From guiding the Allies to victory in World War II as supreme commander, to steering the ship of state for eight years as one of the country’s least partisan and most popular presidents, few leaders in history have had to make as varied and consequential decisions as Dwight D. Eisenhower.
My guest today possesses insights into how he made the many choices he was faced with in his military and political careers that are gleaned not only from studying Ike’s life, but from personally knowing the man beneath the mantle. Her name is Susan Eisenhower and she’s a writer, consultant, and policy strategist, one of Dwight’s four grandchildren, and the author of the new book How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions. Susan and I begin our conversation with her relationship with Ike as both historic leader and ordinary grandfather, and why she decided to write a book about his leadership style. We then dive into the principles of his leadership, beginning with his decision to greenlight the D-Day invasion, what it reveals about his iron-clad commitment to taking responsibility, and how that commitment allowed him to be such an effective delegator. From there Susan explains how a love of studying history born in Ike’s boyhood allowed him to take a big picture approach to strategy, how he used a desk drawer to deal with his lifelong struggle with anger, and how his belief in morale as an input rather than an output inspired him to always stay optimistic for the benefit of those he led. We then turn to how Eisenhower dealt with the discovery of concentration camps at the end of WWII and making peace with Germany after it. We then talk about his nonpartisan governing style as president which he called the “Middle Way” and which involved emphasizing cooperation, compromise, and unity, including members of both political parties in his cabinet, limiting his use of the “bully pulpit” to sway public opinion, and striving not to turn policy issues into personality confrontations. We then discuss how this style influenced how he dealt with Joseph McCarthy and enforced the Brown v. Board of Education decision. At the end of our conversation, Susan explains that while she doesn’t expect everyone to agree with the difficult decisions her grandfather made, she thinks there’s something to be learned from how he managed to make them, and to make them without becoming hard and cynical in the process.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Susan’s experience of growing up with her grandfather as president
- The remarkable D-Day note that Susan started her book with
- How Ike delegated
- What Ike read as a boy and what he learned about leadership and decision making
- Ike’s anger, and how he dealt with it
- How Eisenhower handled the discovery of German concentration camps
- How Dwight thought the Germans should be handled after the war ended
- What made Dwight decide to run for president?
- Eisenhower’s non-partisan governing style
- Balancing the role of figurehead and politician in the presidency
- How Ike beat Joseph McCarthy
- The enforcement of the Brown vs. Board of Education decision
- How Eisenhower coped with the stress of the office
- Ike’s surprising people skills
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- The Eisenhower Decision Matrix
- My interview with Jocko Willink about the idea of extreme ownership
- Never Criticize Without Offering an Alternative
- Our AoM series on Eisenhower’s leadership
- 43 Books About War Every Man Should Read
- The Friendship, Rivalry, and Leadership of America’s 3 Greatest WWII Generals
- Remembering D-Day 75 Years Later
- Robert Taft
- A Matter of Justice by David Nichols
- Eisenhower Diaries
- Letters to Mamie
- My Three Years With Eisenhower
Connect With Susan
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness podcast. From guiding the Allies to victory in World War II as Supreme Commander to steering the ship of state for eight years as one of the country’s least partisan and most popular presidents, few leaders in history have had to make as varied and consequential decisions as Dwight D. Eisenhower.
My guest today possesses insights into how he made the many choices he was faced with in his military and political careers that are gleaned not only from studying Ike’s life, but from personally knowing the man beneath the mantle. Her name is Susan Eisenhower. She’s a writer, consultant and policy strategist, one of Dwight’s four grandchildren, and the author of the new book How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions.
Susan and I begin our conversation with her relationship with Ike as both historic leader and ordinary grandfather, and why she decided to write a book about his leadership style. We then delve into the principles of his leadership, beginning with his decision to greenlight the D-Day invasion, what it reveals about his iron-clad commitment to take responsibility and how that commitment allowed him to be such an effective delegator.
