Dwight D. Eisenhower: The General as President

Dwight David Eisenhower was born in Texas in 1890, one of six brothers who grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He entered West Point in 1911 and served in the Army during the 1920s and 30s under such illustrious officers as George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. Recognized early for his powerful intelligence and devotion to duty, he held important positions in the years preceding World War II and helped develop doctrine for armored warfare. When World War II broke out, he was brought to Washington to work for General George C. Marshall, the Army Chief of Staff, serving as Chief of the War Plans Division.

Ike and ChurchillIn 1942 General Eisenhower went to Europe to take command of American forces  for the invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, in 1942. He was subsequently named Supreme Commander Allied Forces Europe and planned and oversaw Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day, June 6, 1944. As Supreme Commander, he dealt with many challenging personalities, including Winston Churchill (shown with Ike at the left), French General Charles de Gaulle, British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, senior Soviet Russian officials and his military and civilian superiors in Washington. Although they were on opposite sides of the world, General Eisenhower nevertheless often found himself at odds with General Douglas MacArthur, as both commanders pleaded with Washington for more men and equipment. It is interesting to note that General Eisenhower, then a major, once served as a clerk under General MacArthur. Inevitably, both men were drawn toward politics, but only Eisenhower succeeded in that arena.

Immediately following the war, Gen. Eisenhower remained in Germany, serving as the military governor of the American occupation zone. When he discovered the Nazi concentration camps, he ordered cameramen to photograph the sites, predicting correctly that people would claim that such atrocities never occurred. Eisenhower then returned to Washington, where he relieved General Marshall as Army Chief of Staff. In that position he was in charge of the demobilization of the Army.

Although many considered Eisenhower to be a fine candidate for president, during the forties he refused any involvement in politics, even as both parties courted him. Instead, he became Supreme Commander of NATO, and soon after he was appointed President of Columbia University, a position which allowed him to be involved in high-level discussions of American foreign policy. While he was there, he published Crusade in Europe, considered to be one of America's finest military memoirs. He worked hard to promote American democracy, eventually returned to Europe to command NATO, and became involved in a number of American businesses; for example, he served for a time as chairman of the board of the Coca-Cola Corporation.

Ike on D-Day

Dwight Eisenhower was one of the most highly respected figures in American history. He was known for his fundamental decency, honest and integrity. A measure of Eisenhower’s character is revealed in a message he prepared in advance of the landings in Normandy on D-Day:

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.

Fortunately, the general never had to release that message.

“We Like Ike!” It seemed inevitable that Eisenhower's reluctance to get into politics could not last. When the contest for the Republican nomination began, Eisenhower faced a strong challenge from conservative Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, the front runner, who was known as “Mr. Republican.” Following a tough battle at the Republican Convention, Eisenhower won the nomination on the first ballot. He selected California Senator Richard Nixon for vice president. With his grandfatherly image and the slogan “I like Ike,” he comfortably defeated Democratic candidate Democratic Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois with almost 58% of the popular vote. Eisenhower thus became the first former general to enter the White House since Ulysses S. Grant.

eisenhower sworn in

President Eisenhower is Sworn in as outgoing President Truman Looks On

When Dwight D Eisenhower assumed the presidency on January 20, 1953, twenty years of Democratic Party occupancy of the White House ended. President Eisenhower was the only former general to occupy that office in the 20th century, and he was extremely well prepared for the position. What served the former soldier well as he entered office when Cold War tensions threatened was his experience in dealing with other world leaders during the Second World War. As leader of the largest and most complex military operation ever undertaken by Americans—the invasion of Europe and conquest of Nazi Germany—he had management experience of the highest order.

President Eisenhower and the Cold War. President Eisenhower's most significant challenges came in the area of foreign-policy. Tensions had begun to arise between the Soviet Union and the West even before World War II was over. The Soviets had recently developed a powerful nuclear arsenal, and the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953 heightened the uncertainty of relations with the communist world. Thus, by the time Eisenhower took office in January 1953, the Cold War, which had been underway for practically a decade, had reached a dangerous level. Anti-Soviet feelings ran deep; the McCarthy era was in full swing. Americans, enjoying products that had sprung from the technologies and events during World War II and dealing with civil rights issues, were not completely focused on foreign affairs.

