Dwight David Eisenhower was born in Texas on October 14, 1890, but grew up in Kansas. The nickname he got in school, “Ike,” stayed with him for the rest of his life. Attracted by the free education the military academies provided, he applied to West Point and received an appointment in 1911. He graduated in the top half of his class in 1915. A year later, he married Mamie Geneva Doud, whom he met in Texas on his first assignment as a second lieutenant.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Eisenhower hoped for duty overseas. Instead, he spent the war setting up and commanding a new tank training center at Camp Colt, located on the Gettysburg Battlefield in Pennsylvania. During the 1920s and 1930s, Eisenhower rose rapidly through a series of staff jobs. When World War II began with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, he started to earn promotions—and stars—at record speed. Eisenhower commanded the Allied invasions of North Africa and Italy, and in December 1943, he became Supreme Allied Commander for “Operation Overlord,” the invasion of mainland Europe. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he directed the Allied landings on the beaches at Normandy. Eleven months later, he accepted the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany, ending the war in Europe. By then a five-star general of the Army, Eisenhower served three years as Army chief of staff in Washington. He retired from active duty in 1948 to become president of Columbia University.
In December 1950, President Truman called Eisenhower out of retirement to command the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Upon his return to the United States, the enormously popular war hero decided to run for president as a Republican. Eisenhower easily defeated Democrat Adlai Stevenson, as he would again in 1956. This was the first Republican victory in a presidential election since Herbert Hoover beat Al Smith in 1928.
The Eisenhowers began rebuilding the house at Gettysburg shortly after the election. The architects found a decaying 200-year old log cabin inside the walls of the existing house. Mamie asked them to save and reuse what they could of the old timbers and other building materials. The finished house was a “modified Georgian farmhouse,” with eight bedrooms, nine bathrooms, a formal living room, dining room, kitchen and butler’s pantry, and glassed-in porch with a view of the mountains. The porch was their favorite room. Gifts to the Eisenhowers filled the house.
Eisenhower was a man of many interests. He enjoyed playing golf and painting, especially portraits and landscapes. The Eisenhowers added gardens, paths, a skeet-shooting range, a teahouse, and a putting green with a sand trap. They converted the old garage northwest of the main house into a guesthouse. The Secret Service adapted a concrete milk house attached to the barn for their office. The immediate grounds also include a large stock barn and various utility structures. Eisenhower started a successful cattle enterprise, Eisenhower Farms, during his presidency. The business included 189 acres of Eisenhower’s land and 306 adjoining acres owned by partners.
After serving as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Western Europe during World War II, Eisenhower had been army chief of staff, president of Columbia University, and military head of NATO before seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Skillful at getting people to work together, he functioned as a strong public spokesman and an executive manager somewhat removed from detailed policy making.
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower became the first Republican president in 20 years. A war hero rather than a career politician, he had a natural, common touch that made him widely popular. “I like Ike” was the campaign slogan of the time. When Dwight Eisenhower succeeded Truman as president, he accepted the basic framework of government responsibility established by the New Deal, but sought to hold the line on programs and expenditures. He termed his approach “dynamic conservatism” or “modern Republicanism,” which meant, he explained, “conservative when it comes to money, liberal when it comes to human beings.” A critic countered that Eisenhower appeared to argue that he would “strongly recommend the building of a great many schools ... but not provide the money.”
Eisenhower’s first priority was to balance the budget after years of deficits. He wanted to cut spending and taxes and maintain the value of the dollar. Republicans were willing to risk unemployment to keep inflation in check. Reluctant to stimulate the economy too much, they saw the country suffer three economic recessions in the eight years of the Eisenhower presidency, but none was very severe. In other areas, the administration transferred control of offshore oil lands from the federal government to the states. It also favored private development of electrical power rather than the public approach the Democrats had initiated. In general, its orientation was sympathetic to business.
Compared to Truman, Eisenhower had only a modest domestic program. When he was active in promoting a bill, it likely was to trim the New Deal legacy a bit — as in reducing agricultural subsidies or placing mild restrictions on labor unions. His disinclination to push fundamental change in either direction was in keeping with the spirit of the generally prosperous Fifties. He was one of the few presidents who left office as popular as when he entered it.
Despite disagreements on detail, he shared Truman’s basic view of American foreign policy. From the Korean War at the beginning of his two terms to the U-2 spy plane incident at the end, the Cold War dominated Eisenhower’s presidency. By 1953, both the Soviet Union and the United States possessed nuclear arms, and many people feared that a nuclear war might break out between the two super powers. Eisenhower did what he could to reduce tensions. Honoring a campaign pledge, he brought about an armistice in the Korean conflict. He repeatedly sought an agreement with the Soviets to reduce nuclear arms. In 1953, he proposed an "Atoms for Peace," program for the peaceful use of atomic energy in developing countries. Stalin's death in that same year raised hopes for “peaceful co-existence.”
In 1955, Eisenhower proposed his ‘Open Skies’ plan to the first Geneva Summit meeting between heads of state from Britain, France, the United States, and Russia. The proposal called for an international aerial monitoring system of nuclear weapons. Although the Russians rejected the proposal, the conference did improve relations between the two countries.