From there Susan explains how a love of studying history born in Ike’s boyhood allowed him to take a big picture approach to strategy, how he used a desk drawer to deal with his lifelong struggle with anger and how his belief in morale as input rather than output inspired him to always stay optimistic for the benefit of those he led. We then turn to how Eisenhower dealt with the discovery of concentration camps at the end of World War II and making peace with Germany after it.
We then talk about his non-partisan governing style as President, which he called the middle way and which involved emphasizing cooperation, compromise and unity, including members of both political parties in his cabinet, limiting his use of the bully pulpit to sway public opinion and striving not to turn policy issues into personality confrontations.
We then discuss how this style influenced how he dealt with Joseph McCarthy and enforced the Brown v. Board of Education decision. At the end of our conversation, Susan explains that while she doesn’t expect everyone to agree with the difficult decisions her grandfather made, she thinks there’s something to be learned from how he managed to make them and to make them without becoming hard and cynical in the process. After the show’s over, check at our show notes at aom.is/howikeled.
Alright, Susan Eisenhower, welcome to the show.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, thank you. It’s just great to be with you.
Brett McKay: So you’ve got a new book out, How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions. And you also happen to be one of Dwight Eisenhower’s granddaughters. I’m curious, to start off, this is kind of the context, what was it like being Eisenhower’s granddaughter? And how old were you when he was General and then President of the United States?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, he was actually inaugurated in 1953 and so I was a toddler at the time. I was born on the last day in 1951, so I wasn’t aware of too much for a while, and my father was in the army as well. And he, of course, went to every army post he could go to probably in many of those years. But back in around 1957 we moved back to Washington, DC for some of my father’s assignments. And that’s when I really got to know my grandparents really well.
Brett McKay: And were there moments when you were like… Was he just grandpa for you? Or did you have moments as even as a kid where you realized that Eisenhower was more than just grandpa?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, it was a little hard to avoid the fact that he was more than grandpa because my siblings and I had Secret Service protection. So that didn’t seem very normal. And to have big guys with big guns following you onto the playground isn’t exactly normal. But I must say in retrospect, I look back and I think it was really remarkable how normal a family life we had. And I think that’s because… There are two simple reasons for it. My father made sure that we didn’t “start wearing the boss’s stars.” In other words, we were to understand that our grandfather was different and that this conferred nothing on us, except a responsibility to be good kids. And then I think the other thing was we were taught to compartmentalize. So I have very strong feelings about him as a grandfather, but I’ve spent my professional career as a policy analyst, and his legacy is everywhere, so I had to learn to be able to think of him separately from being a grandfather. This book is the first time I’ve put it together in a way, and that was a pretty wild experience.
Brett McKay: Well, what did you think? Why write this book now? What was it that got you thinking, I need to write… ‘Cause you’ve written a biography of your grandmother, Eisenhower’s wife. What made you decide to go in and write a biography of Eisenhower, particularly how he led?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, first of all, we have the anniversary of the end of World War II in this year. And then in September, the Eisenhower Memorial in Washington, DC is going to be unveiled, dedicated. And then I also thought that we’re in a very highly contentious political time. And I thought it was important for rising generations and for people who don’t know Dwight Eisenhower very well to learn something about him in an easy way. I don’t think you have to know a huge amount about the period to be able to understand that there were indeed principles behind the way Eisenhower looked at different situations. And I thought that might be useful right now in this particular environment, political environment.
Brett McKay: So the way you organize this book, it’s a biography. But it’s a biography of Eisenhower’s leadership style, and how he developed it and how it manifested itself in different parts of his career. And you start off the book with this famous note that Eisenhower as Supreme Allied Commander wrote. World War II. On the eve of D-Day. And it was only to be released if his decision to green light the invasion failed. And it said in part, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.” Why do you start the book off with this note and what do you think it tells us about Eisenhower’s leadership style?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I think the note is an important note. First of all, it wasn’t known for a very long time. It came out probably after Ike’s death. It’s not that it wasn’t known, it was already published in Harry Butcher’s book called My Three Years With Eisenhower, but somebody found it, when reading that book, probably 20 years ago, and started talking about it a lot, and I think it’s because it strikes a chord with us today. We have so many leaders on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue who stand up and blame somebody else for mistakes that have occurred, but this was not Eisenhower’s way. And I dare say that the military is well-schooled to understand that they have to take responsibility.
