of Books and Ideas, Part I
VTR Date: December 6, 2007
Author and editor Michael Korda discusses his work and the business of writing.
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GUEST: Michael Korda
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
And when, nearly a half century ago, I first met today’s guest, he was a young editor at Simon and Schuster on his way to becoming that prestigious publisher’s long, long time Editor-in-Chief.
He suggested that I write a book about what then was called “educational television”. I had recently been rather abruptly fired as Channel 13’s Founding General Manager – with a lot of attendant press coverage – and this very sharp young editor must have thought I was prepared to tell quite a story.
Well, I wasn’t, really. But think of all the authors Michael Korda has edited or published over the years, those who have told amazing stories…in fact or fiction…and been richly rewarded for them: Larry McMurtry and David McCulloch, Mary Higgins Clark, Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, William L. Shirer and the Durants (Will and Ariel), Henry Kissinger, and, of course, let’s not forget Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins.
An extraordinary – but only partial – roster, to which, of course, we must add Michael Korda himself with his own best selling books…novels and others.
Indeed, what leads to this program is a recent column in the New York Times Sunday Book Review occasioned by my guest’s own appearance once again on the Times “Best Sellers” list with his new book, Ike, An American Hero, a most compellingly readable biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower, America’s beloved World War II General and then President of the United States.
Michael Korda indicates that it’s like the old business about “Rich or poor, it’s all the same…but rich is better”. You write what you will, but it’s so nice to find it on that “Best Sellers” list.
And I suspect that “Ike’s” appearance there is particularly pleasing for my guest. Am I right, Michael?
KORDA: Oh, absolutely. It’s only my second biography, my first was of Ulysses S. Grant and I enjoyed doing that very much. And that’s what led me, by the way, to the idea of doing Eisenhower. But I was just so pleased when it hit the list and so pleased now that it was picked as one of the two best biographies of the year by the Christian Science Monitor and one of the five best non-fiction of the … books of the year … by the Washington Post.
I just … I just can’t tell you how happy I am that it’s … gained such recognition. It was for me such an interesting book to do, and I had such a good time doing it that I … I don’t know of any book that I’ve written except Charmed Lives that’s given me as much pleasure.
HEFFNER: Why the generals … Grant and Eisenhower?
KORDA: I’ve always had an interest in military history. I, I’ve done a lot of military history reading. I’ve published a lot of books about military history and of course, a lot of books by Generals of one kind or another. And I wanted to test out, among other things, the degree to which I could involved writing biography and history at the same time.
In other words, I, I … what I want to do is not present a portrait of Eisenhower, but I want to paint a portrait of the times he lived in and how it … those times altered him … and how he altered those times.
And to somehow find a way of portraying the battle … the battles of the Second World War that I … in which Eisenhower participated in the round so that the non-military historian reader would come away from it and say, “Oh, now I understand it. I get why that was important and why that mattered.” And that was a very challenging task. But I enjoyed doing it enormously.
HEFFNER: There’s been some criticism that you’ve been too kind to Ike. How do you respond to that?
KORDA: Well, you know, to quote the famous campaign slogan, “I like Ike”. I, I just don’t deny that I like him. Let me say, first of all that it would be very difficult for me to write a biography of somebody I didn’t like.
I admired and liked Grant. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have written a whole book about him.
I admired Ike and the more I read about Ike, the more I liked him. I don’t, in the book, deny his faults. Like any person, he had faults. But I think on the balance I really liked the man.
I like his honesty, I like his tough-mindedness. I like the fact that he had a brilliant mind which we went out of his way to conceal behind the big grin.
HEFFNER: Tell us about that. Why? Why did he?
KORDA: Well, I think partly out of genuine modesty. The central fact of Ike’s life is that he was born in Abilene, Kansas of parents who were Mennonites. Which is, in itself, a fascinating story because all Ike’s family were Mennonites. Which means, among other things, that they were fervent and convinced pacifists.
Ike’s mother, Ida, was not only a Mennonite, but converted to being a Jehovah’s Witness in mid-life. And of course they are even more pacifist than the Mennonites, if that’s possible.
So, it’s … to me it was fascinating to pick up the strands of how this man came out of this very fundamentalist religious background that was firmly pacifist to go to West Point and become a solider. And much of Ike’s life, I think, is conditioned by … not only by modesty … but by humility and by a certain sense of right and wrong, that comes, I think from growing up in a small town of what was then the Western frontier, very nearly.
Because Ike was born shortly after the days when Abilene was still a wide open cow town. And one of his childhood memories was the pistol fight in the street outside their house at Abilene. So he’s very close to the frontier. And his whole life is marked and guided, I think, by those very firm principles that were imbued into him by Abilene.
