Abilene — Of the complex problems Dwight Eisenhower had a reputation for analyzing, none would be bigger than leading the long-awaited Allied assault on Hitler’s Europe.
But, in assembling his staff and selecting units for the undertaking, Eisenhower recognized that victory and a lasting piece required more than military might. The U.S. also could not withdraw from world affairs, as it had after the previous world war.
On today’s 65th anniversary of the Normandy invasion, his thinking underpins contemporary military doctrine employed by the U.S. and its allies in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum in Abilene contains 26 million pages of historical records and papers, some dealing with his time as supreme Allied commander during World War II and his reflections on that time afterward. It also has thousands of photographs, feet of film and artifacts.
“He had seen the slaughter of World War II and took personally the death of every Allied soldier,” said Jim Leyerzapf, staff archivist at the Eisenhower Library. “He had to honor the sacrifices of those who died by doing all he could to keep America engaged in the world.”
World after war
D-Day opened a second front in Europe, which Eisenhower hoped would force Germany’s surrender by the end of 1944. He was aware that the battle and the ensuing peace would restore the nations that had been under Nazi control and lead to a divided Germany, papers in the library show.
After the war, he became Army chief of staff, then commander of NATO, the new alliance formed to protect Europe from future conflict and Soviet aggression.
The modern military doctrine of using not only military strength but economic aid, diplomacy and information to stabilize fragile nations like Iraq and Afghanistan has roots in a forgotten speech Eisenhower gave in July 1951 at a dinner in London.
With American support, Eisenhower said, Europe could unify its economies and governments behind common goals, providing no fertile soil for communism to take hold and create instability.
“The hand of the aggressor is stayed by strength and strength alone!” Eisenhower asserted. A copy of the text, with editing marks, is in the library’s archives.
Paying the price
Allan Millett, director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans, said as president in 1953-61, Eisenhower understood the cost of another major conflict in Europe.
Earlier, in fighting World War II, he projected confidence, believing that exuding optimism that Allied troops would not fail was as important as the planning he did for battle, papers in the library show.
“He believed that he was as well qualified as any officer, except George C. Marshall,” Millett said, referring to the Army chief of staff over Eisenhower during the war, the father of the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe afterward.
Frances Swensen, 85, of Junction City, said Americans did not think they would lose the war. She was a Navy radio operator during World War II in Bainbridge Island, Wash., and was on duty the night the D-Day invasion began.
She said Eisenhower enjoyed widespread respect within the military, and “I think Eisenhower came in as our savior.”
But privately, Eisenhower worried about the invasion’s success, consuming coffee and cigarettes, but getting little sleep, as he planned the operations.
Leading up to the invasion, Eisenhower had to work at convincing British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that the operation would succeed, going so far as to promise to be in Germany by Christmas.
“He said his mother told him ’God deals the cards, but you play them,”’ Leyerzapf said.
Blame for failure would have been his alone. He scribbled a note on a slip of paper the night of June 5 as troops began crossing the English Channel taking full responsibility. He ordered it destroyed, but the note survives at his museum. In his haste, he misdated the note July 5.
“We knew something terrific had happened, but we didn’t know until the next morning what had happened,” Swensen said. “I don’t think the people in the Midwest knew until D-Day what our boys were going through.”
John Lindholm, 85, of Manhattan, a B-17 pilot in Europe during the war, said an ability to manage people served Eisenhower well.
“I don’t know that he was as militarily astute as Marshall, but Eisenhower knew how to bind people together to get a job done,” Lindholm said. “He was pretty astute, though. You have to be to deal with all those egos.”
But military success would come at a cost that Eisenhower said could never be fully measured.
“But I do know this,” he said in June 1954 meeting with news correspondents, according to a transcript. “That out of it all, the people who know war, those that experienced it — you writers, the fighting men — I believe we are the most earnest advocates of peace in the world.”
He continued: “I believe these people who talk about peace academically but who never had to dive in a ditch when a Messerschmidt 109 came over, they really don’t know what it is.”