[Abridged] Presidential Histories

34.) Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961

September 04, 2023 Kenny Ryan
[Abridged] Presidential Histories
34.) Dwight Eisenhower 1953-1961
Show Notes Transcript

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." - Dwight Eisenhower,  April 16, 1953


Dwight Eisenhower was born to poverty, but rose to be the savior of Europe and preside over the perilous early years of the Cold War. Follow along as Ike punches a ticket to education and upward mobility at West Point, leads the allied armies of Europe to victory during World War II, and faces off with Soviets abroad and racists at home from the White House.

1. Eisenhower in War and Peace – Jean Edward Smith
2. Truman – David McCullough
3. FDR – Jean Edward Smith
4. Richard Nixon: The Life – John Farrell
5. An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy, 1917–1963 – Robert Dallek
6. Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream – Doris Kearns Goodwin

Support the show

Welcome to abridged presidential histories with Kenny Ryan, episode 34, Dwight Eisenhower, the liberator of Europe

You know Dwight Eisenhower. He’s the guy who won World War II. Or so the story goes. Supreme Allied Commander. It doesn’t get much bigger than that.

But did he win the war through a masterly grasp of military strategy and tactics?

Or was it actually a nascent gift for politics that won the war? An ability to influence others to achieve the objectives he was aiming for?

Whatever it was, victory brought Eisenhower fame, and the promise of a career in politics. Both parties wanted him, the Republicans got him, but senate democrats ended up being his most reliable allies.

It’s an interesting life, from humble beginnings. Let’s begin the story about a scrawny kid from Denison Texas who grew up to save Europe, lead the nation, and preside over the Cold War.


David Dwight Eisenhower - that’s right! His name was David - was born on March 31, 1948, in Denison, Texas, to a family experiencing extreme poverty. His father was… difficult to deal with. A bit of a loafer. A black sheep. He abandoned his family and ran to Texas when his wife, Ida, was pregnant to Ike, only for Ida to track him down in the town of Denison and give birth to David Dwight there.

The name of Ike’s father? Also David. Which is why, to avoid confusion, Ida later legally switched the order of her sons’ names from David Dwight to Dwight David - and that’s how Dwight became Dwight.

When it came time for college, Dwight, who also went by Ike, short for Eisenhower, had no money to go, but he did have a friend with a smart idea. The service academies, West Point and Annapolis, didn’t just offer free tuition, they also offered a guaranteed job in the military after you graduated.

That sounded like a damn good deal to poor, young Eisenhower, so he said “sign me up!” contacted his local senator, fibbed about his age to make his application more appealing - he claimed he was 19 when he was actually 20 - and then he beat his competitors in an entrance exam. Just like that, Ike was a West Point cadet, and boy did he pick the perfect time to enroll.

Ike’s class of 1915 would be known as “the class the stars fell on.” Of the 115 grads still on active duty when WWII started, 60 became generals, with Ike the most successful among them. But that doesn’t mean the road from 1915 to World War 2 was an easy one. World war 1 was obviously right around the corner at graduation, already raging in Europe and soon to involve the U.S., but that would be the easy part. Finding success in the diminished peace time army after world war 1, that would be the hard part.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because before we get to world war 1, and the challenging decades that followed it, a fresh-outta-west-point Eisenhower was deployed to San Antonio, Texas, where he was ordered to coach local football teams because the army considered it good PR - and he was pretty good at it, taking a winless team to a 5-1-1 record. But more importantly, San Antonio is where he met his wife, Mamie Doud.

Mamie Doud was the daughter of a wealthy meatpacking family that had been in the Americas since the 17th century. Her father didn’t believe in educating women, so instead of high school, she was sent to finishing school, where she learned to dance, charm and host. Mamie once said “most people are raised to do something. I wasn’t.” The pair married on July 1, 1916, had two children together, and soon realized their marriage was an unhappy one. Divorce would be threatened numerous times, Ike likely cheated on Mamie at least once, and she never was involved in his politics or career. It’s kind of sad.

On April 6, 1917, the US entered World War 1! But entering the war didn’t necessarily mean entering the war. The United States would need nearly a year to draft and train an army before American soldiers could enter the fray. Ike - 3 years out of West Point - was soon asked to form the first training camp for a newfangled weapon called “the tank” on the old Gettysburg battlefield. Before he knew it, he was running a camp of 10,000 soldiers, and all at the age of 27. Wow!

Then, a year later, the moment ike had been waiting for - orders to Europe! Finally! The Glory and action he was hungry for would be his! But, a week before he was scheduled to ship out, the war to end all wars ended. A deflated ike thought he’d missed his chance at a big military career.

Boy was he wrong.

But, like I said, the interwar years were not easy. The Army downsized from 2.4 million to 200,000 men over two years, which meant demotions and a vast loss of opportunity - remember when Ike was running a camp of 10,000 men? Yeah, that was OVER. Instead, ike sought opportunities to serve with and learn from the best minds in the army, which required a series of international deployments that put tremendous strain on Ike and Mamie’s marriage.

But ike, and his marriage, persevered through the peace years to emerge well positioned for fame and glory in world war 2.

