Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower

By in Military Leaders



“I come from the very heart of America.”

Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was the 34th President of the United States of America. Before his two terms as President, he served as Supreme Allied Commander on the battlefields of Europe during World War II. It was his strategics that saw the execution of Operation Overlord and the fall of the Axis Powers in Europe. When he entered office, he utilized the power of the executive to not only enact the highway system that we know, but also to engage in the battle for civil rights, most notably during the Little Rock crisis. Eisenhower was a brilliant military mind who managed to turn from the art of war to the game of politics with great efficiency. His military style leadership, that of the commander determining course and relying on subordinates, is something he has been criticized for, despite it being perhaps his greatest strength. His is a celebrated legacy with but one lingering, haunting shadow left in its wake.

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Early Life to Military Life

“The proudest thing I can claim is that I am from Abilene.”

Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14th, 1890 and grew up in Abilene, Kansas. He was actually the “second” Ike in his family; his older brother Edgar was nicknamed “Big Ike”, and Dwight was thus christened “Little Ike”. All of the boys in his family were “Ike”, though only Dwight would keep this nickname. His father, David, was an engineer at a local creamery and his mother Ida was a religious pacifist, which led to some conflict when her son joined the military, though she did not attempt to overrule his decision. It was here that Eisenhower developed a love of the historical epic, particularly regarding great generals and battles. His high school yearbook predicted him to become a professor of history. His brother Edgar was predicted by the same book to become president, humorously enough. It is also where he learned the need to be protective of those under him: his younger brother was injured and lost an eye in an accident involving the young Dwight Eisenhower. He was also very fond of sports, but an injury to his leg later on ended any sort of athletic career he might have had. When he graduated high school, he and brother Edgar both wished to attend college, but the family lacked the funds to send both of them. They agreed to spend alternating years at school and working, with Edgar taking the first year at school. When his brother returned, he had decided to spend an additional year, which Dwight agreed to. A friend then recommended that Eisenhower attend Annapolis, the US Naval Academy, which required no tuition. He was one of the winners of the entrance exam, but since he was over the age limit for the Naval Academy, he instead was appointed to West Point.

President Eisenhower’s home state of Kansas, with his home town of Abilene proudly marked.

“My life has been largely spent in affairs that required organization. But organization itself, necessary as it is, is never sufficient to win a battle.”

At West Point, Eisenhower was not a particularly model cadet. He was ranked near the bottom of his class in terms of discipline, and his ranking in that respect never truly improved. He and a friend once responded to an order to report in full dress coats in a far too literal sense: they didn’t wear anything else. By the time he graduated in 1915, he was ranked in the middle of his class (mostly due to his disciplinary track record) with a decent, but undistinguished record. His highest marks were in English, where he was commended for clear, logical writing, but he earned average marks in fields like engineering and military science. Perhaps most notable of what he did learn was the value of cooperation and teamwork, “disciplined and efficient management of the tasks of modern war.” It was believed that he would be one to “thoroughly enjoy his army life,” but he wouldn’t be one “who would throw himself into his job so completely that nothing else would matter”. It was when he was stationed at Fort Sam Houston in Texas that Eisenhower met his wife, Mamie Doud. It was in the military that Eisenhower would develop a friendship with George S. Patton, and the two of them would go on to publish articles that would preach the incentives of new weapons known as tanks, arguing that the development of more powerful tanks could prevent the reoccurance of the trench warfare that claimed so many lives in World War I. This flew in the face of official army doctrine which held that tanks would remain a support role for regular infantry.

Eisenhower’s theories on tank warfare would earn him both negative attention and positive attention. Some of this positive attention came from General Fox Conner, who arranged to have Eisenhower serve as his executive officer in the Panama Canal Zone. Conner would teach Eisenhower one of his oft repeated maxims: “Always take your job seriously, never yourself.” Conner would intervene on Eisenhower’s behalf several times, first to send him to the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to study war-games theory. Eisenhower was selected for advanced study of warfare, and would graduate at the top of his class. When he wound up coaching football at Fort Benning, Georgia, Conner intervened again and had him send to Washington, D.C to serve as an aide to General John J. Pershing and then to the Army War College, where the future leaders of the army are trained.

