President Dwight David Eisenhower
(1890-1969)

President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

 

General Dwight D. Eisenhower and Major General Omar Bradley in Tunisia in 1943.

 

June 6, 1944 (D-Day) General Dwight D. Eisenhower talking with US paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Div.
about to depart for the invasion of Europe.

Dwight David (Ike) Eisenhower was descended from Swiss-Germans who emigrated to America. His father's family, members of a prosperous religious group of Mennonites, settled in the Susquehanna Valley of Pennsylvania in 1741. In 1878 they resettled in Kansas, to take advantage of the rich and affordable farmland; here they became known as the River Brethren. His mother, whose family, the Stovers, settled in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia in the 1730's, came to Kansas with an emigrant train in 1883.

Eisenhower's parents, David and Ida, met at Lane University, a small religious college in northeast Kansas. They married in 1885. The marriage produced seven sons, one of whom died in infancy. All the sons were born in Dickinson County except for Dwight who was born October 14, 1890, in Dennison, Texas. Following a two-year stay in Texas, the family returned to Dickinson County and settled in Abilene.

Turn-of-the-century Abilene was a typical Great Plains small town, based largely on agriculture. At a time when a high school education was still considered an unnecessary luxury for most boys, all six Eisenhower brothers attended the local high school and aspired to college educations. All of the sons distinguished themselves in their chosen professions. Abilene also gave Dwight his nickname, “Ike.”

Family life was based on solid religious convictions and a strong belief in duty, integrity, and hard work. When Eisenhower left Abilene to attend West Point, the bedrock of his life-long convictions had already been well set.

West Point offered Eisenhower an opportunity for a college education as well as a chance to venture into the wider world. He never looked back. He learned the basics of his profession, emerged as a natural leader, and graduated in the upper half of his class. He also learned to handle disappointment when a severe knee injury brought his dreams of athletic glory to an end.

After graduation as a newly commissioned second lieutenant, Eisenhower's first assignment was Ft. Sam Houston, Texas.  There he met Miss Mamie Geneva Doud whose family were there for the winter. Although he had recently “sworn off women,” once he met Mamie he pursued her with determination. When he proposed, she accepted, and they were married on July 1, 1916. They had two sons, Doud Dwight, who died before he was four, and John Sheldon Doud.

In the years that followed, the young couple moved from one military assignment to another--Mamie once said that they had lived in everything from shacks with cracks to palaces during Eisenhower's public service. They crisscrossed the country and went to Panama, the Philippines, and Europe. Eisenhower's duties included the Army's 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy, the Tank Corps, the Battle Monuments Commission, football coaching, and training recruits for World War I--all essential in developing his leadership skills.

His Panama service (1922-24) introduced him to General Fox Connor who took him under his wing and encouraged him to read widely in history, military science, and philosophy and was instrumental in Eisenhower's acceptance by the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Eisenhower graduated first in the 1926 class of 245 officers.  His reputation among not only his peers but also the Army “brass” was growing rapidly.

After assignments in the War Department (1929-35), he accompanied Gen. Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines as an assistant military advisor; his principal duty was helping MacArthur and his staff develop a viable Filipino Army. As the assignment drew to an end in 1939, Europe was again involved in conflict, and Eisenhower, determined not to miss the war, returned to the U.S.

After serving as chief of staff of a division and a corps at Ft. Lewis, Washington, he was transferred to Ft. Sam Houston where he served as chief of staff to the Third Army. Eisenhower's prominence as a strategist and organizer during the Army's Louisiana Maneuvers in the fall of 1941 earned him not only national attention but also his first star; he now was a brigadier general. 

Following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Eisenhower was again called to the War Department where Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall placed him in charge of plans for the Pacific War.  Two months later, Marshall promoted him to chief of the War Plans Division where he received his second general's star. In June 1942, Marshall sent him to England on a special mission to build cooperation among the Allies as Commanding General, U.S. Army, European Theater. 

