The Supreme Commander – Part I

The career of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Major General Eisenhower as Commander of American Forces in the European Theater, 1942
(Photo: Imperial War Museums)

"Who was the greatest general of World War II?" must be one of the most common conversational topics between military history buffs, but we believe there can be no clear-cut answer to it. Comparing commanders of different nations, with different equipment and doctrine, working in different strategic and tactical situations and having vastly different jobs due to their posting is like comparing apples to oranges. Nevertheless, a few names keep cropping up as candidates, and today's article is on one of those eternal contenders: Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969), Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force and one of only eight five-star generals ("General of the Army") in American history.

Eisenhower was born in Texas and raised in Abilene, Kansas as the third of seven brothers in a highly religious family. His nickname "Ike" was an abbreviation of the surname, rather than the first name, and all brothers shared it, with young Dwight being "Little Ike." He became fond of outdoor activities such as hunting and fishing, as well as playing cards, which he learned from a local camper. Later in life, at West Point, he kept a record of his friends' poker debts to him, but had to stop the practice as they were growing resentful of always losing and having to pay up. He took up contract bridge instead; even later in his career, he would regularly play against Manuel Quezon, the President of the Philippines. Being able to play bridge became an unofficial requirement for serving on his staff during World War II, and he picked General Alfred Guenther as his second-in-command at NATO because the man was the best bridge player in the U.S. Army.

The Eisenhower family in 1902
(Photo: Eisenhower Foundation)

Eisenhower also developed an interest in military matters by reading his mother's history books. His first attempt at higher education, however, did not yet involve a military career. He and his older brother Edgar both wanted to attend college, but the definitely was poor. The two boys made a pact: alternating each year, one of them would study, while the other worked to pay the other's tuition. Dwight's first turn was to work, and he did so as night supervisor in a creamery. After the first year, Edgar asked if he could take a second year and only swap roles one year later. Dwight consented, but a new opportunity soon came up. A friend of his was applying to the Naval Academy at Annapolis, where tuition was free, and urged Dwight to join him. With the support of his state's senator, Eisenhower applied to both Annapolis and West Point. He did well at the entrance examination, but was considered too old for the Naval Academy, and was appointed to West Point instead, beginning his studies in 1911.

Eisenhower in Chicago on his way to West Point in 1911
(Photo: unknown photographer)

As a student, Eisenhower loved the sporting opportunities, and did well in English. He was also interested in the sciences and mathematics, but his academic performance was only average, and his discipline rating was also lacking due to flaunting regulations. He graduated in the middle of the class of 1915. It became the second class at West Point to earn the moniker "the class the stars fell on" due to the high number of graduates who went on to become general rank officers – one of them being Omar Bradley. (The first class to be called so was the one of 1886, and included John  J. Pershing (Read our earlier article).

Eisenhower, probably warming up for football, during his West Point years
(Photo: U.S. Military Academy)

Eisenhower almost didn't get a commission after graduation due to a knee injury suffered while playing football and aggravated during horse riding. The academy's chief medical officer initially offered a recommendation to coastal artillery, but Eisenhower found the idea boring and preferred a civilian life – he was fascinated by South American gauchos and was considering traveling to Argentina. After a bit of back-and-forth between Eisenhower, the doctor and the War Department, Eisenhower was finally commissioned as a second lieutenant in the infantry – with the understanding that he would not seek a cavalry commission later.

The 1912 West Point football team. Eisenhower is third from left, Bradley is far right
(Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

After several other postings, Eisenhower was given command of the 301st Heavy Tank Battalion in February 1918. The battalion was slated to be sent to Europe and fight in World War I the following months, but was delayed by a reorganization that established the tank corps as an independent branch of the army, and the war ended before the unit could be deployed. Though he never saw combat, Eisenhower still displayed excellent organization skills and a talent at recognizing the strengths of others and placing them in the right positions.

In 1919, then serving as a major in the Regular Army, Eisenhower served as an observation officer for the War Department on the Transcontinental Motor Convoy. The event was both an army exercise and the federal government's way of publicizing the need for a better road system in the U.S. The convoy rolled from Washington D.C. to San Francisco at an average pace of 5 mph (8 km/h). The experience not only spurred many states to improve their roads, but also influenced Eisenhower in the creation of the Interstate Highway System during his presidency.

Vehicles of the Transcontinental Motor Convoy on Lincoln Highway, Nebraska
(Photo: U.S. Army)

After the convoy, Eisenhower and several other generals including George S. Patton (Read our earlier article) started promoting new ideas of speed-oriented offensive tank warfare. This didn't go down well with more senior members of the establishment, and Eisenhower stopped publishing his theories after being threatened with a court-martial. He was almost court-martialed again (as well as possibly imprisoned and dismissed) in 1921, when he improperly received $250.76 in housing allowance. He claimed he received the money with no intent to deceive, but was only saved by General Fox Conner, who wanted Eisenhower to serve as his executive officer in Panama.