Eventually, Eisenhower served as personal aide to General Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower credits much of his administrative experience to working under the controversial general, noting that he “would not have been ready for the great responsibilities of the war period” without that time. MacArther, similarly, had great praise for his aide. However, the two differed greatly on the relationship between military and politics. Eisenhower was in no way a fan of politics, with a notable disdain for partisanship; MacArthur had presidential aspirations and was a friend of political controversy. MacArthur’s conduct during the Bonus March of 1932 in particular, wherein MacArthur personally led the routing of unemployed veterans near the Capital, began to drive a wedge between them. MacArthur felt he’d quelled a potential Communist uprising; Eisenhower felt he’d skirted far too close to “the edge of partisan politics”. Eisenhower would follow MacArthur to the Philippines in 1935, where he would aid in recruiting Filipino soldiers and polish the general’s speeches and correspondences. MacArthur appreciated Eisenhower’s staff abilities and his dedication, but privately stated that he “lacked toughness”. Similarly, Eisenhower appreciated the general’s “determination and optimism”, but was furious at his inability to appreciate the problems of building an army from scratch.

Eventually, Eisenhower would return to Fort Sam Houston just as the war in Europe began. His work in organizing one of the largest peace time field exercises at the time would earn him his first star, and would also reveal the genius of some officers, like Patton commanding an armored division. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was summoned to Washington at the behest of Chief of Staff General Marshall, who, having followed his career, believed Eisenhower to have the intelligence required to aid in shaping the plans to defeat both Germany and Japan. When Eisenhower met with Marshall, he was immediately asked “What should be our general line of action?”. Eisenhower’s response, after several hours of internal deliberation, was to do everything possible to ensure the safety of MacArthur’s division in the Philippines. Marshall agreed; rather than praise, however, he showed his approval with additional assignments. Eisenhower would gain his second star under Marshall, and more importantly, he would begin to absorb the managerial style that he would later use in his presidency:

One tenet: The decision maker should not be distracted by problems that the subordinates should be able to resolve by themselves.

Two: The assistants should have the necessary information at the ready for decisions to be made. 

For a while, it seemed as though Eisenhower would not be leaving Washington, despite his desire for field command. This changed when he was sent to London to serve as liaison between the British and American strategists. His success in this assignment saw him greatly praised by Winston Churchill, who thought him perfect to take charge in the build up of forces to the eventual cross channel attack on Nazi-occupied Europe. That was delayed, however, in favor of an Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied North Africa… an invasion which Eisenhower was chosen to lead.

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World War II

“War is a grim, cruel business, a business justified only as a means of sustaining the forces of good against those of evil.”

Eisenhower’s political knowledge was picked up during wartime negotiations. He acquired a skill for picking the right people for the right positions and for bringing people of many backgrounds together for the cause of victory. His diplomacy skills aided him in alleviating tension between British officials, who wanted to follow an indirect, “ring tightening” strategy against the Nazi forces, and the Americans who favored a much more direct approach.

General Eisenhower driving a military jeep. The photo was believed to be taken in England.

With the Soviet Union desperately needing the relief provided by a second Nazi front, the decision was made to begin in North Africa with Operation Torch (though they’d have preferred the Americans’ favored approach). The immediate effects included the Vichy French forces in the area joining the Allies… and the full Nazi occupation of Vichy France.

Following the invasion of North Africa and the Invasion of Italy, a resolution came from the meeting of the Big Three in November of 1943. The second front against Hitler would be opened; the cross-channel assault would commence. The obvious choice for this operation was Marshall, but Roosevelt felt he “could not spare his organizer of victory”. After the Tehran conference, he stated simply, “Well Ike, you are going to command Overlord.”


