The Supreme Commander – Part II

The career of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Eisenhower’s official portrait
(Photo: The White House)

This article is the second part of our overview of the life and career of Dwight D. Eisenhower. (Read our earlier article) Though he never led troops in battle, Eisenhower is nevertheless considered one of the greatest American generals of all time. Even without battlefield experience, his organizational and diplomatic skills, as well as his ability to place the right men in the right positions, made him uniquely suited to leading the international war effort of the Western Allies during World War II.

Once Italy was knocked out of the war and precious troops stuck in Northern Italy to prevent further Allied advance up the peninsula, the stage was set for the final leg of the war in Europe: the landings in Normandy and the drive across Western Europe to Berlin.

Two men were in the running for overall command of Operation Overlord: Eisenhower and George C. Marshall. President Roosevelt picked the former for two reasons. One: Ike already had experience with both commanding a multinational force, and with overseeing amphibious operations in Africa and Sicily. Two: Marshall was the Army Chief of Staff, and Roosevelt was reluctant to give the position to anyone else.

Eisenhower with Roosevelt in Sicily, 1943
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Eisenhower picked a British-American staff for his top commanders, and also secured the participation of Free French leader Charles de Gaulle, who was important not only for his military contribution, but also because he was the most likely choice to form a new French government.

D-Day was originally scheduled for May 1944, but had to be pushed to July because of a shortage of landing craft. The same shortage also forced Operation Dragoon, the landings in Southern France (Read our earlier article), to be pushed all the way back to August, even though it was meant to occur simultaneously with Overlord.

Eisenhower speaking with men of the 101st Airborne Division on June 5, before D-Day
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Eisenhower’s order of the day for June 6, 1944, addressed to the “Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force” became his most famous speech, known as the Great Crusade Speech for its beginning: “You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
 
The speech ended with “have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!
Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

Eisenhower’s second, less well-known note written for D-Day (and accidentally misdated July 5)
(Photo: archive.gov)

Ike, however, wasn’t quite as confident as he claimed to be, and also wrote a second declaration for a potential failure: 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.” He completely forgot about it in the flurry of activity following a successful first day of the invasion, and we only know about the note because it was found by his secretary later.
 
Once the initial landings succeeded and Allied forces managed to capture the deep sea port of Cherbourg
(Read our earlier article) and break through German lines (Read our earlier article), the liberation of Paris was the next step. He was encouraged in this not only by de Gaulle, but also by German General Dietrich von Choltitz, the military governor of Paris, who defied Hitler's order to destroy the city and surrendered the garrison. (Read our earlier article)

Eisenhower with French General Pierre Kœnig and General Bradley in Paris, August 1944
(Photo: National Archives and Records Administration)

Eisenhower had to exercise his diplomatic skills once more during the advance east across Europe. British General Montgomery wanted to push toward the German industrial heartland of the Ruhr valley in the north, while Bradley proposed a push further south, toward the similarly industrialized Saarland. Ike tried to appease both by splitting the Allied forces and conducted an advance along a wide front. This decision had been criticized for straining his already stretched logistics network, slowing down the advance and giving the Germans time to dig in and put up a harder fight later. Nevertheless, his service as Supreme Allied Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force was rewarded with a promotion to the rank of General of the Armies, the American equivalent of a field marshal and a rank only awarded eight times to this day.

Eisenhower as General of the Army in 1945
(Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Eisenhower decided, against British requests, to allow the Soviet Union to capture Berlin, and the division of Germany between the three major Allied nations (and France) was executed along the lines Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin agreed on earlier. When Western Allied forces started liberating concentration camps, Eisenhower was certain that people will deny the Holocaust sometime in the future, and ordered extensive photo and film documentation of the camps – these documents became important evidence during the Nuremberg Trials (Read our earlier article).

Eisenhower (second from right) with major American, British and Soviet commanders after the signing of the German Instrument of Surrender
(Photo: U.S. Army)

After the end of the war in Europe, Eisenhower was appointed military governor of the American zone of occupation in Germany. Believing that future hostilities with the Soviet Union could still be avoided, he became good friends with his Soviet counterpart, Georgy Zhukov, and also visited Moscow and met Stalin at Zhukov's request. Learning about the secret American atomic project a few weeks before the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he expressed his opposition to the attacks because he thought the deployment of nuclear weapons would increase tensions with Russia after the war.

Eisenhower with Zhukov in Moscow
(Photo: unknown photographer)

As military governor, Ike aggressively pursued the process of denazification, the purging of former Nazis from public life, even removing Patton (Read our earlier article) from his post in Bavaria when the latter spoke up against the practice.

George C. Marshall retired in late 1945, and Truman picked Eisenhower as the next Army Chief of Staff to oversee the demobilization of an army over 11 million strong. (Read our earlier article) Still hoping for peaceful relations with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower supported the newly formed United Nations, and hoped it would play a role in controlling nuclear proliferation. Escalating tensions, however, led to the Truman administration ignoring senior military leaders and favoring the State Department, which led to a widespread construction of atomic bombs. Ike was eventually brought around on the policy of containment to stop Soviet expansion, but his frustration as Chief of Staff led him to seek a civilian career.

Many people would have liked to see Eisenhower run for president. As early as 1945, Truman offered to help Ike win the 1948 elections, and later offered to run as Ike's running mate on the Democrat ticket if MacArthur (Read our earlier article) ran for President in Republican colors. Other politicians and notable citizens from both parties also encouraged Eisenhower to run in 1948, but he refused, stating that "life-long professional soldiers, in the absence of some obvious and overriding reason, [should] abstain from seeking high political office." Instead, he took up position as president of Columbia University in 1948 with an intent to promote the concepts of education and democracy.