The start of Ike’s World War II adventure came on June 24, 1941. Nazi tanks had already defeated Poland and France, Nazi planes were attempting to bomb England out of the war, and 3 million nazi soldiers had just invaded the Soviet Union 2 days earlier when Army chief of staff George Marshal summoned 51-year-old Dwight Eisenhower to Washington D.C.

Marshall was widely regarded as one of the most talented men in the U.S. army, which is why Franklin Roosevelt had jettisoned the old “seniority-based” promotion system to leapfrog Marshall over more senior  men to run the whole damn army the day Germany invaded Poland in 1939.

Now, two years later, Marshall was seeing similar promise in Ike and again seniority was ignored to promote Eisenhower to chief of staff of the third army. From this point forward, Marshall was Ike’s greatest supporter and the man who made his future fame possible.

As chief of staff of the third army, Ike was put in charge of a massive war game known as “the Louisiana maneuvers” that was designed to kick the rust off the army, see what it could do, and identify which officers needed to be promoted and which needed to be let go. Half a million men were deployed as the U.S. second and third armies squared off in mock battles in which an aggressive tank commander named George Patton, a friend of Ike’s, spanked the pants off a more timid adversary. The army learned a lot from the maneuvers and Ike began to earn good press for his management of them. He was promoted to general shortly after.

And then… On Dec 7, 1941, a day that lives in infamy, Pearl Harbor was struck by the empire of Japan.

4 days later, Germany, too, declared war, and Marshall summoned Ike to work directly under him in Washington D.C.

And that’s when ike was presented with an amazing opportunity. Back during world war 1, the Allied powers may have been allies, but they hadn’t exactly worked well together. The British general, a man named John French, hated the French. The French didn’t trust French either. The late-arriving Americans were seen as amateurs. And, most problematically, there was no single point of command. Everyone did what they wanted to do, pursuing their own strategies on their own timetables.

The Axis powers were suffering from the same issue on steroids during World War 2. Germany didn’t tell Italy about its plans to invade Russia, Japan didn’t tell Germany it was about to hit Pearl Harbor, and Italy was constantly starting fights it couldn’t finish, forcing Germany to bail it out in Africa and the Balkans.

As the Americans and Brit’s started collaborating during World War II, they agreed it might go better if each theater had one point of command responsible for keeping the generals in line, managing relations with politicians and the press, and serving as the ultimate arbiter of strategy at the highest level.

And Ike was asked to write the job description.

When ike wrote this JD, everyone expected Marshall to be assigned the job in Europe, but Marshall was still needed to oversee, ya know, the entire war in Washington DC, so Ike was sent to Europe instead. 

You know. As a temp.

But temps don’t usually lead multiple continental invasions.

While Ike was over in Europe, he did a lot more than just hold the bag for Marshall. He oversaw the invasions of Africa, Sicily, and Italy. And the funny thing is, he kind of sucked as a strategist in every theater. Ok, sucked is too harsh. He wasn’t awful. But he wasn’t great. He led from the rear, made mistakes, and wasn’t exactly someone the Germans feared. Roosevelt and Churchill effectively ‘promoted ike upstairs’ by saying he was too important and busy to coordinate the ground war, and putting strategy in the hands of other generals instead. 

But Ike was good at making sure his multinational forces got along. And he was great at spinning setbacks and defeats with the press. When a German counterattack in Africa threw the Americans back 50 miles, Ike reported it had been a great learning opportunity and “The sands were running out” for the Germans.

Which is actually exactly the kind of reporting Roosevelt and Churchill wanted from their supreme commander when their chief priority was maintaining support for the war at home.

And so, when it came time to name a commander for the main event - the cross-channel invasion of Nazi-Occupied France, D-day, the job George Marshall was destined for - Franklin Roosevelt started to think maybe destiny was shining on another man.

The thing is, ike had now led three successful invasions, and Marshall had led none. And Marshall now had ample Washington experience, while ike had none. Sure, the three invasions ike commanded hadn’t been flawless, but “perfect” isn’t really something you expect in war. They had been victories, and that’s what counts.

An aging General Pershing, the American commander from world war 1, told FDR not to mix up a winning hand. Marshall, who badly wanted to command the invasion of France, put duty over ambition and told Franklin Roosevelt that he could assign whoever he liked to take that command.

And Frank liked Ike.

When Ike arrived in England, most of the prep had already been completed. The armies would be led by generals closer to the ground. Ike would run interference with press and politicians. But there was one big decision placed on Ike’s desk: Final word on when to invade France.

And it proved to be a hell of a decision. 

Because, just before the invasion was scheduled to begin, the weather turned south.

Way south.

The plan had been to attack the night of June 5, when a full moon would make coordinating the massive air and sea armadas possible. But thick clouds, whipping wind and torrential rain turned visibility to zero. Ike couldn’t launch the attack. Without the light of the moon, his planes and boats would collide. Paratroopers would be lost. Landing sites could be quagmires - it would have been a disaster

So Ike postponed for 24 hours.

And then he was presented with a forecast and a choice.

