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Hold on to your hats, Shmoopers. You're about to get a crash course in Eisenhower.
Dwight David Eisenhower was raised in Abilene, Kansas, the third son in a religious family of six boys. The name Ike was apparently used for all the boys at one point or another, but with Dwight, the moniker stuck for good. The family was poor, but Ida Eisenhower demanded discipline and ambition from her sons.
Legend has it that young Dwight didn't quite get the message.
After high school, Ike went to West Point, not because he was particularly interested in a military career, but because it was tuition-free for boys who were accepted, and he wanted to play football. When a knee injury ended his athletic career, Ike lost interest in school and ended up graduating near the middle of his class and spending way too much time playing poker. (Don't even ask about his grades for discipline.)
Ike graduated from West Point in 1915. He was assigned to an army base in Texas, and paid for his first uniform with money he won from poker. (Guess he learned something at West Point.) Soon after arriving at Fort Sam Houston, he met Mamie Doud and married her the following year. He became a husband and a First Lieutenant on the same day in 1916. His first son, Doud, was born in 1917. They nicknamed him "Icky." (They pronounced it "Ikey," though.)
When the U.S. entered the first World War in 1917, Ike hoped for an overseas command. But he was too good an instructor and organizer, and was kept stateside. He finally got orders to lead a tank battalion to fight in Europe, but a week before he was supposed to be deployed, the war ended. Still, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and was developing a reputation as a talented and conscientious soldier and a great teacher.
For a couple of decades, Ike's military career was successful but unexciting. In 1919, he traveled with the Army Tank Corps with a convoy of 72 vehicles carrying about 280 men from the White House lawn to San Francisco. The point of the trip was, among other things, to demonstrate the need for a decent interstate highway system. (Ike got the point. Thirty years later, he made things happen.)
In 1921, tragedy struck. Little Icky died from scarlet fever at the age of three, an event that Ike said was a "tragedy from which we never recovered" (source). By then, Eisenhower was a major, moving around the country doing anything his nation needed him to do and working under some famous and respected generals. He bonded with George Patton over their mutual love of tanks. He wrote papers for retired Gen. John Pershing and got to know Gen. George C. Marshall (of Marshall Plan fame). General Fox Conner was so impressed with Ike that he recommended him to the elite Staff College program in Leavenworth (kind of like graduate school for officers), where he graduated in 1926—this time at the top of his class.
In 1935, Gen. Douglas MacArthur brought Ike to the Philippines in 1935, where he was tasked with developing a Filipino defense force. He worked with MacArthur for four years, and after fourteen years as a major (there wasn't much opportunity for promotion during peacetime), he finally advanced to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Still, he was convinced that this would be a career dead-end for him. With the project poorly funded and General MacArthur on the outs with FDR, there wasn't much to do but learn to play golf and fly a plane. With war brewing overseas, the Eisenhowers returned to Washington in 1939.
Ike had impressed some of the most important figures in the Army, but he was still relatively unknown. It was his brother Milton, who held an important position in FDR's Department of Agriculture, who was the more famous Eisenhower. A photo taken in 1940 with some other officers identified Ike as "Lt. Col. D. D. Ersenbeing" (source). After the Louisiana Maneuvers, no one would make that mistake again.
While American was watching Hitler overrun Europe and Great Britain was begging the U.S. to enter the war, the nation's military leaders knew they weren't ready to fight. There was no shortage of soldiers, and they knew Americans were as brave as anyone, but they lacked combat training and experience. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall decided to plan a series of massive military training exercises and war games, and chose 3400 square miles of backcountry in Louisiana and East Texas as the location.
Four hundred thousand soldiers took part in the Louisiana Maneuvers—the largest peacetime military exercises in the country's history. Two "armies," Red and Blue, fought for control of the Mississippi River, built bridges, learned to cover long distances under cover of night, repaired vehicles, and were tested in all kinds of simulated battle conditions and armored maneuvers.
One of the officers asked to oversee the Maneuvers was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Although he wasn't the most experienced military strategist among the officers participating, Lt. General Walter Krueger, who commanded the Blue Army, gave him the job of designing the strategy to defend Louisiana against the Red Army led by Patton and a division of tanks. When the "war" was over, the Blue Army had won. Historian Mark Perry wrote:
CBS reporter Eric Sevareid eyed Krueger's staff and concluded that Eisenhower "makes more sense than any of the rest of them." Drew Pearson, perhaps the best-know reporter of his day, agreed, telling his readers that Eisenhower "conceived and directed the strategy that routed [Lear's] Second Army," and that the balding lieutenant colonel was endowed with "a steel-trap mind plus unusual physical vigor." (Source)
The Generals didn't forget.
