Mexican historian John Eisenhower, 3 August 1922 — 21 December 2013
John S. D. Eisenhower’s father skipped his son’s graduation from West Point, but it wasn’t as if his dad wasn’t interested in his son’s career. The future general, ambassador and military historian graduated on 6 June 1944 and Ike was rather tied up that day. While his long and active political and military career was spent in the shadow of his father (whom, as he aged, he physically resembled more and more), in his later years, he emerged in his own right as a fine historian, writing two impressive (and seminal) works on Mexican history: So Far From God:The U.S. War With Mexico, 1846 – 1848 (Random House, 1989) and Intervention!: The United States and the Mexican Revolution, 1913 – 1917 (W.W. Norton, 1993).
Both of this books naturally reflect the U.S. view of those conflicts. However, the retired U.S. Army General and diplomat are surprisingly even-handed in his treatment of the motives and actions of both Mexican and U.S. personnel. He acknowledges not only the atrocities of war (although, as a military writer, sometimes explains them away as necessities or as simply something accepted in those pre-Geneva Convention days), and doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of war inflicted on the civilian populace by his own countrymen. More importantly, for those of us who are not military historians, Eisenhower writes well, and writes clearly on the art and science of killing people and breaking things.
Both of Eisenhower’s books were essential to me when writing my own book on Mexican history. So Far From God stands out as an essential work for both Mexican and U.S. historians seeking to understand the 1846-48 war, which — despite its near erasure from the collective memory of the U.S. had a profound and lasting affect on the history and culture of the United States and Mexico (where it is very much a part of our collective memory). Of the many books on the Mexican Revolution, Intervention! stands out as the best on this one incident, that has been romanticized out of all proportion, or seen only as a minor incident (which it certainly was not) by other writers less deft at understanding the military/political significance of the Expedition.
As a historian, John Eisenhower stepped off the path laid out for the son of the legend… but the turn-off for the trail was blazed by his father. Although Ike was revered for his wartime military career in Europe, it was his activities — or rather non-activity — in Mexico that planted the seed for John Eisenhower’s late-blooming second career. As a teenager, John Eisenhower discovered (during a family argument) that his parent’s early romance was saved by the most unlikely of matchmakers… Pancho Villa.
To bring the young couple together (and later produce the future historian), Villa went to a lot of trouble… although Ike had given Mamie his West Point ring on Valentine’s Day 1916, expecting a long engagement, and already having second thought when Pancho attacked Columbus, New Mexico on 9 March. On 15 March President Woodrow Wilson ordered a “Punitive Expedition” into Mexico. Nothing like the prospect of a real war, and a real death, to help one make up one’s mind… and Ike decided to marry Mamie at the first opportunity.
Although George S. Patton and Douglas MacArthur were sent to Mexico, it was Ike — the one who didn’t go — whose future military and political career was most affected. His heroic status as a military man, and his later appeal as a Presidential candidate (and President) rested on his competence at solving complex logistical problems. Like arranging for a wedding, while gathering the trucks and cars and gasoline and spare parts needed for Pershing to get to Mexico, at a time when the U.S. Army had no mechanics (Ike visited every auto dealership in Texas and went out and hired “military contractors”). Mission accomplished, and the Punitive Expedition hunkered down in Chihuahua, Ike and Mamie had a traditional June wedding and… John S.D. was the result a few years later.
While the expedition itself was a failure, Ike’s role in mechanizing the Army was critical to modernizing the Army, and, in a roundabout way, to creating the U.S. automotive culture. A minor footnote in American history, and a minor family squabble that only John Eisenhower — having a background in both the military and diplomacy, and the access that only the son of a legend could have, to write two books that are critical to any serious student of Mexican or United States history.