The only President I’ve ever seen in person was Dwight Eisenhower. It was 1956, and we lived in Peoria, Illinois. You might think that a 5 year old would not remember much of what happened back then, but I already knew who he was and what he looked like. He was revered in our family for being a great leader in World War II. Fortunately we have the Internet to help with the details – Eisenhower spoke at Bradley University on September 25, 1956. Election campaigns back then didn’t start two years before the election. Before the event there was a parade up Main Street, and my parents took my brother Pete and me to see the President. I remember the cold night air and eventually after a cavalcade of other cars, the President passing by, waving from the back seat of his limousine. That was it – I saw the President.
At his speech in Peoria that night, President Eisenhower recognized Senate Minority Leader Everette Dirksen, who was from the nearby town of Pekin, and also Robert Michel from Peoria, who at that time was running for Congress from Peoria’s Congressional District. Michel would be elected and would eventually become the House Minority Leader. He was also the Congressman who in 1969 gave me my appointment to the Naval Academy. I have an old letter from Senator Dirksen congratulating me upon my appointment. Eisenhower died in March 1969 after a long illness, and Dirksen died in September of that year. My brother Chris and his wife Michele raised their family in Pekin, and both my parents lived there at the end of their lives. Many times I’ve run by the statue of Dirksen in Pekin’s Mineral Springs Park. Many aspects of my future life were represented in the President’s 1956 speech in Peoria.
Nearly 60 years have passed since I saw President Eisenhower, but recently I received an email from my friend and former colleague Monty Bolstad. We used to work together at the Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington. He was reading a biography of Dwight Eisenhower by Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace), and he asked me if the experience described in this quote about Eisenhower was my experience with trying to learn French: “Eisenhower initially relished his post to Paris. He and Mamie commenced daily French lessons, and Ike set out to explore Paris on foot. After three months of daily instruction, Eisenhower became proficient at reading and writing French, but the spoken word eluded him. ‘Major,’ said his French teacher, ‘you are one of the best readers of French and translators of the written language that I have among my students, but you are the worst candidate as a French linguist I have ever tried to teach.’ Ike persevered for a year, but his effort to speak French proved hopeless. Mamie, for her part, began enthusiastically but soon lost patience.”
Eisenhower had come to Paris when he was assigned to General John J. Pershing’s Battle Monuments Commission. His job was to create a guide to the American WWI battlefields in Europe. It was a complete history, battle by battle, of the American war on the western front. When the job was completed, Eisenhower was the best informed officer in the Army on the strategy and battle tactics that Pershing had employed, other then Pershing himself and his director of operations, Fox Conner.
In July 1928 Eisenhower and his wife Mamie arrived in Paris, Mamie taking a plush apartment in the 16th arrondissement about a mile downstream from the Eiffel Tower and close by the Bois de Boulogne. The apartment was on the 1st floor (2nd floor US) at 68 Quai d’Auteuil, owned at the time by the Comtesse de Villefranche. It was beautifully furnished, and the Eisenhowers soon became the social center for their friends in Paris and guests visiting France. Because of exchange rates, Paris was then very inexpensive for Americans, and the apartment was far more elegant than the Eisenhowers could have afforded on his salary in the US. The quai where Eisenhower lived is now called Quai Louis Blériot, named after a French engineer and aviator who invented the first headlamp for trucks and who also was the first person to fly across the English Channel. The adjoining quai is Quai Saint-Exupéry, so after the war they must have renamed some of the streets after French aviators. Eisenhower would walk to work each day to Pershing’s headquarters at 20 rue Molitor, a few blocks down the road. I walked there one day and took photos of both buildings, still today much as they must have been back then.
Though the area on the right bank hasn’t changed much, the Eisenhower’s view across the Seine has changed markedly. The Citroën factory that used to be across the river is now Parc André Citroën. It has the world’s largest hot air balloon, tethered so that groups of tourists can rise up and take in the city, and then re-descend without an uncontrolled flight over central Paris. Many of the other left bank buildings in this area have been torn down as part of modernization that started in the ’60s and ‘70s.
I had always assumed that though Eisenhower graduated in the middle of his West Point class and was a middling officer very junior in the army leadership at the start of World War II, his meteoric rise to Supreme Allied Commander was because he performed successfully in the war whereas many more senior to him had failed. It turns out he had been on this trajectory for many years before the war.
In 1920 he met George Patton, 6 years his senior and already well known for his heroic service in World War I. Together they worked on radical new strategies for tank warfare, so radical that they incurred the wrath of the Army for publishing ideas that conflicted with existing doctrine.That same year Congress reduced the size of the Army to 288,000, about one tenth of its 2.4 million wartime strength. Eisenhower was promoted to the rank of major, a rank he would retain for the next 16 years. The tank core was abolished, and Eisenhower decided to return to the infantry.
