Age has been a big factor in this election.
For the first time, two candidates in their 70s are running for the nation’s highest office. And as you’d expect, both parties are claiming the other’s candidate is feeble, disoriented, and making no sense — i.e., too old for the job.
But 70 years doesn’t mean decrepitude as it once did. “Threescore and ten” years was the lifespan the Bible allotted to a human, but today’s 70-year-olds are different. They’re generally healthier, more active, and less mentally impaired than their parents or grandparents were at that age (if they even reached that age). Can an older candidate be less competent because of age? Certainly. But incompetence can be found in candidates of any age.
Perhaps the concern with age issue is really a concern over health: can a 70-year-old endure the stress that comes with the Oval Office?
The chances are good for either candidate because presidents appear to be unusually hardy.
For example, the Republican Party tried to recruit Dwight Eisenhower to be their presidential candidate in 1948. He turned them down, concluding he would be unelectable. They expected Thomas Dewey — the candidate they chose instead — to serve two terms. Which would make Eisenhower 66 years old if he chose to serve in 1956, and the country wouldn’t want someone that old.
But Eisenhower ran in 1951 and won. Three years later, he had a heart attack, but entered the race again in 1955, and won again. After he left the White House, he continued to play a dominant role in the Republican party until he passed away at 78.
Gerald Ford was 61 when he assumed the presidency upon Nixon’s resignation in 1974. He lived 29 years more. Ronald Reagan, aged 69 years at his 1981 inauguration, served two terms and lived 16 years beyond that. George H.W. Bush was 64 when he entered the Oval Office in 1989. He lived another 29 years.
And of course, there’s Jimmy Carter, who was elected at the tender age of 52. Thirty-nine years later, he’s still with us, building homes for Habitat for Humanity.
It’s significant that, of the six presidents who have celebrated their 90th birthday, four — Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush — served in the past 50 years.
But the number of decades is just one way to consider age. We can also judge a president’s age relative to the average lifespan of his time.
Up to the 1930s, Americans could think themselves lucky if they reached their 65th birthday. But our lifespan has continually lengthened; since 1920, the average American has gained 25 years of life.
Historians have estimated that, in the centuries preceding the 1800s, the average human lived just 35 years. The number is surprisingly low because it is calculated from the ages of all deaths within a year. Nearly half of these deaths (46 percent) were among children under the age of five, which lowered the average age of mortality for adults.
One researcher has concluded that a more realistic average lifespan of a 20-year-old American in 1800 was 47 years — still not a long life. Which is what makes John Adams so exceptional. Adams became president at the age of 61 — fourteen years beyond his expected lifetime. And he lived 25 years beyond his presidency!
Adams’s son, President John Quincy Adams, lived to 80. Thomas Jefferson reached 83, and James Madison saw his 85th birthday.
Today, the average American lives 78.54 years. But an American male who reaches the age of 65, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, has a good chance of living another 19 years.
Which means either candidate might be likely to live to the age of 84 – or beyond.
It’s possible that presidents in their 70s will be looked on more favorably as the proportion of elders in the population increases. By 2060, a quarter of the U.S. population will be over 65 years and old, and the average American lifespan will have risen from 74 to 85 years.
Children today may live to hear candidates someday complain that their 100-year-old opponents are too old to be president.
Featured image: John Adams, Dwight Eisenhower, and Andrew Jackson, three of the older presidents when they assumed office (Adams: National Gallery of Art; Eisenhower: Wikimedia Commons; Jackson: whitehousehistory.org)
Dwight David Eisenhower was a man of inscrutable contradictions. Our 34th president loved Shakespeare almost as much as he did cowboy novels, and he listened to Beethoven’s “Minuet No. 2” right along with the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” At the beginning of his presidency, this avatar of the armed services threatened a nuclear strike against North Korea, although by the end he was sounding alarms about the “disastrous rise” of America’s military-industrial complex. Nowhere were those dueling natures more apparent than in his mercurial and at times mystifying approach to the subject of Senator Joe McCarthy.
While Ike told his family and friends that he detested McCarthy and all that he stood for, he vacillated between strategic retreat and frontal assault, seeming uncertain, for once, about the wisest combat strategy. It wasn’t easy for a professional soldier, much less a venerated five-star general, to wage peace. At times, he tried a middle course of behind-the-scenes obstruction. But during the critical first year of his administration, when the Wisconsin senator was at his reckless worst, President Eisenhower pursued a policy of appeasement that infuriated McCarthy haters as much as it delighted the senator himself.
Milton Eisenhower, Dwight’s younger brother and closest confidant, saw up close how McCarthyism and McCarthy bedeviled the commander-in-chief. On the one hand, the president “loathed McCarthy as much as any human being could possibly loathe another, and he didn’t hate many people,” Milton said. On the other hand, his brother knew that hating only had value if acted upon. “I wanted the president, in the strongest possible language, to repudiate him,” said Milton, to “tear McCarthy to pieces.”
Arthur Eisenhower, the oldest sibling and a sober-minded banker, also pushed Little Ike to take on the Wisconsin senator, whom he called “the most dangerous menace to America.” “I think of McCarthy, I automatically think of Hitler,” added Arthur, knowing there was no specter more likely to rouse the former Allied supreme commander to action than that of the Nazi murderer he’d vanquished a decade earlier.