There’s something at West Point called the No Excuses. He took responsibility even for the weather forecast, in that it was his decision to go at that time. In any case, you see that same willingness to take responsibility throughout his presidency, famously after the U-2… This is the aerial reconnaissance airplane was shot down over the Soviet Union in May of 1960. He took full responsibility for the fact that he’d ordered that over-flight, and many of his advisors were asking him to continue to say that… You know, come up with something that would be what we call today plausible deniability, but Eisenhower wanted to make sure the Soviet Union knew that he was in charge, and that there was no ambiguity about who made orders there within the administration.
And then finally the Suez Crisis, which actually was in 1956. That whole crisis emerged just as voters were going to the polling booths, and he said to my father that if the Suez Crisis goes south, he guesses he’ll lose the election, but there we are. So there was a kind of fatalism marked with a strong belief that there were no excuses. So let me just… Brett, let me just leave you with something that I find rather wonderful. He once said, “Leadership consists of nothing but taking responsibility for everything that goes wrong and giving your subordinates credit for everything that goes well.”
Brett McKay: That’s hard to do. A lot of… I mean. But… And how did… But how did he deal with the burdens of that? How did he… That’s… People don’t like doing it, because it feels terrible to take responsibility for failure, particularly failures where you weren’t directly involved. Like he was a big delegator. So he only focused on high-level strategy, and he would delegate the tactical things to the people who were working with him, beneath him. So how did he deal with taking responsibility for stuff that he might not have had any direct influence on?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, you can’t mobilize those you delegate to, if they don’t feel like the leader has their back, and that’s what I think that that sentence about leadership is, that if you don’t give them the credit and take the responsibility, then you don’t have a system that will accommodate delegation. Now, the reason delegation is important is somebody’s got to be the strategic leader, and part of the reason my book is so oriented towards strategic leadership is we simply don’t have it anymore. We’re like political day traders, and we can’t figure out what we’re really trying to accomplish, what our timeline is, and what… And how we’re going to get from where we are today to address those longer-term goals. So I think that’s just inevitable if you’re going to delegate, is you have to give people the knowledge that they will be able to do their jobs.
Brett McKay: And that idea that people who… That Eisenhower led, that they felt that had… That he had their back. You talk about these instances where soldiers would say, “Basically, Ike, I would do anything for you.” There’s a time when later in his life, when he was having problems with his heart, you had… There was people writing a letter saying, “I’ll give you my still-alive heart as a heart transplant, so you can live.”
Susan Eisenhower: Isn’t that amazing? I remember when it happened. I was… I would say I was tangentially part of that conversation. The doctor came out and said that they had received all these offers. And I compare this against my brother’s memory, and yes, that is, indeed, absolutely correct. And it’s very moving, but they… The bond that Ike had with his soldiers was one of trust, and if he wasn’t willing to take the responsibility even for their failure, then how could they trust him?