Lieutenant General Eisenhower with a French Renault FT tank in 1919
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Conner became a teacher and a father figure to Eisenhower. He taught Ike three rules for fighting a war for a democracy: never fight unless you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long. Conner foresaw a second world war, and his lessons on the importance of allies greatly influenced Eisenhower's own career.

Conner recommended Eisenhower for Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. Ike was worried because he never attended Infantry School, but Conner's tutelage proved more than enough, and Eisenhower graduated first of 245 in the class of 1926. After a brief stint with the Buffalo Soldiers regiment, he was then posted to the American Battle Monuments Commission (ABMC) (Read our earlier article) under Pershing, where he produced a 282-page guide. He attended Army War College in 1928 and, once again, graduated first of his class, then served some more on the ABMC.

General Fox Conner, Eisenhower’s mentor
(Photo: U.S. War Department)

Eisenhower became the executive officer of General George Van Horn Moseley in 1929. Once Moseley was assigned as Deputy Chief of Staff, Eisenhower formally remained on his staff, but became the unofficial military secretary of the Chief of Staff, General Douglas MacArthur (Read our earlier article).

He accompanied MacArthur to the Philippines in 1935 to act as advisers to the Philippine government. Eisenhower struggled to secure modern weapons and effective training for the Philippine army due to an inadequate budget. He and MacArthur also developed a mutual antipathy due to disagreements over the role of the Philippine Army and the leadership qualities an American officer should exhibit. Historians have since suggested that having to work with MacArthur was good preparation for working with other difficult individuals such as Churchill, Montgomery, Patton, George C. Marshall and de Gaulle during World War II.

MacArthur and Eisenhower in 1932, after the Bonus Army incident
(Photo: Bettman)

While an excellent administrator, Eisenhower was not considered for a major command in September 1939, when Hitler invaded Poland and World War II broke out. The upcoming massive expansion of the army (from 200,000 men to 1.4 million in a year and a half), however, meant a pressing need for officers. After several postings, including chief of staff of the 3rd Division, chief of staff of the Third Army, and excellent performance at the Louisiana Maneuvers, Eisenhower rose to the rank of brigadier general in October 1941.

Eisenhower (right) during the Louisiana Maneuvers
(Photo: Robertson Collection)

Ike was assigned to the War Plans Division in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. There, he formulated the plan that would eventually guide American strategy in the war: building up forces in Britain, and invading Nazi-occupied Europe from there.

The build-up of U.S. forces in Britain was originally overseen by General Chaney, but both Eisenhower and Army Chief of Staff George C.  Marshall found him unsuited for the job. Ike suggested General Joseph McNarney as replacement, but Marshall, with the blessing of Roosevelt and Churchill, appointed Eisenhower himself in June 1942; the post came with a promotion to lieutenant general. His skills as a diplomat and a politician came to forefront in Britain: he had to coordinate the efforts of two different militaries with different traditions, and a certain amount of mutual distrust. He also had to maintain good relations with the political elites, and with the press – which, in turn, made him a public symbol of the Allied war effort.

Eisenhower in London in 1942
(Photo: Eisenhower Presidential Library)

Eisenhower's plans to invade Nazi-occupied Europe were postponed when Churchill convinced Roosevelt to first open a new front in Africa and defeat the Axis forces there. This was to be done under the Combined Chiefs of Staff, a unified top-level command structure, and Ike became the commander of all Allied forces in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations.

Diplomacy, one of Eisenhower's strong suits, came to the forefront during Operation Torch. The Allied amphibious landings occurred in Morocco and Algeria, both of which were under the control of Vichy France at the time – officially neutral, but essentially a German puppet state. The landings were the largest amphibious operation in history up to that point, and Ike tried to remove Vichy resistance even before the operation began. He contacted French General Henri Giraud, who lived in Vichy France, but was not part of its high command structure. Eventually, Eisenhower sent General Mark Clark (Read our earlier article) and a diplomat to conduct a secret meeting with Admiral François Darlan, the Vichy commander-in-chief. Darlan agreed to allow the Allies into African soil without a fight, but Ike received heavy criticism for working with a Vichy official. Nevertheless, he was promoted to full general – becoming the 12th officer in U.S. history to reach the four-star rank – during the North African campaign.

Eisenhower (front left) with a very informally dressed Churchill and officers in Tunisia, Christmas Day 1943
(Photo: Getty)

The Allied victory in Africa was followed by Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. Close to the end of the campaign, General George S. Patton became the center of controversy after two incidents in which he slapped soldiers suffering from PTSD  (Read our earlier article) for "cowardice." Eisenhower ordered a delegation to investigate the events, and pressured Patton to apologize, but he refused to dismiss Patton in the midst of public furor, and also made sure that the only official report on the matter would remain in his own secret files. Nevertheless, it's speculated that his decision to place his West Point classmate Omar Bradley in charge of the preparations for the Normandy invasion instead of Patton might have been influenced by the incidents.

Eisenhower giving Patton his third star in 1943
(Photo: U.S. Army)

You can read about Eisenhower's role in the Normandy landings, the rest of the war, the establishment of NATO, and his presidency in the second part of our article.

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Our tour bus at Omaha Beach (Photo: Author’s own)
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