While President Eisenhower listened, he didn’t act. His presidential papers make clear that he was privately fuming at McCarthy, who had vilified his mentor, General George Marshall. But Ike, cautious by instinct and patient by habit, lectured his brothers and his aides that to McCarthy, there was no such thing as bad publicity. Confronting him head-on would just guarantee him more of the spotlight and could make him a martyr. “I developed a practice which, so far as I know, I have never violated,” the president explained in a 1954 letter to a friend. “That practice is to avoid public mention of any name unless it can be done with favorable intent and connotation; reserve all criticism for the private conference; speak only good in public. This is not namby-pamby. It certainly is not Pollyanna-ish. It is just sheer common sense. … The people who want me to stand up and publicly label McCarthy with derogatory titles are the most mistaken people that are dealing with this whole problem, even though in many instances they happen to be my warm friends.”
On another occasion, the warrior-turned-politician confided, “That damn fool Truman created that monster. [McCarthy] didn’t exist until Truman went eyeball-to-eyeball with him. Whenever a president does that with any individual he raises that individual to the president’s level, and Truman was too stupid to understand that.”
So instead, Eisenhower waited, the way he had with D-Day and other great battles during the war in Europe, convinced that McCarthy would do himself in. Ike offered occasional critiques, along with a muted counterpoint to Joe’s raging bravado. “I was raised in a little town of which most of you have never heard. But in the West it is a famous place. It is called Abilene, Kansas,” he said in one of his veiled commentaries, broadcast over national radio and television in November 1953 and, as was his way, not naming the bullying senator. “That town had a code, and I was raised as a boy to prize that code. It was this: Meet anyone face to face with whom you disagree. You could not sneak up on him from behind, or do any damage to him, without suffering the penalty of an outraged citizenry. If you met him face to face and took the same risk he did, you could get away with almost anything, as long as the bullet was in the front.”
Takedowns like that were so veiled that much of America missed Ike’s point, and so tepid that Joe was undeterred. Mainly the president went on with his normal White House routine, while newspapers published so many photographs of Ike swinging golf clubs and casting fishing lines that the public sometimes wondered who was running the government. That uncertainty grew as reporters tried to parse his rambling, garbled answers at press conferences. Was he being rightfully circumspect or was he out of his depth? The verdict at the time was that his was a do-little presidency, a boring and safe aftermath to the wildly eventful Roosevelt and Truman tenures. Ho hum.
Eisenhower outdid Harry Truman in combing the government for security risks and trying to wrest from McCarthy the mantle of top-drawer commie-slayer.
Not so, a lineup of recent Eisenhower biographers tells us. Neither the peace nor the prosperity of the ’50s happened by chance, and the easygoing Ike was doing more than playing golf. His steadying hand was everywhere — ending the Korean War, preserving the New Deal, constructing a nationwide highway network, even taking on Jim Crow segregation by signing, in 1957, the first civil rights law since Reconstruction. The sly presidential fox was misleading Americans on purpose, projecting a grandfatherly calmness that bred public confidence and, not incidentally, helped him outmaneuver adversaries within his own political party. There was no clearer instance of that approach, the president’s defenders say, than his treatment of Senator McCarthy. The seasoned general’s willful silence was a calculated misdirection aimed at ensnaring the runaway senator. Eisenhower wisely “held his fire until McCarthy became open to attack by any right-thinking American,” said Princeton Professor Fred Greenstein, who came up with a name to celebrate that kind of governance by guile: The Hidden Hand.
The Hidden Hand is a convincing way to unravel the riddle of Eisenhower’s surprising successes building highways, expanding Social Security, increasing the minimum wage, and pushing forward on civil rights, but historians have been far too forgiving of the president when it comes to Senator McCarthy. For starters, Eisenhower did more than turn his other cheek. As far back as the 1952 campaign, he signaled his willingness to mollify McCarthy by dropping from a speech in Wisconsin his spirited defense of George Marshall, an about-face that Ike’s pal General Omar Bradley said “turned my stomach.” His aides claimed Eisenhower had to back off for electoral reasons, even though he was on his way to winning 39 of 48 states and would have won in a landslide even without McCarthy’s support or Wisconsin’s electoral votes. Eisenhower advisor and 1948 Republican presidential nominee Thomas Dewey had warned that McCarthy would become his “hair shirt” unless Ike hit him early and hard. Ike said he would, then didn’t. Syndicated columnist Drew Pearson sounded a similar alarm but said, “It was obvious from the questions [Eisenhower] asked that he just did not understand” why the columnist was cautioning him. Instead, according to Pearson, the candidate’s cowardly retrenchment on Marshall tipped off the Neanderthal wing of his party that they could “handle” him. Joe, too, smelled blood in the water.
Attack he did, from the instant Eisenhower moved into 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, with the White House failing to push back. That spring, the administration let McCarthy elbow his way into U.S. foreign policy after the senator unmasked the embarrassing fact that our closest allies were shipping goods to our Korean War enemies. In June, the president stood up to the senator over whether left-leaning tomes should be stripped from the shelves of U.S.-supported libraries around the world, but when McCarthy fired back, Eisenhower retreated. Ike stripped J. Robert Oppenheimer of his security clearance when McCarthy threatened to investigate the nuclear scientist and shunned Senator Margaret Chase Smith once she became Joe’s enemy. White House minions and even cabinet officers got the message. The secretary of state gave McCarthy the widest of berths and a say on security clearances; the attorney general brought no indictments in the wake of reports from two Senate committees lambasting McCarthy; and J. Edgar Hoover acted as though he worked for the senator instead of the attorney general and president.