HEFFNER: It’s interesting you say that because I frequently show my students the, the famous Edward R. Murrow program about Senator McCarthy and in it, or in an associated program, he shows Ike protesting against the, the innuendoes that McCarthy used and he says, “You know, I came from this small town and there, where I came from, and you people probably don’t know about it, you ought to read more of your Westerns …
HEFFNER: … we had certain basic principles. You attack a man to his face, never behind his back.” And Eisenhower seemed very much to be involved in that notion.
KORDA: Yes, I think very much so. He was very open … he had, which most people did not recognize about him … quite apart from a brilliant mind … first rate mind … he had an absolutely terrifying temper. From childhood. He had a hair trigger temper … face would grow red and purple, the veins in his forehead would throb, his cold blue eyes would stare out at you. He was a very fearsome spectacle when he lost his temper. He lost his temper, famously, with Patton over the slapping incident in Sicily and Patton never forgot it.
He lost his temper with Bradley because Bradley had moved his field supplies to the Eastern side of the Meuse River against Ike’s orders. Just in time for them to be in the way when the Germans attacked at the Battle of the Bulge and the Germans stood in very good position to capture something like 10 to 12 million gallons of gasoline, which was all they needed to take them to Antwerp, or perhaps to Paris.
And Bradley, to the end of his days, when he talked about being dressed down by Ike … in public … his hands would tremble like this, at the thought. Ike could be very, very frightening when he lost his temper. And yet most of the time he kept it under tight and rigid control. But the two things that stand out most about Ike are his brilliance and his temper.
HEFFNER: Why then, is the picture of so many people who do have a picture of Ike, and you and I agree that there are not that many of us left, who have a picture of Ike or FDR …
HEFFNER: … or those of our older contemporaries.
KORDA: Or anything that took place before yesterday.
HEFFNER: Yeah. Well, let’s go back to before yesterday. Why has Ike not been regarded … not been given what you obviously feel is his fair due?
KORDA: Well, I think that those who are interested in American military history recognize that he’s one of the three greatest of American Generals. Washington, Grant and Eisenhower.
His Presidential career of eight years is, I think, in part undermined by Ike’s firm belief that it was his job to take the responsibility for things that went wrong and to give credit to others when they went right. That was part of his creed. And he followed that very, very …
HEFFNER: Military as well as Presidential?
KORDA: Military as well as Presidential. He felt very strongly that it was his job to take responsibility and his job to pass on credit. So he gets no credit, for example, although two books have recently been published on the subject … for the enormously firm stand he took on civil rights as President. Actually, the biggest gains in civil rights were made under Ike. He’s the one who picked Earl Warren for Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.
HEFFNER: Yes, but that’s … that’s a bone of contention, isn’t it? The thought has been that he thought it was the biggest mistake in his life.
KORDA: Oh, he did. (Laugh) He did. But … what he meant by …
HEFFNER: So how fair is it …
KORDA: … what he meant by that was that Warren gave him the biggest problem that any President ever had, which is a huge hot potato … race relations just being the hottest potato of hot potato. Ike did not thank Warren for that.
However, when Orville Faubus the Governor of Arkansas, refused to let Black kids into the Little Rock schools … Ike didn’t bother calling out FBI agents or Federal Marshals, he ordered up the 101st Airborne, fully armed, trooped and equipped to escort nine Black kids through segregationist mobs into school. Because Ike absolutely understood that Federal laws had to be enforced and that when the government had to use to force, it had to use massive and overwhelming force that you couldn’t argue with.
Now, I put it to you … that in the case of the Boston riots in which … a few years back … in which White mobs were throwing rocks at schools buses … if we had called out the 101st and the 82nd Airborne to escort those buses instead of using cops and FBI Marshals, that incident would have been over much more quickly and much more firmly handled. So I think Ike does not get credit for this. Two books have this year been published. But we establish, I think, Ike’s bona fides as a determined leader in the case of Civil Rights, but I think also … though Ike did it … unlike Jack Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson who liked to make their decisions in the Oval Office surrounded by photographers, by Magnum photographers, by Life photographers, by reporters, having the important telephone call … the dramatic picture op … all of that.
Eisenhower was completely different. He listened to people’s opinions, he made up his mind, what he wanted to do by himself, he gave the orders for it to be done, and then he went upstairs and had his dinner and went to bed. There were never any reporters present and so there were never any of these great crisis pictures in the illustrated magazines of the day.
