Dwight D. Eisenhower – Respect
The date was June 4, 1944. More than one million soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and nine other nations were nervously awaiting orders to cross the English Channel and invade Normandy, France. These fighting men had trained many months for this moment. If the allied forces were to defeat Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime, this invasion, code-named Operation Overlord, had to be a success. It was the greatest amphibious assault in the history of warfare. The planning of Operation Overlord took months and involved more than 16,000 soldiers, who pored over every detail of the proposed strategy with painstaking attention. To support the invasion, allied commanders amassed 5,333 ships and 11,000 airplanes.
On the other side of the English Channel, the German military had amassed a wall of defense that Hitler thought was impenetrable—and he had good reason to feel that way. By the end of 1940, the German army had invaded and occupied most of Europe, including France, with little resistance. Germany’s main task was to defend the territory it had acquired during the war. From 1940 to 1944, the Germans built the Atlantic Wall. More than 300,000 men were assigned to dig hundreds of miles of trenches, place millions of mines, and put up thousands of miles of barbed wire. Tanks, mortars, and thousands of soldiers armed with every weapon imaginable lined the beaches of Normandy. The Germans were dug into fortified positions composed of concrete and steel. The Germans were ready for a fight, but they did not know when it would come.
The allied commanders, composed primarily of American and British military officers, were to make that decision. The invasion was originally scheduled for June 5. However, on June 3, the day the generals met to execute the order, the weather turned ugly. Stormy conditions were predicted, with strong winds and heavy cloud cover. Such conditions could have been disastrous for the thousands of soldiers storming the beaches of Normandy. The landing craft might be tossed about like toys in a bathtub, killing many of the men before they could even make it to shore. There was also concern about the cover the Air Force and Navy could provide the landing forces, particularly if they could not see their targets clearly. British General Trafford Leigh-Mallory predicted casualties as high as 70 percent for the paratroopers who would be dropped inland on the night preceding the invasion.
The allied commanders, who were some of the most powerful men in the world, debated whether to proceed with Operation Overlord or postpone the invasion. But ultimately the decision was not theirs to make. One man was solely responsible for deciding when to cross the English Channel and invade Normandy. He alone would have to carry the burden if the invasion failed. His name was Dwight David Eisenhower, but everyone knew him as Ike. Just three years earlier, Eisenhower had been a colonel in the U.S. Army, an officer who had never commanded troops nor fought in battle. Yet, in the span of just two short years he rose to the rank of four-star general and was named the Allied Supreme Commander of all European forces—a rise unparalleled in military history. With the fate of the free world at stake, Eisenhower decided to postpone the invasion for 24 hours.
The next day, the generals initiated the same debate. The chief meteorologists entered the room of the high command and predicted a 36-hour break in the storm. The debate intensified. Whatever Eisenhower decided, it would be risky, an enormous gamble. Due to the tides on the beachhead, if he postponed the invasion again, the allies would have to wait another two weeks. If another storm hit during that week, the invasion would not be possible until the following year. If Eisenhower went ahead with the invasion and the storm did not break as predicted, the Germans might push the allied forces back into the sea, thereby possibly winning the war. Eisenhower began pacing the room, head down, chin on his chest. He systematically gathered opinions from the other generals. Some were in favor of the invasion. General Walter Smith said, “It’s a helluva gamble, but it’s the best possible gamble.” Bernard Montgomery, the top-ranking British officer, offered more enthusiasm by urging, “I would say—Go!” Others were more skeptical and voiced caution. Air Marshal Arthur Tedder said it was “chancy” and wanted to delay. Admiral Bertram Ramsey was concerned about the Navy’s ability to spot its targets with the overcast sky, but he thought the risk was worth taking. Eisenhower calmly weighed the alternatives, and finally said, “I am quite positive the order must be given.”
“Okay, let’s go.” This simple phrase uttered by Eisenhower on June 5, 1944, initiated one of the most successful invasions in the history of warfare. On June 6, 156,000 troops either dropped into Normandy or went ashore on five separate beaches—code-named Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. The fighting that ensued was some of the bloodiest of World War II. Some 2,500 men lost their lives that day, but the beachheads were secured. Hitler’s impenetrable Atlantic Wall held up for a mere 14 hours. More than one million soldiers later entered the war through those very beachheads. Operation Overlord was essentially the beginning of the end of Adolph Hitler and his Nazi regime. In the following year, Eisenhower would oversee the hard-fought victory of the allied forces over Germany, culminating with Hitler’s suicide on April 30, 1945.
