An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Presidents of the United States-Dwight D. Eisenhower

Nov 12, 2013 by

Dwight EisenhowerMichael F. Shaughnessy

  1. Today we will look at Dwight Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth president of the United States. When and where was this President born and when did he serve-(during what time period or event or series of events?)

Dwight David Eisenhower was born on October 14, 1890 in Denison, Texas. When he was two, his family moved to Abilene, Kansas. Eisenhower developed a serious leg infection during his freshman year. Doctors recommended amputation, but Eisenhower refused to allow it. Eventually he got better, but the extended duration of the affliction meant that he would have to repeat his freshman year. He graduated from Abilene High School in 1909 and hoped to attend college, but agreed instead to work to help put an older brother through college. After working for two years, Eisenhower contacted one of the two US senators from Kansas and asked for an appointment to either of the two military academies. Eisenhower took the entrance examination, and did well enough to be accepted by either institution on the merit of his performance. But because he had repeated his freshman year and had worked for two years after graduation, he was too old to be accepted by Annapolis. For that reason, Eisenhower went instead to West Point.

Eisenhower was an average student, earning his best marks in English. He had greater success in athletics, earning a spot as a starting running back and linebacker on the football team. Eisenhower graduated in the middle of his class in 1915, and was assigned to duty at an Army base in Texas. When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, Eisenhower hoped to see combat, but was kept stateside to help train and organize troops for deployment overseas. After the war ended, Eisenhower received a number of assignments at military bases around the world, and received high marks for his abilities to plan and organize. Because of this, he was sent to the Command and General Staff College of the US Army at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas in 1925-26. Out of a class of 245, Eisenhower graduated first. Thereafter he gained a number of important staff positions, serving for a time as Douglas MacArthur’s subordinate in the Philippines.

When the US Army conducted its largest peacetime exercise in Louisiana in 1941, Eisenhower received praise for his grasp of large-scale logistics. Because of this, when the United States entered the Second World War later that year, Eisenhower was given important assignments with first the War Plans Department and then the Operation Department in the US Army. The quality of his work for both of these groups caught the eye of General George C. Marshall, the top-ranking officer in the Army. Because of Eisenhower’s capabilities and his ability to get along with a wide range of individuals both in and out of the Army, Marshall in June of 1942 gave him the position as Commanding General, European Theater of Operations. This was at a time when the Allies were planning their first combined offensive against the Germans and Italians, an invasion of North Africa. Eisenhower was soon placed in command of this operation, codenamed Torch. Forces under his command landed at three places on the North African coast in November of 1942. While Eisenhower made some missteps during the campaign, both military and diplomatic, by March of 1943 all enemy forces in North Africa had been killed, captured, or evacuated.

The Allies then turned their attention to Italy, planning a campaign that would be initiated with the capture of the island of Sicily. Eisenhower commanded this operation, which accomplished its goal in the summer of 1943. Eisenhower then oversaw the invasion of the Italian mainland in September of that year. In December, Franklin Roosevelt (with the full support of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill) chose Eisenhower to be to be the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in Europe, and as such Eisenhower left the Mediterranean to begin planning an invasion of France. This operation, codenamed Overload, took place on June 6, 1944. Eisenhower directed the ensuing campaign that took his armies into Germany by the spring of 1945. His advance, coupled with the success of the Soviets on the Eastern Front, lead to the German surrender in early May of that year.

After the war, Roosevelt replaced George Marshall as the top-ranking officer in the US Army, serving in that capacity until he resigned in 1948 to become the president of Columbia University in 1948. After two years in that capacity, Eisenhower stepped down to become the commander of the nearly created North American Treaty Organization military forces. After two years, leaders of the Republican Party approached him about becoming their party’s candidate for president in 1952. Eisenhower agreed, and ran a very effective campaign. His campaign used the slogan “I Like Ike” in a series of television advertisements, and Eisenhower won the general election easily. He was inaugurated in January of 1953.

  1. What was he MOST known for?

Eisenhower had an eventful presidency, but he is ironically best known for a comment that he made when he was leaving office. Eisenhower felt that the United States spent far too much money on defense, and was constantly searching for methods to rein in expenditures in that area. Much to his chagrin, he found opposition to his ideas emanating from large corporations and the armed forces. Decrying this situation, Eisenhower warned of a “military-industrial complex” that had gained too much power over the budgetary process in our nation. There are many who still regard his words as a fitting commentary on the percentage of our Gross National Product that we spend on defense.

  1. What would you say were his strengths?

Eisenhower was a person who presented a genial personality to the outside world, and people liked him. He exuded an air of confidence, and people trusted him as a leader.

  1. What were his relative weaknesses – politically perhaps, personally?

Eisenhower had spent the vast majority of his life in the military by the time he was elected president at the age of 62. He had been a high ranking officer for an appreciable period of time, and as such was used to delegating responsibility and having subordinates follow his instructions without question.

Unfortunately, the American political system does not operate in such an orderly fashion, and as a result Eisenhower’s managerial style did not always yield the results that he had desired. In addition, he preferred to hide his role in the decision making process, which lead many by the end of his administration to believe that he was not providing the decisive leadership necessary during the Cold War.

  1. What would you say was his impact on the United States and possibly the world?

Eisenhower’s presidency was clearly a pivotal one in our nation’s history. When he assumed the presidency, the United States was involved in a Korean conflict that seemed to have no end in sight. Within a year, he had helped achieve a truce that is still effect to this day. Eisenhower gave tacit approval to CIA-led campaigns to oust leaders in Guatemala and Iran that were felt to be potential threats to American interests. In a similar fashion, towards the end of his administration the CIA began planning an operation to overthrow the regime of Fidel Castro in Cuba. Most importantly, the Eisenhower Administration helped create an independent Republic of South Vietnam, an action that would have long lasting implications for the United States.

  1. In terms of his place in history- it seems to be secure- but could you summarize your views as a historian about him?

When Eisenhower left office, he was personally well liked but was viewed as an ineffective president. As years passed and more was learned of how active he had been behind the scenes in accomplishing his goals, historians gained a greater appreciation of him as a president. As a result, he is currently in a tie for 8th place in the presidential rankings.

  1. What would you say were his greatest accomplishments?

Eisenhower’s greatest accomplishment came in 1957 when he sent federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to help in the effort to desegregate Central High School. Ironically, Eisenhower had been dismayed by the US Supreme Court ruling (Brown v. Board of Education in Topeka) in 1954 that had ruled the policy of separate but equal school facilities unconstitutional. Similarly, he was unhappy that the Supreme Court had ordered schools to desegregate “with all deliberate speed.” But to his credit, when he saw television coverage of the effort to keep African-Americans from attending Central High School he felt compelled to act on their behalf. Eisenhower therefore deserves credit for enforcing the law of the land, even if he did not personally agree with all that the law stood for.

  1. Could you provide a summary statement about our thirty-fourth President?

Once, just before he was scheduled to hold a press conference where a question about whether the United States would use nuclear weapons to defend Taiwan, Eisenhower’s press secretary warned him about how tricky that question would be to answer. Eisenhower told him “Don’t worry, Jim. If that question comes up, I’ll just confuse them.” It did come up, and he did indeed give a rambling answer that did not indicate what he really felt about the issue. This was the style of Eisenhower both as a general and as president—be inscrutable on the outside but be inwardly decisive.

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