The founder and chair of the John Birch Society, Robert W. Welch Jr., once wrote a highly critical book about President Dwight Eisenhower titled “The Politician”. This work was a manifestation of Welch’s bitterness towards Ike for defeating his preferred presidential candidate, Senator Robert Taft, in the 1952 Republican primary. The book’s thesis is twofold: 1. Ike was a secret communist. 2. He was a mediocre general but an incredible politician. While any detailed reading of Eisenhower’s political views and stances makes it apparent that part one is grossly inaccurate, part two is spot on.
Dwight Eisenhower is known as both a president and a general, but what few people know about him was that he had never seen battle. Ike went to West Point but did not excel and wasn’t particularly strong on military tactics. However, he had other advantages to compensate. For one, he was highly ambitious. Eisenhower managed to find numerous mentors, including such prominent military leaders as Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall. However, his most important influence was Major General Fox Conner, who mentored Ike not only on military history and tactics but also on philosophy, literature, and leadership. Eisenhower once wrote “in sheer ability and character, [Conner] was the most outstanding soldier of my time…Outside of my own parents he had more influence on me than any other individual, especially in regard to the military profession” (Bassford, 158). He gained knowledge on how to deal with difficult personalities, such as General Douglas MacArthur. When FDR placed General Eisenhower in charge of the European theater of war, he did not bring him for his ability as a tactician, rather for his leadership abilities and political acumen. Numerous military leaders in fact were dismissive of Ike’s abilities on military matters:
“Nice chap…but no general.” – Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery
“He submerges himself in politics and neglects his military duties, partly…because he knows little if anything about military matters.” – Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke
“(Eisenhower) had little grasp of sound battlefield tactics.” – General Omar Bradley (Schein, 87-88).
I of course don’t mean to say that Eisenhower lacked value in the military. Quite the contrary, the military needs both master strategists (Patton) and politicians in its ranks. Thanks to the influence of Fox Conner, Eisenhower had learned how to be an effective political leader. Thus, the presidency in retrospect seems a more natural fit for him than the military. Eisenhower in this respect is similar to George Washington. Although unlike Ike Washington saw many battles, he too was far better at politics than commanding armies.
Bassford, C. (1994). Clausewitz in English: The reception of Clausewitz in Britain and America 1815-1945. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Garrity, P.J. (2012, October 17). Eisenhower the Political General. The Claremont Institute.
Schein, D. D. (2018). The decline of America: 100 years of leadership failures. New York, NY: Post Hill Press.