From the time he entered West Point in 1911 to his Farewell Address to the nation in 1961 at the end of his second presidential term, Dwight Eisenhower played hard on behalf of the USA. We'd have to say that he brought his A-game to the Little Rock Crisis.
Yeah, Shmoop likes Ike.
Raised in Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower always was quick to point out that he came from "just folks": men and women who worked hard, took care of their families, and did what needed to be done.
"I never thought of myself or those about me as makers of history," he wrote in his memoir At Ease.
One of six brothers (a seventh died in infancy), Ike grew up in a close-knit family. All the boys were called "Ike" at some point, but with Dwight it stuck. 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 hoped to go to West Point—not so much because he wanted an Army career, but because, if you could get in, it was free. Plus, he wanted to play football.
Fortunately for the free world, he got in.
He wasn't always the best student—he spent a lot of time playing poker—and don't even ask about his disciplinary record. When a knee injury ended his athletic career, Ike lost interest in school and ended up graduating near the middle of his class. But everyone recognized Ike had something special: he was a natural leader.
Ike graduated from West Point in 1915. He was sent to an army base in Texas, and he paid for his first uniform with money he won from poker. (Guess he learned something at West Point.) Not long after arriving at Fort Sam Houston, he fell for a young woman named Mamie Doud and married her the following year. Their son Doud was born in 1917. They called him "Icky."
We seriously hope it was pronounced "Ikey."
During WWI, Ike hoped to get an overseas command, but he was too good a teacher, and the Army kept him stateside to train soldiers. He finally got orders to go overseas, but the war ended just week before he was to be deployed. In 1919, he accompanied the Army Tank Corps convoy of 72 vehicles from the White House lawn to San Francisco. The trip was designed, among other things, to demonstrate the need for a decent interstate highway system. (Ike got the point. Thirty years later, he was in a position to make things happen.)
In 1921, three year-old Icky died from a bout of scarlet fever, an event that Ike said was a "tragedy from which we never recovered" (source). A second son, John, was born in 1922.
His peacetime years weren't too exciting, but they laid the groundwork for his later successes. By then a major, Eisenhower did anything his nation needed him to do; he got to know some famous generals like George Patton (they bonded over a mutual love of tanks), John Pershing, and 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 head of the class.
After working for General Douglas "I shall return" MacArthur in the Philippines from 1935-1939, Ike had impressed his share of Army brass with his knowledge of strategy. But he still wasn't as well known as his brother Milton, who was a mucky-muck in FDR's Department of Agriculture. A photo taken in 1940 with some other officers identified Ike as "Lt. Col. D. D. Ersenbeing" (source).
The Louisiana Maneuvers made sure no one would ever make that same mistake.
While Great Britain was begging the U.S. to enter the war and prevent Hitler from totally overrunning Europe, the nation's military leaders knew they weren't ready to fight. American servicemen were as brave as any, but they lacked combat training and experience. Army Chief of Staff George Marshall planned a series of massive training exercises, and found 3400 square miles of backcountry in Louisiana and East Texas for the site of the largest peacetime military exercises in the country's history.
Four hundred thousands soldiers took part in the Louisiana Maneuvers. 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 take part in the Maneuvers was Dwight D. Eisenhower. Lt. General Walter Krueger, commanding the Blue Army, tasked him with 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.
The Generals took notice.
Before you could say "Oberhufbeschlaglehrmeister," General Marshall promoted Ike to Brigadier General. Japan had just attacked Pearl Harbor, and the U.S. was now all in with the war. Marshall assigned Eisenhower the monumental job of drawing up plans for an invasion of Europe. As a prelude, he was sent to London and put in charge of the invasion of North Africa and operations in Sicily and Italy. It would be his first time commanding troops.
Ike's down-home modesty and affable nature went a long way toward building a strong relationship with the Allies, especially Britain, who definitely saw the U.S. as a younger sibling in this military partnership. It wasn't easy though. He wrote to his beloved 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).
Bureaucracy—who doesn't hate it?
For Ike's very first command, he led a force of 60,000 in North Africa. Holed up in dark, dismal caves and tunnels in Gibraltar, waiting for the invasion to begin, Ike was discouraged. He learned an important lesson from it: that optimism and confidence trickled downward 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 it. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, the German Army's famous "Desert Fox," pummeled Eisenhower's forces. He lost 100 tanks and 6,000 men. Replacing his commanding officer with his old buddy George Patton, the Allies eventually drove back Rommel and got a strong foothold in North Africa.
