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How Ike Led

December 2023
13min read

We can learn much from how Dwight Eisenhower organized and led three million men in the assault on Nazi Europe, and then governed the nation for eight years as a moderate conservative.

Ike was not a leader in the way we customarily “teach” leadership in our country. He was a strategic rather than an operational one. During the war his role was to receive all the inputs—across the entire enterprise: both internal and external, political and practical, fundamental and future oriented. His job was to “strip down” a problem to its essence, prioritize it among many, and ensure that any plan reflected those factors in a coherent form, ready for execution. His decisions were undertaken with the entire enterprise in mind.

Eisenhower had the thirty-thousand-foot responsibilities. In fact, it is noteworthy that his job description, when he was given the supreme command of Operation Overlord, was in essence to invade the mainland of Europe and bring about the destruction of Nazi forces. No other leadership job in the Western Alliance looked anything like his. And the opinion that truly mattered rested with his superiors’ assessment of his performance. Ike, in his own words, described what was expected of him:

A Supreme Commander in a situation such as faced by us in Europe cannot ordinarily give day-to-day and hour-by- hour supervision to any portion of the field. Nevertheless, he is the one person in the organization with the authority to assign principal objectives to major formations. He is also the only one who has under his hand the power to allot strength to the various major commands in accordance with their missions, to arrange for the distribution of incoming supply, and to direct the operations of the entire air forces in support of any portion of the line.

Eisenhower’s talent for envisioning a whole, especially in the context of the long game, may explain why he did not necessarily need combat experience to be a brilliant strategic leader. It is also why he never lost the confidence of his superiors during the conduct of World War II, even if his subordinates groused about some of his decisions—many of which, not surprisingly, related to resource allocation and personal authority. Eisenhower’s subordinates simply did not have the same considerations he did.

Ike had to worry about the direction of the war, the assets he had at his disposal, the liabilities he had to mitigate, and a timeline that had to be met. He had finite human and material resources. He also had to scale up a war effort that, for the American cohort alone, began as a small group in 1942 and culminated in a force of more than three million people under his command only two years later. The performance of key subordinates was his responsibility at a time of nationalist tensions within the wartime alliance. And he had to factor in the worthiness of his military options and view them in the context of the political, social, or resource priorities made clear to him by Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff (COSSAC). He also had to be adept enough to sense the moment when the plan had to change. 

Again, as president Eisenhower was the nation’s chief strategic leader. Influenced by his success during the war, he developed a process—a staff system—that would assure the collection of all possible facts and facets of any issue; an organization that would also serve to coordinate the implementation of the president’s own direction. Eisenhower was deeply troubled when his successors, starting with John F. Kennedy, dismantled it. Ike feared that the nation’s chief executive, whose job it is to “connect the dots,” would be so overwhelmed by diverse and second-order inputs that he would resort to governing like an operational leader rather than a strategic one. 

Eisenhower predicted that without a system for unbiased analysis and policy integration, avoidable mistakes would be inevitable. His views, many historians say, have been vindicated over the years — starting with the Bay of Pigs fiasco, a failed attempt by the Kennedy White House to invade Cuba and initiate an uprising. It was impacted significantly by JFK’s last-minute decision to cancel air support and relocate the landing beaches.

Even as a young man, Eisenhower had a strong preference for big-picture thinking in warfare and beyond. Before graduation from West Point, Ike’s class of 1915 participated in a “staff ride” of the Gettysburg battlefield: “Each student was instructed to memorize the names of every brigadier in the opposing armies and know exactly where his unit was stationed at every hour during the three days of the battle,” he wrote. “Little attempt was made to explain the meaning of the battle, why it came about, what the commanders hoped to accomplish, and the reason why Lee invaded the North the second time. If this was military history, I wanted no part of it.”

Later one of his mentors, Gen. Fox Conner, chief of operations during World War I, recommended a reading list in the hope that it would change his protégé’s mind about the usefulness of studying military history. And, during their time together in Panama in the 1920s, Conner would school Eisenhower with provocative questions about earlier battles. “What conditions existed when the decisions were made? What might have happened if a different decision had been made?” And “What were the alternatives?” he would ask.

To understand Eisenhower is to understand that in war and peace his primary aim was to foster unity of purpose and to approach every issue from an “architectural perspective” — in other words to begin any significant undertaking by framing it and building a strong foundation for future betterment. He was keenly aware that no president has the time to finish fully any major initiative, so a sustainable approach, approved on a bipartisan basis, must be advanced at the outset.

