Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 1
An Armchair General Exclusive by Carlo D’Este.
In recent months we’ve taken a look at the generalship of Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery, one of the most successful but controversial leaders of the western alliance of World War II. This month is the first installment in a new series of essays about another of the war’s most important figures: General Dwight David Eisenhower, the man who was tapped in 1942 to lead the new Anglo-American coalition to victory. In this series we will first look at Ike’s character and what made him successful, then in the coming months examine how he became the allied Supreme Commander and the campaigns he led. As the author of a biography of his military life*, I’ve often been asked to speak about Eisenhower – and have done so in a number of public forums. In each instance I’ve had the pleasure (and the challenge) of revealing to an audience as much as possible of relevance about this unique man in a relatively brief time. To begin this series, (with some adaptations), I’m reproducing this presentation for Armchair General. It will, I hope, provide a window into the life of this very private man.
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The story of Dwight Eisenhower’s phenomenal rise from utter poverty and obscurity – Ike lived in a household where wearing shoes was deemed a luxury — to an honored place in the pantheon of American heroes is a tale worthy of Horatio Alger. History has unfairly stereotyped Eisenhower as a lightweight and a bumbling orator, famous for mangling his syntax. What few know is the man who came to be known simply as "Ike" spent his lifetime concealing his intellect and intelligence behind a public façade that conveyed the notion that, "I’m just a country boy from Kansas." Along with his famous trademark grin, this public cover masked a man of great intelligence, whose hidden-hand leadership was that of a master craftsman and a thoughtful, caring human being.
Time magazine said of him in 1952: "They saw Ike, and they liked what they saw . . . They liked him in a way they could scarcely explain. They liked Ike because, when they saw him and heard him talk, he made them proud of themselves and all the half-forgotten best that was in them and in the nation."
Eisenhower is a biographer’s dream. Not only is there the incredible story of Ike’s life, but at one time or another his friends, colleagues and superiors included some of the leading figures of the 20th century: Pershing, Marshall, MacArthur, Roosevelt, Philippine Pres. Manuel Quezon, Patton, Churchill, de Gaulle, Field Marshal Sir Harold Alexander, Alan Brooke, Mountbatten, Hap Arnold, Ernie King, Carl Spaatz and, of course, Monty.
Herewith, a select few highlights about Eisenhower’s life and military career that tells us a great deal about the man and his character. When asked to describe Eisenhower, this is what I reply:
Ike was: ambitious, calculating, a brilliant organizer who could take virtually any problem and figure out a logical solution to it; a man possessed of a terrible and volatile temper that dwarfed that of Patton; a powerful retentive mind. He loved and studied history voraciously throughout his life. His high school yearbook proclaimed he would one day teach history instead of making it. He was such an effective staff officer during the interwar years that his masters, primarily Douglas MacArthur, nearly worked him to death – literally.
How knowledgeable was Ike? During his presidency his occasional clumsy oratory left questions in some minds over just how smart he really was. Big mistake — Ike liked people to underestimate him. Those who did, and they were numerous, quickly learned the folly of their misjudgment. Others were spared by Ike’s innate humanity. Consider this example. In 1967, former Army Chief of Staff, Gen. Harold K. Johnson, visited Eisenhower at his Gettysburg farm. During their conversation Johnson remarked, "Herodotus wrote about the Peloponnesian War that one cannot be an armchair general twenty miles from the front." Afterwards, one of his former White House speechwriters who had been present asked Eisenhower if he knew the precise wording of the quote. Ike replied, "First, it wasn’t Herodotus but Aemilius Paulanus. Second, it was not the Peloponnesian War, but the Punic War with Carthage. And third, he misquoted." Asked why he hadn’t corrected him, Eisenhower replied, "I got where I did by knowing how to hide my ego and hide my intelligence. I knew the actual quote, but why should I embarrass him?"
Ike’s West Point photo taken when he was a senior (First Classman) in 1915
Dwight Eisenhower never aspired to become a professional Army officer. Too poor to advance beyond high school, but determined to earn a college degree and eventually escape his poverty, he passed a competitive examination and entered West Point in 1911. At West Point he was popular but undistinguished. He never took the place seriously – never pushed himself to excel, managed to accumulate 100 demerits in his senior year alone – walked numerous punishment tours, and was fortunate not to have been expelled for his frequent violations of Academy regulations. An inveterate prankster, his antics and irresponsibility while at West Point were legion. They ranged from inattention to his studies, smoking (an expulsion offense), illegal boxing matches held in cadet rooms, leaving the Academy grounds without permission (also an expulsion offense), pouring water from buckets on unsuspecting cadets in the barracks, and – as a plebe – being ordered to report to an upperclassman’s room in full-dress coats, and duly reporting clad only in his coat, under which he was stark naked.
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