Eisenhower chatting with President Truman at the Potsdam Conference in 1945, which was where Truman first offered to help Ike become president
(Photo: U.S. Army)

While serving as the university's president, he also continued to advise on military matters and became the informal Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He also founded The American Assembly at Columbia, a think tank for politicians, businessmen and professional leaders to discuss social and political problems, and the Institute of War and Peace Studies to study the causes, conduct and consequences of war, a subject no American university had addressed before.

Eisenhower lighting the Columbia University Yule log in 1949
(Photo: Columbia University)

Despite these achievements, Columbia was a poor fit for Eisenhower. He had little in common with academics, and many faculty members were unhappy about his ties to big businessmen. Ike took an extended leave in December 1950 (though he would only fully resign 3 years later) in response to the developing Korean War. The U.S. was unprepared for the conflict, and Truman decided to shake up his national security staff and significantly increase military spending. As part of this shakeup, Eisenhower was appointed the first Supreme Commander of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, with his old colleague, Field Marshal Montgomery as his deputy. He held the position for a year and two months, and was succeeded by General Matthew Ridgway (Read our earlier article), the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division during World War II. Eisenhower managed to forge NATO into a strong and cohesive military alliance. Nevertheless, he always thought that the U.S. and Canada would eventually withdraw from NATO and leave it as a purely European venture.

Eisenhower with the first NATO flag in 1951
(Photo: U.S. Army)

As 1952 rolled around, the question of presidency arose once more. Eisenhower had long been independent, but he eventually declared himself as a Republican, partially due to the "Draft Eisenhower" movement within the party: public and newspaper endorsements, rallies, and even a suggestion by a (Democrat) senator that both parties should nominate Ike for presidency, only with different running mates.

Even so, Eisenhower's goal was not personal glory or wealth, but to avoid what he thought would have been a terrible mistake for the nation. Republican Senator Howard Taft was a non-interventionist, and a candidate for Republican nomination as president. Ike believed it was vital for the U.S. to remain active in global politics and prevent the spread of communism; he agreed to run in no small part to foil Taft. He resigned his position as the head of NATO in June 1952 to go on the campaign trail.

Senator Taft, who was indirectly responsible for convincing Eisenhower to run for President
(Photo: U.S: government)

Eisenhower considered himself a "progressive conservative," and went on to preserve those of Roosevelt's New Deal programs that were still running. As a Republican candidate, however, he also had to appease the party's right-wing Old Guard, which he did by accepting future president Richard Nixon as his running mate. Nixon was also considered a good potential vice president because of his strong anti-communist views, and his relative youth, which was especially important considering Eisenhower's advanced age (at 62 years of age, he was oldest President elect since James Buchanan in 1971). Ike's campaign ran on a strategy nicknamed "K1C2," based on the three failures of Truman's presidency he attacked: Korea, the containment of communism, and corruption. He won the 1952 elections with 442 electoral votes to 89, and four years later won again with 457 to 73.

Eisenhower on the campaign trail in 1952
(Photo: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library)

Eisenhower's presidency is far too vast a topic to discuss in any detail here, so we'll restrict ourselves to a few highlights. He authorized the Interstate Highway System in 1956. Influenced by his role as an observer 1919 Transcontinental Motor Convoy, he justified the system not only through its economic value, but also as an essential part of American military security in the Cold War.

On the foreign front, Eisenhower frequently used propaganda and covert operations to contain communism, including two coups d'état (in Iran and Guatemala) in which the CIA was involved. He also authorized a CIA campaign of sabotage and terrorist attacks against Fidel Castro's new communist government in Cuba, and began planning an invasion that eventually turned into the Bay of Pigs fiasco under Kennedy's administration. He also used financial and diplomatic pressure during the Suez Crisis to force three allied nations, Britain, France and Israel, to withdraw their forces and relinquish control of the canal to Egypt. He also announced the Eisenhower Doctrine on the occasion, under which any Middle East country could request American financial or military aid against armed aggression (meaning Soviet expansion).

In Asia, Ike formed the SEATO (Southeast Asian Treaty Organization) in the wake of French defeat by communist forces in Vietnam. He sent General Lawton Collins (Read our earlier article) as ambassador to South Vietnam in late 1954, and dispatched the first American soldiers to the country the following year.

Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles meeting South Vietnamese President Ngô Đình Diệm
(Photo: Department of Defense)

At home, Ike declared racial discrimination a national security issue, since the treatment of African-Americans was a frequent (and valid) communist propaganda talking point. He began the desegregation of the armed forces, and sent the 101st Division (Read our earlier article) to Little Rock to restore order and enforce a court decision that allowed several black students to attend a formerly all-white high school.

Soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division escorting African-American students in Little Rock
(Photo: U.S. Army)

Ike also clashed with Senator Joseph McCarthy over the latter's anti-communist witch hunt. When McCarthy threatened to issue subpoenas to White House staff in 1955, an enraged Eisenhower established the principle of executive privilege, which makes employees of the executive branch immune to subpoenas in certain circumstances. On a more controversial note, Eisenhower's administration also contributed to McCarthy's work by participating in the Lavender Scare, a crusade against homosexual federal employees, 5,000 of whom were fired from their jobs because of their sexual orientation – actually a far greater number than those who were fired for being members of the Communist Party.

Eisenhower died on March 28, 1969, from a congestive heart failure that was preceded by several heart attacks earlier in his life. He was buried, as he requested, in a Government Issue coffin wearing his World War II uniform in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas. The most recent memorial dedicated to Dwight D. Eisenhower is located in the Normandy town of Sainte-Mère-Église, where a statue depicting him was unveiled during the 2024 D-Day celebrations.

Eisenhower’s statue in Sainte-Mère-Église
(Photo: author’s own)

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