Even more basic to McCarthy’s success, the president never challenged the senator’s meat-and-potatoes premises: that merely believing in communism was sufficient to pose a peril, and that Soviet subversion threatened the stability and safety of America. Determined not to repeat his predecessor’s presumed failure, Eisenhower even outdid Harry Truman in combing the government for security risks and trying to wrest from McCarthy the mantle of top-drawer commie-slayer. No matter that there were few if any real spies left by the time the general moved into the White House. The upshot was that the Red Scare dragged on longer than it had to. As for the constitutional protection that McCarthy undercut most often, President Eisenhower saw nothing wrong: “I must say I probably share the common reaction if a man has to go to the Fifth Amendment, there must be something he doesn’t want to tell us.” It was more delicate than Joe’s branding witnesses Fifth Amendment Communists, but just barely.
This ranking officer had never liked to wage war unless he was certain he would win. But holding back until the senator self-destructed — which happened in 1954, during the famous Army-McCarthy hearings — meant that, in the meantime, the country would pay a searing toll. The White House stayed silent while McCarthy upended the career of Reed Harris of the International Information Administration and rattled the Harris family to the point that his wife Martha later killed herself. Similar fates befell scores of other federal officials. It was on Eisenhower’s watch and partly thanks to his coattails that McCarthy was elected to an office that allowed him to chair the Senate Subcommittee on Investigations, where he was able to wreak such havoc.
What could and should this president — the second in a row to be stymied by the rabble-rouser from Wisconsin — have done differently?
He ought to have ordered his FBI to plug its leaks to McCarthy, the State Department to stop cowering and backpedaling, and the International Information Agency not to “deshelve” its overseas libraries. Instead, said Martin Merson, who watched it all from a senior perch at the Information Agency, “the president made the mistake in those early days of not believing enough in the people, of feeling that he had to accommodate himself to the so-called practical politicians, to make compromises, to heed the cry of expediency.” But whereas Merson at least listened to the president’s justifications, McCarthy target James Wechsler offered this harsher verdict: McCarthy “was not superman; he was nourished more by the weakness of those who should have resolutely challenged him — most notably Dwight D. Eisenhower — than by any mysterious resources. There must have been many moments when he shook with laughter over the conduct of those he was harassing; surely he must have enjoyed Mr. Eisenhower’s austere refusal to ‘indulge in personalities,’ the craven formula devised early at the White House for the preservation of internal Republican peace and quiet.”
Ironically, the one area where pollsters said Americans doubted their commander-in-chief was his decisiveness — qualms that an iron-fisted response to McCarthy could have put to rest. “At a time when the public would doubtless have welcomed some kind of a statement on McCarthy by the president — either pro or con — he offered nothing,” said John Fenton, then the managing editor of the Gallup Poll. Drew Pearson still hoped he might, telling his diary in November 1953 that “it’s barely possible that Ike will now get off his fat fanny and realize that the chips are down, that he can’t temporize with a would-be dictator.”
Insiders were even more restless. At the same moment Pearson was venting in his journal, C.D. Jackson, Eisenhower’s special assistant on the Cold War, was penning a letter to White House Chief of Staff Sherman Adams. “Listening to Senator McCarthy last night was an exceptionally horrible experience, because it was in effect an open declaration of war on the Republican President of the United States by a Republican Senator,” Jackson wrote in response to McCarthy’s national TV and radio address, in which he charged that the Truman administration had “crawled with communists” and that the Eisenhower administration was only marginally better. “I hope,” Jackson added, “that this flagrant performance will at least serve to open the eyes of some of the president’s advisers who seem to think that the senator is really a good fellow at heart. They remind me of the people who kept saying for so many months that Mao Tse-Tung was just an agrarian reformer.”
At times Ike seemed aware of his own vacillating and doubtful of the Hidden-Hand strategy, as reflected in notes to himself and his counselors. “I continue to believe that the President of the United States cannot afford to name names in opposing procedures, practices, and methods in our government. This applies with special force when the individual concerned enjoys the immunity of a United States Senator,” he wrote in 1953 to a friend who chaired the board of General Mills. “I do not mean that there is no possibility that I shall ever change my mind on this point. I merely mean that as of this moment, I consider that the wisest course of action is to continue to pursue a steady, positive policy in foreign relations, in legal proceedings in cleaning out the insecure and the disloyal, and in all other areas where McCarthy seems to take such a specific and personal interest. My friends on the Hill tell me that of course, among other things, [McCarthy] wants to increase his appeal as an after-dinner speaker and so raise the fees that he charges.”
Other times, unable to tolerate the pain he felt biting his tongue regarding McCarthy, this thin-skinned president looked for scapegoats — Democrats, misguided staffers, or, in this case, the press. “No one has been more insistent and vociferous in urging me to challenge McCarthy than have the people who built him up, namely, writers, editors, and publishers. They have shown some of the earmarks of acting from a guilty conscience — after all, McCarthy and McCarthyism existed a long time before I came to Washington,” he wrote in March 1954 to another businessman-friend. “The area in which all of this really hurts is the adverse effect upon the enactment of the program of legislative action I have recommended. We have sideshows and freaks where we ought to be in the main tent with our attention on the chariot race.”