Before the officers parted company, Patton hosted a party in the honor of Brigadier General Fox Conner, and Eisenhower’s were invited. Conner came to the party to meet Eisenhower as a result of the high recommendation of Patton. Conner had a long discussion with Eisenhower and asked him many questions about his views on armored warfare. In 1922 Eisenhower was assigned to the 20th Infantry Brigade working as a staff officer for Fox Conner in Panama. Conner spent many hours during that tour educating Eisenhower about history, warfare, and the Army.
Conner had been on the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) staff working for General Pershing. Conner helped Eisenhower to receive orders in 1925 to Command and General Staff School (CGSS), where he studied the problems of military command. Eisenhower finished ranked first of 245 in his class. Conner then helped Eisenhower to receive assignment to the Battle Monuments Commission, headed by General of the Armies John J Pershing. Pershing, who had already served in the Army’s senior-most position, Chief of Staff, was at that time the only 6 star general in the US Military. Eventually Congress also conferred this honor on George Washington.
When working for Pershing, Eisenhower met George Marshall, who would eventually become Army Chief of Staff and Eisenhower’s boss throughout World War II. He also worked directly for Army Chief of Staff Douglas MacArthur and later worked with MacArthur to train and equip the Philippine Military. Thus starting in about 1920, Eisenhower met and impressed a series of most influential seniors who helped guide his career to the pinnacle of army leadership. In little more than 10 weeks in 1942, he moved ahead of 228 general officers of greater seniority to become a lieutenant general (3 stars) and command the Allied invasion of North Africa. In 1943, he was promoted to full general and directed the invasion of Sicily and Italy.
Eisenhower became the Supreme Allied Commander for the D-Day invasion and for the eventual ending of the war in Europe. With the exception of Marshall and MacArthur, he had more political experience than any officer in the American Army. He was chosen because of his political sensitivity. He worked successfully with military and civilian leaders of the US, Great Britain, France, Russia, and other countries involved in the war effort. He was not a great tactician, and in fact made several blunders during the war that cost lives and time in completing the effort. But he was unrivaled as a decisive, organized, leader with a deft political touch, effective communications skills, extensive knowledge of history, and extraordinary common sense. He kept a diverse coalition working in harmony. He was, incidentally, the only one at the Potsdam Conference who felt the US should not drop the atomic bomb.
After the War he served as Army Chief of Staff. He then retired to become President of Columbia University, but went back on active duty and returned to Paris to lead the effort to start NATO. Then he campaigned successfully and was elected the 34th President of the United States.
He was the only 20th Century President to preside over 8 years of peace and prosperity. He negotiated an end to the Korean War, opposed segregation and integrated the nation’s schools and institutions, successfully opposed the red baiting of the McCarthy era, contained the communist threat, balanced the budget, continued social programs of the New Deal, sponsored building of the interstate highway system and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, successfully opposed the French and English effort to seize control of the Suez Canal from Egypt, twice refused requests of the Joint Chiefs to authorize the use of nuclear weapons, warned against unwarranted influence of the military industrial complex, and promoted peace and understanding as the way forward.
In the ’70s I remember visiting Eisenhower’s home in Abilene, KS, and in the car reading Is Paris Burning by Dominique Lapierre and Larry Collins. It was about the German plan to blow up Paris when the Germans retreated as the Allies were advancing. German generals defied Hitler, ignoring his order to defend the city and refusing to blow it up. Eisenhower didn’t want to spend the resources to liberate Paris, but was convinced to do so by Charles de Gaulle, for whom he had great respect. Eisenhower deftly outmaneuvered President Roosevelt and the State Department, who did not like and refused to support de Gaulle. He allowed the French Army to liberate the city and allowed de Gaulle to establish leadership in what otherwise could have been a fractious battle for control. By providing a civil affairs agreement and recognizing de Gaulle as the de facto head of the French state, Eisenhower avoided the problematic issue of establishing administrative control over liberated France.
So we get back to that question about whether I had the same problems as General Eisenhower in learning French. In 3 months of daily lessons the General could supposedly read and write very well in French, but struggled to speak understandably. We know that he was renowned for his excellent memory and that he possessed extraordinary drive. For me (after 3 years), understanding the spoken French is the hard part. They seem to be able to understand when I speak. Still, if General and former President Eisenhower were to speak French to me, I don’t think I would have any complaints about his accent.