Eisenhower was not a solitary leader, giving commands and making decisions without input or check. Rather, he was an adamant advocate of teamwork, believing it to be the key to what would become the greatest amphibious assault in military history. He was certainly not willing to work with “the intense personal outlook that most officers have upon even such a critical thing as war.” The teamwork he sought would require cooperation among all armies, navies and air forces. To achieve this unity, Eisenhower extended his authority over all of them.

The map outlining the final plans of Operation Overlord. Clearly marked are the beaches famously stormed on D-Day.

The map outlining the final plans of Operation Overlord. Clearly marked are the beaches famously stormed on D-Day.

Of course, with all this emphasis on teamwork and cooperation, it should be noted that Eisenhower still took final responsibility on the most important of decisions. Even with all of the players involved with Operation Overlord, it was still up to him, and him alone, to determine when the plan would take place. His order was finally given in a short “O.K., let’s go”.

The End of War

Nazi Germany would surrender on May 7, 1945. Berlin would fall to the Soviet forces, which many criticized Eisenhower for allowing, though he felt his decision just due to the events of the Yalta Conference, where it was decided that Germany and Berlin would be divided into occupation zones following the war. To allow the Soviet forces to take Berlin, Eisenhower assured them that their end of the bargain would be upheld. His ultimate concern was for victory, and to prevent any petty squabbles from getting in the way of that victory.

With peace brought a change in duties: Eisenhower was now in command of the occupation forces in Germany, and was often charged with criticism that the United States did not have a proper policy to guide its occupation. He felt that such criticisms mostly came from those who expected the immediate establishment of “the perfect democratic organization in Germany”. Peace also brought, for some, a change in direction, rather than action: The Nazis defeated, many, including Patton, now turned to the threat of the Communists. Facing criticism, Eisenhower flew in the face of this new outlook, actively upholding the order to repatriate Soviet citizens found in the American occupation zone.

At the Potsdam Conference in July of that year, Eisenhower learned of a weapon made in secret since the beginning of the war. It had already been tested, and it was ready to be utilized to end the war with Japan – decisively. Japan, Eisenhower argued, was defeated, making overtures for peace; to use this weapon now would tarnish the image of the United States at the moment of its greatest triumph. But this was not his decision to make, and all arguments he made to President Truman fell on deaf ears. As Truman saw it, this weapon would be a “master card” in international relations; a weapon of such awesome power, that it would give the United States the edge in peace negotiations with the Soviets. On August 6, 1945, the city of Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb. Nagasaki would be destroyed by a second three days later.

With this, Eisenhower desired nothing more than to escape from “the headaches and the headlines”. He expressed this desire to Marshall, who then suggested that Eisenhower take his place as chief of staff. He argued that this position was the only one “suitable to his present rank and prestige”. Eisenhower replied that “the most ‘suitable’ position for me is unquestionably a remotely situated cottage in a state of permanent retirement.” He was nominated for chief of staff that November.

He didn’t care for his new job. He found that he often had to deal with “personal hatreds, political and partisan prejudices, ignorance and opposing ideologies” to get most anything done.  The only reason he stayed on was “straight duty”. He’d also been hopeful that the United States and Soviet Union would continue their cooperation into peacetime. He often dismissed suggestions that the Soviet Union would become America’s next “enemy”, but his outlook had changed by 1947. By then he’d witnessed the expansion of Communism through Soviet coercion, and determined that “Russia is definitely out to communize the world”. Eisenhower doubted, however, that war was the only option. He felt the US should try to prevent crises through “positive, forehanded and preventative action”.

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The Presidency


Eisenhower gladly retired from his position as chief of staff in February of 1948, after serving two years in that position. He would come back, temporarily, to serve as presiding officer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for a while, and he would be just as unhappy then as he was before. He would serve as president of Columbia University for a while, and for many years he would be asked, repeatedly, to run for office. Specifically, that of the President. He objected, stating that “it is my conviction that the necessary and wise subordination of the military to civil power will be best sustained… when lifelong professional soldiers, in the absence of some obvious and overriding reasons, abstain from seeking high public office”.

