Seventy-five years ago this month World War II ended. That conflict remains, along with the War of Independence in the eighteenth century and the Civil War in the nineteenth, one of the three most important wars the United States has fought. Each of the three, as it happens, produced a commanding general who subsequently became the country’s president: George Washington in the first; Ulysses S. Grant in the second; and Dwight D. Eisenhower in the third.
George Washington has a unique place in American history. Without his wartime leadership the United States would not have come into existence as a sovereign state when and as it did; and without his presidency, it would not have become the kind of democratic republic that its twenty-first-century citizens have inherited. The lives and careers of Grant and Eisenhower, however, have important features in common.
Both came from modest midwestern backgrounds. Both graduated from West Point, but without particular distinction. Each rose rapidly in the wartime army because each had a particular quality that proved indispensable. Grant, unlike other Union generals, understood that winning the Civil War required relentlessly pursuing and repeatedly engaging the Confederate Army. President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered “Ike,” as almost everyone called him, the best diplomat among all his generals, and as the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, he displayed the tact, the determination, and the integrity needed to direct the vast multinational military force under his command.
Grant lived and worked in an age that has vanished. Eisenhower’s world is a more familiar one but, although biographers and historians have not neglected him, the memory of the 34th president as a public figure is fading. That is unfortunate because he deserves to be remembered. For that reason, How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions by his granddaughter Susan Eisenhower, a book that combines insightful analysis of some of the important events of his career with affectionate reminiscence, is particularly welcome.
Dwight Eisenhower’s finest hour came in 1944 when he presided over Operation Overlord, the launching of an American-British-Canadian force across the English Channel to Normandy on the coast of France, from where it fought its way into Germany and, in conjunction with Soviet forces coming from the east, forced the Germans to surrender. It was the most difficult of all military operations, a seaborne assault against defended positions on land—in fact, the largest-scale and most complicated amphibious assault in the long history of warfare.
Eisenhower had ultimate responsibility for planning and coordinating the activities of different national armed forces, of their separate armies, navies, and air forces, and of generals and admirals each of whom had his own ideas about how best to proceed. He had to get 150,000 troops across the Channel in a single day, establish and hold beachheads on the French coast, bring hundreds of thousands more soldiers to France in subsequent days, and then attack and defeat the German army on the western front of the European war. The stakes could not have been higher. Failure would certainly have cost him his career and, far more importantly not only in the greater scheme of things but in his own eyes, would have administered a severe setback to the allied war effort. The failure of Overlord could conceivably have altered the outcome of World War II.
Eisenhower had to make many decisions about the disposal and use of the forces under his command, the most difficult of which was when to launch them. Bad weather over the Channel would have wrecked the assault, and the weather there in the late spring and early summer of 1944 was stormy. Meteorologists thought that the seas might be calm on June 6, and Eisenhower chose that date, which came to be known as D-Day. While not without glitches and problems, the operation succeeded. It could, however, have gone wrong, and in anticipation of a disastrous outcome, Eisenhower wrote a note, to be released if the worst came to pass. It read: “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 Force, 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.”
Nor was this the only such gesture Eisenhower made. British air chief marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory opposed the airborne assault that was part of the plan for D-Day, believing that the paratroopers would suffer such heavy losses that they would be militarily ineffective. Eisenhower wrestled with the issue, then decided to go ahead as planned. However, his granddaughter notes, “Eisenhower asked Leigh-Mallory to put his recommendation in writing to ‘protect’ him in case he, Eisenhower, disregarded his advice . . . [if] Leigh-Mallory was correct, then he did not want the air chief marshal to be blamed for the fiasco . . .” It is difficult to imagine a more vivid example of the sense of responsibility and accountability that all leaders, especially in a democracy, should display but that not all of them do, than Eisenhower’s approach to D-Day.
One of his abiding concerns as commander of the allied forces in Europe in World War II carried over to his presidency. He placed a very high premium on achieving as much unity as possible, during the war for the purpose of defeating Germany, as President for the sake of waging the Cold War. In fact, his most important contribution to American history as the nation’s chief executive was to reconcile the Republican Party, on whose ticket he won the presidency in 1952—the first person to do so since 1928—to the principal initiatives of his two Democratic predecessors: Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal at home and Harry Truman’s commitment to containing the Soviet Union abroad. Both encountered serious opposition within Republican ranks, with the leader of that opposition being Ohio Senator Robert Taft. Eisenhower, who had had no involvement in politics before running for president, decided to enter the political arena in order to defend his predecessors’ policies and defeated Taft for the presidential nomination.
He was motivated by more than the quest for national unity. He strongly believed in the internationalist foreign policy that Truman had launched. He believed, as well, that Roosevelt’s principal New Deal programs had firmly embedded themselves in the fabric of American national life. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,” he wrote to his more-conservative brother Edgar, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” In that way, he saved the Republican Party, and without his political career, it is possible that the United States in the 1950s would have become as politically polarized as it is today.
How Ike Led covers some of the major episodes of the Eisenhower presidency, and on two of them rebuts often-made criticisms of his policies. While he sent federal troops to enforce the court-ordered integration of the public schools in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957, he has been portrayed as a reluctant and sluggish champion of civil rights. To the contrary, his granddaughter argues, he had a principled commitment to civil equality and to the rule of law and carefully tailored what he did on behalf of desegregation for maximal effectiveness in the face of powerful resistance.
The Soviet launch of the first Earth-orbiting satellite Sputnik in 1957 is frequently depicted as an American defeat in the Cold-War competition with the Soviet Union. It certainly touched off a wave of public alarm in the United States, which the Democrats, including their 1960 presidential candidate Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts, sought to exploit by charging that the president had allowed the country to fall behind in the development of crucial technology. Susan Eisenhower makes the case that the Eisenhower administration was well aware of Soviet progress in space-related technology and could, in fact, have put an American satellite into space first but decided, for sound strategic reasons, not to do so.
From her account of her grandfather’s military and political career, one particular personal trait stands out. Dwight Eisenhower was not a shy or self-effacing person; no one without robust self-confidence could have done what he did. The purpose of what he did was not, however, to gain fame or glory. He did not lust for the public spotlight. He did not take credit for what he regarded as the accomplishments of others. Self-promotion was decidedly not part of his personality. He refused the nation’s highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor, on the grounds that “the award was given for extraordinary valor in combat, and he thought it inappropriate for someone not facing that peril to accept it.”
The contrast with the current occupant of the office that Eisenhower held from 1953 to 1961 is obvious; but in fact, and more importantly, few political figures since the beginning of the 1960s, and certainly none of the presidents, have conducted themselves in the way that he did. The country’s politics, its customs, and its values—not to mention its methods of communication—have changed in ways that make a public career like that of Dwight Eisenhower all but unthinkable today. How Ike Led demonstrates what a loss that is for the United States.