June 6 marks the 59th anniversary of the D-Day invasion, a turning point in World War II. On that day in 1944, Allied troops converged on the Normandy coast to liberate France from Nazi occupation. Those troops were led by Allied Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower, who went on to become a two term U.S. President. Dwight Eisenhower's wartime years are the subject of a new memoir by his son, John S.D. Eisenhower, himself a retired brigadier general and former ambassador.
John Eisenhower came of age with a rare window on history. Family friends included famous generals like George S. Patton, while family stories involved meetings with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and other world leaders. And as John Eisenhower prepared for his own military career, the young West Point graduate got first hand lessons in leadership from his father's example.
"The one thing that struck me was his ability to keep his sanity under conditions that would drive somebody else up the wall," he said. "He would take me on these visits where I'd meet all the great men. They seemed to be rather casual meetings. They're making mighty important decisions, but he never let it rattle him. Later on at the White House I worked under him very closely, and then I helped him with his Presidential memoirs. He was very good to work for. He would listen and then he would accept 90 percent of your recommendations."
In his new memoir, General Ike, John Eisenhower reveals his father's personality by describing how he related to a range of celebrated statesmen and military colleagues. He believes one of his father's most successful relationships was with George Marshall, his commanding officer. Marshall served as U.S. Army Chief of Staff during World War II and later helped launch the Marshall Plan to rebuild post-war Europe. The author describes the two men as a winning combination.
"My dad was called to Washington a week after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941," he explained. "He didn't know Marshall, except for a couple of incidents earlier. He was called because he had served in the Philippines with General [Douglas] MacArthur and was supposed to be an expert on the Philippine defense plans. But something in the chemistry, they hit it off right away, and Marshall did a very courageous thing. He took a young officer, I say young, he was 51 years old who had been a lieutenant colonel about 9 months earlier, made him into a major general, and 15 months after my dad had been a lieutenant colonel, he was heading a whole theater of war. Marshall knew, I think, that he had a loyal guy who would carry out his policies. Dad on the other hand, had the most extravagant admiration for General Marshall and was always loyal to him."
John Eisenhower also shows his father to have been especially skilled at weighing opposing opinions and resolving behind-the-scenes conflicts, right up to the D-Day invasion. He recounts a last minute misunderstanding with French resistance leader Charles De Gaulle.
John Eisenhower : "By this time they had developed quite a mutual admiration society. So he had De Gaulle come to his headquarters where he made the order to attack. But De Gaulle got miffed when he saw the proclamation that Dad was going to issue. The proclamation sort of gave orders to the French [which was] probably a mistake. It did not mention De Gaulle, and De Gaulle did not like that at all. And besides that he was supposed to be issuing his proclamation just after my dad's. So De Gaulle said he wouldn't do it. He waited a while so he could make an independent proclamation, very cleverly implying that he had sort of appointed Dad, with these vast armies, to come in and liberate France. It passed off and their mutual respect continued in other very serious controversies. But De Gaulle was not only one of my Dad's greatest supporters later on, but I think really in some ways he is the most interesting and effective man in this book."
Nancy Beardsley : You also write about how your father clashed with Winston Churchill over what he saw as the Prime Minister's dangerous intention to watch the D-Day invasion from the bridge of a British warship.
John Eisenhower : "That was a great story, because you've got a head of government, and you've got a general. The one was supposedly much higher ranking than the other, but they dealt on equal terms. And Churchill just absolutely had to go watch this invasion. Dad said, 'You are too valuable to do that. I don't want you to go and risk yourself.' And Churchill said, 'Well, you can't organize a British ship. If I sign up as a seaman you can't stop me.' The way Dad solved it was he went to the King [of England] and said, 'Your Majesty, could you do something with your Prime Minister?' And even then King George VI had to plead with Churchill. He threatened to go watch the landings himself, and finally, pleading as a personal friend, he got Churchill to shelve his plan."
Nancy Beardsley: To what extent did you see your father change over the course of World War II?
John Eisenhower : "He started out when he first went overseas in June of 1942 confident, but he still had not adjusted to the magnitude of his stature. He had to build on that. He developed an authority and self-assuredness. And that was quite noticeable."
Dwight Eisenhower went on to serve as president of Columbia University, and then as President of the United States. But John Eisenhower believes it was his father's military career that always mattered most to him. He says when Dwight Eisenhower later talked about great men he'd known and worked with, they came from his wartime years, not his time in politics. And John Eisenhower believes his father's own place in history hinges most of all on his conduct during World War II.