Two weeks later, in March 1954, he finally said he’d had enough and would tell the world how much he loathed the Wisconsin senator. It was liberating, as his press secretary, James Hagerty, reported in his notes on that day’s staff briefing, where McCarthy once again was topic number one. “I’ve made up my mind you can’t do business with Joe and to hell with any attempt to compromise,” Eisenhower told his assembled aides, not recognizing that he was echoing the sentiments of the predecessor he scorned, Harry Truman. Walking away with Hagerty, Ike added: “Jim. Listen. I’m not going to compromise my ideals and personal beliefs for a few stinking votes. To hell with it.”
At a press conference later that morning the president was asked whether Joe had the right to cross-examine witnesses in hearings called to investigate his own allegedly improper encounters with the U.S. Army. “In America,” Ike answered, “if a man is a party to a dispute, directly or indirectly, he does not sit in judgment on his own case.” It was the president’s most public and direct assault on McCarthy, but it was hardly the break that Ike had promised barely an hour before, or that Milton Eisenhower, C.D. Jackson, and others said was vital to curb a senator whom Jackson called “a killer abroad in the streets.”
The senator was ultimately brought down when the public saw at those Army-McCarthy hearings how reckless and ruthless he was, and to his credit, the president worked behind the scenes to ensure the Army stood fast against the demagogue from Wisconsin. In December 1954, the Senate found its own equivalently elusive backbone, condemning its colleague in a way that amounted to a political death sentence.
Looking back, it’s clear that Senator McCarthy’s reign of terror should never have lasted as long as it did. It’s also clear that President Eisenhower was the one national figure with the patriotic service and popular following who could have neutralized the out-of-control lawmaker. The president’s monthly approval numbers in 1953, at the height of McCarthy’s power, never dropped below 61 percent and topped out at 73 percent, the kind of fawning most leaders can only dream about and that McCarthy never even approached. In 1954, and in 12 of the 19 years between 1950 and 1968, Americans voted Eisenhower their favorite person in the world. And Ike, alone among Americans, had access to unvarnished reports from the FBI, CIA, and loyalty boards of every federal agency, laying out the limits of government treason and the breadth of McCarthy myth-making. He had the power and knew the lies.
But the most powerful general in America’s history, the supreme commander of an Allied force that crushed Adolf Hitler, shrank from confronting a drunken bully. At this milestone moment, rather than a Hidden Hand guiding the country, the Eisenhower waiting game looked more like an Empty Glove.
Larry Tye is the best-selling author of Bobby Kennedy and Satchel. Previously an award-winning reporter and national writer at the Boston Globe, he now runs the Boston-based Health Coverage Fellowship. For more, visit larrytye.com.
Excerpted from Demagogue: The Life and Long Shadow of Senator Joe McCarthy by Larry Tye, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020
This article is featured in the September/October 2020 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: Everett Collection Historical / Alamy Stock Photo
Generals don’t usually see off the troops. It’s not like Mom and Dad saying goodbye to Johnny at camp or college.
But there Ike was. At the airfield on the eve of D-Day, chatting up some of his soldiers.
He was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe on the eve of the invasion of France to drive Hitler and his German army out of France and the other occupied countries, back to Germany and unconditional surrender. General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who dealt daily with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and France’s General Charles de Gaulle, was talking with men of the 101st Airborne Division, some of them with their faces already blackened for the night mission.
The paratroopers were about to board planes that would drop them over occupied France in the dead of night, hours before the D-Day landings on the beaches. And Ike was there to see them off.
Chatting. Asking questions. Seeing if there was anyone there from Kansas, his home state.
Later, as the planes lifted off, his driver saw tears in Ike’s eyes.
I know why.
And why he surprised everyone, including his aides, when he came out of his office as the minutes ticked down to D-Day saying he wanted to go out to the airfield and see the boys off.
He hoped desperately they would come back.
He was gambling they might not.
It was the greatest decision he had to make during the war. Not his decision to go on June 6 — after canceling the planned June 5 landings due to bad weather — but the one I heard him publicly reveal for the first time. It was to a group of 165 high school and college newspaper editors and photographers gathered in the ballroom of the Drake Hotel in Chicago on Saturday morning, January 18, 1947.
He had agreed to meet with the student press club sponsored by the Chicago Daily News, which, as a staff member at the newspaper, I had proposed, organized, and directed when I started writing a column for students in the Greater Chicago area the previous year. After introducing Ike, I took my place at a table at the front of the ballroom, facing the rows of students, as Ike stood at the end of the center aisle, hands clasped behind his back, military style.
He fielded questions on a variety of subjects, including the fact he’d originally planned to go to Annapolis, but then discovered he was over the age limit. He switched to West Point. Questions ranged from other aspects of his personal life and career to world affairs.
As President Harry S. Truman had done the year before, he doubled the allotted time scheduled. But as he closed in on an hour, he said he would take three more questions. The last one:
“General Eisenhower, what was the greatest decision you had to make during the war?”
He turned and started to pace three feet in front of me. A slow, measured step that matched the measured words as he spelled out the situation for the students.
