Dwight D. Eisenhower was Supreme Allied Commander in charge of all forces involved in Operation Overlord and the Invasion of Normandy.
Born in Texas and reared in Kansas, Eisenhower graduated sixty-fifth in the West Point class of 1915. It was called ‘‘the class the stars fell on’’; including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley, sixty-one of the class’s 164 second lieutenants achieved general-officer rank during their careers, an astonishing 37.2 percent ratio.
Lieutenant Eisenhower was assigned to San Antonio, Texas, where he met Mamie Doud, whom he married in 1916. During World War I Eisenhower was largely engaged in training units of the U.S. Army’s nascent tank corps. However, his considerable administrative and political skills were soon noted, and he was promoted to major in 1920—a rank he held until 1936. ‘‘Ike’’ was first in his Command and Staff School class, and he was an early selectee for the Army War College. His supporters and contemporaries included leaders such as Douglas MacArthur, George C. Marshall, Leonard T. Gerow, and George S. Patton.
Interwar assignments included duty in the Panama Canal Zone and France before joining MacArthur’s staff in Washington and the Philippines, where the former tanker and infantryman learned to fly. MacArthur said of Lieutenant Colonel Eisenhower, ‘‘This is the best officer in the army’’ and predicted great things for him. Such praise from the megalomaniacal army chief of staff was almost unprecedented.
In 1940–41 Eisenhower commanded a battalion of the Third Infantry Division and served as division and corps staff officer. He was promoted to full colonel in March 1941, and as chief of staff of the Third Army he enhanced his reputation during extensive maneuvers involving nearly half a million troops in Louisiana. By year end he was a brigadier general—exceptional progress, considering that he had been a major for sixteen years. In the War Plans Division, Eisenhower renewed his acquaintance with Marshall, then chief of staff, reporting to him on plans and operations. Within a few months Eisenhower pinned on his second star and was addressing joint operations with the navy and other Allied forces. The foundation was being laid for Eisenhower’s eventual appointment as supreme commander for the invasion of France.
Meanwhile, Eisenhower represented the United States during British planning for bringing American forces in the United Kingdom. In June 1942 Eisenhower was appointed to command U.S. Army forces in the European Theater of Operations, but almost immediately he moved to the Mediterranean to conduct offensives in North Africa and Sicily during 1942–43. There he gained greater knowledge of U.S. and Allied forces and personalities, including Air Chief Marshal Arthur Tedder, Adm. Bertram Ramsay, and Lt. Gen. Bernard Montgomery.
As a lieutenant general, Eisenhower commanded the Allied invasion of French Morocco in November 1942, pursuing the campaign to completion six months later. By then he was a four-star general, directing the conquest of Sicily in the summer of 1943 and landings on the Italian mainland that summer and fall. He was appointed Allied supreme commander for Neptune-Overlord on Christmas Eve of 1943 and, after extensive briefings in Washington, he replaced Britain’s Lt. Gen. Frederick Morgan at COSSAC, establishing SHAEF headquarters in London in January 1944. Many of the American and British commanders he had known in the Mediterranean assumed crucial roles in SHAEF, enhancing Anglo-American coordination.
Still, it was no easy task. Apart from Marshall (who had been promised the slot by President Roosevelt), Eisenhower may have been the only American who could have operated the sometimes testy coalition so well. (Assertions that the Allies might have fallen out except for Eisenhower’s acumen are gross exaggerations; Britain was in no position to conduct the war alone.) Relations with Montgomery were particularly strained at times, but U.S. dominance in manpower and materiel required an American as theater commander. Though criticism was leveled at Eisenhower for his lack of combat experience and his highly political orientation, the results proved the wisdom of his selection. He was, after all, manager of perhaps the most political coalition of all time, involving as it did military and diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.
The original date for D-Day was 5 June 1944 (see the D-Day timeline), but unseasonably rough weather forced a reconsideration. Eisenhower accepted the optimistic assessment of Group Captain J. M. Stagg, the chief meteorologist, who called for about thirty-six hours of decent weather over the sixth. Though concerned that the first landing waves would be isolated ashore with insufficient strength to repulse German counterattacks, Eisenhower felt justified in proceeding with Overlord. The order was issued at 0415 on 5 June, and at that point the process became irrevocable. ‘‘No one present disagreed,’’ Eisenhower recalled, ‘‘and there was a definite brightening of faces as, without a further word, each went off to his respective post to flash out to his command the messages that would set the whole host in motion.’’
Eisenhower toured the Normandy beaches shortly after D-Day, observing the massive movement of U.S., British, and Canadian forces driving inland. He was accompanied by his son John, a newly minted second lieutenant who had graduated from West Point on 6 June.
As the AEF rolled across western Europe, Eisenhower had to balance Allied priorities rather than pursue American interests. Anglo-American fortunes under Eisenhower were almost uniformly successful, excepting the ill-fated airborne assault into Holland in September and the surprise German offensive in the Ardennes in December. At year’s end Eisenhower was promoted to General of the Army. He was Time magazine’s Man of the Year for 1944 and again received the accolade as president in 1959.
Despite his demonstrated success, Eisenhower’s overall strategy has been criticized. He seemed to lack a grasp of Blitzkrieg warfare—as practiced by such aggressive commanders as Joseph L. Collins and George S. Patton—in favor of a more measured approach. In focusing on destruction of the Wehrmacht, he missed opportunities to isolate major portions of the German army from Hitler and thereby hasten the end of the war.
Immediately following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, Eisenhower was faced with Soviet intransigence in not releasing Allied POWs ‘‘liberated’’ from German prison camps. He made at least one effort to convince the Truman administration to press the matter with Premier Joseph Stalin, but upon being rebuffed, he acceded to his superiors’ wishes. Consequently, thousands of American and other POWs remained Soviet pawns and hostages. Similarly, Eisenhower was accused of knowing about maltreatment of German prisoners, but evidence indicates that the deaths of large numbers of them had been due to insufficient food and shelter rather than a policy of eradication.
Returning to the United States in June, Eisenhower was feted wherever he went. He became army chief of staff later that year, succeeding George Marshall, and oversaw demobilization of millions of soldiers. He retired in 1948, became president of Columbia University, and wrote a best-seller, Crusade in Europe.
Eisenhower’s retirement was short-lived. He was recalled to active duty during the Korean War, commanding NATO from 1950 to 1952. However, the politically astute supreme commander already had been mentioned asa potential presidential candidate. He declared himself a Republican and was elected thirty-fourth president of the United States in 1952. His immediate priority was concluding an armistice in Korea, which was accomplished in July 1953 with back-channel threats to use nuclear weapons. However, as commander in chief he was again faced with prospects of communist refusal to repatriate all POWs, and he may have left as many as eight thousand U.S. and United Nations personnel in captivity because the Chinese and Soviets would never admit to holding them.
Eisenhower was reelected in 1956. He left office in January 1961, succeeded by another World War II veteran, John F. Kennedy. Finally retired in fact as in name, he lived in Pennsylvania and wrote three more books, including the popular At Ease: Stories I Tell My Friends (1967).
Eisenhower was portrayed by Henry Grace in The Longest Day. Grace, who was cast in the part because of his resemblance to Ike, appeared in no other films, though he was a set designer for more than twenty years.
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