The job of building an allied coalition demanded the skills of both a soldier and a diplomat, a role in which Eisenhower excelled. To make allied cooperation work, Eisenhower himself would have to live and breathe the spirit of unity. Marshall had seen in him a quiet confidence that, in the long run, the Allied forces would prevail and had noted Eisenhower's grasp of the essential need for a judicious blending of sea, air, and ground forces for maximum effectiveness. The first test of these skills came when he was named Commander in Chief, Allied Forces, North Africa, in November 1942. He also attained his third star.

The North African campaign, after initial set-backs rooted in inexperienced American troops, supply and logistical shortcomings, and political complications, eventually gathered momentum.  In May 1943, the German and Italian forces in North Africa surrendered unconditionally.

Hard upon the heels of this campaign came Eisenhower's next major challenges, the Allied invasions of Sicily and Italy. Although these would be hard-fought campaigns, he came to them with a renewed confidence in himself and his men; his field commanders were now experienced and his troops were
battle-hardened. Allied success in Sicily had a great psychological effect on the Italians and led to Italy's laying down its arms in September, 1943.  Fierce German resistance, though, led to twenty more tough months of fighting before Hitler's forces in Italy were defeated.

On Christmas Eve, 1943, Eisenhower was appointed Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces, European Theater. He would return to London to direct the most critical operation of the European war, the cross-channel invasion of France, code-named OPERATION OVERLORD. He would also be promoted to the rank of General; his new insignia, four stars.

The great Allied plan culminated in the D-Day invasion of France, June 6, 1944. Having established their foothold on the continent, the Allies drove from the Normandy beaches into the interior of the country. The Germans bitterly contested each inch of ground, and in the fall the Allied drive stalled at the German border. Then, in December, as winter closed in, the Germans initiated a desperate offensive in the Ardennes Forest which, for a time, seemed destined to split the Allied offensive in two. Eisenhower recognized the seriousness of the threat, but told his staff that in the crisis lay an opportunity to destroy a large portion of Hitler's war machine. For four frightening days, the German offensive prevailed before the tide turned, and the Battle of the Bulge was transformed into a critical Allied victory. Eisenhower received his fifth star when he became General of the Army, December 20, 1944.

The Allied forces drove into Germany, and by April 27, 1945, the American and Russian armies had met on the Elbe River. Three days later Berlin was entirely in Russian hands, Hitler was dead, and the fighting had stopped. On May 7 the Germans signed the document of unconditional surrender. The war in Europe was over.


Shortly before the war ended, Eisenhower visited the German death camps where he was so appalled at what he viewed that he made sure that the people at home were given full knowledge of the horrors that had been committed.  He wrote General Marshall:  “I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely to “propaganda.”  He ordered comprehensive documentation of the brutal scenes, arranged for extensive media coverage, and even insisted that members of Congress visit the camps.

In June, 1945, Eisenhower became commander of all U.S. forces in Europe and was appointed military governor of the U.S.-occupied zone of Germany. By now he was an international figure, loved and respected around the world. In November 1945, Eisenhower succeeded Gen. Marshall as Army Chief of Staff and returned to the United States to take up his new job in the Pentagon.

Eisenhower once observed that his role as Chief of Staff was the hardest job he had ever held. His job was to provide for the national defense in the new atomic era while Americans wanted to cut defense spending drastically. He was expected to achieve unity among the turf-battling military services while dealing with intense political lobbying by senators and representatives. On his watch as chief of staff, world tensions escalated as the Soviets and the Communist Chinese used every means to expand their power and influence.  This new “Cold War” threatened all that the Allied victory in the war had seemed to achieve.

Eisenhower's decision to resign his military commission and accept the presidency of Columbia University in 1948 defined the next stage of his public career, although he continued to serve as an adviser to the White House and Pentagon on national security.
Eisenhower's leadership skills, intelligence, and personal popularity enhanced Columbia's reputation as a national leader in higher education. During his tenure as university president, he spoke and wrote on the subject of educational reform. Teacher education and citizenship programs were two of his priorities. His interest in welding together a coalition of business and professional leaders, educational figures, and statesmen to discuss national concerns culminated in the creation of the American Assembly.

