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Biographies: Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower

Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower, American Soldier, leader of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, and 34th president of the United States, was born in Denison, Texas, and graduated from the U.S. Military Academy with the class of 1915, the “Class the Stars Fell On.” Rising slowly through the officer ranks, Eisenhower served as company commander of a tank training center at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, during World War I, never seeing combat. (Some have speculated that this great commander, undoubtedly much to his disgust, was never under hostile fire.) In 1926, he graduated from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, and two years later, now marked for high command, from the Army War College. He served as military assistant in Washington, first as an aide to the assistant secretary of war from 1929Ð1933, and for the following two years as a special assistant to the Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Douglas MacArthur. (Later, Eisenhower would wryly contend that he had “studied dramatics” under MacArthur.) (Image: President-elect Dwight D. Eisenhower (front seat) and Gen. Mark W. Clark, Commander-in-Chief (back seat), begin their tourof installations of the 2nd U.S. Infantry Division, during visit of the President-elect to U.N. units stationed along the Korean fighting front.)

Eisenhower reached the rank of colonel only in March 1941, yet three months later he was named chief of staff of the Third Army, and in September of the same year was promoted to brigadier general. By that time his rapid advancement and impressive record had brought him to the attention of the chief of staff of the Army, Gen. George C. Marshall.

Eisenhower continued his rapid advancement. From his position as chief of the war plans division of the War Department, Eisenhower was named in June 1942, to command U.S. Forces in the European Theater of operations. On November 7, 1942, he initiated the successful invasion of French North Africa. In January of the following year he was named by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to conduct the invasion of Sicily and Italy. In late November 1943, he took command of the Allied troop buildup in the United Kingdom, and, on June 6, 1944, gave the signal for the successful Allied D-Day invasion of the Continent. In December 1944, Eisenhower was promoted to the five-star rank of General of the Army. He ended the war as undoubtedly the most popular of the great American commanders of World War II, and already his name was being bandied about as presidential material, although no one really knew his political affiliations, if any. Although “Ike” often spoke of retirement in the immediate postwar years, the American public had other ideas. In 1948, he accepted the presidency of Columbia University, a somewhat odd position for a Soldier not known for his bookishness. In the autumn of the same year he published his war memoirs. Crusade in Europe, which is reliably reported to have earned him about $1 million, thanks to a favorable tax ruling.

In December 1950, as part of the great rearmament buildup in the wake of the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eisenhower to command the forces of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). But in June 1952, the ever-popular “Ike” resigned from the Army and returned to the U.S. to run for president as a Republican.

A major tactic of Eisenhower’s campaign was to criticize the Democratic administration for its conduct of the Korean War, and in a dramatic announcement shortly before the November elections, he pledged to “Go to Korea.” That promise, coming at a time of profound war weariness for Americans, clinched his election, although it would be difficult to imagine “Ike” losing in 1952, or at any other time. (It is also difficult to understand why Truman never seemed to have thought of this tactic during the first two and one-half years of the war when he was president.)

Eisenhower dutifully flew to Korea one month after his victory over Adlai Stevenson. There he heard out the plans of United Nations (U.N.) Commander Gen. Mark W. Clark and ROK President Syngman Rhee to win the stalemated war by expanding it. But he spent more time in the lines, listening to the troops. While a dramatic gesture, Eisenhower’s trip to Korea had far less to do with the ending of the war six months later than the death of Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin and the leaked consideration by the U.S. administration of bombing and blockading the Chinese mainland, and perhaps even the employing of nuclear weapons. It is difficult to determine just how serious Eisenhower and Dulles were in their consideration of the nuclear option. A howl of execration had arisen from America’s allies over the mere bombing of North Korean hydroelectric plants south of the Yalu in June 1952. The breaking of the nuclear “tabu” (as Dulles termed it), that is, the use of nuclear weapons once again solely by the United States and once again solely against Asians would have represented an unimaginable moral disaster for America. Fortunately this “thinking out loud” within the new administration progressed no further than the contingency plan stage.

Far more significant than either Ike’s trip to Korea or the supposed threat of the use of nuclear weapons in Korea was the welcomed death of Stalin March 5, 1953. A new, unsteady Soviet leadership, a China that had amply demonstrated its power, and a battered North Korea all had their reasons for wishing to end the Korean War on a more or less status quo basis. And there was no stomach among the American people or their government for the vastly increased military and diplomatic effort that a war to victory would have required. The Armistice ending the Korean War was signed in Panmunjom on July 27, 1953. There was absolutely no celebration over this peace, but the American public was relieved, and Ike quietly received the credit.

Through Eisenhower’s two administrations (he defeated Stevenson again in 1956), he strengthened government welfare programs, created the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, broadened the Social Security system, increased the minimum wage (to the disgust of conservatives), pushed a major overhaul of the nation’s federal tax system, reached an agreement with Canada to cooperate in building the St. Lawrence Seaway, and began a 13-year interstate highway program (the latter two projects in more recent years considered something of a mixed blessing as the nation’s railways and public transit systems declined).

In national defense, Eisenhower moved to rely far more on the airborne nuclear deterrent in place of conventional military forces, but he continued the policy of the containment of Communism begun under the Truman administration, again causing uneasiness among conservatives who favored a policy of “roll back.” He also initiated the “Eisenhower Doctrine” that pledged aid to any Middle Eastern nation threatened by Communism. Many felt that his finest hour was his support of the United Nations during the Suez Crisis of 1956, to effect the withdrawal of British, French and Israeli forces from Egypt, an event that even at the time was recognized as spelling the end of the British Empire. Eisenhower sent troops into Lebanon in July of 1958, to stabilize its political situation and warn off the ambitious Egyptian dictator, Gamal Nasser.

In September 1957, Eisenhower also sent troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce school desegregation in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark decision outlawing racial segregation in the nation’s public school system. Nonetheless, he remained lukewarm in his commitment to racial equality, and gave only limited support to desegregation of the armed forces.

On January 17, 1961, Eisenhower gave his farewell speech as president and public citizen, a speech remembered almost entirely for his warning of a “military-industrial complex” that could get out of hand. He retired to his beloved farm near Gettysburg (where he reportedly had trouble at first using a dial telephone; when he had had to make his own calls there were no dial phones, and when dial phones were in use he was of sufficient rank that an aide made all his calls). Eisenhower, the most popular American figure of his century, died of heart failure March 28, 1969.

More often than not criticized by liberal and academic opinion, the Eisenhower years after about a decade began to assume something of the patina of a “golden age,” primarily for what he did not do. Like Truman, he did not expand the Korean War and he rejected the nuclear option. Even Ike’s obfuscatory circumlocution—an occasion for some hilarity at the time—came to be interpreted as his clever way of diverting difficult questions that he had no intention of answering. 

Gary A. Donaldson

Ambrose, Stephen. Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect (1983). 
_______. Eisenhower: The President (1985). 
Divine, Robert A. Eisenhower and the Cold War (1981). 
Donovan, Robert J. Eisenhower: The Inside Story (1956). 
Lee, R. Alton. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Soldier and Statesman (1981).

Reprinted with permission from The Korean War: An Encyclopedia, edited by Stanley Sandler and published by Garland Publishing, Inc.