Brett McKay: And what you… You mentioned that Eisenhower, he thought strategically; he was thinking big picture; he was playing the 10,000-foot level game, while everyone else was playing… Just thinking about the next quarter, the next year. Where did he develop that mindset, do you think?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, it’s interesting. He displayed his interest in bigger-picture studies when he was a kid. He grew up on a farm in Abilene, Kansas, and his parents were surviving just financially. He always said that we were poor, but didn’t know it. In any case, he would do… I wouldn’t call it daydreaming, but he was obsessed about history, and the family was very well educated. As a matter of fact, Ike’s mother, my great-grandmother, actually went to college, and they could read Ancient Greek and Latin, which is pretty amazing for those days, this farm family. But Ike was always reading history books, and he was fascinated by what these great historical figures were trying to accomplish, and why did they make the decisions they did, and in making those decisions, how much information did they have when they made those decisions. And I think it’s fascinating that an interest in that would extend all the way… You know, it’s a lifetime, it’s a lifetime undertaking.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s something people don’t know about Eisenhower, is that how educated he was and how deeply and well-read he was. There was moments where you talk about where he would… When he was president of Columbia, he just surprised people with just lectures about military history going all the way back to Alexander the Great. And professors were just baffled, ’cause they just thought of Eisenhower was just this army guy who smiled and waved and that was it.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, you know what’s interesting about this, and this is the reason I felt it was pretty important to include the leadership traits he developed during the war and to take that into the Presidency. Because the biographers tend to fall into two categories, the presidential biographers of Eisenhower and the war-time biographers of Eisenhower. And then there are some books that try to put it all together, but again, if it’s done chronologically, they end up being very, very big books. But I do think that there’s a consistency about the way he thinks and about the way he approaches issues. So I think the Eisenhower who is general and the Eisenhower who is president are one and the same person, which is why as a kid I could never understand why people said he was a do-nothing president, and he didn’t know, that he was not on top of things, when this was the guy who ended Nazism for the Western alliance. I just could never figure that out even as a kid.
Brett McKay: Right. Well, so yeah, so going back to the popular image we have of Eisenhower as sort of this, especially as president, this sunny, friendly, grandfatherly character who played golf, and we’ll talk about what he was actually doing as President when people thought that’s all he was doing. But you mentioned that, and you talk about it, throughout the book, he grappled with inner struggles, particularly anger. Ever since that he was a boy, what was his anger like, was it like… Did he just have a short temper, did he just dwell on things, get resentful, what was that like?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, it’s interesting, as a kid, he really did have a temper and he admitted that he would have occasional meltdowns and then be disciplined by his father and counseled by his mother. I think part of it was, if you ever read the full set of his diaries and also his letters to Mamie Eisenhower, his wife, my grandmother, you will see there a very, very passionate nature. And as a kid, he felt the sense of injustice very strongly, but he had a very passionate nature, and so he had to learn how to control what I’d call his inner landscape, his inner resources.
And he had… His mother really made the case after one particularly frightening experience where he had as we call it a meltdown because his two older brothers were allowed to go out and trick or treat and he wasn’t. And she really talked to him very quietly about what this was doing to him, and it wasn’t hurting anybody else, it was hurting him, and he always remembered that. And so he started developing tricks, and some of the tricks were actually rather sophisticated, and I like them. I use them myself sometimes. He would, for instance, keep a diary. Now, that’s very important, he was a diarist his whole life, so he blew off steam on the written page.
In addition to being a diarist, he would write whatever it was that was bothering him on a piece of paper, then he’d crumple up the piece of paper and he’d throw it away. So this was actually a rather artful way of getting the anger inside out, and on a piece of paper, then it suddenly becomes de-personalized and I think it’s a very smart idea. I do have to laugh about it, though, ’cause he did this during the White House years, and then he’d throw these crumpled up pieces of paper into a lower drawer in his desk, and it was the responsibility of his secretary to go in and clean out the crumpled up pieces of paper. I swear she had to have a security clearance in order to be able to do that ’cause she more than anybody knew who he was upset with that day.
And then the other idea he had is that he would put the problem on a chair and get up and walk around it. But as you can see, there is a theme here, which is getting this anger out of you, out of you inside and de-personalizing it. So I think a lot of people would benefit from knowing that there was a very powerful person who found these tools useful.
Brett McKay: Besides anger, did he ever get discouraged or get depressed? There’s a lot of things during his career that he could get discouraged or depressed about, during the war and later on in his presidency?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I don’t think he’d be a human being if he hadn’t been depressed and concerned at times, but he thought that morale was an input, not an output. In other words, people have to feel good about things and have a sense of morale in going into any challenge, and not just the result of being victorious. And I think this is really true, pessimism at the top is very infectious. So who wants to go into battle with somebody who doesn’t have confidence in the mission? So he made it, as he said in his diary, as a lifelong commitment to try and stay optimistic in front of everybody else all the time.
