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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Maintaining Balance: Remembering Dwight D. Eisenhower

State of the Union: The life and words of the 34th U.S. president grow ever more relevant in our divided and changing world.

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Credit: Nicole Glass Photography

Throughout my teenage and young adult life, I have had to sit for several interviews—for getting an internship, applying for college, and securing a job. A recurring question: If you could get coffee with anyone from human history, alive or dead, who would it be? Without fail, my answer has always made my interviewers look at me with confusion.

I first encountered Dwight David Eisenhower in sixth grade during our World War II unit in history class. I was completely enamored. I don’t remember much from sixth grade other than a story my teacher recounted about the general. The night before the D-Day invasion of Normandy, the American general, unable to sleep, smoked heavily. Although he had assembled about 130,000 ground troops along with the largest fleet of ships in history, he wasn’t sure if the landings would be successful. Consumed with trepidation and empathy for the men he could be sending to death, he wrote a draft of a statement he would make in case his mission failed: “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” 

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It is all too rare for a man in such a position to be willing to take responsibility in this way. But that was Ike: a man of integrity, humility, and vision, and one of the last U.S. presidents to possess all of these qualities at the same time.

Ike was born October 14, 1890, the third of seven boys in a poor family; he grew up in Abilene, a small Kansan town known today only because it was his home. From a young age, Ike had an affinity for history, nature, and sports, like many other young boys. His family was too poor to afford college, but, when the opportunity unexpectedly arose, he went off to West Point to eventually join the Army. He was not an exceptional student, and his tenure as a varsity college athlete was cut short by a knee injury (his second—the first, which took place in high school, almost killed him from infection). After West Point, he got married, and went on to move around the country to different American bases. He was not to see actual combat for decades. 

While on the surface his beginnings may seem humble and unremarkable, Ike possessed two qualities that set him apart from his peers and paved the way for his future success: He was a master of logistics and an expert in communication. He had worked with a variety of well-known and talented military officers before the Second World War, and so was able to analyze the best ways to lead and to engage with other leaders—a talent that would also serve him well in the presidency.  

World War II brought Eisenhower into the global spotlight. Given his connections and experience over the previous several decades, he was made Supreme Allied Commander in Europe by FDR. In addition to overseeing D-Day, he played a significant role in the Allied victory in the Battle of the Bulge, the largest battle fought by the U.S. over the course of the war. At the end of the war, Eisenhower personally ordered that the Nazi concentration camps be documented with video and photo evidence, having the foresight to take action that would minimize the arguments of future Holocaust deniers. 

Of course, Ike returned home a hero. Over the next several years, many powerful people tried to convince him to run for the highest office—the presidency. Eisenhower was not a political ideologue, and did not even profess to be part of either American party. In 1952, prominent Republican politicians like Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. and a huge Draft Eisenhower movement eventually convinced Ike to run for President after all. He ran as a Republican, defeating Senator Robert Taft of Ohio for the nomination. In the general election campaign, his supporters came up with a catchy slogan, “I Like Ike,” and this equally catchy campaign song. He won in a landslide, receiving 442 electoral votes, becoming the oldest president to date at the age of 62.

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Eisenhower accomplished much as president. First, he commissioned the construction of the Interstate Highway System, which effectively changed the landscape of America forever. His experience in the Second World War served as a catalyst for this decision—he wanted to ensure that city-dwellers had a safe way out in case of nuclear threats or another war.

His strategy of containment against the scourge of Soviet communism is also worthy of recognition. While Ike, regrettably, interfered with other countries’ elections in his effort to stop the spread of communism, he was merely adhering to the “domino theory” already entrenched as American national strategy under Truman. He did keep the United States out of other wars, took our men out of Korea in 1953, and did not escalate the Cold War during his time as president.

What Eisenhower is best known for today is his farewell address, or, as he put it, his “last goodnight to you as your president.” This speech was a sort of prophecy for the future of America, and the dark warnings Ike gave over 60 years ago have become more relevant than ever. 

In his characteristically sweet yet strong cadence, Ike spent the 15-minute speech advocating for a balanced society—balance between private and public economy, the nation and the individual, the present and the future. A part of keeping that balance, in his view as a seasoned general, would obviously be the military. America having a strong military was important, surely, but the way in which it should be used was far more significant: “America’s leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.” 

It is in this speech that the 34th president coined the looming phrase “military-industrial complex.” Essentially, the military-industrial complex is the iron triangle comprising the U.S. Congress, the Department of Defense, and special interest groups within the defense industry (such as weapons manufacturers like Boeing and Lockheed Martin). Eisenhower warned that “the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists, and will persist,” because of the conflict of interests presented by the military-industrial complex. When the military, the government, and the defense industry all have the ability to benefit off of one another during times of war, there is an incentive to always be at war. A man like Eisenhower, who had personally witnessed the destruction of war and the bitter consequences of getting involved in global conflicts, had the clarity to recognize this recipe for disaster.

What would Eisenhower think today, when the president casually uses his authority to request hundreds of billions of dollars for military funding from our Congress? What would he have to say to the fact that we have built hundreds of military bases around the globe, and American troops have been stationed in over 150 countries? 

Equally prescient was Eisenhower’s astute foretelling that our “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” The Covid-19 pandemic, not to mention social media platforms domination of global political narratives and societal trends, have showed this threat is clearer and more dangerous than ever. I have no doubt that he would be genuinely disturbed. 

Perhaps Eisenhower wasn’t as trailblazing as George Washington, as outspoken as Theodore Roosevelt, or as iconic as Ronald Reagan. Yet his balanced nature, courage, and steadfastness have earned him a spot in the shortlist of the best American presidents—at least in my eyes. Happy Birthday, Ike.