In years to come, Eisenhower would be appointed president of Columbia University and later named the first Supreme Command of NATO. Others might know him as the 34th President of the United States who won landslide victories in 1952 and 1956. However, nothing he would later accomplish would compare with the importance of Operation Overlord and the invasion of France. The free world owes General Eisenhower a debt of gratitude for his exemplary leadership during World War II.
The primary question is, how did Eisenhower, a man who was only a colonel in 1941 and had no combat experience, come to be appointed Supreme Allied Commander? The simple answer is “respect”—he gave it and expected it in return. Subordinates and superiors alike had a deep level of respect for the man nicknamed Ike. This did not happen by accident. Eisenhower earned the respect of those around him. In the Army, people often move from post to post and are frequently reassigned to other commanding officers. Eisenhower’sphilosophy was simple. “My ambition in the Army was to make everybody I worked for regretful when I was ordered to other duty.” To accomplish that, he would often work up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week. He was loyal to his superiors and routinely exceeded their expectations. They knew that Eisenhower was a man who could be trusted. In the 1930s General Douglas MacArthur described Eisenhower as “the best officer in the Army. When the next war comes, he should go right to the top.”
When Eisenhower later assumed a top leadership role, he made clear his respect for those he was leading, especially the common foot soldier. In the months preceding D-Day (as that fateful day in Normandy came to be known), Eisenhower spent as much time with the troops as possible. During the spring of 1944 he visited 26 divisions, 24 airfields, and five warships. Eisenhower wanted every soldier who would storm the beaches of Normandy to at least get a look at the man who was giving the orders. Even more important, Eisenhower showed a strong interest in the enlisted men as individuals. He would often ask about their hometown, their jobs before the war, and what they planned to do after the war was won. The soldiers admired and respected Eisenhower. Even on the eve of D-Day, Eisenhower paid a visit to 101st Airborne Division. He told a group of enlisted men not to worry about the pending battle. A sergeant from Texas responded, “Hell, we ain’t worried, general. It’s the Krauts that ought to be worrying now.” Eisenhower found a man from Kansas, his own home state, and said, “Go get ’em, Kansas.” He asked a young lieutenant from Michigan if he was ready. The lieutenant responded that he had been well trained, well briefed, and was ready to go. A voice shouted from the crowd, “Now quit worrying, general, we’ll take care of this thing for you.” After many months of careful planning, Eisenhower knew that it was the fighting man who was ultimately responsible for winning the battle.
An important part of Eisenhower’s leadership philosophy was this: In victory, spread the wealth; in defeat, accept full responsibility. This philosophy was never more evident than in the moments after Eisenhower made the fateful decision to send the allied troops onto the beaches of Normandy. In a quiet moment, sometime after making the decision yet before the invasion began, he found the time to write the following statement to be used in the event the invasion failed.
Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.
Eisenhower refused to place the blame on anyone but himself. For this, people respected him.
Other officers respected Eisenhower for his honesty and genuine nature. People were drawn in by his steely blue eyes and welcoming grin. He was modest, deflecting praise and passing it on to his subordinates. Just like a quarterback who throws the winning touchdown pass and later gives all the credit to the receiver with the great hands and the coach who had the brains to call the play, Eisenhower was a very humble man. This trait endeared him to his fellow soldiers and to millions of Americans.
Eisenhower was also respected for his toughness and willingness to make difficult decisions. To win the war, Eisenhower believed a team effort between America and Great Britain was essential. As such, he would not tolerate any fights between soldiers on the same team. On one occasion, an American officer boasted that the Americans would show the British how to fight. Hearing of this incident, Eisenhower summoned the man to his office. The next day the officer was sent back to the States and demoted. Shortly before D-Day, another high-ranking officer with classified information drank too much one evening and began spouting off in a crowded restaurant about the impending invasion. In wartime, this type of behavior was unforgivable. Nazi spies were all over England. If a spy had learned the details of the D-Day invasion in advance, it could have cost many men their lives. Even though the officer was a personal friend, Eisenhower demoted him, relieved him of his command, and sent him home in shame.
Eisenhower was not the type of person to mince words. He was a straight shooter. And while it was not much fun to get a tongue lashing from Eisenhower, everyone knew where they stood with him. People respected him for his straightforward manner. On two occasions Eisenhower even found himself in the awkward position of reprimanding General George Patton, who was a four-star general and Eisenhower’s superior for most of his career. Despite the fact that the two men were good friends, Eisenhower felt that duty and obligation outweighed friendship, and he did not allow his personal loyalty to get in the way of making difficult decisions when necessary.