Another key element of Eisenhower as a leader should be viewed in the context of his character and the impact he had on others. I was drawn to assess how he made people feel, and to ponder whether his relationship with the American people furthered American goals or subverted them. In addition to his obvious talent in the use of force, Eisenhower also believed deeply in “soft power,” which has all but disappeared as a tool of influence in our country today.

I never had the chance to discuss these things directly with my grandfather — I was seventeen when he died — but his passing left an enormous void in my life, as it did for all our family members. So, in 1984, when I first came to Washington, I tried to meet everyone in the city and beyond who had known him. Many had served in the Eisenhower administration, or with him during the war. While a number of key people had already died, the many I met and came to know validated my instincts about Ike as a person and taught me much about strategy and leadership.

Striking to me was the way they talked about “the Boss,” and the wistfulness they displayed in thinking about how far our country had already come in disavowing the mechanisms of good governance. They lamented, as I did even then, that much of our public life had already become highly politicized, regardless of how we see the 1970s and ’80s now as “the good ol’ days.”

The revolving door had made it too easy to put one’s own selfish desires ahead of the job that was there — and still is — to be done. Those decades were marked by crises and scandals, including exploding debt, union busting, a savings and loan crisis, and the Iran-Contra affair.
   Even in the 1980s one could feel that it was fast becoming politically old-fashioned to develop a plan for all Americans, as both political parties increasingly focused on only their bases of support.
   Gen. Andrew Goodpaster, Ike’s trusted White House staff secretary and defense liaison, and later supreme commander of NATO and superintendent of West Point, was my mentor. Well over six feet tall, he had a commanding presence and spoke with quiet, unshakable authority. For years we had adjacent offices at the Eisenhower Institute, which we founded together. The count- less hours I spent in his company were often punctuated by stories, expressions, or anecdotes that came from his time with my grandfather.
   Over more than a decade, Goodpaster had plenty to say about current affairs, as he watched the country move from one with a clear-cut national security strategy to a more muddled and opportunistic approach. He talked often about a strategy “for the long haul,” and it was from him that I learned to think of the challenges facing this country as a tent.
   “It is critical to determine,” he would say, “which of all the areas of national affairs are the ‘long poles’ and which ones are the ‘short poles.’” It should be noted that the long poles, if they are not kept sturdy through reinforcement and timely maintenance, can bring down the whole tent.
   One of the long poles was our foreign relations, and in that General Goodpaster and my father, John, gave me all the encouragement a young professional could hope for in pursuing a dialogue between the United States and the Soviet Union in the mid-to-late 1980s. Mikhail Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR — and the window for improving U.S.–Soviet relations had just started to open.
   A decade and a half after we started these initiatives, General Goodpaster would sometimes come into the office with a look of concern. “Did you read the paper this morning?” he would ask me. “This is just not serious. Most of the stories in the paper are second- or third-order issues.” Such conversations confirmed to me that we had known and were deeply influenced by the same man. 
   Sometimes Goodpaster, or “Andy” as we called him, would use some of Granddad’s favorite maxims, and we would both laugh. “Take your job seriously, but never yourself,” was one of Ike’s warnings. Or “All generalizations are false including this one.” Or “There’s no such thing as an indispensable man or woman.” Or the one I liked especially for its ironic humor: “Let’s not make our mistakes in a hurry.” Goodpaster, however, often told me the question most asked by President Eisenhower at cabinet meetings was “What’s best for America?” — for the country as a whole?
   Goodpaster’s long association with Dwight Eisenhower could be seen in other ways, too. In the 1990s he and I, along with a few others, resigned from the board of a Washington-based think tank over the fact that they were accepting money from defense contractors to pay for national security studies. Today such principled departures are all but unheard of, and such “conflicts” are commonplace. But back in those days, Goodpaster held the view that such practices were unacceptable and only aided and abetted the potential for the “unwarranted influence” of the “military- industrial complex” — a concept articulated by the Boss in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. Goodpaster believed this phenomenon was real, and that it had the potential to deform our democratic processes — especially the development of policy making.
   Former attorney general Herbert Brownell, Ike’s chief civil rights adviser, also took me under his wing, along with others such as Maxwell Rabb, Ike’s cabinet secretary and Arthur Flemming, the former secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. Arthur Flemming, who had worked on both domestic (HEW) and defense (Office of Defense Mobilization) matters during the Eisenhower administration personified for me Ike’s view of the interconnectedness of domestic and national security issues. I had so much to learn from Secretary Flemming, in fact, that for years we had lunch together regularly at Twigs, a quiet little restaurant at the Capital Hilton on 16th Street where he had his own permanently reserved table.
   I knew numerous other people, too, who had served their country in one capacity or another with Ike; many from the war years like Gen. Elwood “Pete” Quesada, commander of tactical bombing on D-day, and Gen. Alfred Gruenther, former supreme commander of NATO (and Ike’s favorite bridge partner).
   I was eager to learn about the service of these remarkable people, and I was intrigued by their current views. I also wanted to hear what they had to say about Eisenhower’s leadership style, how he tackled issues, and what it was like to work for him.

