Dwight D Eisenhower - Life Before Politics
Created | Updated Jul 23, 2013
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Dwight D Eisenhower - Early Life | President Dwight D Eisenhower
John Fitzgerald Kennedy | John F Kennedy Administration | Assassination of John F Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson | Richard Milhous Nixon | Bushisms of George W Bush
Dwight David Eisenhower was a man who earned everything he achieved and never gloated about his success. He was, perhaps, the perfect soldier - charismatic, strong, broad shouldered, extremely intelligent and analytical, but also possessing plenty of common sense. When he eventually took the title Commander-in-Chief of the US Military, along with the title President of the United States, he was one of the few men in American history who was qualified for both roles. Along with the title Supreme Commander, Allied Expeditionary Force, Eisenhower must have had some pretty impressive business cards.
His infectious grin, piercing blue eyes and courteousness impressed nearly everyone who met him. Somehow almost anyone who met him liked him and the military men wanted to work with him. They all thought that he was destined for greatness. The inimitable George Patton once wrote to him, 'No matter how we get together we will go places.'
On 14 October, 1890, Dwight Eisenhower was born in a little shack in northern Texas. He was the third of six boys born to David and Ida Eisenhower. The parents encouraged competition amongst their boys and tried to bring out the best in them. Their life was fairly typical, though. They moved to Abilene, Kansas, a small, normal midwestern town that didn't have a police station because everyone trusted one another. It was the sort of place that emphasised self-sufficiency and was politically conservative. David Eisenhower was the disciplinarian and Ida was a kind soul, who had a 'song in her heart'1.
Dwight was nicknamed 'Little Ike' at the time, with his older brother Edgar being called 'Big Ike'2. Little Ike had quite a temper on him, but his mother helped him to control it. One night after he threw a fit, his mother sat on his bed with him and told him that 'He that conquereth his own soul is greater than he who taketh a city.' This helped the boy, but it didn't mean that Little Ike didn't think about the great men who won wars and tooketh cities. In fact he studied military history as a hobby and enjoyed stories about Hannibal, Washington and the US Civil War. His high school yearbook predicted that he would become a history professor. Edgar's yearbook said that 'Big Ike' would become a President of the US.
When Dwight left high school, he managed to get an appointment to West Point - the famous military academy. One reason he wanted to go there was that it had a very prestigious American football team, which he played in until he hurt his leg. He loved the sport so much, though, that he became a cheerleader and a coach so that he could remain a part of it. As a coach he proved an excellent leader, and he would later endear himself to some of his troops by constantly using football metaphors to describe military matters.
When he wasn't worrying about sports, Ike studied and learned well enough to get some decent grades. He graduated in 1915, along with a number of future great commanders, and was assigned to a fort in Texas. There he met a girl named Mary Doud, who was generally called Mamie. He convinced her to go out with him and, after a short courtship, they became engaged on Valentine's Day, 1916 and were married that July. Mamie ended up being a wonderful, supportive wife who Dwight loved very much.
From then on, Dwight bounced between military assignments, sometimes with his wife, sometimes alone. In the first 35 years of their marriage, Mamie moved 35 times. Ike met, worked under and learned from many famous military men during this time. He was first taught strategy by General Fox Conner and quickly befriended George Patton. In 1929, he became an aide to General Douglas MacArthur, helping him to build an army in the Philippines - a job that he disliked but could not get away from. As World War II arrived, though, Eisenhower found himself in demand. He worked under Chief of Staff General George Marshall in Washington, DC. He impressed all of these great men with his professionalism, work ethic and intellect. In the end, though, it was his sterling character that caused Marshall to promote Ike to commander of the European Theater of Operations during WWII.
Ike arrived in Britain to take command of the Allied forces on 24 June, 1942, and he almost immediately became a major presence. He used his charisma and public-relations skills to weld together a strong alliance between the Americans and British. Most of the British leaders and people liked him. He was trustworthy, fair-minded, optimistic, energetic and soldierly. The Americans were well represented with Eisenhower - he stood up for his country's men and interests when necessary. He sometimes had to resist attempts to bring the Allied forces under complete British control.
In London, his driver was a young lady named Kay Somersby. There were widespread rumours of an affair between Eisenhower and Somersby, and Mamie resented how Somersby was always around her man. This relationship has been a subject of scholarly interest and controversy for decades, with some historians claiming that Ike simply didn't have time for an affair, and others acknowledge that, as he was, after all, a man, he probably could have made time for an attractive, young lady. Dwight remained devoted to Mamie and hand-wrote 319 letters to her during the war. Another figure that plagued Ike was General George Patton, whose frequent outbursts almost forced Dwight to remove him from his field command.