From the earliest stages of planning, it was deemed vital to have a port that would enable the Allies to bring in the massive reinforcements needed, from tanks and trucks to artillery pieces and machine guns, not to mention men. That port would be Cherbourg, which led to selection of the landing points on the coast — five beaches: Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno, and Sword. And then the obvious:
“To ensure the success of the Allied landings in Normandy,” he said, “it was imperative that we prevent the enemy from bringing up reinforcements. All roads and rail lines leading to the areas of fighting on and around the beaches had to be cut or blocked. If reinforcements were allowed to reach the areas of fighting there, in our first, precarious attempts to get a foothold on the continent, the whole operation could be jeopardized. The landings might fail.”
A factor in the planning: the countryside beyond the beaches in some places was not the usual meadows and fields, but bogs — low, swampy areas that the Germans would flood. The few causeways that traversed the area between the beaches and the inland area were the only means of getting from the beaches to the mainland. Or vice versa.
To seize key roads and crossroads, paratroopers would be dropped inland in the early morning hours of D-Day. Enter the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions.
But just days before, on May 30, a high-ranking, trusted aide came to Ike, asking him to call off the airborne landings. I learned later when I read his book, Crusade in Europe, the aide was British Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory. He had been assigned to the Allied Forces with the title of Allied Expeditionary Air Force Commander in Chief, which made him the air commander of the invasion. He apologized for being so late with his concern. But he’d been going over it, and over it, and he felt the casualties would be too great.
“Casualties to glider troops would be 90 percent before they ever reached the ground. The killed and wounded among the paratroops would be 75 percent.” Or 13,000 of the 18,000 men. Not only unconscionably high, but so high the mission would be doomed.
Ike thanked him for bringing his concern to him, said he would consider it. He had a few days to think about it, but then the time came to decide. And as Ike reached this point in his account of events, his step slowed ever so slightly, as if the weight of the decision settled over him again. As he put it in his book, “It would be difficult to conceive of a more soul-wracking problem.”
He reviewed the planning process for the invasion that had begun months before. The mission had been reviewed countless times as Allied officers and their aides went over every aspect of the massive invasion. Hundreds of planes on airfields ready to take off for their respective missions. More hundreds of troopships, landing craft, tanks, trucks, machine-guns. Some 5,000 ships, the largest armada ever assembled. A military operation with myriad moving parts.
As Ike weighed Leigh-Mallory’s request, he kept coming back to the fact that the mission had been reviewed countless times. And, as he put it, “The success of the landings on the beaches might well turn on the success of the paratroopers behind the lines.”
What Ike also made clear that Saturday morning in Chicago was that he couldn’t let the boys land on the beaches without having done everything he could to keep the Germans from bringing up reinforcements.
Still pacing, almost thinking out loud, he said it: “I couldn’t permit that, either.”
Step slowing to a stop, he turned to face the students. “I let the order stand.”
Then, a little less somber: “The airborne boys did their job. And, I am happy to say, the casualties were only 8 percent.”
With that, and an exchange of formalities, he was gone.
It was the following year, the Fall of 1948, that I learned how surprised his aides were when, on the eve of D-Day, as the tension mounted with each sweep of the second hand around the clock, Ike came out of his office and said he wanted to see the boys off.
His driver, a WAC (Women’s Army Corps) Captain in the U.S. Army mentioned this when she met with the student editors. And so Kay Summersby drove Ike out to see them off. “We covered three separate airfields before night fell,” she said. She also said he ordered the unit commanders to order each group to break ranks and forget about military formalities.
By chance some years later, I met a woman who had been a Red Cross worker in England during the war, and was one of those at the airfield passing out coffee and doughnuts to the boys when Ike drove up. She handed him a cup of coffee, then noticed his hand was shaking so badly she was afraid the hot coffee would spill over and burn him. Gently, she eased the cup out of his hand.
Stephen E. Ambrose reported the mingling and chatting with the 101st Airborne paratroopers — Ike at one point asking if anyone was from Kansas — in his book D-Day: June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle Of World War II. He concluded his segment on Ike’s visit with the lift-off:
The planes started their engines. A giant cacophony of sound engulfed the airfield as each C-47 in its turn lurched into line on the taxi strip. At the head of the runway, the pilots locked the brakes and ran up the engines until they screamed. Then, at ten-second intervals, they released the brakes and started down the runway, slowly at first, gathering speed, so overloaded that they barely made it into the sky.
When the last plane roared off, Eisenhower turned to his driver, Kay Summersby. She saw tears in his eyes. He began to walk slowly toward his car. “Well,” he said quietly, “it’s on.”
Five years after Ike stood mere feet from me, answering the student editor’s question, I was watching the noon news on the TV set in my living room. Another Saturday. The Republican National Convention had wrapped the night before with Ike’s speech to the delegates accepting the Republican nomination for President of the United States. To my surprise, the studio announcer broke into the news coverage to report Ike had surprised everyone by leaving his suite at the Blackstone Hotel.
He’d gone down to the street, turned the corner, and started walking up South Michigan Avenue, with an ever growing flotilla of media. He went into the Congress Hotel and headed straight to the ballroom, where there was a luncheon in progress: A reunion of men of the 82nd Airborne Division.
When they saw him, they were on their feet. Cheering. Clapping. Whistling. Smiling as broadly as he was. No longer in military uniform, the soon to be 34th President of the United States, had dropped in on his boys once again.
He moved to the dais and stopped behind the podium, the famed Eisenhower grin as wide as I ever saw it. A TV camera zoomed in until Ike’s face filled the TV screen.
