This past Wednesday marked the 130th anniversary of the birth of Dwight D. Eisenhower. His rise to the rank of five-star general officer and then President of the United States, along with the monumental extent of his fame and popularity throughout the nation, was not foretold by the circumstances of his origin. The fact of this was never forgotten by the man who disliked being addressed as “Mr. President” and who for the rest of his life preferred to be known as “General” instead.
Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was born into an impoverished household on October 14, 1890. In 1892, the family relocated to Abilene, Kansas, and gradually accrued the means for a decent living. Ike attended West Point, married Mamie Doud and was subsequently thrust into the affairs of World War I, from which he would attain the rank of major. He remained a major for sixteen years, stranded by the scarce opportunities for advancement in peacetime and attracted favor in the meantime through his analytical brilliance and amiable charisma. It was perhaps inevitable that he would win the attention of a certain general by the name of Douglas MacArthur, Field Marshal of the Philippine Army, who soon came to regard Eisenhower as his most promising rising officer.
It was during this period that the pillars of international order had begun to crumble. Full-scale war struck East Asia in 1937 and then central Europe in 1939, and Eisenhower promptly relocated from the Philippines to Washington, D.C., to better observe the approaching storm. The thunderbolt of Pearl Harbor propelled Eisenhower directly into the great events of the world. He was soon assigned to oversee the disorderly Anglo-American landings in Vichy North Africa.
Eisenhower, who had never witnessed direct combat until then, swiftly found himself to be the fulcrum of the Western Allied war effort. Never before had history relied so intensely upon the charisma of one man to deftly balance competing personalities, between such British commanders like the proud Bernard Montgomery and his American counterparts. The irresistible geniality of Eisenhower rapidly seized hold of America, and his likeness became the face of the American war effort.
The first ever unified military command between two countries thus emerged. Eisenhower, appointed Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, was tasked with the preparation for Operation Overlord, history’s largest amphibious assault. The looming likelihood of failure saw Eisenhower record two messages, one in the event of success and the other in the event of catastrophe.
His main address to the first wave of D-Day soldiers to land upon Norman beaches is preserved for the ages, of which the first sentences are recorded here: “Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: 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 hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.”
After the landing of millions of troops and a struggle lasting many months, the Western Allies met their Soviet counterparts in the heart of defeated Germany, and Eisenhower returned to America as its most celebrated war hero. The return to which he attached the most importance, however, was the one to Abilene, KS, the hometown of his youth, and the anchor of his heart that was to forevermore lie among the middle-class.
The popularity of the General, epitomized by the campaign slogan “I Like Ike,” helped deliver him to two landslide American presidential victories in 1952 and 1956. His presidency was among the most outstanding of this country, with economic abundance and middle-class expansion at home and skillful navigation of Cold War politics abroad. Particular decisions of renown include his adroit resolution of the Suez Crisis in 1956, his support to Hungarian revolutionaries and refugees, his formation of NASA and the strategic infrastructure project of the Interstate Highway Act. His federalization of the Arkansas National Guard in 1957 sought to enforce desegregation and successfully ensured that African American students could safely enter Little Rock’s Central High School without fear of attack from organized mobs.
After the conclusion of his presidency, the General returned once more to Normandy in 1964 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the landings. His image, and the profound sentiments that underpin it, succeeded his death in 1969 to hold aloft his modern legacy. Abilene’s proud son was photographed often with a hot dog or hamburger in hand, animated as always by that honest and bracingly optimistic nature to which Americans are perpetually drawn. He was, after all, a thoroughly American figure with which the pulse and aspirations of a stabilized middle-class identified. His upward story, springing from his personal competencies and talents, led him from small-town material scarcity to premier general of the Western world. As Ike himself would be the first to insist, the tale of Dwight Eisenhower attained its most moving height not as a statesman but as a soldier. As far as his professional life is concerned, he will always remain the General first.