In 1943, the allied heads of state—Roosevelt, Stalin, and Churchill—met to plan the invasion of Europe and to choose a Supreme Commander to take charge of all the Allied Forces. FDR initially wanted George Marshall, but at the last minute decided he needed his Army Chief of Staff back home as an advisor. Second on the list was a shocked Eisenhower (he'd assumed it would be Marshall), who accepted this epic responsibility. 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 Ike's successful campaigns during 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. Remembering the lesson he'd learned in the tunnels of Gibraltar, he gave this insanely inspirational 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).
Before the offensive, Ike also famously visited with the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles," about to parachute into France ahead of the rest of the Allied troops. Yep, that same division he'd rely on in Little Rock about thirteen years later.
The liberation of Europe from the Nazis had begun.
We could say that Eisenhower defeated the Nazis and saved the free world and leave it at that. But that wouldn't give credit to the kind of man Ike was while he was busy with all those heroics. He never fell victim to the vanity or recklessness that characterized some of the other WWII generals. (We're looking at you, George Patton.) He was usually calm and controlled, and he was a decent, responsible guy of integrity and compassion.
He had the complete respect of his troops. Because he understood the risks to his men and their families, he personally visited each division that took part in the invasion of Europe. He got along with Allied leaders like Churchill and Stalin who fought right alongside the U.S. (Yeah, Stalin was our ally once.) When shocked and sickened troops discovered Hitler's concentration camps and saw the piles of corpses and the starving, desperate survivors, the general made sure there were photos and eyewitness testimony so that war criminals could be prosecuted and the world wouldn't forget.
On the eve of D-Day, Eisenhower jotted down a message to be delivered in case of the failure of the invasion of Normandy:
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 in the note. That's really all you need to know about Eisenhower the man.
After the war, Eisenhower retired from the army as one of only a handful of five-star generals in all of U.S. history. He'd been the Supreme Commander of Just About Everything.
How could he ever top that?
Having kicked Nazi butt and kept the free world free, Eisenhower was probably the most popular person in America other than Lassie. He spent a few years as president of Columbia University, and Democrats and Republicans both begged him to run for president on their party's ticket. He wasn't interested.
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 )
In 1950, the Cold War got a little hotter when communist North Korea invaded non-communist South Korea. In June, 1950, America joined the conflict. Senator Robert Taft (son of the 19th president), who sought the Republican nomination for President, was an outspoken opponent of American involvement in this war or any foreign war. A tough anti-interventionist, he'd opposed U.S. military involvement in WWII and wasn't even on board with the idea of NATO (source).
This got Ike's attention, and made him rethink his reluctance to run for president. He was also worried about the rising popularity of 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 because he tried to broker peace during a civil war in China. Alarmed by all this stuff, Ike eventually agreed to run for President as a Republican, with Richard Nixon as his vice-presidential pick.
On the campaign trail, he drove home a theme he'd continue right through to his last speech as President—a surprising theme given his lifetime of military service.
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)
He won. By a landslide.
Ike got right to work, using his military experience in developing his foreign policy, and his moderately conservative social position in handling domestic affairs. A few weeks after the death of Josef Stalin in March 1953, Ike saw an opportunity to advance the cause of disarmament when he was invited to give a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He told his speechwriter, Emmett Hughes, what 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)
Twelve drafts later, it looked like this:
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)
Strong words from an old soldier.
Eisenhower grew up during the Jim Crow era, attended an all-white West Point, and served in a segregated Army. (It wasn't until July 26, 1948, that Harry Truman, by Executive Order, btw, desegregated the armed forces. See our "Compare and Contrast section for more on that.) In the prosperous postwar years, African Americans started to stake their claim to their rightful place in the booming economy and educational opportunities.
In his first year as President, Ike desegregated public facilities in Washington. Then in 1954, two years after his election, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, outlawing segregation as a violation of the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Despite what Eisenhower may have privately felt about Brown, his public statement was lukewarm: "The Supreme Court has spoken and I am sworn to uphold the constitutional processes in this country—I will obey." He didn't say, "Segregation is a great evil. Thanks, Supreme Court!" It wasn't until 1967 that he said, "there can be no question the judgment of the court was right" (source).
