Historian Stephen E. Ambrose, in his element among scholars assembled for a conference on Dwight D. Eisenhower at Kansas University, told personal and poignant stories of Eisenhower's life to define the former president as both a good and a great man.
"It must have been a great thing to have been Dwight Eisenhower," Ambrose, Rose Morgan visiting history professor at KU, said in his keynote address Thursday at a conference on "Ike's America," part of the Eisenhower centennial.
Ambrose, recognized for his research on the military and the presidency, is author of a two-volume Eisenhower biography. He is writing the third volume of a biography of Richard Nixon and has written documentaries on World War II and the Cold War.
People remember Eisenhower the military hero and president of the United States for his vitality, lopsided grin, gutsy laugh, intelligence, self-confidence, intense curiosity and the pleasure he took in living, Ambrose said.
However, Ambrose said Ike achieved greatness because he took on positions of tremendous responsibility and left a favorable imprint. His qualities of goodness came from a sense of responsibility toward others, a genuine modesty and a love of living.
FROM A humble beginning in Abilene, Eisenhower launched a military career that made him a five-star general and legendary World War II leader. His accomplishments as this country's 34th president were impressive as well, Ambrose said.
"As a president, he was a great success, giving us eight years of peace and prosperity," Ambrose told an audience of 200 in the Kansas Union. "His critics charge that he was indecisive. What they meant was that they didn't like his decisions."
Ambrose said Eisenhower had a terrible temper. At 10 years of age, his parents forbid him from going out with his brothers on Halloween. In a rage, he pounded an apple tree until his fists were raw and bleeding, he said.
"I wish that I could report to you that he conquered his temper," Ambrose said. "Actually, he never did. It was remarkable . . . to see how when you said something to him that got him mad, the blood would just rush to his face."
EISENHOWER didn't go to West Point to become a soldier. He went there for a free education and to play football, Ambrose said. In his junior year, Ike learned a lesson he didn't forget. During a hazing incident, he criticized a plebe for having been a barber.
"He told his roommate that night, `I'm never going to haze again. I've managed to make a man ashamed of the work he did to earn a living.' Never again in his life did he purposely humiliate anyone. Ike had the greatest respect for people," Ambrose said.
Eisenhower also had a great work ethic, Ambrose said. While commanding Allied forces during World War II, he often worked 20 hours a day. He was fueled in part by a daily dose of four packs of unfiltered cigarettes and a dozen cups of coffee.
AMBROSE SAID leadership didn't come naturally to Eisenhower. Fighting in North Africa taught the Army general that optimism was infectious and vowed to be cheerful in public. The trait inspired confidence in the soldiers who served him.
In 1948, both the Democratic and Republican parties wanted to nominate Eisenhower for president. He finally agreed to run on the GOP ticket in 1952. He won easily and again in 1956. Ambrose said Ike could have won a couple more terms.
Eisenhower's presidency was marked by solid economic growth, expansion of the nation's highway system, growth of the national parks and the end of the Korean War. Eisenhower had a good record, Ambrose said, except in the area of civil rights.
Ambrose said Eisenhower claimed his greatest mistake was appointing Earl Warren to the Supreme Court. The Warren court issued the landmark 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education that abolished the separate-but-equal doctrine.
"NOT ALL was good in the 1950s," he said. "Although if you were white middle-class and Republican, it damn near was. Ike didn't help segregation, because he never publicly endorsed Brown versus Topeka Board of Education."
And Eisenhower barked commands until he died in 1969, Ambrose said. On his death bed, Ike ordered the shades lowered to protect his eyes, Ambrose said. Eisenhower looked around the room and said, "I want to go, God." His heart then stopped. It was time to go home to Abilene.