Eisenhower's earliest major offensive was the 'Torch' campaign in North Africa. It was characterised by his unwillingness to take risks - for example, he could have taken the strategically-useful island of Sardinia easily at one point and chose not to. The Torch campaign was one of Eisenhower's worst, but he learned from his mistakes, and, after Sicily and Italy were invaded, Winston Churchill praised his habit of 'running risks'. But some risks didn't pay off. Eisenhower poorly estimated enemy strength in Italy, and it cost him. In the end, Eisenhower's campaigns around 1943 were too cautious and didn't result in many strategic gains. Eisenhower became more confident and experienced after a year of fighting around the Mediterranean and he knew which officers to rely on. He was in a strong position going into 1944.
Meanwhile, in the realm of politics, Churchill and President Roosevelt met with Joseph Stalin in Tehran, Iran. They discussed the planned invasion of France, code-named 'Overlord', which would help divert German pressure from the Russians. Stalin wanted to know who would command the Overlord operation, but a selection had not yet been made and Roosevelt decided to make a decision. He thought that George Marshall had earned the position and would do the best job at strategy and planning, but was so indispensable in Washington that he couldn't be replaced. Therefore, the task fell on Eisenhower. Though Roosevelt knew that Ike had made some serious strategic mistakes, he also knew that he kept his men energised, was great at uniting the Americans and British, had experience at amphibious assaults and was well-able to handle the physical toll the job would take. Most of all, anyone who knew Eisenhower trusted in him.
The preparation for the Overlord invasion of Normandy, known as D-Day, was stressful for Ike. He had to make many important decisions, but his role was mostly to supervise the troops and their commanders. He spent much of his time meeting with the boys who would be fighting in France, asking where they were from and generally doing his best to keep morale up. When the date for D-Day crept up, Ike had to delay it a few times due to the weather, but on the night of 5 June, 1944, when a window of positive weather opened up, Eisenhower ordered the invasion of Normandy to commence. From that point on, all he could do was sit back and watch and see if the gamble paid off.
With Friends Like These...
The D-Day invasion was a success, and several armies began the liberation of France. For Eisenhower, this meant supervising a few high-ranking generals, setting overall strategy and deciding who got which supplies. He was constantly arguing with generals over who got the necessary supplies, and had an especially difficult time dealing with British General Bernard Montgomery. Montgomery convinced Eisenhower to back a plan to cross the Rhine in The Netherlands and take Arnhem, which was called Operation Market-Garden. Though Eisenhower generally favoured moving forward with a large front, he allowed the plan to be executed, and it was an unqualified failure. Ike sometimes felt that he had to appease and compromise with his generals, which resulted in a confused command much of the time.
As the Allies advanced through Europe, Ike was promoted to the rank of General of the Army - the veritable apex of a military career. It was a title he shared only with MacArthur and Marshall. Shortly after he learned of this promotion, he was told that some Germans had attacked a weak line in the Ardennes. Eisenhower's instincts told him that this was the beginnings of a major counter-offensive, and he was correct. He sent in reinforcements and planned for an attack. Again, Montgomery bothered him by delaying an attack from his armies in the north, but when Ike dangled his job in front of him, he fell into line and began his counter-offensive, eventually ending the famed Battle of the Bulge.
From that point on, the door lay open to invading Germany. Ike feared that the race to Berlin had already been lost to the Russians, that the Nazis might try to develop an insurgency from the Alps and that the Russians would advance into Denmark, so he did not immediately run for the German capital, but went after other goals first. With a campaign devised and led by Eisenhower, the Allies took Dresden - to the annoyance of the British and American public, who wanted the prestige of having taken Berlin. However, Ike worried about the military, not political, aspects of war, as was his job. Of course, when he later became a politician, he sometimes wished he had looked more at the political side.
Eisenhower and the Allies received an unconditional surrender from Germany in May, 1945, and he dreamed of going home to fish and spend time with his wife. However, it was not to be. He was a gigantic figure by that time, and the world kept calling on him to serve. Suddenly, Ike became the man who 'won the war' for the Allies, and was applauded and glorified in Western Europe and America. Though he wasn't known for his oratory, Ike gave several speeches, which were, of course, highly acclaimed. He was made into a hero, and people wanted to thank him in whatever way they could. When he went to Abilene, he was greeted by a crowd four times the size of the population of the town. Yet, without his wife, wherever he went he felt lonely.
Ike was subsequently put in charge of the post-war occupation of the American zone of Germany, and was named Chief of Staff of the US Army for President Truman for two years. After that, Ike needed some money and took a job as President of Columbia University, but spent most of his time meeting rich people and making speeches. He returned to the military as Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) to help Europe begin rearmament - giving him another lovely title for his résumé or business card.
Ike proceeded to enter politics, and the reader can guess what happened next. The political stage of Eisenhower's life is covered in this entry.