And I saw the tears start down his cheek.
Featured image: Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower addresses paratroopers before they board their planes for Europe on D-Day. (Library of Congress)
Acclaimed historian John McManus began his book The Dead and Those About to Die: D-Day: The Big Red One at Omaha Beach with these words: “Desperate. Hellish. Disastrous. Catastrophic. Traumatic. Shocking. Bloody. Anyone who was at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944 … is likely to have used one or more of those powerful words to describe it. At Omaha Beach, the stakes were so high, and the fighting so bitter, that the very name involves something legendary, even iconic.”
McManus reminds us that continuing to explore the events around that invasion reveals much about what has shaped our role in wars to come. With the help of years of research and personal interviews with those who fought, the author shares his thoughts with the Post’s West Coast editor.
Jeanne Wolf: As the war in Europe raged on, our country was strongly isolationist. Was D-Day, at least symbolically, a watershed moment where we began our commitment to becoming a leader of Western Europe and the free world?
John McManus: It was really one of the key moments for America in World War II as it ended our determination not to get deeply involved. I really think that a great realization happened after the fall of France in 1940. It was stunning. I think that most Americans felt that at that point, “Well we don’t want to be in the war formally just yet, but we better get ready.”
This soon led to a shift in outlooks, a shift in values and perspective toward more of an American involvement in Europe, and more internationalism. And D-Day was the logical outgrowth of such thinking.
JW: It’s not too much to say that one day made such a momentous change?
JM: No. What’s so compelling about the Normandy invasion is that there aren’t that many actual single dates in history like that which you could look at and say, “Wow, this is a day that you know that sets the tone for decades.” D-Day was definitely one of those days. I mean there was so much on the line if the invasion failed. For America, it was kind of an emblematic commitment because D-Day was the first day of almost a year of very heavy fighting. From that day forward, the campaign to defeat Nazi Germany would be about two-thirds American in terms of manpower and especially material power. There was an enormous blood-cost.
JW: In planning the D-Day invasion, Eisenhower was named the leader. Why was an American in charge of a war that had already been going on for five years? And did this foreshadow our leadership role in Europe?
JM: There was no doubt that an American would be in charge of Operation Overlord because only one country out of the Western coalition could lead this invasion and, more importantly, the campaign that followed. If we pull the lens back further from an American point of view, D-Day was just one of our massive operations going on globally at that point. There were huge operations in the Pacific and the bombing campaign of Germany. All of this stuff was happening, so it was like, “Wow, look what America is capable of.” We had become a military and economic superpower. That’s why the Normandy invasion was not possible until 1944, because among the Western countries, only the United States really had the kind of power to lead the invasion and the subsequent campaign. What you’re seeing there is the beginnings of NATO. I think there was no question there would be an American commander.
What the American people always have to ask themselves is: “Is this worth it?” It is a very serious question.
JW: There’s a lot of talk today about “wasting money” on military support of other countries and, more specifically, the cost/benefit of supporting NATO and whether we’re paying too much or whether others aren’t paying their fair share. But some argue that the benefit of allying with Europe, even at great cost, is priceless.
JM: A hundred and ten thousand Americans died in World War I. World War II was even bloodier. Then we went through a decades-long commitment to protecting Europe through the emblem of NATO during the Cold War and even beyond. There’s bound to be some weariness and bound to be waste, and when we have so many social problems in this country, a lot of people are quite rightly thinking, Well, shouldn’t we be worried about those too? But the world is a small place. What happens in Europe tends to really matter for us too, and that hasn’t changed. So the Americans have been going round and round with their NATO allies for decades about whether we’re carrying too much of the cost and the responsibility. It’s not a new issue.
JW: Because not helping can be so disastrous?
JM: Just think, what if Europe became a key part of the world that was hostile to the United States and its values. What would that mean for the hundreds of thousands of lives that the U.S. expended to make sure Europe was free in World War II and the millions, yes millions, of lives that were affected by the Cold War. It is a question of whether America really represents freedom internationally or if it’s not as important to us.
JW: Aren’t we the world’s police force, in a sense, protecting civilization every day?
JM: Whether you like it or not, there’s a lot of truth in that. And whether you’re a soldier or not doesn’t matter because the American people are ultimately paying for a lot of this in so many ways. So yeah, it affects you whether you know it or not, and that’s part of what I tell all my students. It’s certainly in your interest to know more and understand more because you’re affected by this.
JW: The debate goes on. Is our engagement — in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, even Iraq — is it on moral grounds? Or is it self-interest?
JM: I think the answer is “yes” and “yes.” It’s both. You had that even after World War I. The American government told us we were fighting to save the world for democracy, and actually what we saw was that there was a lot of hardcore economic value there, too. Well, welcome to American conflict around the world, because it’s the same thing as it was in World War II and the Cold War. It’s the same thing in Iraq or the Korean War or wherever it might be. But one theme you do see as a historian in a lot of these places is that when the Americans go, and they’re willing to stay in for the long haul, you tend to see a kind of better country come out of that. I’m alluding obviously to Germany, Japan, Korea — you do tend to see this. Or, when the Americans leave — Vietnam would be a really good example of another kind of outcome. So what the American people always have to ask themselves is: “Is this worth it?” It is a very serious question. I would never say otherwise. D-Day is just one example of that. There’s always a tremendous blood investment. The title of my book comes from Colonel George Taylor, who was commanding the lead assault at Normandy and said to his men, “Only two kinds of people are going to be on this beach, the dead and those who are going to die. Now get moving.”