So during this dire moment, during the Battle of the Bulge, during World War II, when the Germans have finally managed, launched what looked like it was a successful offensive, Eisenhower comes into the room and says, to his commanders, “There will be no long faces in this room.” He says, “Do you realize what the Germans have just done? They’ve given us an opening. For the first time, they’re showing us their faces. So let’s go.” That sort of twist on the thing that worried everybody most, it turns out to be the thing that inspires confidence, if the commander has it. It took a lot of personal discipline, Brett, I really have to say that I’m full of admiration for that, because I struggle as a professional myself all the time and try very hard to show this optimism, but it isn’t always so easy.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and something he noted as well, besides being optimistic, Eisenhower was very adamant about leaders, if they have personal problems, personal issues, they gotta take care of that privately. And that’s kind of counter to what you see today, where it’s if you have a problem, just show it, emote it, express it and see… You put it out there on social media. That wouldn’t be what Eisenhower would have done.
Susan Eisenhower: Absolutely not, it’s called too much information. And I think what it’s done is somebody’s making it everybody else’s problem too. And that would be counter to personal responsibility. You’ve got to, as I say, you’ve got to keep your own landscape in good order. You did ask me a minute ago, what did his temper look like when it came across him. I always thought as a kid, it was like a thunderstorm. And I didn’t see it that much, I have to say, but it was like a thunderstorm because he would get angry, his associates told me this, and then it would pass. And he didn’t hold grudges, so nobody really worried about it; they observed it occasionally but they didn’t worry about it because if they had made a mistake, or if they had let him down in some way that was more personal, he just didn’t hold grudges. And I think some of that is self-discipline too, but some of it is back to the state of your insides; is it toxic in there? Are you allowing all this negative energy to build up, or are you finding another way to deal with it so that you can move on?
Brett McKay: And one thing that you stress throughout the book, one of… An important part of Eisenhower’s leadership style, yes, he was a big picture strategist and he was able to see and play the long game. But something else that gets overlooked about Eisenhower was that he was… He had really good people skills. I think one of his strengths was he knew how to read people and how… And he understood what people needed, and he was very attuned to people’s needs and wants.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I think that is, and I think he got that trait from his mother, who was an extremely empathetic person. She was very religious. As a matter of fact, few people realize that he grew up in a pacifist household. She had been born and raised just after the Civil War in Virginia and saw the horrors of that war and made a determination that she was never going to support war of any kind. So she was very empathetic, and I would say that the wonderful thing that he had from his childhood is that he had a mother who was empathetic and focused on cooperation and optimism, and he had a father who took care of the discipline end of things. And so for many reasons, not the least of which, he had this team of his parents that brought different sides to his personality, and all of his brothers were extremely successful too, but I think the empathy was one of Eisenhower’s biggest traits. It’s the one I admire, because I think when you’re making decisions at this level, it would be so easy to become hard and cynical, but he never allowed himself that at all, at all; I never saw any evidence of it.
Brett McKay: Yeah, and during the war, he’s often asking when they’re making decisions, like, “What would this look like to the other guy? How would the other guy take this?” And it got him into trouble, not trouble, but it frustrated some of his American colleagues, because he was trying to reach out to British allies and work with them and cooperate with them, and when there was people on the American side who were just like, “No, we want to do our thing, forget about the British,” but Eisenhower made it… He was very adamant that, “We have to work with these guys too and make sure that they’re getting what they need as well, with any operation that we do.”
Susan Eisenhower: Well, he really believed in alliances, and he was the first Supreme Allied Commander in warfare during World War II… Or, sorry, during the First World War, everybody managed their own troops, but there was nobody that integrated all of the forces. And so this was a very, very new concept also, to integrate the British with the Americans, and to have French forces under his command, it just had never been done before. And he would not have been able to keep that alliance together if he hadn’t been able to stand back and look at this joint effort from other people’s point of view. There was a lot of national pride involved, there was a very big difference in how each of these nations looked at strategy, the concepts behind strategy.