The supreme allied weatherman, let’s call him, predicted a temporary gap in the weather the night of June 6. But weather forecasting in 1944 wasn’t exactly an exact science. The guy could be wrong. The Americans didn’t know it, but the Germans predicted the storms to hold. And the thing is, a 160,000-man invasion isn’t exactly something that can turn on a dime. It takes hours for troops to load up and take to the sky and sea. The order to invade would have to be given before the skies cleared, and shoot, how often is the weather forecast accurate today?

The pressure on Ike must have been immense. If the attack didn’t go forward on June 6, it would be two weeks before the tides would be right to try again - two weeks for the germans to find out where the attack was coming and prepare to defend it.

But if the attack went forward and the weather didn’t improve, it could fail. It had taken two years to prepare for this invasion. How many more would it take to try another?

Surrounded by his generals in a war council, Ike thought on it for a moment, go, or no-go, then said, “OK, we’ll go.”

The invasion would commence that night.

To the soldiers of the invasion, Eisenhower wrote the following letter - a letter that every man received a copy of:

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force!

You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you. The hope and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you. In company with our brave Allies and brothers-in-arms on other Fronts, you will bring about the destruction of the German war machine, the elimination of Nazi tyranny over the oppressed peoples of Europe, and security for ourselves in a free world.

Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle-hardened. He will fight savagely.

But this is the year 1944! Much has happened since the Nazi triumphs of 1940-41. The United Nations have inflicted upon the Germans great defeats, in open battle, man-to-man. Our air offensive has seriously reduced their strength in the air and their capacity to wage war on the ground. Our Home Fronts have given us an overwhelming superiority in weapons and munitions of war, and placed at our disposal great reserves of trained fighting men. The tide has turned! The free men of the world are marching together to Victory!

I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full Victory!

Good luck! And let us beseech the blessing of Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”

Ike also wrote a separate letter. One that was signed and placed in an envelope after the invasion was ordered, but before he knew the outcome. Written during those terrible hours when he waited in a storm and prayed it would lift so the invasion could succeed.

“My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone”

That is leadership.

Fortunately for Ike, the soldiers, and the western world, the storm lifted. The Nazi’s had expected the attack somewhere else and were caught flat-footed. Their only commander with authority to issue orders had gone home to Germany, confident the storm would prevent any allied attack, and so german troops were delayed in attempting any counter punches. By the time they tried, it was too late.

The invasion had been a success.

Europe would be free.

The invasion of Normandy didn’t end world war II, but once the Allies had their foothold in France, they would not be dislodged. Eisenhower would hold onto his role as supreme allied commander in Europe to the end of the war.

There is one more incident I want to mention from World War II, though. 

On April 4, 1945, Eisenhower was told the army had found… something… outside the town of Gotha in Central Germany, and he had to come see what it was. 

As Ike approached, he saw what appeared to be a prison camp of some sorts. There were guard towers, barracks, barbed wire fences. But something was wrong. There were … too many dead bodies. Piles of them. Some covered in lime, others stacked in pyres. The lingering survivors were emaciated and told stories of horror. 

Eisenhower and the U.S. army had just found their first nazi concentration camp, a factory of death where the Holocaust was carried out against Jews and other undesirables.

One of Ike’s first thoughts was, nobody is going to believe humans were capable of doing this to other humans, so he set about documenting the camps through photographs and video recordings. He made all the Germans from surrounding villages walk through the camp to see what had happened so they’d never be able to deny it. And he sent reports back to Washington describing what he saw.

Responses like Ike’s are how we know the Holocaust happened, and how we know to be wary of it ever happening again.

One month later, Hitler shot himself and Germany surrendered. Ike’s war in Europe was over.

And he entered the next phase of his life one of the most famous and popular people in the world.

Expectations of a political future for “the liberator of Europe” began immediately. Harry Truman, who had unexpectedly inherited the presidency in the final months of the war, twice told Eisenhower that Ike could have the presidency with Truman’s support if he’d run as a democrat in 1948, but Eisenhower declined. Nobody knew it yet, but he wasn’t a Democrat.

Plus Ike had something else he wanted to do first - stand up NATO.

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is an international alliance of the United States, Canada, and Western Europe that was established in 1951 to provide joint security for Western Europe against soviet aggression. As the former supreme allied commander, Eisenhower was a natural pick to pull it all together.

But then…  ike ran into resistance at home. 

Conservative GOP senator and presidential hopeful Robert Taft, the son of former president and former supreme court chief Justice William Howard Taft, opposed American involvement in NATO. In a callback to prewar American sentiment, Taft and other conservatives didn’t want the United States signing treaties that committed it to the defense of anyone - these men were isolationists. Ike met with Taft and urged him to drop his opposition to NATO - he even promised not to run for president in 1952 if Taft would just support NATO, but Taft refused, and the rivalry was officially on.

Even as Ike focused on NATO in Europe, he allowed his friends back home to organize a shadow campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, and it wasn’t hard! Ike was so popular that people were voting for him in primaries before he’d even declared an official interest in the presidency! Then, less than a week before the GOP convention, he resigned from NATO to make his presidential bid official. It would take a fight at the Republican convention to win the nomination, but it was a fight Ike was ready to make.

604 was the magic number of delegates needed to win the nomination. Taft and Eisenhower each came into the convention with roughly 500 securely in the bag, won either through primaries or the machinations of state-level conventions - but each candidate claimed to enter the convention with more, as a big fight was brewing over the fates of 70 contested delegates from the south.