This quest eventually led me to the Supreme Court of the United States, where Chief Justice Warren Burger, was willing to meet me for fifteen minutes, his assistant told mine. When we were seated in his spacious office, he began to warm up. Over the course of two and a half hours he told me stories about what he learned from serving in the Justice Department during the Eisenhower administration, while they crafted the framework of the civil rights revolution that was gathering force.

To demonstrate his resolve, Eisenhower deployed the 101st Airborne Division to desegregate Central High School in Little Rock.

He was impressed, he told me, that President Eisenhower had deployed the 101st Airborne Division in Little Rock to desegregate Central High School. The use of the 101st instead of the National Guard sent an unmistakable signal of resolve, not just to Little Rock and the state of Arkansas, but far beyond its state boundaries. Little Rock also showed the international community that the United States was, resolutely, a country of laws. I was intrigued when the chief justice told me that his decision on the Kent State shootings was positively influenced by Eisenhower’s handling of Little Rock.

All these distinguished people, including my grandfather’s youngest brother, Milton, wanted to make sure I knew and remembered some key points about their experience in working for Ike. They also wanted me to know how he had organized things — and why it produced results.

They often spoke of Ike’s intellectual honesty, his unmistakable adherence to specific strategic concepts, and his judicious use of power — which included not just the political and constitutional power he wielded, but also the power he had over other people. They described to me his charisma, his energy, and what that meant in the context of being part of his team.

Arthur Burns, a former Columbia University economist and later Ike’s chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers (later still, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board under Nixon), may have been the first public official who ever described for me, in such vivid ways, one of the president’s qualities that had already been flagged by Ike’s classmates at West Point. Eisenhower was, according to his 1915 yearbook, “As big as life and twice as natural.” 

When I first visited Dr. Burns at his office in Washington in 1985, where he worked after serving as the U.S. ambassador to West Germany, he described to me the overwhelming power of Dwight Eisenhower’s presence, his magnetism, his warmth and his vibrancy—or what State Department official Robert Bowie called his “electricity.” I, of course, knew of this quality firsthand, but I was intrigued by the apparent impact Ike’s personality and physical magnetism had on his team.

Burns was quick to tell me, however, that beneath the cheery demeanor and the easy, jocular way Eisenhower interacted with people, there was a mind that worked like a steel trap. He was a man of deep conviction and a firm set of ideas honed during the “crisis years” of World War II. I can attest to the fact that everyone in Eisenhower’s orbit felt this power and had an instinctive desire to live up to his expectations and to win his approval.
   When Ike walked into a room, and I experienced this myself, his energy radiated. His personal power could, as some of his col- leagues noted, “fill an empty space.”
   For that reason I could never understand, as a kid, how Ike’s political opponents characterized him during his presidency as passive, bumbling, or ineffective. Didn’t they know this was the same person who’d stood down Hitler? Never was there anything I saw in him that could have been described as passive or out of touch — even in the very last months of his life. Indeed, Henry Kissinger, who had opposed Eisenhower on a number of issues, once described to me his first and only meeting with Ike just after Nixon’s election and just months before his death. Kissinger said he was unprepared for the former president’s sharpness, and the mental energy he exuded even as he lay in his hospital bed, physically diminished by a series of heart attacks.
   I remember vividly, too (and recounted in Mrs. Ike), an incident just after one of Granddad’s many heart attacks in 1968. Gen. Leonard Heaton, his physician and surgeon general of the army, came into his hospital room as our immediate family was gathered around Granddad, who was lying flat, his body emaciated from his ailments. We thought, in those precious moments, that we were saying our last good-byes. Heaton told his patient that it was time for us to leave the room so he could get some rest. With that, Ike roared from his bed: “How many stars do you have?” Heaton, surprised, said “Three, Sir.”
   Granddad retorted: “Well I’ve got five, and I tell you they are going to stay.”