And he also had to deal with A-type personalities who had very strong views about the righteousness of their own positions. So this looking at it from the other guy’s point of view was a self-educating way to say, “You know what? It might be more productive to use this tool in my toolbox rather than another.” And what I learned from him in this is that not every fight is worth it, to concentrate on the fights that are pivotal at his level, and to make sure that everybody feels like they’re heard.
Brett McKay: So another issue, or big decision Eisenhower faced as Supreme Allied Commander was, towards the end of the war when they started discovering the concentration camps. What was his response? How did he implement sort of his higher-level strategy thinking on what to do with this issue?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, one of the major issues for the impending victorious Allied Forces was how Germany was going to be treated after the war, and the shocking discovery of the internment camps, the death camps, really sent a shiver throughout Allied Forces. Eisenhower liberated Ohrdruf, which was a sub-camp of Buchenwald, and was just overcome, actually. I think he kept his counsel… It was… The scene was so bad that George Patton was unable to go through parts of the camp for fear of getting sick, and the smell apparently was just absolutely overwhelming.
So Eisenhower looked at all this, and I think this is one of the remarkable things about this story, he sort of instantly understood that unless this Holocaust was chronicled that 50 years from now people would say it never happened. That night he gets back to Patton’s headquarters and he writes to Marshall immediately and says, “I want you to bring all of the reporters you can send from the United States, members of Congress,” and then everybody who was close to any of those camps was ordered to go through them and to take photographs and take eyewitness assessments of what was going on there. My own father, as a matter of fact, went to Buchenwald. He was an amateur photographer, and made a whole photo album of these atrocities for precisely the same reason. I was raised on those photographs, and even my own grandchildren have seen them; a terrible, terrible time.
Brett McKay: And what was interesting, too, is Eisenhower made sure that the German people in the villages that were nearby these camps, he made them come and look at it and see what was going on underneath their noses.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, he more than had them come look at it, he made them give the victims of the Holocaust a dignified burial. And I think it was deeply, deeply shattering for many people who’d turned a blind eye to what was going on. Ike had absolutely no patience for the military who said they didn’t know this was going on, because in his view it was willful denial. And one of the big jobs during this particular period, in the last weeks of the war, was to make sure that as we liberated areas that we were never seen to be adopting anything like the same tactics that the Germans did. What I mean there is that we did not look like we had come as a conquerer and we were also holding these people in detention. So that became a very challenging thing to make sure that the victims of the Holocaust understood that friends had arrived, and that they would be treated with a dignity, henceforth, and their needs would be met to the extent that it was humanly possible at this stage of the proceedings.
Brett McKay: And along with this, this was a thing that he had to balance as well, is on the one hand, he wanted to hold accountable the German people for what happened in their country. But at the same time, Eisenhower had this thing, he wanted to move on. He thought… He was very future-oriented. So how did he do that? How did he hold people accountable, at the same time not holding this grudge on them permanently forever, where they could never move on and go on to better things?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, there was sort of a multi-faceted way of looking at this. War criminals had to be held accountable. Those who said that they didn’t know but had every prospect of knowing, given where they were located, they too were dealt with in a certain way. The German population itself not only was forced to give a dignified burial to those who had died, but in many cases, their housing was requisitioned for victims of the Holocaust to live there for a time. And then finally, I guess the United States Army put together a video of these atrocities and made many, many Germans see this film. I mean, they had to understand what they did or what was done in their names in order to begin that period of renewal.
Then after that, of course, it was probably higher policy as well to assure that former Nazis were not running the new government in Germany at any level. And then of course, the big work of establishing NATO and eventually bringing West Germany into NATO in 1955 is another threshold moment. I would just say here, Brett, which is really amazing and symbolic, but on exactly the 10th anniversary of the Germans’ unconditional surrender, the Eisenhower administration, Dwight Eisenhower himself, brought Germany, West Germany into NATO. And as one German described it to me, that we held them in our iron embrace until in fact that country became a prosperous democracy and eventually, of course, in 1989, ’90, you could say that World War II was finally over for Germany.