Eisenhower's career soon took off like a rocket. He'd impressed Gen. Marshall with his plans for defending the Philippines (guess it wasn't for nothing after all), and he asked him to draw up plans for an invasion of Europe. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Marshall promoted him to brigadier general. Not long afterward, Eisenhower was in London, planning the invasion of North Africa and overseeing operations in Sicily and Italy. His down-home charm went a long way in smoothing out the relationship between the U.S. and Great Britain, whose leaders saw Britain as the older sibling in this war partnership. It was a tough assignment, he wrote to Mamie:
'Darling, in a place like this the commanding general must be a bit of a diplomat, lawyer, promoter, social hound, liar, at least to get out of social affairs, and, incidentally—sometimes I think most damnably incidentally a soldier.' (Source)
Eisenhower, for all his tactical brilliance, had never commanded troops before he led a force of 60,000 in North Africa. Holed up in dark and dank tunnels in Gibraltar, waiting for the invasion to begin, Ike was depressed. That taught him the most important lesson of his career: that optimism and confidence spread down to the troops, and that pessimism spread even faster. He wrote that ''I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect cheerful certainty. Without optimism in the command, victory is scarcely obtainable'' (source).
He'd need every ounce of that optimism.
In North Africa, Eisenhower's force was pummeled by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the German Army's famous "Desert Fox." He lost 100 tanks and 6,000 men. Undeterred, he replaced his commanding officer with his old tank buddy George Patton. Together with British forces, they drove back Rommel and won the North African campaign. Eisenhower gave credit to the allies working together to fight a common enemy, but Ike was acknowledged to be the real hero in forging the alliance.
A few months later, allied forces pushed into Italy. In 1943, the allied heads of state—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—met in Iran to plan the invasion of Europe and to choose a single commander. FDR insisted on naming George Marshall, but at the last minute decided he needed his Army Chief of Staff in the U.S. as an advisor. The call went out to a surprised Eisenhower (he'd assumed it would be Marshall), who accepted what would be the most important command of his career. As the new Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe, he was about to write history.
Shmoop doesn't have enough ink (or pixels or whatever) to describe all the successful campaigns that Eisenhower planned and commanded during the course of WWII. He led the invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944 which history knows as D-Day but could just as well have been called DDE-Day. True to his vow of optimism, he gave this insanely stirring address to the troops on the eve of the Normandy invasion:
Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, you are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. You will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world. Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well-trained, well-equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely. I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory. Good luck, and let us all beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking. (Source)
The invasion, although resulting in a huge loss of life for the allies, was a success. The liberation of Europe from the Nazi stranglehold had begun as the Allied forces swept through Europe. Ike was horrified at the carnage he witnessed—something that made him appreciate the responsibility he had as a commander sending young men into battle. At Falais in France, he said, "I encountered scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh" (source).
Ike's brilliant strategy in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944 defeated Germany in their last major offensive of WWII. He ended the war as a five-star general (one of only a handful). He'd commanded the largest American army in history and coordinated the efforts of three great world powers in bringing down Hitler and his Third Reich. On May 7, 1945, his staff accepted the surrender of the German Army at Reims, France.
Despite his strategic brilliance and massively high rank, Ike never fell victim to the vanity or recklessness that characterized some of the other WWII generals. (We're looking at you, George Patton.) People saw him as calm and collected, but more than that, he was what we at Shmoop like to call a mensch—a decent, responsible, guy with integrity and compassion.
His men and officers respected him; he personally dropped in on every one of his divisions that had to take part in the invasion of Europe because he understood the risks to his men and their families. He was able to get along with Allied leaders like Churchill and Stalin who fought alongside the U.S. during the war. (Yeah, Stalin was our ally once. Ike even gave the brave Red Army the honor of capturing Berlin.) And when the shocked troops stumbled onto Hitler's concentration camps and discovered the starving, desperate survivors, Ike made sure there were photos and documents so that the war criminals could be prosecuted and the world wouldn't forget.
And here's something amazing. Just before D-Day, which he knew was a highly risky operation, Eisenhower jotted down a brief note to be delivered in case the invasion failed.
Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone. (Source)
The words "mine alone" are underlined.
That's really all you need to know about Eisenhower.