Ike’s personal power was part of what drew people to him. But his straightforward approach to things also won him admirers. Bill Robinson, a newspaperman and later chairman of Coca-Cola, once recounted to William Ewald, a White House staffer and later an Eisenhower historian, some of his first impressions of Ike.

Robinson had kept notes from an encounter he had with Eisenhower after the war, in 1947. He described the general’s style:

There was no pose, no pretense, no attempt to establish anything for the record… He was natural, alive, alert, spirited, and gave the impression of having an intense amount of unloosened energy, both intellectual and physical [No] public man whom I have ever known, or had ever known about, had such intellectual honesty as Eisenhower. I also had the impression that here was a man who was realistic, practical and disciplined.

   Bill Ewald himself also recalled another kind of honesty. After the presidency, he was tapped to help coedit Ike’s White House memoirs with my father, John.
   Ewald’s job in that effort was to provide documents and look for details that would assure “fidelity to the facts,” as the former president worked on drafts of the manuscript. Ike had an extraordinary memory, as well as an organized mind that made it possible for him to dictate not only letters but whole book chapters in nearly paragraph-perfect form. In 1945, for instance, one month after the Germans’ unconditional surrender, he even gave his famous twelve-minute Guildhall Address from memory before a London crowd of millions.
   One day, Ewald challenged, indeed contradicted, the former president on his recall of a specific event. “He was absolutely certain he had done one thing, though I had brought him documentary evidence that he hadn’t,” Bill recalled.
   Ike’s frustration and anger began to rise, and he got up from his chair and left the room. (“Imagine, contradicting the general about what was, after all, his own history. Conceivably, he could even, though it seemed unlikely, be right,” Ewald worried. He was sure he would be fired, “and I felt I deserved it.”)
   A few moments later Ike returned. “If that’s the way the record is,” he said, “that’s the way it should read.”

   “Whatever his foibles,” Ewald concluded, “this iron respect for the truth underlay the feeling that I came to have for Dwight Eisenhower.”
   Those associated with Ike knew that honesty was embedded in his thinking. It resided at the very core of his values. I don’t think you can assess Eisenhower the general or Eisenhower the president without understanding this.
   Ike’s capability as a long-range thinker also explains one other quality that I later found remarkable. He could be utterly in the moment, while at the same time absorbing and assessing what the consequences of an experience, event, or trend could have in the decades to come.
   On visiting Ordruf, a Nazi concentration camp near Buchenwald on August 12, 1945, Eisenhower put in place, virtually on the spot, a policy of far-reaching impact. So overwhelmed was he by the “savagery” and “bestiality” of what the Nazis had done in this “horror camp,” he insisted that from then on the Holocaust’s atrocities must be chronicled and preserved for all time—on the basis that at some point in the future there would be people who would say it never happened.
   It is hard to imagine someone instinctively thinking about fifty years from now as he is standing, confronted for the first time, by a profoundly shocking discovery. But without Eisenhower’s immediate response at Ordruf, one can only imagine how the lies of Holocaust deniers might have taken root after the war.
   Ike’s leadership approach was also informed by an under- standing of human nature, the determination to establish an effective mode of operation and organization, as well as the conviction that it is necessary not just to inspire but also to challenge his associates’ shortcomings—starting with his own. He was always mindful, however, that not all personal growth and change can happen under the glare of public scrutiny. He would also show the effectiveness of advancing his set of principles publicly—and even privately—if the results were likely to be more effective. While there may be many who will still challenge some of the decisions Ike made, no one can dispute that he brought sincerity, idealism, and utter dedication to the performance of his duty.
   Bill Ewald, in referring to Eisenhower, once observed that self- sacrifice and selflessness—on which the highest form of duty is based—“is the possession of the objectivist; the man who sees that the truth is greater than himself.”
   Eisenhower’s leadership—one of head and heart—was projected in the context of a higher cause, one that rested on account- ability and humility. The importance of serving something bigger than yourself is a truth that Ike would tell from power—through the full force of his personal, political, and military will.


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