Although he enjoyed his years at Columbia, when President Truman asked him, in 1950, to return to active military duty and move to Europe to assume operational command of the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization, he felt it was his duty to accept. Many believed that only a man of Eisenhower's stature could achieve success in putting an effective alliance together. His primary task was to forge a military, moral, and political coalition of Western European nations that would be strong enough to defend against Soviet military aggression and political subversion. It was a daunting challenge, but the combination of his leadership skills and his immense popularity among the European nations worked in his favor, and when he returned to the United States to run for the presidency in 1952, he left a strong and stable NATO.

The January, 1953, inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as the 34th President of the United States marked the election, arguably, of the world's most popular figure to the world's most powerful office. Courted a year earlier by both the Democratic and Republican parties, Eisenhower decisively won the 1952 election with the support of not only Republicans but also millions of Democrats and Independents. Although a military man, Eisenhower was viewed as a man of peace, and his administration was dedicated to restoring economic prosperity, bringing the Korean conflict to an end, and keeping the Cold War from turning hot.

One of Eisenhower's top domestic priorities was education, which received cabinet status when he created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare in 1953. Later, a shortage of teachers and the rising costs of college led to the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which provided loans for college educations and promoted entrance into the teaching professions. Mathematics and science, essential to creating the technology required to win the Cold War, received especially strong support. 

Education intersected with another 1950's social issue:  race relations.  The constitutionality of segregated public schools came before the U.S. Supreme Court in the test case, “Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education.” The Court, declaring that segregated schools were “inherently unequal,” handed down a landmark decision in 1954 when it ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional. 

Discrimination against African-Americans in their exercise of basic civil rights continued, however.
In 1956, the African-American boycott of Montgomery, Alabama's city buses, which had segregated seating, dramatized the need for equal treatment under the law. Within a year of the boycott, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference had formed in support of racial equality.

In 1957, President Eisenhower, with the support of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, drafted legislation that sought to protect the constitutional rights of African-Americans. In July, Congress passed the first civil rights legislation in almost a century, although the final version was considerably weaker than the strong legislation the Eisenhower Administration had originally proposed.  The bill did have teeth, however, in its assertion of the voting rights of racial minorities.

In September, 1957, race-based violence erupted in Little Rock, Arkansas. The state's governor, Orval Faubus, in defiance of federal court orders requiring school integration, ordered the state's National Guard to bar African-American students from entering Central High School. Eisenhower responded to this local defiance by sending troops of the Army's 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock to enforce the federal court order requiring desegregation of the school. Although Little Rock was a seminal event in promoting school integration, the fight was not over; future presidents would also have to deal with ugly incidents of large-scale opposition to desegregated schools.

Other domestic controversies were also making headlines during this period. Senator Joseph McCarthy's hearings focused on allegations of communist penetration and subversion of universities, labor, the movie industry, and even the federal government, including the Army.  McCarthy's highly-publicized hearings, statements, and public appearances encouraged many Americans to fear and suspect almost everyone, including relatives, friends and neighbors. Although a real threat of communist subversion existed, the federal government continued to deal with the problem firmly. Eventually, McCarthy's extreme and indiscriminate allegations led to McCarthy's censure by the U.S. Senate. He soon faded into obscurity.

All developments on the domestic front were not so controversial, however. Eisenhower had long known that America's lack of major transportation arteries connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts hampered not only commerce but also the country's readiness for national emergencies -- including war.  In 1954 he had appointed his old friend, General Lucius Clay, head of a presidential committee to study the highway problem. Two years later, in 1956, the president signed the Interstate Highway Act, which launched the country's current system of superhighways.

Rapid advances in space and aeronautical technology led to the President's proposing a large civilian agency which would consolidate all the research and development programs that had been split, inefficiently, among competing military services -- the Army, the Navy and the Air Force. The result was the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 which created NASA.

