March 28 marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Dwight David Eisenhower, who remains one of American’s greatest war heroes. “He was a true American, a true patriot,” says Dr. Wayne Temple, who served under Eisenhower in World War II. “He was an honorable man who always found a way to get things done, no matter what the circumstances.”
Born on October 14, 1890, in Denton, Texas, Eisenhower moved as a young boy to Abilene, Kansas. He loved to hunt and fish, play football, and read military history—a sign of things to come. In 1911, he earned an appointment to West Point, much to the chagrin of his mother, a devoted Mennonite and pacifist.
Eisenhower was a mediocre student at the Academy, graduating 61st of 164, and served in several uninspiring posts until befriending George Patton, the father of the American tank corps. Eisenhower also caught the eye of General Fox Conner, who sent him to the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth.
There, young Dwight excelled, graduating first in a class of 245 officers, which earned him a string of key assignments, including service as an aide to General John Pershing, the U.S. commander during World War I.
In World War II, Eisenhower ascended to commander of the Allies in Europe, and was mastermind of the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944. With his usual efficiency, he pressed across France and Germany, forcing the Nazi surrender in May 1945.
Temple, who was charged with setting up communication for Eisenhower’s command earlier that year, recalls his inspiring presence. “He was quite affable, and we were all acquainted with him. Of course, we weren’t around him all the time, and didn’t have great access to him. But he took care of us pretty well.”
At the Potsdam Conference with Allied leaders in July 1945, Eisenhower expressed opposition to use of the atomic bomb. He subsequently served as chief of staff of the Army before a two-year stint as president of Columbia University. In 1950, President Harry Truman, who became one of Eisenhower’s staunchest critics, appointed him as the first Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe.
As the 1952 election neared, Eisenhower was approached by both parties as a presidential candidate, though he had no political experience. He chose the Republicans and won in a landslide over his Democratic rival, Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson.
Riding a crest of popularity from the strong post-war economy, Eisenhower again squared off with Stevenson in 1956 and won by an even larger margin as Americans adhered to the campaign slogan “I Like Ike.”
Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had a tense relationship, which was exacerbated by the crash of an American U-2 spy plane over the U.S.S.R. in 1960. The US also had a cool relationship with China, though hostilities in the Korean War ended in 1953.
Domestically, Eisenhower was enraged when Senator Joseph McCarthy dragged the Army into charges of Communism in 1954, the same year that Brown v. Board of Education was handed down by the Supreme Court, declaring segregation of public schools unconstitutional.
Eisenhower has since been criticized for not completely enforcing Brown, but he did send in federal troops to protect the “Little Rock Nine” in their showdown over public schools at the Arkansas capital in 1957.
Among his domestic triumphs was the creation of the interstate highway system in 1956. “It was one of the best things Eisenhower ever did,” says Temple. “That completely revolutionized American transportation and the national economy. I always wondered if he was inspired by the German Autobahn, which he would have observed when he was in Europe during the war.”
After leaving office, Eisenhower retired to his farm near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A skilled chef, he was also an avid golfer who had a putting green installed on the White House lawn in 1954. His marriage to Mamie Doud in 1916 produced two sons, one of whom died young from scarlet fever. However, rumors persist that Ike had an affair with Kay Summersby, an Irish-born Canadian who served as his driver through much of the war.
Though Summersby made no mention of an affair in her 1948 memoir, a relationship between them was claimed in a ghostwritten autobiography in 1975. Temple doesn’t believe it. “All of us had the impression that Eisenhower was very devoted to his wife. I just can’t see how he could have had a relationship with Summersby.”
Eisenhower suffered a heart attack in office in 1955, and endured several more in the mid-1960s. He died on March 28, 1969, and was buried in Abilene, where today, the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum interprets his life, the war, and his administration.
Temple still has a prized memento from Eisenhower. “We spoke several years after the war, and he asked if he could do anything for me. I said, ‘Yes, I would love to have an autographed photo of you.’ He sent me one a few days later, and I still have it framed. It’s something that I cherish, because I was proud to serve under him.”