After the war, Eisenhower spent some time overseeing the U.S. Occupation zone in defeated Germany. Truman appointed him Army Chief of Staff, and in 1948 he became president of Columbia University. He wasn't the most hands-on university president. When the Korean War heated up and the free world needed his leadership, he took a leave of absence from Columbia to accept the job of Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was created as a bulwark and deterrent against Soviet military aggression.
After the war, Eisenhower was arguably the most popular public figure in America, having kicked Nazi butt and kept the free world free. The natural next step was running for President of the United States, because anything else would just have seemed… awkward. You can't exactly get a regular job after being the Supreme Commander of Everything. But in 1948, he wasn't interested despite being courted by both Republicans and Democrats. He didn't think it was right for career military guys to get involved in the nasty business of politics, and anyway, he already had a job at Columbia:
Ever since I have first heard my name connected with possible political office, I have consistently declined to consider such a contingency. I am a soldier, I belong to the Army, and the Army is truly national. It lives to serve the nation and nobody else, no party, no special group. (Source)
Then in 1950, the Cold War heated up when communist North Korea invaded non-communist South Korea. (See our "Historical Context" section for more details.) In June, 1950, America joined the fight. Senator Robert Taft a powerful senator (and son of the 19th president of the United States), who sought the Republican nomination for president, was an outspoken opponent of American involvement in the war—in any foreign war, in fact. A staunch anti-interventionist in general, he'd opposed military involvement in WWII and wasn't on board the idea of NATO. (Source)
You can imagine what Eisenhower thought of Taft. It's thought that the prospect of the isolationist Taft as the Republican nominee in 1952 was what made Eisenhower rethink his own stance on a presidential bid. He was also alarmed by the rising popularity of the commie-hunting demagogue Sen. Joseph McCarthy, who was whipping the country into a dangerous hysteria about communist infiltrators in government. McCarthy had even accused Eisenhower's beloved mentor Gen. George Marshall as heading up a traitorous communist conspiracy just for trying to broker peace during a civil war in China. When the 1952 election rolled around, both parties still wanted Ike on their ticket and he eventually agreed to run as a Republican, with Richard Nixon (whom he didn't really like much), as his Veep. One of his first campaign promises was to end the war in Korea.
On the campaign trail, he pounded home the theme he'd continue right through to his farewell address:
Today staggering federal expenditures for civil and military purposes have soared to totals beyond the comprehension of ordinary individuals. In a world threatened by war, a great portion of these is inescapable, but because necessary expenditures are so great, our entire arms program must be under constant scrutiny that not one dollar be spent without full value received. Armament, of its nature, is sterile. Heedless expense is investment in bankruptcy. (Source)
By a lot.
Ike got right to work, using his military experience and U.S. military strength in dealing with foreign policy, and his principled upbringing and moderate social views in dealing with domestic affairs. He continued with his theme of the dangers of an unchecked defense buildup. A few weeks after the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953, Ike, seeing an opportunity to advance the cause of disarmament, gave a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors in which we hear a familiar refrain. He lamented the loss of the hope for a lasting peace that just eight years ago seemed a possibility, and laid out the current atmosphere of fear that saw an armed buildup as the new normal. He'd told his speechwriter, Emmett Hughes, that he had just one think he wanted to say:
Here is what I would like to say. The jet plane that roars over your head costs three quarter of a million dollars. That is more money than a man earning ten thousand dollars every year is going to make in his lifetime. What world can afford this sort of thing for long? We are in an armaments race. Where will it lead us? At worst to atomic warfare. At best, to robbing every people and nation on earth of the fruits of their own toil.
Now, there could be another road before us—the road of disarmament. What does this mean? It means for everybody in the world: bread, butter, clothes, homes, hospitals, schools—all the good and necessary things for decent living. (Source)
After twelve drafts, here's what was said:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. […] This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. (Source)
Meanwhile, Ike got on with the business of running the country. A few foreign affairs/defense highlights from Ike's presidency:
On the domestic side, he
All in all, not a bad eight years.
