Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

A Life in Brief

Born in Texas and raised in Kansas, Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of America's greatest military commanders and the thirty-fourth President of the United States. Inspired by the example of a friend who was going to the U.S. Naval Academy, Eisenhower won an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Although his mother had religious convictions that made her a pacifist, she did not try to stop Eisenhower from becoming a military officer.

Popular War Hero

After graduating from West Point, Eisenhower experienced several years of professional frustration and disappointment. World War I ended a week before he was scheduled to go to Europe. After peace came, his career stalled. He did enjoy the personal fulfillment that came from marrying Mamie Doud in 1916 and having a son, John, in 1922. During the 1920s, he began to get assignments that allowed him to prove his abilities. He served as a military aide to General John J. Pershing and then to General Douglas MacArthur in the Philippines. Shortly before the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower earned his first star with a promotion to brigadier general.

After the United States entered the war, Eisenhower went to Washington, D.C., to work as a planning officer. He so impressed the Army's chief of staff, General George C. Marshall, that he quickly got important command assignments. In 1944, he was Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord, the Allied assault on Nazi-occupied Europe. In only five years, Eisenhower had risen from a lowly lieutenant colonel in the Philippines to commander of the greatest invasion force in history. When he returned home in 1945 to serve as chief of staff of the Army, Eisenhower was a hero, loved and admired by the American public.

Acknowledging Eisenhower's immense popularity, President Harry Truman privately proposed to Eisenhower that they run together on the Democratic ticket in 1948—with Truman as the vice-presidential candidate. Eisenhower refused and instead became president of Columbia University and then, after the outbreak of the Korean War, the first Supreme Commander of NATO forces in Europe. In 1952, he declared that he was a Republican and returned home to win his party's presidential nomination, with Richard M. Nixon as his running mate. "Ike" endeared himself to the American people with his plain talk, charming smile, and sense of confidence. He easily beat Democrat Adlai Stevenson in 1952 and again in 1956.

Moderate Republicanism

Eisenhower was a popular President throughout his two terms in office. His moderate Republican policies helped him secure many victories in Congress, even though Democrats held the majority in both the House and the Senate during six of the eight years that Eisenhower was in the White House. Eisenhower helped strengthen established programs, such as Social Security, and launch important new ones, such as the Interstate Highway System in 1956, which became the single largest public works program in U.S. history.

Yet there were problems and failures as well as achievements. Although he secured from Congress the first civil rights legislation since the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War, he refrained from speaking out to advance the cause of racial justice. He never endorsed the Supreme Court's ruling in 1954 that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional, and he failed to use his moral authority as President to urge speedy compliance with the Court's decision. In 1957, he did send federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, when mobs tried to block the desegregation of Central High School, but he did so because he had a constitutional obligation to uphold the law, not because he supported integration.

Eisenhower also refrained from publicly criticizing Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, who used his powers to abuse the civil liberties of dozens of citizens who he accused of anti-American activities. Eisenhower privately despised McCarthy, and he worked behind the scenes with congressional leaders to erode McCarthy's influence. Eisenhower's indirect tactics eventually worked, but they also prolonged the senator's power since many people concluded that even the President was unwilling to confront McCarthy.

Waging Cold War

Six months after he became President, Eisenhower agreed to an armistice that ended three years of fighting in Korea. Only on one other occasion—in Lebanon in 1958—did Eisenhower send combat troops into action. Yet defense spending remained high, as Eisenhower made vigorous efforts to wage the Cold War. He placed new emphasis on nuclear strength, which was popularly known as massive retaliation, to prevent the outbreak of war. He also frequently authorized the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to undertake covert actions—secret interventions to overthrow unfriendly governments or protect reliable anti-Communist leaders whose power was threatened. The CIA helped topple the governments of Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, but it suffered an embarrassing failure in 1958 when it intervened in Indonesia. Eisenhower avoided war in Indochina in 1954 when he decided not to authorize an air strike to rescue French troops at the crucial battle of Dienbienphu. Yet after the French granted independence to the nations of Indochina—Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam—Eisenhower used U.S. power and prestige to help create a non-Communist government in South Vietnam, an action that had disastrous long-term consequences. During his last years in office, Eisenhower also "waged peace," hoping to improve U.S.-Soviet relations and negotiate a treaty banning nuclear testing in the air and seas. But the Soviet downing of a U.S. reconnaissance plane—the U-2 incident of May 1, 1960—ended any hope for a treaty before Eisenhower left office.

Rising Reputation

After leaving office, Eisenhower had a mediocre reputation with most historians. Some even wondered whether a President who often made garbled public statements really understood most issues or whether staff assistants made the important decisions for this general in the White House. As time passed and more records from the Eisenhower administration became available for research, it became clear that Eisenhower was a strong leader who was very much in charge of his own administration. Historians still point to the limitations in Eisenhower's record in areas such as civil rights, and they debate the long-term consequences of his covert interventions in Third World nations. Yet his ranking is much higher, with many historians concluding that Eisenhower was a "near great" or even "great" President.