The thing is, the south was still mostly yellow dog democrats - folks whose daddy’s and granddaddy’s had voted Democrat ever since the civil war and they’d be damned if they were going to vote for the party of Lincoln. So the Republican party in those states was quite small - until Eisenhower joined. Ike was so incredibly popular that large numbers of democrats showed up to that year’s republican primaries to throw in their lot behind Eisenhower. The small, old party machines balked at these Johnny come latelies - were southern republicans really going to let non-republicans decide their nominee? Shoot, Eisenhower wouldn’t even say he WAS a Republican until after the primaries were over and just before the convention started - how can a party nominate a guy who won’t say he’s a member of that party? - so they tried to ignore the primary results and declare their state’s delegates for Taft instead.

And so the question was put before the convention, would the Republican national convention seat the long-time republicans who supported Taft, or the Johnny-come-latelies who supported Ike?

That’s when a young California Senator named Richard Nixon got involved. California’s Republican governor, Earl Warren, hoped the convention would turn to him as a compromise candidate if taft and ike deadlocked in a tie. Nixon convinced Warren that the best chance of making that happen was to have his California delegation support seating Ike’s southern delegates over Taft’s. What Warren didn’t know was that Nixon was secretly working for the Ike campaign, and those delegates wouldn’t give Ike a tie, they’d give him a win.

With California’s help, ike got the 70 southern delegates. The first ballot showed he was within a whisper of the nomination, and then enough delegates switched their votes to make it official.

Dwight Eisenhower would be the 1952 GOP presidential nominee.

After winning the nomination, Ike’s advisors asked him who he wanted as VP. Ike was surprised, he thought the convention chose. They said well, if you make a recommendation the convention will follow. He suggested a number of business men renowned for their executive capabilities. His advisors said well, what you really want is an established Republican politician the convention will recognize, preferably someone young and from the west to balance the ticket. Then they recommended 40-year-old California Senator Richard Nixon. Ike said sure, and the convention acceded to his wishes.

We’ll hear a lot more about this Nixon fella down the road.

As ike pivoted to the general election, he felt pretty confident that moderates would cast their lot with him, just as they had in the primaries, but he was nervous that disappointed conservatives might stay home on Election Day. So, to shore up their support, he jumped in bed with them. Ike did this by picking fights with Truman, who ike had actually always gotten along with, and by staying quiet when GOP Senator Joseph McCarthy accused Ike’s long-time mentor and patron George Marshall of being a communist stooge. This was bullcrap, and Ike knew it, but he was too afraid of offending the political right to speak up during the election. So, instead of saying anything, he appeared on stage with McCarthy during the campaign. He didn’t say anything for or against McCarthy that day, but the picture of Ike standing at McCarthy’s side painted a picture of endorsement - an endorsement that soon proved embarrassing when it was reported that Ike had prepared remarks including praise for Marshall that day, only to cut it out to avoid provoking McCarthy. That earned ike some ridicule.

There was also a big scandal around Ike’s vice presidential pick, Richard Nixon, but I’ll save that for Tricky Dick’s episode. 

Ike’s general strategy of appealing to conservatives did work. After 20 years of Democratic rule, the Republican Party finally broke through and recaptured the White House in 1952, defeating the intellectual Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson 442-89 in the electoral college and 34 million to 27 million in the popular vote. If there was one pivotal moment of the campaign, it came right near the end, when Ike was asked what he’d do to resolve the deeply unpopular and deadlocked War in Korea. “I will go to Korea” he said. He didn’t offer a plan. He just said he’d go, and the people ate it up. But even if he hadn’t said that, the bipartisan appeal of the liberator of Europe meant victory was never really in doubt. We still all remember the slogan, “I like ike”


And so, on January 20, 1953, 62-year old Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander who had risen from a childhood of poverty to be the savior of western Europe, was elected the 34th president of the United States of America - the first Republican president in 20 years. But what did the world, and the country, look like when eisenhower became president? Let’s look around.

Internationally, the Cold War war was setting in. An iron curtain had fallen across Europe as soviet troops refused to yield the land they’d taken from the Nazi’s, and soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was putting the pieces in place for war with the west. Russian agents had stolen the secret of the atomic bomb and were pushing communism across the world - China had fallen, proxy wars between the east and west were being waged in Korea, Malaysia, Kenya, and French Vietnam. The west was meeting these Soviet maneuvers with plays of their own - the Marshall plan was pumping money into the rebuilding of Western Europe, and a new American spy agency - the CIA - was showing it, too, could influence international affairs.

And on the homefront, Senator McCarthy, who Ike had failed to stand up to during his campaign, was accusing everyone who looked at him sideways of being a communist.

The world seemed in crisis.

Now, I’m going to get to Senator Joseph McCarthy in my next episode, an interview with historian Larry Tye on McCarthyism and Eisenhower, so hang tight for that. But the spark notes version is Ike did eventually stand up to McCarthy, and McCarthy did eventually self-destruct.

But what about the other challenges that faced Eisenhower? The spread of communism? The economy? And racial justice at home?