Ike perceived Communism as a monolithic force struggling for world supremacy. In his first inaugural address, he declared, “Forces of good and evil are massed and armed and opposed as rarely before in history. Freedom is pitted against slavery, lightness against dark.” The new president and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, had argued that containment did not go far enough to stop Soviet expansion. Rather, a more aggressive policy of liberation was necessary, to free those subjugated by Communism. But when a democratic rebellion broke out in Hungary in 1956, the United States stood back as Soviet forces suppressed it.
Eisenhower’s basic commitment to contain Communism remained, and to that end he increased American reliance on a nuclear shield. The United States had created the first atomic bombs. In 1950 Truman had authorized the development of a new and more powerful hydrogen bomb. Eisenhower, fearful that defense spending was out of control, reversed Truman’s NSC-68 policy of a large conventional military buildup. Relying on what Dulles called “massive retaliation,” the administration signaled it would use nuclear weapons if the nation or its vital interests were attacked.
In practice, however, the nuclear option could be used only against extremely critical attacks. Real Communist threats were generally peripheral. Eisenhower rejected the use of nuclear weapons in Indochina, when the French were ousted by Vietnamese Communist forces in 1954. In 1956, British and French forces attacked Egypt following Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal and Israel invaded the Egyptian Sinai. The president exerted heavy pressure on all three countries to withdraw. Still, the nuclear threat may have been taken seriously by Communist China, which refrained not only from attacking Taiwan, but from occupying small islands held by Nationalist Chinese just off the mainland. It may also have deterred Soviet occupation of Berlin, which reemerged as a festering problem during Eisenhower’s last two years in office.
On July 1, 1955, the Eisenhowers invited the entire White House staff to the house to celebrate both its completion and their wedding anniversary. Later that year Eisenhower had a major heart attack, and the farm became the “Temporary White House” during his recuperation. He started spending more time at the farm after he returned to work, often bringing foreign dignitaries there after meeting with them at nearby Camp David. Visitors included former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Prime Minster Nehru of India, Chancellor Adenauer of West Germany, and French President De Gaulle. He always showed them his prize herd of Angus cattle, of which he was very proud.
For most Americans the “Spirit of Geneva” ended with the brutal Soviet suppression of a revolt in Hungary in 1956. Concerned about Soviet influence in the Middle East, the president and John Foster Dulles, his secretary of state, announced the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” which provided economic and military aid to help the countries in that area resist communism. The launch of “Sputnik,” the first earth satellite, suggested that Soviet military capability might be greater than had previously been thought. In September 1959, Soviet Premier Nikita S. Khrushchev, Stalin’s successor as premier, visited President Eisenhower at the farm for informal meetings, but that produced only a brief thaw in the Cold War.
The capture of a U-2 reconnaissance jet over Soviet territory in 1960 caused Khrushchev to end a summit meeting taking place in Paris and to cancel Eisenhower’s planned visit to Russia. The Cold War was at the forefront of the 1960 election. In 1961, Eisenhower broke off diplomatic relations with Fidel Castro’s Cuba, because of its close relationship with the Soviet Union.
Domestically, Eisenhower worked with a Democratic Congress to pass many bills continuing New Deal and Fair Deal programs. He supported the expansion of Social Security and Federal aid for health assistance and educational programs and created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. He signed the bill that authorized the Interstate Highway System in 1956. He balanced the Federal budget. In one of his last speeches as president, he warned the country about the dangers posed by the huge “military-industrial complex” that had grown out of the protracted crisis of the Cold War.
The 1954 Supreme Court decision that declared segregation of schools unconstitutional led to a new emphasis on civil rights. Eisenhower had already extended Truman’s policy of desegregating the Armed Forces. In 1957, he proposed the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. Congress approved most of his recommendations in the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which provided, among other things, for the formation of a permanent Civil Rights Commission. In that same year, the president sent Federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas to protect black students newly enrolled in formerly all-white Little Rock High School. In 1960, he sponsored another civil rights bill providing voting registration protection for blacks. He wrote, “There must be no second class citizens in this country."
In 1961, Eisenhower retired to the Gettysburg farm, although he stayed busy meeting political and business associates and writing his memoirs. He served as an elder statesman, advising presidents and meeting world leaders. The Eisenhowers’ greatest joy was spending time on their farm with family and friends.
After President Dwight D. Eisenhower revealed on national television that one of the four “great Americans” whose pictures hung in his office was none other than Robert E. Lee, a thoroughly perplexed New York dentist reminded him that Lee had devoted “his best efforts to the destruction of the United States government” and confessed that since he could not see “how any American can include Robert E. Lee as a person to be emulated, why the President of the United States of America should do so is certainly beyond me.” Eisenhower replied personally and without hesitation, explaining that Lee was, “in my estimation, one of the supremely gifted men produced by our Nation. . . . selfless almost to a fault . . . noble as a leader and as a man, and unsullied as I read the pages of our history. From deep conviction I simply say this: a nation of men of Lee’s caliber would be unconquerable in spirit and soul. Indeed, to the degree that present-day American youth will strive to emulate his rare qualities . . . we, in our own time of danger in a divided world, will be strengthened and our love of freedom sustained.”
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|