Historians have tried to suss out Ike's true feelings about the situation, but he wasn't one to make public comments on the Supremes' decisions. In one letter to the governor of South Carolina, he said he wanted to make progress on things that "you or I would consider unfair." But Chief Justice Earl Warren said that Ike he also expressed sympathy on another occasion for southern whites who wanted to "protect their schoolgirls" (source).
Ike was walking the same line that his opponent in the Little Rock crisis, Orval Faubus, was walking. He couldn't politically afford to offend southern whites if he wanted to keep their support. But if actions do speak louder than words, Ike totally shouted. He could have defined it as a state matter and refused to intervene, or stalled the process while he got some political cover. Instead, he sent in the Army to enforce the court's ruling and make sure the Little Rock Nine went to school.
To his credit, Ike later appointed federal judges who were sympathetic to civil rights, and he signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957—the lesser known cousin to LBJ's Civil Rights Act of 1964. Americans, he said, "have the job of working toward that time when there is no discrimination made on such inconsequential reason as race, color, or religion" (source).
After the Little Rock Nine were back at Central High, Ike got on with the job of running the country. He was elected to a second term in 1956. Here's a quick recap of his foreign policy accomplishments in his two terms:
On the home front, he
All in all, not a bad eight years.
Having lived through two bloody World Wars and watched the U.S. and the Soviets trying to outdo each other in manufacturing potentially civilization-ending nukes, Ike's passion became disarmament and world peace through diplomacy. In 1959, he went on an international goodwill tour, speaking to the governments of nineteen nations. ''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). One of his interpreters wrote:
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)
Unfortunately, there were pretty deep potholes on the road to peace. Just weeks before a Paris peace summit where Eisenhower planned to meet with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviets shot down a CIA U-2 spy plane. (Steven Spielberg's movie Bridge of Spies was about this incident.)
The U.S., assuming that the pilot had been killed or committed suicide as instructed, cooked up a cover story that it was a NASA weather plane, yadda, yadda. When Khrushchev announced that, guess what, the pilot had been captured alive and admitted to working for the CIA, Eisenhower was forced to admit the truth. (Not that the Soviets hadn't been flying spy missions for years as well.) The incident sunk any hopes of a productive summit, and Khrushchev stormed out on the second day. Ike was heartbroken that this would be his lasting legacy.
Don't worry, Ike. It was not.
On the eve of leaving office, Eisenhower could look back at the last eight years and see an America that was prosperous and, at least for now, at peace. The country's economic and military influence dominated the globe. But he'd also seen the huge growth of the arms industry during wartime, which showed no signs of slowing down even after the war. He was worried.
In his "Farewell Address" Ike gave a stern talking-to to his fellow Americans about his view of various internal threats to the U.S. He thought we spent too much on ourselves and and didn't think about the needs of future generations. But his speech is most remembered for his warning about the unintended consequences of unchecked growth in the arms and tech industries.
Ike coined the term "military-industrial complex" to describe the big business of weapons manufacturing. He worried that the arms producers could have way too much power, even possibly influencing Congress to pass legislation that favored the manufacturing of more and more weapons even in peacetime. (Do we really need more nuclear subs or fighter jets?) Ike must have had a crystal ball on this one; industry giants like Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics still spend huge sums of money in lobbying efforts with the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.
Ike said goodbye and good luck, and wished us all peace and prosperity.
After leaving office, Ike and Mamie retired to a farm near the Gettysburg battlefield in Pennsylvania. He painted, wrote a couple of memoirs, and consulted with his successors in the presidency. He had a second heart attack in 1965, and his health declined after that. He died at Walter Reed Army Hospital on March 28, 1969.
By his family's account, he died like the old general 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.
When the Supreme Court issued its ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Eisenhower knew the decision wouldn't be welcome in the South. But like many Americans, he hoped that in time the law desegregating public schools would be applied across the country. The president initially resisted intervening in Little Rock, but he firmly believed that allowing Faubus to flout the law could set a very dangerous precedent for the nation.
And that wouldn't happen on Ike's watch.