Dwight D Eisenhower

34th president - 1953-1961

 

The Supreme Commander who had led the Allied Forces to victory in the Second World War brought to the presidency a military charisma unseen in Washington since the days of Ulysses S Grant. His moderate brand of Republicanism did not represent a spectacular departure from Truman's Democratic regime, but his prestige made him considerably more popular and, arguably, more effective.

His most obvious impact was in foreign affairs. The former head of Nato, he dealt with the growing tensions of the Cold War from a position of perceived strength. He brokered a truce in the Korean War, having visited Korea to revive peace talks before he had even been inaugurated. He also supported the UN, and, following the death of Stalin, initiated a series of East-West summits which yielded, among other things, a treaty confirming the neutrality of Austria. He refused French requests for military support in Indochina but expressed the famous concern that would later become known as Domino Theory – "You have a row of dominoes set up, and you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is the certainty that it will go over very quickly" – and did eventually send military advisers to Vietnam. He also undertook the stockpiling of large quantities of nuclear weapons as a deterrent. And he approved – as Truman had refused to do – the CIA-back coup that re-installed the pro-Western Shah in Iran. The effects of that decision can still be felt today.

In 1957, he proposed – and Congress approved – the Eisenhower Doctrine, which stated that the US would use economic aid and, if necessary, military force to contain the spread of Communism in the Middle East. The following year he sent Marines to support the pro-Western regime in Lebanon.

Domestically, he pursued a middle course, continuing most of the New Deal and Fair Deal programmes while emphasising the need for a balanced budget. He also deftly – if slowly – brought an end to the witch-hunts of McCarthyism, effectively allowing Joseph McCarthy to bring about his own disgrace.

The economy thrived, and re-election seemed a formality, until, in September 1955, Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in Denver, Colorado. The news wiped $14bn off the stock market. But he was out of hospital within seven weeks, and was comfortably re-elected in 1956.

In 1957, he sent federal troops to protect black students in Little Rock, Arkansas, where the governor was defying a Supreme Court ruling on desegregation. He also ordered the complete desegregation of the Armed Forces. "There must be no second class citizens in this country," he wrote. His image as a war hero was useful in such confrontations, just as it was in 1960, when the downing of a U2 spy-plane in Soviet airspace led to a dramatic face-off with the USSR.

Brought up in poverty in Abilene, Kansas, Eisenhower often said that he would rather have been a professional baseball player than a politician. He had a reputation for inarticulacy and garbled syntax which he may well have exaggerated to put people off their guard. But his charm and his calm, reassuring presence assurance meant that he was widely respected and more than compensated for any perceived lack of sophistication. He left office with the largely justified boast: "America is today the strongest, most influential, and most productive nation in the world."

But he also warned of a danger for which he was in part responsible: the growing power of the "military-industrial complex", and the threat it posed to democracy.

He left office in 1961 and retired to his farm in Gettysburg to write his memoirs and, despite worsening arthritis, to play golf. He died, after a long illness, in 1969.

In his own words

"The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People ask how it happened – by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."

"Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction."

"No people can live to itself alone. The unity of those who dwell in freedom is their only sure defence... Not even America's prosperity could long survive if other nations did not prosper."

"We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence... by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist."

"Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on 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." (Undelivered speech, prepared on the eve of the D-Day landings and kept in his pocket in case they should miscarry.)

In others' words

“The sturdy and enduring virtues – honour, courage,integrity, decency – all found eloquent expression in the life of this good man and noble leader.” Lyndon B Johnson

“He was a far more complex and devious man than mostpeople realised, and in the best sense of those words. Not shackled to a one-track mind, he always applied two, three,or four lines of reasoning to a single problem… His mind was quick and facile.” Richard M Nixon

“Ike didn’t know anything, and all the time he was in office, he didn’t learn a thing... The general doesn’t know any more about politics than a pig knows about Sunday.” Harry S Truman

“One shuddered at the thought of what a great force was in such hands.” Nikita Khrushchev

Minutiae

His five brothers (a sixth died in infancy) were all at one time oranother nicknamed “Ike” as well.

He always carried in his pocket three lucky coins: a silver dollar, a five guinea gold piece and a French franc.

Eisenhower was the last president to be born in the 19th century.

He was keen golfer, and had a putting green installed in the White House garden. It was repeatedly damaged by squirrels.

When he was 15, Truman developed blood poisoning after grazing his knee. The doctor recommended amputation, but Eisenhower refused. In due course he recovered.

His slogan in the 1952 election was “I like Ike”.

His mother, a pacifist, wept when he went to West Point military training college.

His wife, Mamie, suffered from Menière’s disease, which made her unsteady on her feet. This gave rise to unfounded rumours of drunkenness.

He gave Camp David (above) its current name in honour of his grandson, David – who subsequently married Richard Nixon’s daughter, Julie.

Kay Summersby, the woman who served as his personal driver while Eisenhower was in the UK during the Second World War, later claimed to have had an affair with him.

His valet used to put his watch on for him, and pull up his underpants, in the morning.

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