Dwight D. Eisenhower was not the product of wealth and privilege. Born in 1890 in Denison, Texas, he was the third of six boys. His parents had little money. His father worked at a funeral home and his mother was a homemaker. When reflecting on his upbringing, Eisenhower said, “I have found out in later years we were very poor, but the glory of America is that we didn’t know it then.” Despite having limited means, his parents always encouraged the boys to have high aspirations. “Opportunity is all about you,” the boys were told. “Reach out and take it.” Eisenhower’s family referred to him as Little Ike, while his older brother Edgar was known as Big Ike. Shortly after Little Ike’s birth, the family relocated to Abilene, Kansas. School came relatively easy to Little Ike, and he made good grades without a lot of effort. His true passion was sports. He especially loved football and baseball. In reality, he was just an average athlete, but his will to win overcame his lack of talent. Sports were also the venue where his talents as a leader began to emerge. In the early 20th century, there was no such thing as an athletic director at a high school. So Ike took on the responsibility of writing to local schools and scheduling games. He even arranged for the team’s transportation by negotiating free rides on freight trains. When he was not in school or playing sports, Ike was working. He did not mind manual labor and was pleased to have a job that provided him with new clothes since it was the only way he could have clothes that weren’t hand-me-downs from his older brothers.
As a freshman in high school, while wearing new pants, he fell and scraped his knee. Because he was not bleeding, Ike thought more of the pants than he did of his knee. However, by the next day, infection set in and he began drifting in and out of consciousness. A doctor was called, but Ike’s injury did not respond to treatment. The infection began to spread. The doctor recommended that Ike’s leg be amputated, saying, “If the poison ever hits his stomach he will die.” In response, Ike said, “You are never going to cut that leg off.” He made his older brother, David, promise that he would not allow the doctor to take his leg. David made good on that promise by sleeping in the doorway to ensure that the doctor could not get into the room. Ike’s stubbornness paid off. Two weeks later, the infection began to clear up, the fever went away, and Ike returned to consciousness. If Ike’s leg had been amputated, neither the military academy nor the military would have ever accepted him. That amputation would surely have changed the life of one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known— and maybe the fate of the world itself.
Ike’s stubbornness paid off in that situation, but it didn’t always help him. He had a bad temper that plagued him during his childhood and adolescence. When Ike was 10, his parents gave his two older brothers permission to go trick-or-treating but refused to allow Ike to go with them, saying he was too young. Ike was consumed with anger. He turned bright red, clenched his fists, and pounded away on the trunk of an apple tree until his fists were bloodied and torn. Ike ran into his room and cried into his pillow for quite some time. Hours later, his mother came into the room to clean up his wounds and provide a little common sense. She told Ike how immature and destructive anger was and how important it was for him to conquer his temper. Years later, Eisenhower wrote, “I have always looked back on that conversation as one of the most valuable moments in my life.”
Over time, Ike learned to control his emotions, instead of allowing his emotions to control him. As a general and a president, he prided himself on the ability to stay level-headed in all situations. By doing so, he was able to review all facts relevant to a particular problem, think through possible solutions, and make the most logical decision. It was his ability to remain calm in a crisis that elevated him in rank over other legendary generals. Typically, people do not want a hothead or someone who is a loose cannon as a leader, especially when important decisions need to be made. It was clear that Eisenhower understood this when he wrote, “Anger cannot win, it cannot even think clearly.” On another occasion, he said, “I don’t get emotionally involved. I can accept a fact for what it is, and I can also accept the fact that when you’re hopelessly outgunned and outmanned, you don’t go out and pick a fight.”
When Eisenhower graduated from high school, he wanted to go to college, but his family had no money to send him. In 1910 there were no student loans, so Eisenhower worked long hours to save enough money for tuition. Much to his surprise, he soon learned that it was possible to get a free education at a U.S. military academy. Eisenhower took the necessary qualifying exam and finished second in the state of Kansas. He was accepted to West Point, where the finest Army officers gained their education. Although Eisenhower hovered around the middle of his class in academics, he ended up in the bottom portion of his class in discipline. At that time, he had a rebellious streak in him that ran a mile wide. Eisenhower said he started smoking cigarettes while at West Point simply because it was forbidden. Being on time or keeping his room clean was never a priority. Because of his behavior, Eisenhower received hundreds of demerits for failing to meet the high standards set for West Point students.