Brett McKay: So after the war, Eisenhower, he was President of Columbia University and all during this time he was… There’s lots of people pushing for him to run for President. And he kept on telling them, “No, I don’t want that job. Leave me alone. Quit asking me.” What finally pushed him over the edge and caused him to throw his hat into the ring and run for president?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I think it’s pretty clear, Eisenhower was very worried about the fact that the country was still on war footing. By this time we’re in the middle of a war in Korea, and he did not believe in small wars. He didn’t believe that it was in our national security interest to bleed ourselves dry in terms of human capital and also financial expense. And he went to Korea right after he became the President Elect, to see what the situation was there and eventually brought about the Armistice in that summer.
But that Korean war played a role in his decision to run for president, just as the deteriorating financial situation. A lot of labor unrest after the war. But I think that probably the most important thing was, is it looked like there was a prospect that the Republicans might win the 1952 election, in that Harry Truman’s popularity ratings were very low. And if that were to happen, the isolationist wing of the Republican Party would have come to power. Ike believed that we could never go back to the way it was between the First war and the Second war, and so I think if Robert Taft, who was the key Senator, “Mr. Republican,” who was destined to get that nomination, if Robert Taft had agreed to support NATO and America’s internationalist role in the world, Ike probably would not have run.
He certainly had other plans for himself after the war, but Robert Taft refused to support NATO. He had no liking for the United Nations at all. He was against a lot of foreign aid and other things that Eisenhower thought were crucial. So in fact, Eisenhower decides that he’s going to run, and it was a dramatic thing. It’s one of those turning points, certainly for the future of the Republican Party, and as it turned out for the United States of America.
Brett McKay: And that was a big decision, because to run for president, he had to give up his commission as general.
Susan Eisenhower: Yes, he did. He had to give up his commission, for sure. And his long-time valet from World War II, who was still with him, reacted to the General’s news that he had given up his commission, and since he might or might not win the presidency, his valet was free to find another job. And the valet, a wonderful man named John Moaney, said to his boss, he said, “You know, we’ve been together for a long time, and if you don’t win the election, I think the two of us can probably find a job somewhere else.”
Sgt Moaney, a wonderful, wonderful man, was the only African-American… Or the first African-American to be a pallbearer at a president’s funeral. And he and his family are… He’s long gone, but his family are still close to mine.
Brett McKay: So Eisenhower gets elected President, and he ran on the Republican ticket… Won on the Republican… With the Republican Party, but it didn’t seem like he was much of a partisan. How would you describe his governing style as President of the United States?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, Brett, I think it’s… You could argue that Eisenhower was the most non-partisan president since George Washington or one of the other military leaders, perhaps. He’s certainly more non-partisan than Ulysses S Grant. But the… I think the key here is that he had his difficulties with the Republican Party in the first term, and in the second term, he had some difficulty with the Democrats. So in a way, you could argue that he crafted his middle way pretty effectively, because both sides… Or I should say the extreme wings of both parties felt quite skeptical about his governance.
He had an enormous popularity rating, though, during his two terms, averaging mid-to-high 60s for his two terms in office. Part of it was, I think, how he organized the White House, and he organized it in some ways very much like he organized the war effort. He surrounded himself by diverse viewpoints. And he wanted pushback. He thought that was the way he could understand the complexity and the dimensions of any particular issue. He wanted… He would have a cabinet meeting once a week, and all cabinet members had to come to those meetings fully briefed on whatever the topic was, even if it was outside of their own agency, and he would referee the debates and make sure that he understood all the viewpoints.
He had not only conservative Republicans in his cabinet, but also all the way through the spectrum to Democrats, a couple of Democrats, and after he heard this vigorous debate, then he would go into his office and make a decision. After that there would be a special… A unit at the White House that was there to implement the decisions and to make sure everybody followed the decisions that the President had made.
I think… He also held a press conference once a week, because he thought it was important to retain his visibility with the public and for them to understand what was going on at the White House and why he was handling things a certain way. I think it’s just important to add here, finally, is that you can have all the greatest strategy in the world, but if you don’t have an organization, not only to pursue rigorously the facts, wherever they might lead, but also to implement the President’s decisions and to make sure that a diverse set of viewpoints are considered, it won’t… You can’t exercise a strategy without that kind of infrastructure. And unfortunately, that whole system was dismantled after his administration.
