Dwight David Eisenhower was past 60 when he ran for President in 1952.
Ike: Boy to Man
There is virtually nothing in the early years of Dwight David Eisenhower (1890-1969) that would point to the glories of his maturity. He was a farm boy, one of six fine, strapping sons born to a Pennsylvania-German family, who had relocated to Abilene, KS.
They weren’t poor, but they were far from rich. Ike went to school, did chores and grew up like millions of corn-fed boys. He was a middling student, more diligent than brilliant, and more interested in sports or learning to play poker than anything.
His years at West Point were satisfactory, but not brilliant. The good-news, bad-news was that he made the football team and was the star player. Briefly. He injured his knee, and football was out of the picture. Permanently. He had to focus on his academics and soldiering.
The Young Officer
For the next twenty years, he was sent hither and yon. A year here, a few months there, with glacier-like speed in promotions. Reverting to pre-WWI soldier quotas, the US army was minuscule. Lack of availability meant few promotions and few opportunities for advancement.
Part of a senior officer’s responsibilities however, is to keep a sharp eye out for the up and coming leaders of the future, and to mentor their careers. Wherever Ike was assigned, he impressed his superiors. If they could not promote or pay him per se, they could certainly teach him. One thing they could not teach him, and the one thing that impressed all who knew him, was his innate personal charm, and ability to get on happily with superiors, subordinates and peers. If Ike had any idea that those qualities were political assets, it is unknown. He had no political ambitions.
He was sent to a variety of special classes to increase his skills and make the best possible use of his abilities. Ike did not disappoint. He was usually at the head of every class he attended. Nevertheless, by the end of the 1930s, Ike, now in his late 40s, was still a major, and expected to retire no higher than colonel. But he was also in Washington.
World War II was beginning to collide once again with the peace of mankind, and despite the country’s best efforts to once again stay out of the fray, wisdom of the ages called for preparation. General George C. Marshall, the Secretary of War, had an opportunity to assess Colonel Eisenhower and liked what he saw, including his personal skills. Ike was no prima donna in a profession that usually reeked with prima donnas.
Promotions were quicker, and in fact so quick that Ike was advanced over more than a hundred men with seniority. He was now General Ike.
Having planned the Africa campaign, he was sent to lead it. Then he was given the task of becoming Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces for the Invasion of Europe in 1944. He worked closely and compatibly with some of the Prima-est Donnas in military history: General Bernard Montgomery of England, General Charles de Gaulle of France, and even General George Patton of the US Army. The success of the mission is well known. So were his five stars.
General Ike came home to a phenomenal hero’s welcome, feted and feasted and gifted and presented with “stuff.”
And there was talk of politics. Ike could be whatever he wanted. He didn’t want anything.
Ike after ’45
Post-War Europe was in a total mess, with several countries bordering imminent collapse. The United Nations, a pet idea of Franklin D. Roosevelt before his death, was taking concrete shape, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a pact between the USA and member European countries for mutual protection was born.
NATO needed a strong and well respected leader: Ike was a shoo-in. He was already on a first name basis with heads of state around the world.
He wanted to retire. He was nearly 60, and the thought of having a real home of his own had become a high priority. But politics was still beckoning, and everybody wanted Ike, and nobody knew what his politics were. The likelihood is that he didn’t know either.
Then an offer to become President …of Columbia University in New York presented itself. Ike agreed. It was also a convenient place for the politicians to come and plead with him to run for President. The Republicans wanted him. The Democrats wanted him. President Harry Truman practically promised him the Office on a silver platter if he agreed.
Dwight Eisenhower was a soldier, and had never given much thought to party politics. He answered to the Country and the Commander-in-Chief, whoever he was. He declined sincerely.
But when push came to shove, he admitted that he was Republican – a party that had not held office for twenty years. But he was a different kind of Republican. Conservative without being too conservative; progressive without being radical. It didn’t matter to the electorate. Everybody knew who he was. They loved him. So did everybody else in the world, even in places he had never been.
He had one of the catchiest, shortest and to-the-point slogans ever: I Like Ike. They trusted him in war, they could trust him in the White House. He did not need campaign biographies; he did not need to be introduced to the American people. They had known him for years. He won in a walk.
And when foreign dignitaries came to social events at the White House (which they did in droves), they did not need to be introduced to the President of the United States. They came to see Ike, their old friend.
Childs, Marquis – Eisenhower: Captive Hero – Harcourt Brace, 1956
Eisenhower, David & Eisenhower, Julie Nixon – Going Home to Glory – Simon and Schuster, 2010
Irwin F. Gellman – The President and the Apprentice: Eisenhower and Nixon, 1952-1961 – Yale University Press, 2015