He’d hoped that, with Thomas Dewey securing the nomination that year, he wouldn’t have to deal with these questions any further. If Dewey won, he’d supposedly have an eight year term and thus there would be no chance for him to run until 1956, by which time he’d consider himself too old to run. When Dewey lost, the floodgates were again open. Proponents of Eisenhower pointed to his many writings as president of Columbia, which included discussions about the “ever expanding federal government” and of “selfish advantage” that ignored “the enduring truth that no part of our society may prosper unless the whole of the nation does”.

When I said "huge margin", I meant it.

When I said “huge margin”, I meant it.

Even with both parties pulling on him to declare his candidacy for one position or another, Eisenhower remarked in his diary that he was “not, now or in the future, going willingly into politics”. His callers, however, were certain to tell him that a run for the presidency was his duty. As he put it, “I cannot say to anyone that I would not do my best to perform a duty.”

Eisenhower ran as a Republican in 1952. He won by a huge margin.

Prior to his inauguration, Eisenhower held a meeting of advisers to determine the course of action over his term. The agreed objectives were to balance the budget, to end the Korean War, to use nuclear deterrent to defend vital interests, and to end price and wage controls. He had his work cut out for him.

Highlights: Civil Rights and the Little Rock Crisis

“I believe that the United States as a government, if it is going to be true to its own founding documents, does have the job of working toward that time when there is no discrimination made on such inconsequential reason as race, color, or religion.”

President Truman had begun the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, but the going was slow. Eisenhower made his intentions to desegregate the armed forces very clear in his first State of the Union address. He often encountered opposition from those within the armed forces, to which Eisenhower would control the flow of funding to force the change through. Eisenhower would often directly overrule anyone who opposed him on this matter; “There must be no second class citizens in this country.”

Racial discrimination was eventually declared a national security issue, mostly due to how Communists were utilizing the United States’ history of discrimination and violence as a point of propaganda. He also proposed (and later signed into law) two of the first major civil rights bills since 1875.

Following the decision of Brown v. Board of Education, Eisenhower ordered that all Washington, D.C schools be integrated in order to make a model for the rest of the country to follow. When the federal courts ordered that all schools be integrated, the state of Arkansas refused. When Eisenhower ordered Governor Faubus to integrate the schools, he refused. So Eisenhower took control of the Arkansas National Guard and sent in the 101st Airborne Division to ensure the safe entrance of nine black students into Little Rock High School.

While it would be nice to say that Eisenhower saw the entirety of the nation’s schools desegregated, this is sadly not the case. While Eisenhower was in favor of integration, he did not do anything similar to his actions during the Little Rock Crisis again – After all, those actions were of last resort, and not something Ike wanted to do; he felt that his hand had been forced. As a leader of civil rights, Eisenhower falls short. Despite one major accomplishment – and to downplay the significance of Little Rock would be criminal – Eisenhower simply did not utilize the executive to its possible fullest. This failure could likely be attributed to his leadership style, which assumes that subordinates – in this case, the individual states and the school districts within those states – would fall in line at the order. Even after seeing that some would not follow orders, and having his hand forced, Eisenhower shied away from any sort of more “hands-on” approach, which included shying away from attempting to pass more thorough legislation than the Civil Rights Act of 1957. Purely theoretical, but it could be said that if Eisenhower was more forceful on civil rights, then the Civil Rights Acts of the 60’s would have been much sooner, or not needed at all.

The Korean War

The Korean War was already in full effect by the time Eisenhower had actually entered office. Prior to his election, he had stated that “in a fight, we can never be too strong”. He’d also stated that the government should be prepared to use nuclear weapons, though he had hope that it would never come to that.
When he did enter office, MacArthur had already been relieved of command in Korea, and the forces of China and NATO had once more become stalemated. Though many opposed it, from those in his own party to the South Korean president, Eisenhower elected for an armistice, rather than any sort of attempt at full victory. Though it did not quite mix with Eisenhower’s own “domino theory”, which advocated liberation rather than containment, the armistice was integral to preventing any possible nuclear conflict. Eisenhower’s aides expressly urged him numerous times to utilize nuclear arms against China; each time, he refused.

