As supreme commander of Allied forces in Western Europe during World War II, Dwight D. Eisenhower led the massive invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe that began on D-Day (June 6, 1944). In 1952, leading Republicans convinced Eisenhower (then in command of NATO forces in Europe) to run for president; he won a convincing victory over Democrat Adlai Stevenson and would serve two terms in the White House (1953-1961).
During his presidency, Eisenhower managed Cold War-era tensions with the Soviet Union under the looming threat of nuclear weapons, ended the war in Korea in 1953 and authorized a number of covert anti-communist operations by the CIA around the world. On the home front, where America was enjoying a period of relative prosperity, Eisenhower strengthened Social Security, created the massive new Interstate Highway System and maneuvered behind the scenes to discredit the rabid anti-Communist Senator Joseph McCarthy. Though popular throughout his administration, he faltered in the protection of civil rights for African Americans by failing to fully enforce the Supreme Court’s mandate for the desegregation of schools in Brown v. Board of Education (1954).
Eisenhower’s Early Life and Military Career
Born in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890, Dwight David Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas, as the third of seven sons in a poor family. To the distress of his mother, a devout Mennonite and pacifist, young Ike (as he was known) won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, and graduated in the middle of his class in 1915. While stationed as a second lieutenant in San Antonio, Texas, Eisenhower met Mamie Geneva Doud. The couple married in 1916 and had two sons, Doud Dwight (who died of scarlet fever as a small child) and John.
World War I ended just before Eisenhower was scheduled to go to Europe, frustrating the young officer, but he soon managed to gain an appointment to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Graduating first in his class of 245, he served as a military aide to General John J. Pershing, commander of U.S. forces during World War I, and later to General Douglas MacArthur, U.S. Army chief of staff. During his seven years serving under MacArthur, Eisenhower was stationed in the Philippines from 1935 to 1939.
Eisenhower in World War II
Eisenhower returned soon after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland sparked the outbreak of World War II in Europe. In September 1941, he received his first general’s star with a promotion to brigadier general. After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor that December, U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall called Eisenhower to Washington, D.C. to work as a planning officer. Beginning in November 1942, Eisenhower headed Operation Torch, the successful Allied invasion of North Africa. He then directed the amphibious invasion of Sicily and the Italian mainland in 1943 that led to the fall of Rome in June 1944.
Made a full general in early 1943, Eisenhower was appointed supreme commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force in December of that year and given the responsibility of spearheading the planned Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe. On D-Day (June 6, 1944), more than 150,000 Allied forces crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy; the invasion led to the liberation of Paris on August 25 and turned the tide of the war in Europe decisively in the Allied direction. Having risen from lieutenant colonel in the Philippines to supreme commander of the victorious forces in Europe in only five years, Eisenhower returned home to a hero’s welcome in 1945 to serve as chief of staff of the U.S. Army.
Ike’s Road to the White House
In 1948, Eisenhower left active duty and became president of New York City’s Columbia University. His brief return to civilian life ended in 1950, however, when President Harry S. Truman asked him to take command of the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Europe. In that position, Eisenhower worked to create a unified military organization that would combat potential communist aggression around the globe.
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In 1952, with Truman’s popularity sagging during the ongoing war in Korea, leading Republicans approached Eisenhower and persuaded him to make a run for president. After mixed results in primary elections against the Republican front-runner, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, Eisenhower resigned his commission in the Army and returned from his NATO base in Paris in June 1952.
At the party’s national convention that July, he won the Republican nomination on the first ballot. Under the slogan “I Like Ike” and with Senator Richard M. Nixon of California as his running mate, Eisenhower then defeated Adlai Stevenson to become the 34th president of the United States. (Eisenhower would beat Stevenson again four years later in a landslide to win reelection, despite health concerns after suffering a heart attack in 1955.)
Eisenhower’s Domestic Policy
As a moderate Republican, Eisenhower was able to achieve numerous legislative victories despite a Democratic majority in Congress during six of his eight years in office. In addition to continuing most of the New Deal and Fair Deal programs of his predecessors (Franklin Roosevelt and Truman, respectively), he strengthened the Social Security program, increased the minimum wage and created the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1956, Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System, the single largest public works program in U.S. history, which would construct 41,000 miles of roads across the country.
During Eisenhower’s first term, Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade violated the civil liberties of many citizens, culminating in a series of sensational televised hearings in the spring of 1954. To preserve party unity, Eisenhower refrained from publicly criticizing McCarthy, though he privately disliked the senator and worked behind the scenes to diminish McCarthy’s influence and eventually discredit him. Eisenhower was even more hesitant, however, in the realm of civil rights for African Americans.
In 1954, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that school segregation was unconstitutional. Eisenhower believed that desegregation should proceed slowly, and was reluctant to use his presidential authority to back up the enforcement of the Court’s verdict, though he did send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to enforce integration of a high school there. Eisenhower did sign civil rights legislation in 1957 and 1960 providing federal protection for black voters; it was the first such legislation passed in the United States since Reconstruction.
Eisenhower’s Foreign Policy
Soon after taking office, Eisenhower signed an armistice ending the Korean War. Aside from sending combat troops into Lebanon in 1958, he would send no other armed forces into active duty throughout his presidency, though he did not hesitate to authorize defense spending. He also authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to undertake covert operations against communism around the world, two of which toppled the governments of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954. In 1954, Eisenhower decided against authorizing an airstrike to rescue French troops from defeat at Dien Bien Phu, avoiding a war in Indochina, though his support for the anti-communist government in South Vietnam would sow the seeds of future U.S. participation in the Vietnam War.
Eisenhower sought to improve Cold War-era relations with the Soviet Union, especially after the death of Josef Stalin in 1953. In July 1955, when Eisenhower met with British, French and Russian leaders in Geneva, Switzerland, he proposed an “open skies” policy, in which the United States and Soviet Union would conduct air inspections of each other’s military programs; the U.S.S.R. rejected the proposal, though it won international approval. Under the rising threat of Soviet nuclear weapons technology, Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles did succeed in strengthening NATO and in creating the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) to combat communist expansion in that region.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Legacy and Post-Presidential Life
Though U.S.-Soviet relations remained relatively cordial throughout his presidency, including a summit meeting with Premier Nikita Krushchev in 1959, the Soviet shooting of a U.S. U-2 reconnaissance plane in May 1960 dashed Eisenhower’s hopes for a treaty before he left office. In his farewell address of January 1961, Eisenhower spoke of the dangers inherent in what he called the “military-industrial complex.”
Due to the combination of national defense needs with advances in technology, he warned, a partnership between the military establishment and big business threatened to exert an undue influence on the course of the American government. His warnings would go unheeded, however, amid the ongoing tensions of the Cold War era.
While weathering criticism from both left and right, Eisenhower enjoyed high approval ratings throughout his administration. After leaving office in January 1961, he retired to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He worked largely on his memoirs and would publish several books over the following years. He died on March 28, 1969, after a long illness.