HEFFNER: Michael, aren’t you talking, basically about a different time in our history? A different time … you could be talking about Harry Truman for the moment in those terms.
KORDA: Well, you could … yes. And, you know, of course, there’s a great connection between Ike and Harry Truman.
HEFFNER: Not a friendly one.
KORDA: Not a friendly one at all. They go … both go back to being 19th century boys, running the country and the world in the 20th century and they both have the virtues and in some ways, the faults of the late 19th century.
Ike hit it off badly with Truman from the very beginning, you know, because Ike did not know, at all, about the development of the atomic bomb. Nobody told him.
And when the war in Europe had been won and he went to the Potsdam Conference in 1945, Secretary of War Stimson and President Truman told him about the atomic bomb …
HEFFNER: Ahh …
KORDA: … much to his surprise.
HEFFNER: And much to Truman’s surprise. He had just found out …
KORDA: (Laughter) Well, yes, he hadn’t known about it either. But then they told him that it was going to be used against Japan within the next few weeks. And Ike was furious and argued very firmly, once again with that flaring temper …
HEFFNER: Why, Michael?
KORDA: That he felt that the Japanese were clearly beaten. That they were attempting to surrender in every neutral capital in the world provided they could keep their Emperor. That the Russians were coming into the war and once that happened the Japanese would simply be driven out of the war without any doubt whatsoever and that the use of this weapon against them would, to quote him, “tarnish our great victory in the eyes of the world.” And he also said a very pregnant phrase, to Truman … “if you take the genie out of the bottle, you will never get him back in again.”
So, since Truman was very sensitive, having come to the Presidency very recently and as Vice President, after Roosevelt’s death … very sensitive, indeed, to slights. He was outraged at the passion with which Ike argued against him over using the atomic bomb on Japan. So from the very first moment of their meeting, they got off on an unhappy footing, which did not end.
When Ike … you know, it was the tradition that the President-elect on the way to the Inauguration drops ‘round to the White House for a cup of coffee in the White House with the departing President before going on to accept the Presidency.
And Ike wouldn’t get out of the car … he sat in the car while the Trumans were on the portico of the White House waiting for him to come in and have coffee. He wouldn’t do it. So there were very strong feelings between him and Truman. But I would agree with you that they were both … whatever their own differences brought up in a 19th century America which was different and with very different values from the one in which we now live.
HEFFNER: The “what if” question always has to come up. What is your own sense as a student of Eisenhower now of the role, intellectual role, in the decisions he would be making, maybe arm chair decisions … in our own time.
KORDA: Well, perhaps the most significant one is that he, himself said, very firmly that he did not believe that America should ever become an occupying power in the Mid East. To quote him, he said, “I think that if we were to become an occupying power in the Middle East, we would deeply regret it.” And he knew whereof he spoke, He had conquered, after all, Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia. And knew something about the Arab world.
KORDA: And I think he was a hundred percent right about that. Just as Ike was very, very determined not to get American troops involved in Vietnam. He said, I think I’m quoting him fairly accurately… “If we were ever … if we ever placed ourselves in a hot war in that region, I believe that the American people would regret it deeply.” He was absolutely right. He understood that to inherit a French Colonial war was a mistake. He, he coldly, even though his own friends came over from Paris to persuade him, refused to send American troops to Vietnam to support the French. And he indignantly refused to use atomic weapons to support the French when they were losing the war at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
So, I think again and again you see that Ike’s instincts were very … not only correct, but very Liberal considering that he was a Republican. On Social Security, for example, Ike firmly argued against the stand of his own party and said if any American political party ever tried to destroy or tinker with Social Security … to quote him exactly, “You would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
HEFFNER: Of course, I remember those days when the question in our country was …”Is he a Republican or is he a Democrat?” When Harry Truman, I gather, first thought in terms of Eisenhower running, it was as a Democrat.
KORDA: Well, more than that, in a unique moment in our history, Harry Truman in … offered Ike in the ’48 campaign, offered Ike Democratic slot at President and he, Harry Truman offered to drop down to the Vice Presidency and run as Ike’s Vice Presidential candidate if Ike would run as a Democrat.
I don’t think any President has ever made that offer to anyone in American history. And it’s … it’s something that astonished me, when I began to read about Eisenhower.
Already, Eisenhower was beginning to feel, however … first of all a dislike for Harry Truman. And secondly a doubt that he was really a Democrat. However, when you read about the ’52 convention, you realize first of all how close Ike came to losing the nomination. He couldn’t lose the election … nobody … you couldn’t nominate anybody who could run against Eisenhower and lose in 1952. But he very nearly lost the Republican nomination to Taft. Because Taft was at the heart of the Republican Party.