Those who have examined the political career of General Eisenhower (as he preferred to be called even after becoming president) have generally agreed that he was a shrewd observer of the world scene. Yet he was sometimes naïve in his understanding of American political practice. He seemed to some to be working too hard to appease his political opponents, lacking the experience of having dealt with a “loyal opposition.” At the same time, he guided American foreign affairs in a cautious, measured fashion.

No American politician could ignore the threat posed by the Soviet Union, especially as the nuclear arms race had begun to produce weapons of stupefying power, thousands of times more powerful than the bombs which had destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Assisting in the formulation of Eisenhower's foreign policy was Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, who took a stern view of the Soviets. Dulles’s brother, Allen Dulles, was Director of Central Intelligence (CIA) and contributed to the administration's harsh view of the Soviets.

The first nuclear bomb, a hydrogen bomb, is exploded in a test on a Pacific Ocean atoll on November 1, 1952. Three days later, General Dwight Eisenhower was elected President of the United States over Governor Adlai Stevenson.

Like all postwar presidents, including his predecessor, Harry Truman, President Eisenhower felt that the greatest threat to America came from an expansive, monolithic communism centered in the Soviet Union. He stated in his first inaugural address that, “Forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history. Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against dark,” those being reasons why he named John Foster Dulles as Secretary of State. The Eisenhower-Dulles foreign policy was, at least in its rhetoric, harsher than that of President Truman; Dulles coined the phrase “massive retaliation,” which was to be used if the Soviets became aggressors.

Ike & DullesEisenhower was comfortable allowing Secretary Dulles to heat up the rhetoric of the Cold War while he himself worked more quietly behind the scenes to reduce international tension. The new president was far more clever than his critics at the time realized. An avid golfer, Eisenhower had a putting green installed on the south lawn of the White House, and a popular ditty had the president “putting along” as the world around him seethed. In fact, the president was deeply engaged in monitoring foreign affairs and was well aware of how dangerous the world had become.

When the Hungarians revolted against their Soviet oppressors in 1956, there were calls for the United States to intervene to help the freedom fighters. Even if Eisenhower had been tempted to act, however, getting aid to landlocked Hungary would have been a monumental undertaking. The Soviets quickly repressed the revolt in any case. Yet the episode led some to believe that the United States under President Eisenhower was slow to respond to calls from assistance by those beleaguered by international communism.

In 1954 when the French Army found itself in a critical situation in Indochina, President Eisenhower declined to support the French at Dien Bien Phu with military assistance. He did, however, offer military and economic aid to South Vietnam. He defended his action by describing what became known as the Domino theory—that if one nation fell to communism, other nations would certainly follow.

An additional crisis erupted in the Middle East in 1956. In 1955 the Soviet Union had begun arms shipments to Egypt. In response, Israel strengthened its defenses and requested arms from the United States, a request that president Eisenhower rejected, fearing a Middle East arms race. When United States canceled a loan offer of $56 million to Egypt for construction of the Aswan Dam, Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had grown closer to the Soviet Union, took action to nationalize the Suez canal and extract tolls from users. Israel responded by advancing troops toward the Suez Canal, and Britain and France began airstrikes against Egypt. British and French leaders called for assistance from the United States, but president Eisenhower refused on the grounds that he did not support the use of force in the settlement of international conflicts.

Fearing that the Soviets would come to dominate the Middle East, Eisenhower and his Secretary of State Dulles requested a resolution from Congress authorizing the president to extend economic and military aid to Middle Eastern nations. He based his request on the following principle:

We have shown, so that none can doubt, our dedication to the principle that force shall not be used internationally for any aggressive purpose and that the integrity and independence of the nations of the Middle East should be inviolate. Seldom in history has a nation's dedication to principle been tested as severely as ours during recent weeks. …

Let me refer again to the requested authority to employ the armed forces of the United States to assist to defend the territorial integrity and the political independence of any nation in the area against Communist armed aggression. Such authority would not be exercised except at the desire of the nation attacked. Beyond this it is my profound hope that this authority would never have to be exercised at all. (Dwight D. Eisenhower, Message to Congress, January 5, 1957.)

Congress responded by granting the president the authority to use force to protect nations threatened by communism. This policy became known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine.” While deploring the use of force, Eisenhower recognized that the threat of force could be a deterrent to its use. In response to a request from the President of Lebanon, President Eisenhower sent 5,000 Marines into that country to protect Lebanon’s territorial integrity. They remained there for three months.