Eisenhower's September 1955 heart attack led to an outpouring of concern from the entire world. He recovered rapidly enough, however, to announce early in 1956 that he would run for a second term.  That fall, he won another overwhelming victory.

If the two terms of Eisenhower's presidency reflected major changes on the domestic front, sweeping changes were no less discernible on the larger world stage. The major challenge to U.S. security was the Soviet Union's expansionist ambition.  The United States and the USSR contested the Cold War militarily, politically, psychologically and economically.  Atomic and thermonuclear supremacy, political domination of the developing “Third World,” and scientific superiority were only a few of the many areas in which the two superpowers confronted one another.

During the election campaign of 1952, Eisenhower had promised to “go to Korea,” where a vicious war had been raging since June, 1950, between the United Nations and North Korea, which was backed by the Soviet Union and Communist China.  Within six months of his inauguration, Eisenhower achieved an armistice that largely ended the fighting, although American troops would remain on the Korean peninsula for decades.

In Indochina, the Communist Viet Minh were defeating France's colonial forces, thereby threatening to drive France from the peninsula and to achieve national independence for the native Vietnamese.  In 1954, a conference of major world powers sponsored an agreement which temporarily divided Vietnam at the 17th parallel and provided for unifying elections within two years.  But the elections were never held, as the United States stepped into the power vacuum and supported the anti-communist Vietnamese in South Vietnam with arms, supplies and expert U.S. military advisers.  Guerrilla warfare ensued, and when Eisenhower handed over the reigns of power to John F. Kennedy in 1961, Vietnam's problems were far from being resolved.

In 1955, Communist China threatened the Nationalist Chinese government on Formosa along with its surrounding offshore islands.  Unwilling to concede to Mainland China's aggression, Eisenhower dispatched the U.S. Seventh Fleet to the area and China backed down.  Eisenhower responded in a similar fashion when Mainland China renewed its threats in 1958.  Again, the crisis was resolved without either country resorting to war.

Troubles in the Middle East also demanded he President's attention. In 1953 the United States covertly backed anti-government forces in Iran, which overthrew a communist-backed regime and restored the pro-West Shah to power. In late 1956 tensions ran high when the Suez Canal Crisis erupted: Israel invaded the Gaza Strip and the Sinai Peninsula while British and French forces attacked Egyptian bases near the Canal because Egyptian President Nasser had nationalized the international waterway. But Eisenhower refused to back America's closest allies, certain that if the U.S. entered the conflict on the side of the European colonial powers and Israel, such intervention would destroy American prestige among Third World Nations.  The result would be massive Soviet penetration of these developing nations.  Lacking U.S. support, England and its friends backed off, and the crisis eased.

Nevertheless, instability in the Middle East continued, leading to the Eisenhower Doctrine in 1957, which authorized the use of U.S. forces to assist Middle East nations whose political instability would invite Soviet penetration.  In 1958 the President deployed Marines to Lebanon in order to stabilize exactly that kind of situation.

Political instability, including revolutions, also plagued the Western Hemisphere. U.S. covert operations in Guatemala assisted rebels in their successful 1954 attempt to overthrow what appeared to be a pro-communist government. Then, in 1959, not far off the Florida coast, Fidel Castro's guerrilla forces overthrew the Batista regime, replacing it with a radical Anti-American government that soon allied itself with the Soviet Union.


The competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. led to rivalry in the space race. In October, 1957, Russia scored first by launching, with a massive rocket more powerful than any in the U.S. arsenal, the first earth satellite, “Sputnik.” This spectacular accomplishment by the Soviets resulted in a nationwide sense of urgency that the U.S. make greater efforts in defense and technology. Three months later America's first satellite, “Explorer I,” was launched.