Even though Eisenhower opposed the use of nuclear weapons, he oddly enough didn’t consider forming a coalition to combat their buildup and use. It’s likely that this was due to the rising conflicts with China and the Soviet Union, in which both sides were building up their stockpiles while angrily shaking their fists at each other, but the idea of a coalition designed to prevent such buildup, on both sides of the conflict, seems like it could have potentially served as an inroad towards peace and disarmament. This is another factor attributable to his leadership style, though to call it a “failure” is debatable: the way Eisenhower operated as a leader ensured that he’d be given information relating to every possible course of action, in addition to recommendations from trusted and knowledgeable advisers. It’s entirely possible that he’d seen the option for such a coalition for disarmament, but it simply wasn’t advisable. Like a good military leader, Ike looked at many possible options and needed to choose both the safest and most effective, which meant siding against any potentially “risky” courses of action.

The conflicts with China would continue. With Stalin’s death in early 1953, they were inclined to back down and agree to the armistice which resolved the Korean War, but Eisenhower would continue to attempt to wedge China and the Soviet Union apart. He was very hard in his opposition to China, often threatening potential nuclear attacks, but never actually utilizing atomic bombs. The Korean War would be ended by armistice, thankfully, and that armistice is still maintained to this very day.

Farewells and Forewarnings

“We need an adequate defense, but every arms dollar we spend above adequacy has a long-term weakening effect upon the nation and its security.”

When Eisenhower had finally left office, he was proud to have numerous accomplishments under his belt. He’d established the national highway system. He’d managed to successfully avoid nuclear war. He’d seen school integration through the courts and into the individual districts. Despite his accomplishments, however, there were a few things he’d failed to do, even if they were established as goals. For example, he’d failed in his stated desire to see the Republican Party become more moderate. As stated, Eisenhower hated partisan politics, as he felt they prevented work from being accomplished. One need look no further than our own backed up Congress to see the effects of severe partisanship, and to see that Eisenhower did not accomplish this goal. The Republican Party seems to be moving in a more conservative, more extreme direction with each passing day. Whether that could be called Eisenhower’s fault is debatable, however.

Ironically, this very same aversion to partisan politics, and indeed to politics in general, is what led Eisenhower to fail to call out Joseph McCarthy on his actions. While Eisenhower did harbor a contempt for McCarthy’s brand of finger pointing and extremism, his own distaste for speaking in what he perceived as outside of his field allowed McCarthy to go about unchecked. Again, this is hardly Eisenhower’s fault – he was merely one of many who failed to stand up to McCarthyism – but he could and should have stopped one of the more ridiculous episodes of the Red Scare when he had the power to do so.

Eisenhower coined the term “military-industrial complex”. The concept is simple enough: Too close a relationship between politicians, the military and the industrial base that supports it would lead to ruin. We can, almost, see it now: Money is exchanged from defense lobbyists, so more money is kicked to those same defense companies in federal spending. This money, which could have gone to just about anything else to improve the nation, instead goes to arms. This was a problem foreseen, ironically enough, by a military general. Eisenhower’s realization of the dangers posed by the military-industrial complex is seen, by some, as a failure, mostly because of how late into his term he had his revelation and how little he could do beyond warn the future generations of this problem.

To end, a brief summary of important points:

Eisenhower’s Greatest Accomplishments:

  1. The success of the Allied front in Europe and Africa during World War II. His leadership style, which brought all of the various military powers involved in the operation directly under his control, was an excellent exercise for when he became president.
  2. The avoidance of nuclear war during the Korean War and the rest of the Cold War.
  3. The full use of executive power during the Little Rock Crisis, establishing firmly the direction that the nation would head in regards to segregation.

