The first U.S. president I remember was Dwight D. Eisenhower, who died on this date in 1969. Much of what I know of him, however, came as a result of later studies since I was really too young to care much about politics and current events at the time.
Born October 14, 1890, in Denison, Texas, Eisenhower was reared in Abilene, Kansas, which he ever after referred to as home. Later in life, until the time of his death, he actually lived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Eisenhower, who was known to his friends and later military subordinates and political supporters as Ike, was an early and voracious reader. He enjoyed relaxing with Zane Grey’s Western novels, even doing so during World War II as a way of relieving the stresses he encountered as Supreme Allied Commander in Europe.
Ike graduated from West Point in 1915. Before World War I, Ike was in charge of training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. Although he wanted and repeatedly requested to go overseas and engage in the war once the United States entered it, he never got the opportunity. Instead, he was stationed stateside, where he was involved in logistics and training in the tank corps. After World War I, he was assigned to lead a cross-country convoy to demonstrate the need for better highways. What he learned during that journey, coupled with what he witnessed during World War II, provided valuable information for a project he later would undertake as president.
During the Depression, Ike was assigned to help prepare for the “next war,” after which he finally got his much-requested overseas assignment, serving as aide to General Douglas MacArthur. The two men never really liked each other because of philosophical differences over the role of the Philippine army and their disparate administrative styles.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Ike was assigned to the General Staff in Washington, D.C., where he served first under General Leonard Gerow and later General George Marshall. In 1942, he was named Supreme Allied Commander and began planning for Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa. He later undertook similar planning for Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy.
As Supreme Commander, he used his conciliatory and compromising skills to get several difficult personalities from several different nations to work together for the common good of the Allied powers in defeating Hitler’s Third Reich. Getting Winston Churchill, General Bernard Montgomery, General Charles De Gaulle, and American generals George Patton and Omar Bradley–to say nothing of the Russians–to work effectively and productively together was no easy task. Ike himself often expressed frustrations with the nearly impossible responsibility.
Following the end of World War II, Eisenhower served briefly as military governor of Germany. He then replaced Marshall as Chief of Staff. He was a strong supporter of the United Nations.
Ike was so popular after the war that President Harry Truman reportedly offered to support him for president and even be his vice president in the 1948 election if MacArthur ran as a Republican. Instead, Ike, who had been apolitical while he was in the military and was still uncommitted to either party, became president of Columbia University.
By 1952, however, he had tested the political winds and decided that he could win the presidency as a Republican, and he did, becoming the first Republican president in nearly a quarter century. He had always been a compromiser, never known for taking a strong position on anything; therefore, he was called a “moderate” Republican. He continued New Deal policies and expanded Social Security, however, showing that he was more a liberal than a moderate. The seemingly oxymoronic label he gave himself proved as much: “progressive conservative.”
With Richard Nixon as his running mate, Ike defeated Adlai Stevenson, his Democrat opponent, both in 1952 and 1956. Following the 1952 victory, Truman shook his head and lamented, “Poor Ike! It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll sit right here and he’ll say do this, do that! And nothing will happen. He’ll find it very frustrating.”
As president, Ike held more press conferences than any of his predecessors, almost 200 of them over his two terms. He was the first president to be term limited by the Twenty-Second Amendment.
His prominent domestic achievements included making the position of White House Chief of Staff a formal office and beginning, with passage of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956, the interstate highway system. He patterned that network of highways after the German autobahn system he had so admired during World War II. (The accompanying photo shows German prisoners marching to the Allied rear in the median of the autobahn as American tanks race deeper into the Reich.) Eisenhower also appointed five justices to the U.S. Supreme Court, thereby affecting the nation’s judicial system for decades. Those justices were Earl Warren (1953), John Harlan II (1954), William Brennan (1956), Charles Evans Whittaker (1957), and Potter Stewart (1958).
In foreign affairs, Eisenhower and Secretary of State Dulles articulated the domino theory, which warned that if communist insurgencies succeeded in one free country of the world, especially Southeast Asia, it would lead to the fall of one country after another until the entire region would be communist. Based on that theory, in February 1955, Eisenhower sent the first American soldiers to Vietnam as military advisors. His administration also planned the invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs to overthrow communist dictator Fidel Castro, but he left it to his successor, John F. Kennedy, to implement the plan (which Kennedy notoriously bungled).
Perhaps the most controversial action of the Eisenhower administration, however, was the 1957 federalization of the Arkansas National Guard and ordering of troops of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the Supreme Court ruling in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, which sought the racial integration of public schools.
When his second term ended, Ike retired to a farm near the battlefield in Gettysburg. He supported Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential race in spite of the fact that Goldwater had called Ike’s administration “a dime-store New Deal.”
Ever popular among the American people, Ike died of congestive heart failure at Walter Reed Army Hospital on March 28, 1969. His body lay in state in the U.S. Capitol. He finally made it back home to Abilene, Kansas, where he is interred.