JW: We hear all the time that those who fought the battle of D-Day were members of what has been called the “greatest generation” — men willing to stand up and sacrifice for the greater good. How do you explain that spirit?
JM: There was definitely an understanding of how crucial D-Day was and that it had to succeed. But I think what really caused them to go on is a kind of a camaraderie. All the higher-minded patriotic stuff that they may feel after you get through about 80 layers of cynicism is not why people really fight. They fight because of the guys next to them. I talked to survivors who explained that they thought in the midst of the chaos, I know a lot of people are relying on me. I’ve got to do my part. And that kept many of them continuing to risk their lives.
JW: In the end, wasn’t it easier to fight that battle on Omaha Beach and the war because we had the moral clarity of being on the right side?
JM: World War II is unique in that it is a mass participation war, though, believe it or not, two-thirds of those who served were draftees and only one-third volunteers. Still, it was a popular war. And that’s very rare in American history. Most of our wars have either been or become incredibly unpopular with some Americans. But World War II was a linear war; you could look toward a concrete series of steps that would lead you to victory. It was a war that was waged against nation-state actors whom you could identify and fight — and fight to victory. And it’s one of the rare times in American history where both parties came together on this idea — well, let’s work together toward the victory.
John McManus’ newest book is Fire and Fortitude: The U.S. Army in the Pacific War, 1941-1943, July 30, 2019.
This article is featured in the May/June 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.
Featured image: U.S. Army
Seven years after leaving the White House, Dwight D. Eisenhower was voted the most admired person in America. Normally the winner of this annual Gallup poll was the sitting president, but in 1968 Lyndon Johnson had become too unpopular because of his Vietnam policy.
Still, it’s remarkable that, of all the notable Americans alive that year, the choice fell to a 78-year old ex-president. Even in retirement, with poor health restricting his public appearances, he was still highly regarded by Americans.
He probably never lost the admiration he earned as Supreme Commander of the Allied armies in World War II. No doubt his decision to run for president as a Republican instead of Democrat cost him some supporters. But while he was the leader of his party, he never became a political president; he would always promote the national good before party interests.
He kept the Republicans’ promise to reduce taxes, balance budgets, and decrease government control over the economy. But he also increased the minimum wage, expanded Social Security, ordered 1,000 U.S. soldiers to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce integration, and launched a massive public-spending project: $25 billion to build 40,000 miles of superhighway across the country. (The original 12-year project eventually lengthened to 35 years, and the price rose to $114 billion, and we still think it was a bargain.)
For a time, Eisenhower seemed to antagonize conservative Republicans more than his Democractic opponents, especially when he opposed the grandstanding red-baiter, Senator Joe McCarthy. Yet Eisenhower was an implacable enemy of communist imperialism. He never used accusations and threats, but applied steady pressure against Russia through diplomacy, foreign aid, and occasional military intervention. And when a U.S. spy plane was shot down over Russia, Eisenhower took personal responsibility.
He left office in 1961, ready to enjoy the pleasures of private life. In March of that year, he wrote about the life he saw before him in “Now That I Am A Private Citizen.”
On January twentieth I ended, with mixed feelings of satisfaction and regret, an almost complete half century of public service… the first four years were spent as a cadet in West Point, some thirty-seven as an officer of the Army, and the final eight as commander in chief of the armed forces and President of the United States…
From December, 1941, until the completion of my two terms in the Presidency, there have been few periods in which I have not been confronted with important public problems, for the solution of which I have borne some decree of responsibility.
But now, having left the White House, Mamie and I have become a part of America’s private citizenry. We have no governmental responsibilities, no duties except those belonging to every other individual in this republic. We had often, through the years, looked forward eagerly to this kind of existence…
Adjustments, big and little, began soon after I left the platform last Inauguration Day. I have now learned, once more, how to dial a telephone and how to drive a modern automobile, something I have not done for nearly twenty years…
Ike knew he would miss the daily news briefings he enjoyed as a president. No longer could he simply pick up a phone and call in advisors and experts to inform him breaking news stories. But this, he realized, was how Americans lived. They pieced together news stories. They discussed and debated among themselves. They worked hard to keep informed.
I believe that every good citizen owes it to himself and his country to formulate his conclusions on vital national issues as carefully as if he were actually sitting in the President’s chair. He will not find this easy. There is no magic formula for reaching satisfactory decisions; certainly none that would be acceptable to every thoughtful person.
I here set down without explanation or argument, and in terms of basic tenet, the highlights of my political beliefs. These are not original; some are hoary with age. But, among others, they include:
• We live in a society founded upon a deeply felt religious faith dedicated to the maintenance of human liberty and dignity, of the nation’s security, and of public order.
• Only in a world of peace with Justice can the peace and prosperity of any nation be assured.
• Lincoln’s description of the purpose and function of government is still valid. He said, “The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.”
• To insure the nation’s security and progress requires a balanced strength— spiritual, economic, military. To neglect any of these necessarily weakens all.
• An intelligent approach to every political question, domestic or foreign, must seek the enlightened self-interest of this nation.
• A free, competitive economy is essential to the existence of maximum human liberty.
• Maintenance of a sound, stable currency is essential to the growth of a free, competitive economy.
