Eisenhower and Summersby

November 15, 2012, 11:01 pm

Eisenhower at the German surrender. Summersby in the background

Oh shoot. Almost immediately after nobly declaiming on how too many blog posts are about “someone is wrong on the Internet” I find myself writing another one, this time about the historical parallels between the Petraueus scandal and Dwight D. Eisenhower’s relationship with Kay Summersby. Amy Davidson, at the New Yorker, argues that comparing the two is “sophistry.” Davidson starts with the quite reasonable argument that:

Is it good that a scandal about Eisenhower didn’t disrupt the war in Europe? Yes, but that means we were lucky, not that Ike did everything right. It’s a reason to be glad that an earlier general was reasonably careful about his (still alleged) affair—not to give a later one license to cheat.

She is exactly right. The “everyone is doing it” defense is not one that carries much weight past, well, third grade, and especially not in a military which now has a substantial female contingent and an ongoing and severe problem with sexual violence. It is also good that Davidson notes that the Eisenhower-Summersby relationship remains “alleged.” Summersby claimed in her 1977 autobiography that there had been a romance that was intermittently physical, but there is little other close evidence.

Davidson continues and begins to lose the plot, in a number of ways:

More important, Eisenhower is not serving now, and Petraeus was not serving in the Second World War. What we know about Eisenhower suggests that he would have been smart enough to recognize, and respect, the limits that the present day imposes. He would almost certainly have had very different sorts of relationships with women in and out of uniform

Petraeus, as far as we know the story now, was not serving but retired when the affair happened. Eisenhower, by contrast, was very much still in the military. So that’s not an advantage to Eisenhower. As to the “What we know” speculation about Eisenhower, it’s a lovely idea, but very much hypothetical and hardly valuable at judging the two.

And so:

And Eisenhower wouldn’t make an indiscreetly e-mailing fool of himself—in this respect, Petraeus is no Ike. Ricks writes that this is just a matter of ”the sex lives of our leaders”; and yet Petraeus made Broadwell a part of his public life.

Ah…Eisenhower brought Summersby out of the motor pool of British drivers, kept her as his personal driver and then secretary, helped her become a United States citizen and transfer into the US military. Mamie Eisenhower, ensconced back in the United States, was concerned about Summersby. Does this sound like keeping her out of his public life?

Soon she was more than a chauffeur: sitting in on top-secret meetings, going to 10 Downing Street with the general for lunch with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, dining with President Franklin Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull and key advisers such as Averell Harriman, Harry Hopkins, and Bernard Baruch.

She accompanied Eisenhower to combat areas and shared GI rations and “liberated champagne” with Gens. Omar Bradley and George S. Patton. Often she presided as hostess at his formal dinners. “We have no secrets from Kay,” Eisenhower told Churchill, who was charmed to sit on her right at table and later awarded her the British Empire Medal.

That ranks substantially higher than anything that Petraeus did with Broadwell. This does not obviate the larger argument that Davidson is making–that the military needs to make sure that it is treating all of its members, of whatever gender, with the respect that they deserve–but we can be critical of Petraeus without whitewashing Eisenhower.

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