During his sophomore year, Eisenhower became something of a football star. At running back, he led Army to several wins early in the season. The New York Times described him as “one of the most promising backs in Eastern football” and the West Point yearbook declared that “Eisenhower could not be stopped” in a victory over Colgate. Unfortunately, in the following game he severely twisted his knee. A later injury resulted in torn cartilage and tendons, thereby ending his athletic career. But, like all people of great character, Eisenhower rebounded. Due to his passion and understanding of the game, the football coach named him coach of the junior varsity team. It was quite an honor for a student to be entrusted with such a position at a major university. In Eisenhower’s first leadership role, he performed admirably, foreshadowing the greatness that would come in the future.
Eisenhower’s life story would not be complete without mentioning the love, admiration, and respect he had for his wife, Mamie. They met in 1915 on his first assignment as a newly commissioned lieutenant. After five months of dating, he decided that he couldn’t live without her. On Valentine’s Day 1916, he proposed, and they were married shortly thereafter.
The role of a military wife is a difficult one. In their first 35 years of marriage, the Eisenhowers moved 35 times. He was often stationed outside of the United States, living in very rugged conditions. Sometimes Mamie would accompany him, but it was not always possible. Even when they were living together, Eisenhower would frequently work 15 hours a day, even more so during wartime. And the monetary rewards were not great. When they were first married, he earned a paltry $141 per month. Mamie later said she learned to squeeze a dollar so much that she could make the eagle scream—referring to the eagle pictured on the back of a $1 bill.
The Eisenhowers’ first child, Doud Dwight, was born the next year and nicknamed “Icky.” When he was just three, Icky contracted scarlet fever and died. Years later, Eisenhower wrote, “This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life, the one I have never been able to forget completely.” The Eisenhowers comforted each other through their grief and later had another son, John Sheldon Doud. Despite financial difficulties, many months spent apart, and the trauma of the death of their son, the Eisenhowers’ love endured for more than 52 years.
Due to security concerns, telephone calls by soldiers were prohibited during World War II. The only correspondence between Ike and Mamie was in the form of letters—lots of them. Ike wrote Mamie more than three hundred love letters over the course of the war. He would often do so late at night when he missed her most. It provided him with an opportunity to put aside the stress of being supreme commander and just be Ike, her husband. In one letter he wrote, “It’s impossible for me to tell you how tremendously I miss you. Your love and our son have been my greatest gifts from life.”
Some of the couple’s best times were yet to come. Using the campaign slogan, “I like Ike,” Eisenhower won lopsided victories to become a successful two-term president. During his tenure in the White House, Eisenhower was widely respected for taking a firm stance against the Communist government in Russia. On the home front, he was also praised for desegregating the U.S. military to ensure that blacks and whites could serve side by side. He ordered troops to oversee the integration of black students into all-white schools in Little Rock, Arkansas. “There must be no second-class citizens in this country,” Eisenhower once wrote.
The former general worked hard to achieve world peace during his presidency, saying, “How I wish this cruel business of war could be completed quickly.” To that end, he signed a truce that ended the Korean War. He initiated the Atoms for Peace Program and proposed that the United States and Russia exchange aerial photographs of their military establishments as an act of goodwill. In addition to his diplomatic successes abroad, President Eisenhower balanced the U.S. budget and halted inflation. The American people supported these efforts, and Eisenhower became one of only three U.S. presidents whose popularity was greater upon leaving the presidency than it was when he took the office eight years earlier. This is remarkable, considering that he already enjoyed a great deal of public support at the end of World War II, before he entered politics.
After leaving the Oval Office, Eisenhower refused to accept payment for the speeches he gave across the country. He considered it unethical to receive compensation for fame earned as a public servant. Contrast this with today’s politicians, who routinely charge thousands of dollars per appearance. Eisenhower preferred to live out his remaining years quietly with Mamie in their retirement home. In the end, he did not see himself as better than any other person in America. He wanted to be buried in the same type of $95 coffin used for common foot soldiers who died in battle.
During his lifetime, Eisenhower served as a role model for all Americans. As a military hero and as President of the United States, he earned the respect of his family, his peers, and millions of people worldwide. He wisely understood that the best way to gain respect was to first give respect to others. He was a humble man who never gloated or sought public recognition. Nonetheless, he was recognized for his achievements at home and abroad. Even today, we can learn a great deal by measuring ourselves against great people of the past such as Dwight D. Eisenhower. He was a person of great character and is deserving of our respect and admiration for his role in American history.