Eisenhower’s Most Significant Failures:

  1. An inability or unwillingness to more firmly push for civil rights and equality, despite his actions during the Little Rock crisis. Much turmoil could have potentially been avoided had Eisenhower been more forceful in his quest to eliminate the concept of “second class citizens” in the US.
  2. The lack of attempts to push for nuclear disarmament, despite his own stated distaste for such weaponry. His actions, which included using the strategy of nuclear deterrent, could be said to have made the idea of disarmament that much more distant.
  3. More a personal failure, though the current status of the Republican Party has shown that Eisenhower’s personal goal of making the GOP more moderate has failed.
  4. His reluctance to comment on others and to avoid party politics enabled Joseph McCarthy to practice his brand of madness. While he was not alone in remaining silent, his opposition to McCarthy could have been enough to slow or stop the “Red Scare” which so gripped the nation.
  5. His final warning, though grave, was only at the end of his term. Eisenhower’s awareness of the “military industrial complex” should have stirred him to do something more to oppose it, rather than simply attempting to warn the nation upon taking his leave. As the President of the United States, he was in a unique position to stall or end this practice, but he did very little all things considered.

Eisenhower’s Most Important Leadership Lessons:

  1.  Eisenhower allowed his subordinates the freedom to do their jobs, understanding that they were capable of what they were ordered to do and did not need him “helicoptering” them. Only when necessary did Eisenhower directly involve himself in the business of the subordinates, as seen during the Little Rock Crisis, when the orders of the federal government were directly opposed.
  2. As seen in World War II, Eisenhower was a master of bringing together many different people and directing them towards one, unifying goal. He brought under his command the air forces, navies, and armies comprised of people of many different nationalities and ethnicities and directed them all in such a way as no one could possibly choose not to follow. This skill was honed during his time in the Philippines, and was utilized all the way through his military career and into politics.
  3. Do not be afraid to seize complete control over a situation gone awry. As seen in the Little Rock Crisis, there always exists the possibility that those trusted to perform a duty will oppose the ruling of a higher power. In this case, one must be willing to step in and correct the situation to the fullest extent of your ability.

Final Notes: The (Planned) Eisenhower Memorial

The Eisenhower Memorial, which was commissioned by an act of Congress back in 1999, has finally found a design, and the criticisms are rolling in. Eisenhower’s granddaughter commented that the planned memorial, which includes steel tapestries, large columns and statue of a young Ike, seems less like a representation of the 34th President and more of a “theme park”. Another criticism commented that rather than representing the President as he was, it instead represented “an unrecognizable, generic figurine without personality, character, or gravitas.” Personally, I’m not much of a fan of the memorial, as it does seem rather overblown and not quite representative of who Eisenhower was.

The planned Eisenhower Memorial. One particularly scathing criticism called the planned memorial "kitschy".

The planned Eisenhower Memorial. One particularly scathing criticism called the planned memorial “kitschy”.

“Having established as our goals a lasting world peace with justice and the security of freedom on this earth, we must be prepared to make whatever sacrifices are demanded as we pursue this path to its end.”



– Quotes are all courtesy of the Eisenhower Presidential Library at http://www.eisenhower.archives.gov/all_about_ike/quotes.html

– President Eisenhower, Farewell Address, http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=90&page=transcript

– Chester J. Pach, Elmo Richardson, “The Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower”, Kansas Press

– Steven Metz, “Eisenhower as Strategist: The Coherent Use of Military Power in War and Peace”, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/pub359.pdf

– Kerry E. Irish, “Cross Cultural Leadership: Dwight D. Eisenhower”, in “The Art of Command: Military Leadership from George Washington to Colin Powell”, edited by Harry S. Laver and Jeffrey J. Matthews, University Press of Kentucky

– Elizabeth Flock, “Amid Controversy, Board Approves Ike Memorial”, US News, http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/washington-whispers/2013/07/18/plans-for-142-million-eisenhower-memorial-move-forward-despite-scathing-criticism

About the Author:

Nick Bolster was born in a log cabin… wait, no, that’s not right. He was born in a hospital and calls Pompton Lakes, New Jersey his home. He is currently enrolled as a student at Wagner College on Staten Island in New York, where he is busy being completely unsure of what he wants to do with his life, but he’s rather okay with that (no he’s not). His two favored areas of study are history and literature, and often spends time reading, enjoying video games and films and attempting to learn new languages. He’d just like to say: “I Like Ike”.