Although criticized in some quarters for his inaction in the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower was as aware as anyone on the planet of the horrors that could be unleashed by another widespread war, now made an even more terrifying prospect because of the spread of nuclear weapons. With new and more powerful hydrogen bombs being built, the Eisenhower administration followed a policy designed to use the threat of nuclear war only as a deterrent to the Soviet Union in case vital United States interests should be threatened. Eisenhower also rejected any possible use of atomic or nuclear weapons in defense of French Indochina or Taiwan. In retrospect, Eisenhower's cautious policy has been deemed wise and prudent, given the volatility of international relations in the 1950s. The rhetoric of “massive retaliation” was strong, but a first use of nuclear weapons probably never entered President Eisenhower’s consciousness; like General MacArthur, he abhorred the use of atomic or nuclear weapons. His recent biographer, Jim Newton describes Eisenhower in these words:

Shrewd and patient, moderate and confident, Ike guided America through some of the most treacherous moments of the Cold War. He was urged to take advantage of America’s military advantage in those early years—to finish the Korean War with nuclear weapons, to repel Chinese aggression against Taiwan, to repulse the Soviets in Berlin, to rescue the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. … Eisenhower was not complacent, nor was he reckless or unhinged. (See Jim Newton, Eisenhower: The White House Years (New York: Doubleday, 2011.)

Dwight Eisenhower might be considered a great American for things he did not do as well as for those he did. Later in his life he reflected: “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People ask how it happened—by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that.”


Left. General Eisenhower was in Europe when he heard that President Truman had fired General MacArthur from command in Korea and replaced him with General Matthew Ridgway. Ike responded, “I'll be darned.”

Eisenhower had worked under MacArthur in the Philippines and in Washington for much of the 1930s. The two men did not get along, and Eisenhower resented MacArthur's repeated attempts to divert military supplies from Europe to the Pacific during World War 2. MacArthur was determined to get back to the Philippines as early as possible nad pestered Washington for more assistance.

Hearing of Eisenhower's election to the White House in 1952, MacArthur expressed his opinion that Eisenhower would surely be an excellent president. He said, "Ike was the best clerk I ever had."

ike in korea

In 1952, in keeping with a campaign promise, President-elect Eisenhower visited Korea in hopes of achieveing a peaceful settlement. A cease-fire agreement was arranged in 1953, and the fighting ended. Skirmishes and minor actions occurred along the 38th parallel for years, however.

Sputnik: The Space Race Begins. In the years following World War II blustering Soviet propaganda had provided ammunition for comedians who suggested that the Russians were all talk and no action. When they exploded their first nuclear device in 1949, however, the jokes quickly fell flat. When the Soviet Union launched the first Earth satellite, Sputnik, in 1957, the reaction among many Americans was close to panic. Fears of the military use of space ran rampant, and the United States was placed on a crash course to match the Soviet achievement. The American educational system came under severe criticism suggesting that “Ivan” was far better educated than “Johnny,” especially in math, science and engineering.

With the knowledge that the missiles used by the Soviets to launch satellites into space could also be used to rain warheads on the United States, Eisenhower authorized surveillance flights by U-2 aircraft over the Soviet Union. The high flying spy planes were thought to be invulnerable to anti-air missiles, but in 1959 a U-2 aircraft (left) piloted by Major Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union. The administration initially issued denials, but when pictures of the U.S. airman and the downed aircraft were shown on Soviet television, it was clear that the story was real. When President Eisenhower refused to issue an apology, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev canceled a scheduled summit meeting with the president, which further heightened tensions. Despite President Eisenhower’s caution, the world was still a dangerous place.

Shortly before his departure from the White House, President Eisenhower, following the example first set by George Washington, delivered a farewell address to the nation on radio and television, in which he cautioned the American people of the forces that threatened to take over the direction of American foreign policy. The speech has become known as his “Military-Industrial Complex Speech.”  In the course of his remarks he said:

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. … We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes. …

Today … the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. … The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.

Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society’s future, we—you and I, and our government—must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow.…

Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment. As one who has witnessed the horror and the lingering sadness of war, as one who knows that another war could utterly destroy this civilization which has been so slowly and painfully built over thousands of years, I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.…

(Full text of President Eisenhower’s Farewell Address.)

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