Well. This is kinda funny, but Ike mostly followed the Truman playbook.

He supported Nato - of course he did - but he also backed the Marshall plan, most of the New Deal, and he refused to cut taxes until after the budget had been balanced. He also followed Truman’s same approach to ending the Korean War. yeah, remember that “I will go to Korea” bit? Ike went. Said, “well, this is horrible,” and then told the state department to keep doing what they’d been doing and seek a peaceful end to the war.

The only difference on korea is that Ike got lucky because Stalin died.

That’s right! Joseph Stalin, the other asshole joseph in this episode, and the murderous dictator of Russia for the past 30-odd years, finally bit the bullet on March 5, 1953, just months after Ike’s inauguration. Leadership transitions are always perilous matters, especially in dictatorships - if you haven’t seen the semi-fictional movie “Death of Stalin,” I highly recommend you check it out - and the men struggling for control of Russia quickly concluded the Korean war was 1-too many things to have in the air.

Ike exploited this opportune moment by approaching the Russians with a carrot and a stick. The carrot was a speech that signaled his desire for peace, saying, quote “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

That was the carrot. The stick was when Ike had an Indian diplomat relay a threat to Moscow and Beijing that the United States would attack China with “no limit on weapons” if the shooting didn’t stop on the Korean peninsula - yeah, he’s telling the commies they can have peace or nuclear winter, their choice, and they chose peace.

According to Ike’s VP Richard Nixon, Ike later told Nixon that the nukes had been a bluff. If it was, hot damn, the bluff worked, and Nixon took note.

The final sticking point on peace ended up being the South Koreans, who wanted to keep fighting. ike basically told them “good luck fighting when we stop providing you ammunition.” And they came around pretty quickly after that

So the two Koreas, at the insistence of Russia and the United States, agreed to an armistice that ended the fighting, but not technically the war. The United States is still technically at war with North Korea. Why not.

But this experience got ike thinking. The president didn’t want the soviets to be inspired by Korea to start little brushfire wars with the Americans all over the world. Ike also feared that small wars could quickly spiral into nuclear ones if calmer heads didn’t prevail. So he basically came up with an entirely new form of foreign policy - he would drastically cut funding for the army and navy… and put all that money into the Air Force and nuclear weapons instead. The message would be clear - if you mess with us, you’ll get the bomb. So do. Not. Mess.

But throwing out all your tools except the cudgel is, of course, insane. You know what they say, if all you have is a hammer, everything starts looking like nails. So ike secretly kept one other tool. A scalpel. The CIA.

The CIA had been founded by Harry Truman just a few years earlier to serve as the country’s international espionage service. Truman had even handed out black cloaks and wooden daggers at the secret ceremony establishing the agency - funny sense of humor, that guy.

And the CIA had quickly proven its effectiveness. In 1948, the whole world expected Italy to elect a pro-soviet government that would align Italy with the communists. But then the CIA started funneling significant sums of money to pro-western italian politicians. That money breathed new life into their campaigns, and they scored shocking victories. It was the first CIA op, and it swung Italy from likely soviet satellite to member of the western alliance.

When Ike got into office, he looked at those results and said, let’s see what else you can do.

And his first target was Iran.

A bit of background - Iran, and especially Iran’s oil supply, had been dominated by the British empire for decades. The brits had come in and developed the oil wells, and then pocketed 84% of the profits. The Iranians came to resent this, and in 1951 they elected a prime minister who nationalized the oil industry - as in, the state of iran seized the oil assets. All that oil money stopped going to British bank accounts and started benefitting the people of Iran, instead.

At first, Britain was cool with this. But then an election occurred and our old friend Winston Churchill was reelected, and Churchill was not a guy to tolerate a decline of British power anywhere. 

So Churchill’s government began lobbying the Americans to support a coup in Iran with the goal of putting an autocratic shah - basically a king - in control. The Shah would have free reign to do whatever he liked, so long as England got its hands on that oil again.

Ike was initially dubious, but then the CIA - acting without Eisenhower’s permission or awareness - started paying iranians to foment street protests. When ike saw the violence in the streets, and when the Brit’s said ‘did you know, ol boy, that there exists a communist party in Iran, and that Iran has a long border with the soviet union, and that it would suck mightily if all that oil fell into Russia’s hands?” Ike listened to them and said, sure, let’s do a coup.

And the CIA got to work.

From august 14-19, 1953, the CIA’s Iran team, which was led by Theodore Roosevelt’s son Kermit, put the right money in the right pockets to trigger riots that swept Mossadegh from power.

The shah was installed. The nationalized oil company was put back under British control - Iranians couldn’t even examine its books or serve on its board. And ike started thinking, hey, this is pretty great. You used to have to wage wars to install puppet governments. Now you can do it with just a few well placed dollars.

And he started looking for other opportunities to put this new agency to work.

I’ll mention one more.

In 1954, American business leaders started getting annoyed that Guatemala’s politicians weren’t playing ball the way they used to. So, it was time to do a coup again.

