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Eisenhower - the Most Important Soldier of the Twentieth Century

A Guest Post by M. B. Zucker


Dwight Eisenhower was likely the most important soldier of the twentieth century. He never saw combat, but his diplomatic personality made him an excellent coalition commander. This was vital to liberal democracy’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II. Most people know the basics: Eisenhower (Ike) was the Allies’ “chairman of the board” who kept larger egos like Patton and Montgomery focused on the common goal. The real story is deeper and more meaningful. It shows how a barefoot boy grew up to lead more men than any other commander in history and make the single greatest decision in the annals of warfare. This post is the first of three, and focuses on Ike’s military career before the war.

Ike was born 25 years after the Civil War ended. He and other young people loved listening to veterans’ stories. His mother owned a collection of books that fed his interest in military history. He spent so much time reading them he neglected his chores, so his mom started locking the books in a cabinet. The leaders and military campaigns of the Greco-Roman era seized his young interest. His hero was Hannibal, the Carthaginian general who fought Rome in the Second Punic War.

His parents expected their sons to go to college. Ike and Edgar, his older brother, agreed to help pay for one another’s schooling. Ike worked for two years after high school as a night supervisor at the Bell Springs Creamery to help fund Edgar’s education. A friend named Swede Hazlett altered the plan. Swede applied for admission to Annapolis Naval Academy. Ike joined him because it would take him away from Abilene and would be a free education. Though a mediocre student, Ike spent two years preparing for the exam and requested letters of recommendation from anyone who mattered in Abilene. He passed the exam but was too old for Annapolis. Instead, he received an appointment to West Point. This shocked his pacifist mother. Milton, Ike’s younger brother, said the night of Ike’s departure was the only time he saw his mother cry.

He said securing the West Point appointment was “a great day in my life.” His class was sworn in upon their arrival. Ike said, “This was a supreme moment. A feeling came over me that the expression ‘The United States of America’ would now and henceforth mean something different than it ever had before. From here on it would be the nation I was serving, not myself.”

His college years were a formative period in Ike’s development. He had little interest in hazing. He only hazed a plebe once, in his third year. He told the young man that he looked like a barber. “I was a barber, sir,” the plebe replied, softly. Ike turned red and went to his room, saying, “I’m never going to crawl [haze] another plebe for as long I live… I’ve just done something that was stupid and unforgivable. I managed to make a man ashamed of the work he did to earn a living.” One revealing experience took place in an integral calculus class. His instructor told Ike to solve a problem on the blackboard. Ike had not been paying attention and devised his own solution that was shorter than the established explanation. His professor accused Ike of cheating but another math professor was so impressed it was incorporated into the West Point curriculum. He played on the West Point football team until he hurt his knee tackling Jim Thorpe. Then he took up poker and cigarettes. Smoking was forbidden, leading to many demerits and so he graduated in the middle of his class. The Class of 1915 became known as the “class the stars fell on” because 59 of its members became generals. Eisenhower and Omar Bradley were its two biggest names.

World War I began in 1914, before Ike graduated. He believed American entry was inevitable and saw the war as an opportunity for career advancement, like most young officers. He dreamt of leading tanks across No Man’s Land on the Western Front. Instead, he spent the war at Camp Meade in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, training tank units. He was assigned to go to France in November 1918, but this was thwarted by the November 11 armistice. He was devastated. He was a professional soldier who missed seeing action in the biggest war up to that time. His life goal until World War II was to do something that would make his family and future grandchildren proud. Fearing this would never happen, he vowed to make up for this disappointment.

Ike’s career in the interwar years was slow and may have discouraged lesser men. But through George Patton, his friend and mentor, General Pershing and his inner circle who helped command the American Expeditionary Force of WWI learned of him. Their mentorship transformed him into the best staff officer in the Army. Patton was already known in the Army for his role in Pershing’s 1916 expedition in Mexico and for leading a tank unit during the Argonne campaign of 1918. In 1919, Ike and Patton tested tank guns for accuracy. They ran tanks through obstacle courses and developed tactics that used them as more than infantry support. Both men wrote about their ideas for the Infantry Journal. The Chief of Infantry was not pleased and threatened Ike with court-martial if he published any more radical ideas. Ike remained interested in tanks for decades. German intelligence briefings during World War II identified him as “an expert on operations of armored formations.”

