John S.D. Eisenhower
On December 21, 2013 we lost a great American, and an acclaimed writer and historian. John Sheldon Doud Eisenhower, who passed away at the age of 91, was a soldier, a diplomat, and a man of great talent and kindness who never traded on his name or his father’s famous reputation.
In this first of two parts, I’m honored to write a brief portrait of a person I was fortunate to know and deeply admired.
I first met John Eisenhower in 1979 when I wrote to him to ask for an interview as I was researching my first book, Decision in Normandy. I was completely unknown to him and he had no particular reason to even see me in his office, then located near Valley Forge National Park, Pennsylvania. Yet he took considerable time to sit down with me and answer my questions about the war and about his famous father.
John was Ike’s second son and second child and he was born in the wake of the tragic death of a brother he never knew but whose shadow loomed large.
Ike and Mamie Eisenhower’s first-born was Dwight Doud, nicknamed Ikky. Here is what I wrote about him in my biography of Ike:
Dwight Doud Eisenhower was a delightful, happy child, adored by his father and a favorite of Eisenhower’s junior officers who outfitted him with a replica of a Tank Corps uniform and proclaimed him their official mascot. The Eisenhowers could not have been happier until, shortly before Christmas 1920, their world came crashing down around them. Ikky became ill and feverish one afternoon but an army doctor summoned to examine him shrugged it off as probably no more than an upset stomach. When his fever rose overnight, Ikky was admitted to the post hospital where for a time he seemed better. Even though he was the only patient, the hospital staff exhibited little concern and paid scant attention to a child that seemed healthy enough and who possessed sufficient energy to turn the corridors into a playground.
When his condition worsened, a physician from Johns Hopkins Medical School was summoned from Baltimore to assist. Ikky, he pronounced, had scarlet fever. “We have no cure for this. Either they get well or you lose them.” Ikky was quarantined; his parents could only watch helplessly through a glass window and send him kisses. Eventually, Eisenhower was permitted into the room to be with his ailing son, but the scarlet fever turned into meningitis and within a week Ikky died in the early morning hours of January 2, 1921. He was barely three years old. A small, red tricycle Ike and Mamie had bought for Ikky remained forlornly beside their Christmas tree, a visible reminder of the enormous void left by his sudden passing.
Eisenhower later said in the only public comment he ever made about Ikky’s death, “We were crushed. For Mamie, the loss was heartbreaking, and her grief in turn would have broken the hardest heart.”
Ikky’s death left a permanent scar on both parents. Somehow they pretended to cope but fooled no one. Instead of drawing closer together in the wake of Ikky’s death, each retreated into a private world of sorrow and suffered in silence, their only common bond their beloved son’s death. Eisenhower threw himself relentlessly into his work and was rarely home. Not until 1948 did he privately admit to a friend the extent of his grief. “I was on the ragged edge of a breakdown,” he wrote.
John was born on August 3, 1922 and throughout his life both Ike and Mamie Eisenhower’s powerful memories of Ikky left them over-protective of their second son.
He would later write in his engaging memoir, Strictly Personal: “I am certain that I was born standing at attention. Perhaps I was something like the top sergeant who was not born, but issued … Certain factors contributed to this: a Spartan upbringing; West Point training; and the circumstances of my father’s meteoric rise to prominence during my early twenties. His unusual success, while exhilarating to us all, made me feel that among strangers I was always some sort of curiosity. And it affected the normal relations between a father and son, making it doubly difficult for me to establish my own identity.
As he grew up, Ike and Mamie’s family life centered around John. Mamie worried excessively about his welfare to the point where she smothered him with affection. Her protectiveness included bundling him in all manner of winter clothing on cold mornings. John longed to be one of the boys but could not avoid becoming an object of amusement among his friends when he appeared clad more like an Eskimo than a Washington, D.C. schoolboy. After leaving home and ensuring he was well out of her sight, he would remove the offending items and happily play with his friends.
As a child John was slight of frame and underweight and convinced he could never measure up to his father’s raw strength and athletic prowess. Although he tried hard and participated in various schoolboy sports, “Dad could never understand why I was not a star.”
Although his father spared the rod, neither parent believed in spoiling the child. As a youngster, John was unable to shake off his trepidation of disappointing his demanding father. No opportunity was lost to quiz John on his school subjects. In math, for example, he found himself well ahead of his classmates in learning the multiplication tables. “I was drilled without mercy” each morning in the bathroom which both shared simultaneously; “And no errors were tolerated.” Nevertheless, their regimen did bring the young man and the stern father together for rare but congenial moments of bonding.
John loved his parents unreservedly and regarded them as good people who cared deeply for him. He later wrote, “Viewed from the perspective of having raised four children, I can recognize that Mother and Dad were good parents, although very strict … Dad himself was a terrifying figure as a small boy.”
As he grew to manhood, John accompanied his parents during Ike’s overseas assignments to Panama, France, and in the 1930s, to the Philippines. In the spring of 1929, when his father was in France on assignment mapping the World War I battlefields, he took six-year old John along on his trips.
One of the places they visited was Verdun where John later wrote of his remembrance of a forbidding place with an aura of death. While there he started to kick a pineapple-shaped object which turned out to be a live hand grenade before being alertly restrained by his father’s driver, thus thwarting another family tragedy in the nick of time.
A charming photograph in his memoir depicts John outfitted in a helmet and an old rifle, both picked up off a battlefield.
John had glowing memories of the Philippine years. He spent most of the year at a private Episcopalian mission school in Baguio, a resort city in the mountains of central Luzon, where he discovered girls, played tennis, did well academically, and grew into an independent young man.
Although Ike saw less of his son than he would have liked, their reunions did not always turn out the way John imagined. Once, he returned home to Manila with a white cockatoo presented to him by a Filipino army officer. The bird, which John named Oswald, was dirty and smelly from the trip, and when his father was shown the bird for the first time, he exploded.
“Real outbursts of temper were rare with Dad – and he almost always recovered immediately – but when he did become angry, he was spectacular. This time he outdid himself. ‘There’s nothing I hate worse than parrots and monkeys!’ he roared.” John was secretly thankful the only reason he had not brought along a monkey was that he had not located one. There followed what one friend described as “operation flying-feathers and bird seed,” with “Ike again voicing damnations.” Mamie quietly defused the standoff by finding Oswald a new home.
John would later write that, “My years in the Philippines I look back on as among the happiest of my life.”
John followed in the footsteps of his father and earned an appointment to West Point, which he entered as a plebe in July 1941. He graduated and was commissioned a second lieutenant on a memorable day: June 6, 1944. Ahead lay a career of service to the nation, followed by many years as one of America’s best military historians.