The Guatemala plan was all kinds of crazy and I can’t believe it worked. The CIA got its hands on a few planes, made sure they didn’t look American, and began flying a few bombing missions over Guatemala’s capital. As the planes were taking off, a CIA radio station jammed all local transmissions and played false reports of a massive uprising advancing on the capital. The thing is, there was no massive uprising advancing on the capital. In truth, there were just 150 mercenaries at a church in the boonies. But these radio transmissions, combined with the sight of planes flying overhead panicked Guatemala’s president into resigning and the coup succeeded. It was basically as if that famous war of the worlds radio broadcast - you know the one, where some listeners actually thought aliens were invading - had resulted in the overthrow of a democratically elected government.


So the American government now had two tools in its international tool belt. Nuclear war, and the CIA.

Ike did realize though that, if the only option for war was a nuclear one, there was a risk that if either country thought the other was about to attack, they might launch an all-out nuclear assault first to try to catch the other guy while his planes were still on the ground. To mitigate this risk, Ike had a proposal - the open skies initiative. The idea was, the Soviets and the Americans would allow each other’s surveillance planes to fly over their military bases. This way, each country could rest assured knowing the other country’s military wasn’t mobilizing to strike, and the risk of a surprise nuclear war would be zero.

The Soviets thought this was a terrible idea. American planes over Soviet bases? Hell no. They wouldn’t do it.

So the Americans launched their planes anyway.

The thing is, the American aerospace industry had been developing a new type of spy plane for years, and in 1955, it was ready. Capable of flying at 70,000-feet, the U2 spy plane operated at a height that Soviet rockets and airplanes could not reach. Remember the scene in Ironman 1 when the suit froze and stalled out in the upper atmosphere? the U2 would get pictures of that happening to Russian rockets and MIGs that tried to intercept it - they’d stall out and fall back to earth. 

This was all very embarrassing for the Russians, who couldn’t protest the illegal incursions of their air space on the world stage because that would require admitting that they didn’t have the tech to shoot the planes down!

Until… until the day they did shoot one down.

On May 1, 1960 - the final year of Ike’s presidency - CIA operative Francis Gary Powers - that’s right, the CIA flew these planes to preserve plausible deniability for the US military - took off in his U2 from Pakistan for a flight over some military installations in southern russia, and he got shot down.

When ike heard the news, he was disappointed, but he’d known the risk. Plus, he’d been assured by the CIA that if one of these spy planes ever was shot down, nothing onboard, and certainly not the pilot, would survive.

Boy was the CIA wrong on that one.

When the Soviets first announced they’d shot down a U.S. spy plane, ike went to a prepared cover story - that wasn’t a spy plane, that was a weather plane! It had drifted off course due to a malfunction and those mean ol Russians had shot it down, shame on them.

But then the Russians revealed the spy photos they’d recovered from the wreckage.

And then they revealed the pilot was alive, and the soviets had him

Ike and the United States had been caught in a lie on the world stage, violating international law by overflying Russia and attempting to deny it. When Russian premier Nikita Krushchev tried to make hay of it at an international conference, French President Charles DuGalle rose to Ike’s defense, saying, “I, too, have been overflown.”

“By your american allies?” asked Krushchev.

“No, by you. That satellite you launched just before you left Moscow to impress us overflew the sky of france 18 times without my permission. How do i know you do not have cameras aboard which are taking pictures of my country?”

“You don’t think I would do a thing like that?”

“Well, how did you take those pictures of the far side of the moon?”

“That one had cameras.”

“Ah. That one had cameras. Pray continue.”

The age of the satellite had arrived.

The cia pilot would eventually be returned in a spy exchange during the Kennedy administration - basically a peace offering from Krushchev to the new president. For ike, it was embarrassing, but the intelligence gathered by 4-years of U2 flights had been well worth it.

So that’s a lot of international affairs. Let’s hit two domestic accomplishments and then wrap up this bad boy.


In 1954, the American economy started to turn south as the Korean War wound down - how many times have we said it’s hard to demobilize without taking an economic hit?

So ike wanted a public works program, but public works programs were kind of the Democrats’ thing… republicans were supposed to be about small government, and GOP congressmen weren’t about to let ike go on a spending spree to create jobs.

So Ike had to get original.

Ike thought back to an adventure from his interwar years. Back in 1919, he’d been tasked to join a military convoy attempting to travel from Washington DC to San Francisco by road. The United States had been crisscrossed by train tracks since the 19th century, but an interstate road system was … a bit more theoretical, and the army wasn’t sure the road trip could be done. A convoy equipped with road and bridge building equipment and a mobile repair shop crawled across the nation, reportedly having to stop every 15 miles to repair tires destroyed by the bad roads. They did eventually make it to San Francisco… 62 days after leaving WAshington D.C., and ike was left thinking, gosh, the United States sure could use a better road network than that.

But what could something different look like?

Ike found the answer in Germany during the closing months of world war 2 when the allied armies crossed into Germany proper and discovered miles and miles of German Audubon - government constructed highway. The Nazi government had built the highway system as a military measure before the war - better roads made it easier to deploy men and resources more quickly.

Aha! Ike thought. What if my public works program… is an interstate highway system… positioned as a military necessity?

And that’s the pitch he went with.

Ike called for $101 billion dollars over 10 years to build 41,000 miles of super highway linking all US cities with a population of more than 50,000. It was the largest single public works program ever proposed.