HEFFNER: Mr. Republican.
KORDA: He was “Mr. Republican.” Ike had no Republican credentials. He believed in the Marshall Plan and NATO, both of which he had been instrumental in putting into place. Which were anathema to Right Wing Republicans and Middle Western Republicans. He did not believe in supporting MacArthur’s views about what should be done in China. He did not believe in the core firm beliefs of the Republican Party.
So the Republicans came to Ike, slowly, hesitantly and with great difficulty, they truly would have rather supported Taft and Taft very nearly did win the nomination. If it hadn’t been for the California delegation’s switching their votes from Earl Warren to Eisenhower, Ike might not have won that nomination.
HEFFNER: And the military/industrial complex … who was behind that phraseology? Was it Ike’s own?
KORDA: Not only was it Ike’s own, but Ike was the creator of a military/industrial complex. In the 1930’s in the War Department, he was the man who first went around to American businesses and banks and explained to them how they would need to organize themselves in case America were ever dragged into a major war. And provided the core planning that enabled American industry … and financed American industry … to be able to switch very quickly from manufacturing civilian goods to manufacturing war goods. He was helped in that by a whole slew of people. And, in general, it was not looked on with much favor by anybody in the War Department or the government, until Douglas MacArthur became Army Chief of Staff and looked at what Ike was doing. And realized how important it was and let Ike run with it.
So Ike had helped to create, in fact, the military/
industrial complex and knew just what it was about. It’s that much more interesting that in leaving the Presidency he warned us against the military/industrial complex running policy, diplomacy and the government. He had, in fact, created something that was larger than he anticipated. And that … ended with more power than he wanted to have it possess.
HEFFNER: The warning wasn’t that much heeded, was it?
KORDA: No. It has not been by any of his successors, unfortunately. But I’ve understood exactly what the problem was. Which was that we were producing weapons we didn’t need. We were paying too much for them and we were letting our policy be determined by weapons rather than by common sense.
His dealings with the Soviet Union were, I think, very, very much those of an honest broker. It was another problem between Ike and the Republican Party … was that Ike was not an instinctive anti-Soviet Union man. He didn’t like Communism. After all, he was a Kansas Republican, he was a General. But he had been to the Soviet Union. He had met Stalin and dealt with him as an equal. He wore or, at any rate, possessed every high decoration the Soviet government could give.
He had … he was the only Westerner, non-Communist Westerner ever to have stood on Lenin’s tomb side by side with Stalin for a military parade which went on for six uninterrupted hours with a band consisting of 10,000 musicians.
HEFFNER: 10,000 musicians?
KORDA: Yes. 10,000 musicians. This enormous huge parade in Eisenhower’s honor in Moscow. Followed by a banquet for 2,000 people at the Kremlin. So, when Ike thought of the Russians, he wasn’t thinking about people who were unknown political figments of the imagination. He was deeply grateful for Russia’s sacrifice’s during the war, when they had lost between 23 and 28 million civilian and military dead. When he flew back from Moscow in 1945 to Berlin he describes in Crusade in Europe, his autobiography about the war … flying hundreds and hundreds of miles without seeing a single town or village or wood or bridge that was not burnt and destroyed. And he conveys very strongly his horror and revulsion at the, the depth and the atrocity of the damage done by the Germans.
Now, that doesn’t make him a Communist sympathizer. But he never thought of the Russians in the kind of mechanical way that I think Richard Nixon or the Republican Right always did.
HEFFNER: Do you think that made him a wiser, better President?
KORDA: Much wiser. Much better.
HEFFNER: And …
KORDA: He was firm, but he dealt with people as people. It’s notable, for example, that Ike who was in France in the 1920s as a military officer and as an aide to General Pershing … that Ike got along better with DeGaulle than any other American. And DeGaulle in his own wonderful three volumes of war memoirs, which I published in English in this country is virtually the only Anglo-American major figure about whom he has good to say … is Ike. He has pages of absolute admiration for Ike. He, he, he respects Ike’s genius as a General. He respects, which I think is … and recognizes … which I think is very unusual, Ike’s enormous vision, his ability to imagine things on a huge scale and bring them about. That’s, that’s something that’s quite … when you consider what relationships with France are like, or have been like over the recent last years … that’s something Ike would never have allowed to have happened.
HEFFNER: Michael Korda … thank you so much for joining me today and thank you so much for writing Ike.
KORDA: Oh, it’s been a great pleasure for me.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. If you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4.00 in check or money order to The Open Mind, P. O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, New York 10150.
Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”
N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.