Throughout his career, Ike's objective was making sure America kept to its principles and ideals, including leading the world toward a more peaceful and prosperous future. Having lived through two World Wars and seen the buildup of world-ending nukes on both sides of the Cold War, his fervent mission became nuclear disarmament and world peace through diplomacy. His "Atoms for Peace" speech at the U.N. laid out a plan for all nuclear nations to come to the table and see how nuclear technology could be used for peaceful purposes. He knew all too well what the stakes were. Ike's son, the military historian John Eisenhower, once remarked,
One day in a Cabinet meeting, I was a witness and the chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers got up and gave a briefing on what we would do in the event of nuclear war, what we would do to reestablish the dollar. And Dad stopped the meeting. He says, "Boys, listen to me." He says, "If we have a nuclear exchange, we're not going to be talking about reestablishing the dollar. We're going to talking about grubbing for worms." (Source)
In 1959, Ike embarked on a 19-nation goodwill tour. ''I want to prove that we are not aggressive, that we seek no one else's territories or possessions. Such prestige as I have on earth, I want to use it." (Source). Later, his interpreter wrote of the tour:
I can never forget this old soldier, tirelessly and without regard for his own health, moving around the world to advance the cause of peace. He has never been given full credit for what he did to project an image of the United States as a country of justice, honor and decency. (Source)
There were some serious potholes on the road to peace. Two weeks before a Paris peace summit, where Eisenhower would confer with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Russia shot down an American U-2 spy plane. The U.S. assumed that the pilot had been killed and concocted an elaborate cover story about it being a NASA weather plane, yadda, yadda. When Khrushchev announced that guess what, the pilot, Gary Powers had been captured alive and admitted to working for the CIA, an embarrassed Eisenhower was forced to admit that the U.S. had been flying espionage missions over the U.S.S.R. for years. No surprise, the incident tarnished the summit, and Khrushchev stormed out on the second day. Ike was heartbroken that this would be his lasting legacy.
Which brings us to his "Farewell Address."
On the eve of leaving office, Eisenhower could look back at the tumultuous first half of the 20th century and see an America that was prosperous and, at least for now, at peace. He knew his successor would inherit a country whose economic and military influence was the most powerful in the world. The Free world was still free, thanks in large part to him. He'd seen what U.S. military strength could do, and he witnessed the beginning of the technological revolution that would land an American on the moon just eight years later. More than just about anyone, he knew the risks associated with unchecked military and technological growth and the importance of keeping in focus what really counted: a peaceful and prosperous future for future generations. He had a lot he wanted to discuss with the American people before signing off.
So in his "Farewell Address," Ike gave a stern but gentle warning about internal dangers facing the country. He affirmed America's sacred role in world history, the ideological struggle against Communism, and the alliances with major Western powers. But his speech is remembered for his warning about the unintended consequences of unchecked growth, particularly in the arms and tech industries.
Ike had seen the explosive growth of the arms industry during wartime, which even after the war showed no signs of slowing down. He warned against allowing it too much influence over government policy. He recognized that the country was on the cusp of a scientific and technological revolution and warned against allowing it to be dominated by an elite few, or solely in the hands of the federal government.
He saw Americans' fondness for consumption and knew that American industry could provide people with all the consumer goods they wanted. But he was afraid that all this "living for today" attitude could use up resources that should managed realistically so that the next generation could have something left. There are no miraculous solutions to our problems, says Ike, only measured, sensible steps.
Ike ended with some thoughts about what had been most on his mind towards the end of his presidency. He'd hoped his legacy would be as a peacemaker, even as he recognized the need to maintain military strength to keep that peace. He signed off with prayers for the betterment of all people in a peaceful and prosperous world.
Having achieved an insane level of accomplishment throughout this life, Ike retired with Mamie to a farm near the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. He raised cattle, travelled, played golf, and continued painting—a hobby he'd taken up in his White House days. He was a sought-after consultant to JFK and LBJ, and found time to write two memoirs.
During his presidency, Ike helped lead the United States into a new era of defense, intelligence gathering, and technological development. He laid the foundations of space exploration, revamped the transportation sector, established an aggressive anti-Communist foreign policy, and made it possible for Americans to drive from Boston to San Francisco in 48 hours if they didn't stop to sleep or eat. But in doing all that, he'd learned first-hand what the weaknesses of the U.S. governmental system were. And with his last major official act, Ike warned the American people about those weaknesses.
He also installed a putting green on the White House lawn, which is pretty awesome, too.
He had his second heart attack in 1965, and his health deteriorated. He died at Walter Reed Army Hospital on March 28, 1969. By all accounts, he went out like the Supreme Commander that he was. He told the nurses to lower the shades and ordered his sons to pull him up to a sitting position. Looking at his family, he said, "I want to go; God take me" (source).
Evidently, even God couldn't disobey General Dwight D. Eisenhower.