And the initial bill… died in Congress over a dispute about how to fund the construction, but Ike didn’t stop trying. A compromise was reached when a 4-cent gasoline tax was proposed to fund construction, effectively passing the cost of building and maintaining the highway onto the people using them. The interstate highway bill succeeded in bolstering the economy through government spending and gave the united states an invaluable transit network that we still rely on today.

But that wasn’t the only time Ike borrowed from the Democratic playbook. He also raised minimum wage from 75 cents to a dollar an hour and expanded social security eligibility and increased its payout in 1954. If you adjust for inflation, that’s more than that national minimum wage today.

There was one other major domestic episode that occurred on Eisenhower’s watch - the Little Rock nine.

This is a story that blows my mind.

It starts with the Supreme Court.

Remember Earl Warren? The Republican governor of California who played a key role in the GOP convention that nominated Eisenhower? Well, in 1953, ike returned the favor by nominating Warren Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. And Warren’s confirmation kicked off the most progressive era in Supreme Court history. The Warren court is where we got decisions defending interracial marriage, free speech, and the right to purchase contraceptives. But the biggest ruling of all came in 1954 when the court heard a case on school segregation where NAACP chief council Thurgood Marshall argued that the old doctrine of “separate but equal,” which the court had first enshrined in Plessy vs Ferguson 60 years earlier, was unconstitutional and should no longer stand.

And the Warren court agreed with him. Unanimously.

But just because the court declared something unconstitutional didn’t mean everyone jumped straight away to complying. All across the south, communities had the same response to the Brown v Board of Education that ol’ Andrew Jackson had when the court ruled against one of his positions in 1832 - which was, nice ruling you got there, good luck enforcing it.

Schools had been ordered to desegregate, but they were slowwwww doing it.

And one of the first schools to try it became a national flashpoint: Little Rock high in Little Rock, Arkansas. 

The black and white communities of Little Rock had gotten along pretty well by southern standards, so the white school board said, how about we let 9 high-performing students from the African American school enroll at the segregated white school in 1957? That will show everyone it’s not so bad and we can fully integrate in the years that follow.

Well, it seems some white families disagreed with the school board, because a group of white students brought a lawsuit against the school that caught the attention of the state’s governor, Orval Faubus, who saw this as a chance to score some political points.

Claiming that gun sales in Little Rock had skyrocketed and he feared violence if the blacks were allowed on campus, Faubus deployed 250 Arkansas national guardsmen to block the African American students from going to school. When the black students attempted to show up, an angry crowd of 500 white racists met them with obscenities and threats of violence that drove them away.

And that’s when ike got involved.

Ike first tried to convince governor Faubus to change the guardsmen’s orders from blocking the students’ entry to preventing violence, but Faubus refused to go along. When a court compelled him to, he ordered the national guard to go home instead. The following Monday, when the 9 African American students showed up at the school, 1,000 angry white protestors, many from out of town, were there to meet them. Local police escorted the 9 students into the school through a side door, but then the protestors forced their way into the school and the students had to be rushed out!

The local mayor cabled Ike for federal support, saying the mob had been organized by allies of Faubus, and Ike leapt to action. He issued a proclamation commanding “all persons engaged in such obstruction of Justice to cease and desist therefrom and to disperse forthwith,” but the white mob refused. White protestors rioted on main street that evening, attacking any blacks they found, throwing bricks through the windows of black-owned business, and cruising black neighborhoods in heavily armed cars to intimidate the black residents.

Because Ike’s orders to disperse had been violated, he was legally in the clear to escalate. The following day, Ike dispatched the 101st airborne division - the guys from Band of Brothers - to Little Rock high school. Ike also federalized the Arkansas national guard, which meant they would follow his orders, not Faubus’s, and ordered them to stay away; by midday Tuesday, massive cargo planes carrying hundreds of paratroopers were landing in Little Rock.

When the racist mob tried to block the 9 African American students from entering school for a third day, they found the 101st waiting for them, deployed with fixed bayonets and maintaining positions around the school. When white protesters approached the paratroopers, the soldiers advanced on them, elbow to elbow. By 9 am, the area had been cleared.

Meanwhile, the nine black children gathered at a nearby home, as they always did, and waited to hear what they should do. An army officer appeared at the door, “We’re ready for the children. We will return them to your home at 3:30.” Finally, the students were going to school.

Most of the country supported Ike’s handling of the situation, but the south opposed it. One southern senator even compared Ike’s troops to hitler’s stormtroopers, which really sent ike through the roof. 

Elements of the 101st stayed in Little Rock through thanksgiving to make sure the protestors didn’t return. 8 of the original 9 students graduated from little rock high school. One went on to serve as assistant secretary of labor under Jimmy Carter. Another said of the experience, “for the first time in my life, I felt like an American citizen.”

Governor Faubus was re-elected several more times and served a record 12 years as governor of the razorback state. The struggle for African American equality was not over yet.

