No other Allied military commander had as much influence or control over the war in Europe than Dwight David Eisenhower. His military savvy and the ability to hold together a sometimes tenuous military coalition helped guide the Allied forces to victory over Germany and Italy. His reputation as a war hero helped get him elected to the White House in 1952.
Eisenhower was born in 1890 in Denison, Texas. An average student in school, he excelled at sports, particularly baseball. Eisenhower wanted a college education, but his family couldn't afford the tuition, so he sought, and won, an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, graduating in 1915.
Figure 8-3 General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower at his headquarters in Europe.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (80-G-331330)
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Eisenhower was promoted to captain and assigned to training duty. He begged to be transferred overseas so he could see action, but his superiors declined, sending him to Camp Colt in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he trained the army's first tank corps. He continued his work at Camp Meade, Maryland, where he became close friends with George S. Patton.
Eisenhower's Role in World War II
At the onset of World War II, Eisenhower was put in charge of the War Plans Division. He favored the “Europe first” strategy, which dictated a strong Allied push against Germany before launching a major offensive in the Pacific. In March 1942, Eisenhower was promoted to major general and made head of the Operations Division. In June, he was promoted to lieutenant general and placed in command of the army's European theater of operations, headquartered in London. His job was to lead U.S. forces in the offensive against Germany. Eisenhower wanted to start in the spring of 1943, but Winston Churchill suggested an invasion of North Africa instead, arguing that U.S. soldiers were still a little too green for an immediate invasion of German territory. Eisenhower was then placed in charge of Allied forces for the North African campaign. Though his troops were initially overrun by Erwin Rommel's army, Eisenhower recovered and eventually drove Germany out of North Africa.
Figure 8-4 General Eisenhower surrounded by fellow American Generals Simpson, Patton, Spaatz, Bradley, Hodges, Gerow, Stearley, Vandenberg, Smith, Weyland, and Nugent.
Photo courtesy of the National Archives (208-YE-182)
In July 1943, Eisenhower launched the successful invasion of Sicily, and in September he commanded the invasion of the Italian mainland, which was under German control. In December, while the Italian campaign was still under way, Eisenhower was chosen to command the Allied invasion of Normandy, with the goal of retaking German-occupied France and then pushing on to Berlin. It was a massive undertaking and a huge responsibility, but Eisenhower was ready. He pushed his staff and his troops tirelessly, requiring the invasion force to train with live ammunition. The offensive was a success, though casualties were high.
On December 15, 1944, Eisenhower was promoted to General of the Army, the U.S. military's highest rank. The next day, Germany began a final offensive in Belgium: the Battle of the Bulge. The Germans caught the Allied line by surprise and made a startling advance, though Allied forces eventually regrouped and pushed the German forces back in heavy fighting. It was one of Eisenhower's greatest moments as a military leader and strategist.
After the War
Eisenhower served as Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army from 1945 to 1948 and as Supreme Commander of NATO from 1950 to 1952. In April 1952, Eisenhower announced that he would seek the Republican nomination for president. He won the nomination and ran against Democrat Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Eisenhower, a war hero, achieved an easy victory, taking thirty-nine of the forty-eight states and receiving 34 million popular votes. He was elected to a second term in 1956 with 57 percent of the popular vote.
General of the Army Omar N. Bradley was the highest-ranking American field commander in the European theater and a major influence in determining the course of the war. Eisenhower relied on him heavily during the North Africa campaign, the Normandy invasion, and the Battle of the Bulge, among other events.
Eisenhower eventually retired to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, though he remained active as a government adviser; because of his vast experience, both John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson called on him during various crises. Eisenhower died in 1969 after an extended illness.