Icky, his first son, died in January 1921. Ike’s world shattered and he wanted a change of scene. Through Patton, Ike met Fox Conner, one of General Pershing’s subordinates in WWI. Conner saw a lot of potential in Ike and ordered Ike to follow him to the Panama Canal Zone to be his Chief of Staff. Ike was vulnerable after his son’s death and became absorbed in Conner’s teachings. Conner’s lessons acted as a graduate school education in military strategy and tactics. He had Ike read Shakespeare, Plato, and Nietzsche. He also had Ike read Carl von Clausewitz’s On War three times and tested Ike on what he read. Clausewitz wrote that a commander must pinpoint his enemy’s center of gravity. Attacking that center would force the enemy’s capitulation. The center might be a city, a garrison, or an army. During World War II, Ike decided that the Nazis’ center of gravity was the German army, which he relentlessly pursued across the Western Front. Conner also had Ike read and consider the strategic decisions of the Civil War. This led him to focus on Ulysses Grant, who became the biggest influence on Ike’s generalship and military strategy. Ike adopted Grant’s strategy of overwhelming force, which was seen in Ike’s strategy to defeat the German army in World War II, his nuclear Massive Retaliation strategy in the Cold War, and his sending the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock. Conner predicted that there would be another world war within twenty years and he urged Ike to prepare for it. He taught Ike three lessons about war for a democracy: never fight unless you have to, never fight alone, and never fight for long. He emphasized the importance of coalitions in warfare and of multilateralism. Finally, he used two sayings that Ike adopted. The first was, “Always take your job seriously, never yourself.” The second was, “Every generality is false, including this one.”

Ike and Mamie (his wife) returned to the US in 1924. Conner arranged his appointment to the Army Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Ike graduated number one in his class. He became a walking, talking encyclopedia of military history and was a popular lecturer at Leavenworth in the early 1930s. His analysis of Napoleon in 1934 showed his evolving views on strategy. He argued that one of Napoleon’s most innovative ideas was to thoroughly train his military so it could be deployed at any time and place he chose. This influenced the training program that General Eisenhower implemented before D-Day. Ike also saw Napoleon as a forefather of Grant’s strategy of deploying overwhelming force to destroy the enemy army. Ike said that Napoleon emphasized, “the destruction of the hostile will to exist.” This contrasted with most generals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries who focused on outmaneuvering the enemy army in order to capture the enemy capital. Ike preferred the Napoleon-Grant approach. Ike’s lack of interest in capturing symbolic targets like cities showed the origins of his controversial decision to not take Berlin in 1945.

Ike became known throughout the army after graduating first in his class at Leavenworth. He had his pick for his next assignment. Per Mamie’s request, Ike chose to join General Pershing’s staff in France to write the official American history of WWI for the American Battle Monuments Commission. Conner recommended him for the job. Studying the battlefields of WWI was good preparation for Ike’s role in directing the Western Front of WWII. His analysis of French road networks influenced his strategy for pushing the German army across a broad front. He also visited French war cemeteries, such as at Verdun, making him appreciate the cost of war more than he had up to that point.

The Eisenhowers returned to America just before the 1929 Stock Market Crash. His army salary left the family better off than most families during the Depression. In 1930, Ike was appointed as an aide to Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur, who became his mentor and boss through the 1930s. Ike initially admired MacArthur, a hero of WWI, but later saw him as a model of how not to be a leader.

The Bonus Marchers, a group of WWI veterans, came to DC in 1932 demanding their payment for certificates promised to them for their service. President Hoover ordered the army to remove the Marchers. Ike knew the veterans were desperate from the Depression and felt sorry for them. He strongly disagreed with MacArthur’s handling of the issue, saying it was a political matter, not a military one. MacArthur forcefully drove the Marchers out of their camps, creating a PR disaster.

MacArthur loudly opposed FDR’s decision to cut military spending in the mid-30s. FDR tired of him and appointed him military advisor to Filipino President Manuel Quezon in 1935. MacArthur ordered Ike to accompany him, much to Ike’s distress. Ike was separated from his family for a year, until Mamie and John (their son) joined him in the Philippines in 1936. MacArthur and Eisenhower were tasked with training a Filipino army in anticipation of the Philippines’ independence in 1946 (The Philippines had been an American colony since the Spanish-American War). Ike said that the Filipinos promised everything but delivered nothing. His relationship with MacArthur deteriorated when he opposed Quezon’s decision to make MacArthur a Field Marshall in the Filipino Army and himself a brigadier general, believing it was inappropriate. The resulting antipathy lasted for the rest of their lives.

Ike’s friend, Jimmy Ord, died in a plane crash in 1938. Ike felt alone and, now in his middle age, that he’d wasted his life in the military. He was in his darkest period since Icky’s death when terrifying news from Europe changed everything.

Part II of this series will look at Ike’s role in World War II before D-Day.


Buy Michael's book: The Eisenhower Chronicles - now at Amazon and other retailers worldwide!


Ike: An American Hero by Michael Korda

At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends by Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower: In War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith

Eisenhower's Sputnik Moment by Yanek Mieckowsky

Eisenhower: Soldier and President by Stephen Ambrose

Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower's Final Mission by Bret Baier

General Ike by John Eisenhower

Eisenhower Between the Wars by Matthew Holland

The Most Reasonable Of Unreasonable Men: Eisenhower As Strategic General by Lt.-Cmdr. Todd A. Kiefer

Mrs. Ike by Susan Eisenhower


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