During these years of conflict with the Russians, Eisenhower had attempted to find common ground where the reduction, if not control, of nuclear weapons could be achieved.  After the death of Soviet Premier Josef Stalin early in 1953, he offered the Soviets a “chance for peace” in a televised address. In his speech, he expressed his hope for an easing of hostilities between the two nations, and also stated his belief that an opportunity existed to slow, if not end, the arms race. In dramatic rhetoric, he expressed his concern about the tragic diversion of national wealth from the improvement of human life to its destruction: “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 not clothed . . . . 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.”

Later in 1953 the President proposed, in a speech at the United Nations, an “Atoms for Peace” program aimed at diverting nuclear materials from weapons development toward peaceful atomic technology that would serve, rather than destroy, humanity. Today's International Atomic Energy Agency was born of the Atoms for Peace Program.

In 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev accepted the President's invitation to visit the United States where he enjoyed such popular attractions as Disneyland and visited farms, industries, and other enterprises that demonstrated the successful American political and economic system. Khrushchev and Eisenhower met at Camp David, and the press soon wrote hopefully of a “spirit of Camp David” that might lead to a lessening of hostility and meaningful control of nuclear weapons. But Russian mistrust, compounded by the Soviets' shooting down a U-2 spy plane over the USSR on May 1, 1960, destroyed any chance for defusing nuclear tensions.

Throughout the years of his presidency, Eisenhower often spoke on the topic of peace, and in his presidential memoir, The White House Years , singled out his failure to achieve a less hostile relationship, including arms control, with the Soviet Union as his biggest disappointment.

On January 17, 1961, Eisenhower delivered a “farewell address,” following the example of America's first President, George Washington.  In that speech he alerted the nation, and the world, to the dangers of international conflict in a nuclear era.  Although he supported a strong national defense, he also gave an ominous warning about the internal dangers posed by alliances between the armed services, defense contractors, and elected officials whose political careers were linked to military spending in their districts:  “In the councils of government, we must guard against the unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”

When Eisenhower turned over the presidency to the young John F. Kennedy in January, 1961, he left behind an eight-year period of strong economic growth, the rise of millions of Americans into the middle class, little inflation, and relatively low unemployment. He had succeeded in avoiding a nuclear Armageddon while holding the Sino-Soviet threat at bay.  The Cold War had not been won, but neither had it turned hot.

When he departed Washington on January 20, 1961, Eisenhower looked forward to retirement and a more leisurely pace of life with his wife Mamie. To that end, Eisenhower had acquired the Gettysburg Farm, located not far from the place his grandfather had left nearly a century before when the family had made the trek to Kansas. With his son John and his family living nearby, Eisenhower anticipated the quiet years ahead.

He had a number of recreational activities to keep him busy. Highest in priority on his list were painting and golf, but he also derived great satisfaction from raising purebred stock and gardening. He was able to indulge in cooking, a favorite activity dating back to his boyhood days in Abilene, and bridge with friends. The Eisenhowers enjoyed travel and spent winters in Palm Desert, California.

Although he enjoyed being away from the limelight, Eisenhower was not a recluse. His new role as Elder Statesman kept him in touch with world events, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson sought his counsel frequently. When Kennedy consulted him after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, Eisenhower advised the young President on how to deal successfully with the Soviet Union.  Kennedy again sought Eisenhower's opinion during the October 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that nearly exploded into a nuclear World War III.  After Kennedy's assassination, Eisenhower advised Lyndon Johnson on how to lead the country effectively at a time of tragedy and peril.  Johnson later consulted frequently with Eisenhower about Vietnam and other international dilemmas.

During the last year of his life, Eisenhower's health declined rapidly, and he spent most of his time at Walter Reed Hospital with Mamie at his side. His death on March 28, 1969, brought to an end the life of an extraordinary American public servant.  Following a state funeral in Washington, D.C., Eisenhower was honored with a full military funeral in his beloved Abilene, where, as he had planned, he was buried in a modest chapel on the grounds of the Eisenhower Center on April 2, one of the most admired men of the twentieth century.

(Text courtesy of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Library)

 



President Dwight D. Eisenhower
Page published Feb. 8, 2007