Copyright © 2000. Eisenhower Papers Project. All rights reserved.

A Soldier-Statesman's Career

Born in 1890, Dwight David Eisenhower grew up in the farming town of Abilene, Kansas. One of six brothers, he chose an Army career mainly to get a free college education. Although he excelled in English at West Point, it was not until he was inspired by a brilliant mentor in Panama that he began to demonstrate qualities of military greatness.

During World War II Ike proved that behind his friendly, plain-spoken exterior there was both a genius in the undervalued art of coalition warfare and a leader capable of getting the most out of exceptionally difficult personalities. Driving the combined Allied forces to victory in North Africa and Europe, he won the lasting affection of the American public. He will always be remembered as the architect of victory on D-Day--June 6, 1944.

After the war, Eisenhower's stints as leader of occupation forces in Europe, U.S. Army Chief of Staff, President of Columbia University, de facto chairman of the JCS, and Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, for NATO gave him valuable contacts, skills, and experiences. In 1951-52 he waged a well-conceived and executed campaign for the presidency. Eisenhower took office determined to end the stalemated Korean War, cut back on the New Deal/Fair Deal programs that he felt were eroding American values and institutions, and pave the way for eventual victory in the Cold War by first containing and then outlasting the forces of Communism.

In many respects Eisenhower's tenure as thirty-fourth President was successful. He stopped the fighting in Korea and thereafter kept the peace. He also brought the budget into structural balance and resisted pressures to overspend on military and social programs. To be sure, Eisenhower failed to end the menace of nuclear weapons, could not rebuild the Republican Party in his own moderate image, and had difficulty coping with the growing Civil Rights movement. His reputation would grow, however, as historians came to appreciate the soundness of his middle-way approach.

Eisenhower Returns to Europe: Documents, January-March 1951

For the United States, the winter of 1950-51 was the darkest time in the Cold War. Late in November the situation in Korea had taken a disastrous turn as American forces were overwhelmed by a massive Chinese Communist attack. General Douglas MacArthur, the leader of the UN forces in Korea, told his superiors in Washington that his command faced destruction. In December the Joint Chiefs of Staff warned U.S. commanders around the globe that World War III--a nuclear war--might be imminent, and President Harry Truman declared a national state of emergency. Truman took even more decisive action in what he thought was the most important theater--Europe. On December 19 he announced the designation of General Dwight David Eisenhower, the World War II hero then serving as Columbia University's president, to be the first Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. His task: to save Western Europe from a Soviet invasion.

Eisenhower's appointment came at a time when Americans were badly divided on Cold War issues. Truman's decision to send American troops to Europe provoked a "Great Debate" over the wisdom and extent of American involvement, with opposition to the deployment coming mainly from elements within the Republican Party. These debates were carried on in an atmosphere poisoned by the witch-hunting excesses of McCarthyism and an even more widespread ideological crusade against Communism at home and abroad.

Americans were also preparing to divide over the 1952 Presidential election. Out of power since 1933, the Republicans were desperate to capture the White House. The most likely nominee, however, was "Mr. Republican," Senator Robert Taft. Tainted with isolationism, the abrasive Ohioan lacked charisma; many GOP moderates feared he would lose a sixth consecutive election. For the Democrats, the unpopular Truman was still eligible and in the race. It seemed doubtful that he could again pull off the same kind of come-from-behind miracle that he had managed so brilliantly in 1948.

Looming over both parties was the specter of an Eisenhower candidacy. Ike had almost no political baggage to interfere with the allure of his astounding popularity; at the beginning of 1951 even his basic political affiliations were unknown to the general public. Although he insisted that he was not a candidate and would only respond to a clear-cut call to duty, he was quietly discussing with a few close friends the possibility that he might run. These friends--men like Cliff Roberts, Bill Robinson, Lucius Clay, and Ed Bermingham--were wealthy and influential, and they knew that much of the General's appeal lay in the fact that he had neither displayed political ambition nor involved himself in partisan bickering. They had helped, and would continue to help, Eisenhower garner support and funding for the special projects that he had begun at Columbia. They, along with the shadowy "Mr. Lockwood" (New York Governor and two-time Republican presidential nominee Tom Dewey), would prove to be modern-day king makers.

Before Eisenhower could turn his attention completely to these matters, however, there was still the great task at hand. In January 1951 he took a whirlwind tour of Europe to assess the state of European readiness and to sell Congress, the American public, and the Europeans themselves on the idea that the situation was not hopeless--Western Europe could be defended. In order to build morale and get the necessary commitments from all the NATO countries, Eisenhower willingly assumed the role of cheerleader for the cause. Nationalistic pride and long-standing grudges threatened to derail his efforts, but in the end he was able to overcome most obstacles. The establishment of a working multinational command was a tribute to his ability to get diverse interests to work together toward a common goal. The creation of SHAPE--the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Powers Europe--would be his legacy.
 


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