On Jan 21, 1961, ike stepped down from the presidency. A constitutional amendment had made it illegal to run for a third term in 1947, but Ike was probably ready for retirement anyway. On his way out the door, he issued his famous warning to “beware the military industrial complex.” The military would always ask for more money, he knew. And while his military experience gave him the wisdom and confidence to say “no,” he feared the men who followed him wouldn’t be so resilient. As he’d said several years before, “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

So how had the United States and the world changed during the 8 years of the Eisenhower administration? Let’s look around.

The most momentous international story from Ike’s years was the end of european imperialism with the Suez Crisis of 1956. I’m going to try to find a historian to dive deeper into this crisis with, but basically, Egypt seized the Suez Canal from England, and England didn’t like that, so it convinced France and Israel to team up with it for an invasion of Egypt. The shocking twist came when both the united states and the soviet union said, ‘hey, you get outta there or else,’ and all sides were forced to pull back. This humiliation, the united states forcing europe to abandon an imperial adventure in its own backyard, made it clear to all that the times they were a changing.

There had also been communist gains in vietnam, where a north vietnamese victory over french occupiers had resulted in the country being divided in two - a communist north and a french-occupied south. Promises were made about holding a vote on reunification later, but those promises were quietly abandoned when it became clear that reunification under a communist banner would have been the likely outcome; There had also been a revolution in Cuba, where a young Fidel Castro had seized power. It’s not for nothing that Ike started talking about Domino theory in 1953.

Over in Asia, the first recorded summiting of Mount Everest was accomplished in 1953 by a team of multinational climbers from across the british commonwealth.

And the world was introduced to agent 007 when a former world war 2 intelligence officer named Ian Fleming published his first spy thriller about James Bond in 1953. Its title? Casino Royale.

In Liverpool, three boys named John, Paul, and George formed a musical group called the Quarryman in 1958. Before Ike was out of office, they’d add a drummer named Ringo and change their name to “The Beatles.” The British Invasion is around the corner.

Stateside, IBM introduced the first personal computer controlled by a keyboard in 1957; Alaska and Hawaii became the 49th and 50th states in 1959; and Alfred Hitchcock released PSYCHO and Harper Lee Published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1960.

Congress also added the words “Under god” to the pledge of allegiance in 1954, and began printing “in god we trust” on American dollars in 1955. These were both plays to differentiate ourselves from the commies, but it could be interpreted as an erosion of the separation of church and state. I’ll let you decide how you feel about it.

Ike also suffered a heart attack in 1955 that briefly put vice president Richard Nixon and the cabinet in charge of the country. But don’t worry. He got better. 

But, that was all in the rearview mirror for Ike as he retired to his farm at Gettysburg - the same place he’d gotten his first break in the army all those years earlier. He also had a property in california and a house on Augusta national golf course. And no, you can’t afford these things on a president and general’s salaries, but ike had written a stellar biography about the liberation of Europe and, when you’re president, you can make a lot of rich friends who buy you nice things.

Ike spent his final years golfing, playing bridge, painting, and spending time with his grandchildren. On April 20, 1968, he felt a severe pain in his chest during a round of golf. It was a heart attack. He was taken to a nearby Air Force base, then Walter reed, but he didn’t respond to treatment. A series of heart attacks continued and, on March 27, ike told his son John to remove him from life support. “I’ve had enough, John. Tell them to let me go.” He died at 12:35 pm the following day, surrounded by family and doctors. 

Several years later, a grandson asked mamie if she felt she had really known Dwight Eisenhower. Her reply, “I’m not sure anyone did.”

What a life. 

So, if you’re going to remember three things about Eisenhower, I’d recommend:

  • FIRST: The supreme commander in europe succeeded not because he was a military genius, but because he was great at getting people with strong opinions to work along.
  • SECOND: For better or worse, Ike embraced a new way of enacting foreign policy upon the world. Ike didn’t want big armies, so he focused on a nuclear deterrent to prevent future attack and he honed the new Central Intelligence agency into a tool that could achieve hostile international aims without international war.
  • AND THIRD: Ike’s support for the little rock 9 was critical for advancing the cause of desegregation. If he hadn’t deployed the 101st airborne to escort those children into school, there’s a chance Brown v Board of Education never would have been carried out.

What can we learn from Dwight Eisenhower? I think the answer is, don’t let idealogy get in the way of progress. Ike is possibly the most moderate president we’ve ever had. He wasn’t afraid of borrowing from the Democratic playbook when needed, like the highway program or raising the minimum wage. The result was a presidency that was successful, and a legacy that’s enduringly popular. 

Thank you for listening to today’s episode of Abridged Presidential Histories.

If you enjoyed it, please subscribe, tell your friends and family about the show, and leave a 5-star review on apple podcasts.

You can also follow the show on Twitter, at APHpodcast, or you can find me on threads, kenny.ryan27. 

If you’d like to support the show, you can look it up on Patreon, or go directly to www.patreon.com/abridgedpresidentialhistories. It helps me buy books and pay to host the show.

The music in today’s podcast is a public domain recording of the United States Army Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps. The intro music was a recording of Oscar Brands from Smithsonian Folkway Records.

In our next episode, I’ll interview journalist and author Larry Tye on the era of McCarthyism, the 5 sitting or future presidents who participated in the drama, and how it all came crashing to an end on Eisenhower’s watch. That’s next time, on Abridged Presidential Histories.