• Deficit spending by the Federal Government is justified only in emergencies of the gravest kind. The inevitable effect is to place an increasing and stifling burden upon the economy and to rob the future of its legitimate heritage.
• The promotion of the overall national good must always take precedence over any attempt of a special group to advantage itself.
• The need for balance in governmental programs is always present—a balance between current pressures and future good: between individual liberty and the meeting of nationwide requirements by government; between creature comforts provided by the state and the maintenance of a national creative capacity depending upon individual initiative, self-confidence and self-dependence; in sum, a balance that repudiates extremes in vast human affairs and seeks practical solutions so as to mobilize the energies of the vast majority.
• Added to these are certain precepts, such as:
—assemble all the facts on a problem, and it often solves itself;
—all generalities are false, including this one;
—make no mistakes in a hurry, but any decision is better than none;
— finally, and probably the most important, always take your job seriously, never yourself.
For me, they spell sound, balanced and progressive government.
These points were more than just nice ideas to Dwight Eisenhower. They were principles by which he lived. Which is why historians may argue Ike’s decision, but few argue his integrity.
On this day in 1890, Dwight David Eisenhower was born on a farm in Abilene, Kansas. He was probably the last American president to take the mythical path to the White House. Though not born in a log cabin, he did grow up on a small farm far from the city, enlisted in the army, rose through the ranks, achieving a brilliant victory, and then moved into politics.
As late as 1942, though, Eisenhower was still unknown to America. That year, Post writer Demaree Bess wrote “The Army’s Favorite General” to introduce him to the country that would soon be entrusting him with their sons.
The toughest assignment in the world today is the opening of a second front. Meet the soldier who has it, Ike Eisenhower, of Kansas and London.
A few weeks ago, talking in Washington with a veteran Army colonel, I remarked that I was gathering material for an article about Lt. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man who has been sent to England to organize the American share of the second front against Germany.
“Well, you’ll find it hard sledding to write an exciting article about Ike Eisenhower,” commented the colonel. “There’s nothing romantic about him. He’s never done anything spectacular. The public never heard of him until a few months ago, and most of the politicians have never laid eyes on him. But there is one thing about Ike Eisenhower—he’s the Army’s favorite general.”
That phrase—”the Army’s favorite general”— stuck in my mind. I decided to find out whether it was true and, if so, why. Now, having talked with dozens of officers and men who know General Eisenhower, I have concluded that it probably is true. Certainly his appointment is unanimously approved by the soldiers—from generals to privates— who have worked with him and over him, and under him, during his twenty-seven years in the regular Army of the United States.
The exciting part of General Eisenhower’s story lies, not in his personal life, but in his professional career. A little more than a year ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower was just one of several thousand colonels in our regular Army; and, so far as the American public knew, he was no different from the rest. But today he is one of our Army’s sixteen lieutenant generals, holding rank equivalent to the highest that George Washington attained. He has been advanced more rapidly than any other American officer. More than that, he has been handed the toughest assignment at the disposal of the War Department—that of cracking German defenses on the continent of Europe.
Bess assured the country that this young (52 years old that year) general had risen without influential friends or powerful connections. He had risen through the ranks on merit alone. He had graduated in the upper half of his West Point class. During the First World War, he had earned a brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel for his work in training America’s fledgling tank corp. General MacArthur was so impressed by this unassuming young man, he chose him as his top military aide in the Philippines. The top brass were impressed with this young officer’s ability to see the big picture without losing sight of practical matters.
One reason why General Eisenhower was selected for his present post is that he was perhaps the first of our staff officers to suggest a second front… when asked for his plans, he submitted details which persuaded his superiors that his plans are both brilliant and sound. He was able to create these plans because, for more than a quarter of a century, he has been an inspired student of mechanized warfare and because, in recent large-scale maneuvers in this country, he revealed extraordinary originality in his direction of this type of combat.
What Bess couldn’t know at the time of this article was that Eisenhower also had a genius for diplomacy. Time after time, Ike was able to win cooperation from Allied generals and politicians. He spent years was negotiating, arguing,, pleading, cajoling, and manipulating such prickly men as Churchill, General Bernard Montgomery, George Patton, Charles de Gaulle, and the Russian General Zhukov, to keep the great alliance alive.
Perhaps his great accomplishment was successfully landing 24,000 soldiers on the French coast, directly in sight of massive German defences. It was an extraordinary feat of planning, which called for the kind of military genius needed in modern war, as described by British essayist Walter Bagehot:
The soldier—that is, the great soldier—of today is not a romantic animal, dashing at forlorn hopes, animated by frantic sentiment, full of fancies as to a love-lady or a sovereign; but a quiet, grave man, busied in charts, exact in sums, master of the art of tactics, occupied in trivial detail; thinking most of the shoes of his soldiers, as the Duke of Wellington was said to do; despising all manner of éclat and eloquence; perhaps, like Count Moltke, silent in seven languages.
General Eisenhower is not exactly a grave and quiet man; he likes plenty of good conversation and his share of fun. But he certainly is no “romantic animal, dashing at forlorn hopes.” Being an infantryman, he knows the importance of shoes for his soldiers; and, being a tank expert and a qualified pilot, he fully appreciates the role of tanks and air- planes in modern warfare. For more than a year he has been “busied in charts” which directly concern his present mission; and his associates can attest to his passion for “trivial detail.”