Brett McKay: Yeah. This is sort of… You see in a continuation of his leadership style that he developed as a general, he had… He was only concerning himself with the high-level strategic thinking, and then he made sure that there was an organization in place beneath that to take care and make sure everything else… That the strategy gets put into action.
Susan Eisenhower: That’s right. And of course, delegation plays a huge role in that. He was almost a genius at figuring out how much leeway people could be given. In other words, which individuals struggled a little bit more to think about how to tackle an issue and the rest of it, and those who he knew were brilliant and could carry on with the Administration’s viewpoint in mind. So… And I think another key, of course, to delegation is to protect… To have the back of the people you’ve delegated to.
Brett McKay: Yeah. We talked about that earlier. He did that in the military. He took responsibility for the failures and he let…
Susan Eisenhower: Exactly.
Brett McKay: Right.
Susan Eisenhower: Quite rightly, too. [chuckle]
Brett McKay: Yeah. Well, in… Is there… Another interesting thing about the office of the President of the United States, I don’t think a lot of people understand or realize is that the President of the United States has two roles. First, he’s a politician. He’s there to implement policy or to execute policy, but on the other hand, he’s also a figurehead for the entire country. In other countries, like say in England, the Queen is the figurehead, and then you have the Prime Ministers doing the dirty politics. But in the President, those things are in one and there can be… Sometimes there’s contradictory… They contradict each other. Eisenhower somehow was able to resolve those conflicting roles of the Presidency. How do you think he did that?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, first of all… Actually, I would say there are probably three different roles. One would be head of state. One would be head of the executive branch, and the other would be head of your political party. And it’s been very hard for some presidents to reconcile these contradictory roles. Eisenhower believed that unity of purpose, or to unite the country, behind a set of policies, is what he called the middle way, and to do that, he had to serve as the figure that could bring everybody together. He was not, though, disconnected from his role as chief executive or as head of his party. He didn’t display that as much as other presidents had, because he thought that that would be at cross purposes with the larger goal of uniting the country. As… Today we see presidents who are largely [0:38:22] ____ or those that combine that with being a chief executive. But this idea of being the uniter, at least in the public perception, is not something that we’ve seen too much of since his era.
Brett McKay: So he was still doing politics, but he did it in the background?
Susan Eisenhower: Yeah. He did it where that… It was out of sight. And actually, Brett, I would say that’s probably one of the reasons why his leadership style has been misunderstood for so long, because we’re so used to valuing the bully pulpit. But Eisenhower really believed that the bully pulpit could be useful at some times, but it could be counter-productive in meeting goals if it was used at the wrong time. So he developed an idea about not singling out personalities, not turning issues into personality confrontations, because this way, it’d be very very hard, not only to unite the country but, secondly, of course, to get that person ever to cooperate with you or his allies.
Today, we see that we’ve become so tribalized that this exchange of insults only hardens the bases of these political parties, and that’s something that Ike wanted to avoid. In any case, this was his strategy of, maybe, I’m not going to say it was unique to him, but it certainly was out of sight for many people. And so, we still see today many people who analyze his presidency and think that he wasn’t involved in issues that he was deeply involved in, just in a behind-the-scenes way.
Brett McKay: Well, this being, this idea that he had about just dealing with people and governing, of this idea of never dealing with personalities. He had to deal with this in his first term because in his own party, there was a guy, Joseph McCarthy, who was stirring up trouble, accusing people of communism. And Eisenhower had to deal with it ’cause it was causing problems within his own party and preventing him to get stuff done. But as you said, he didn’t go after McCarthy directly. He did this sort of behind the scenes thing to manage him.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, there are two reasons for that strategically. First of all, the President of the United States cannot censure a member of the United States Senate or the House of Representatives. We have three co-equal branches of government. So it would not be analogous to comparisons that are made with any of our leaders today who one side or the other thinks is using demagogic arguments, because as a co-equal branch of government, which is the Senate, only the Senate could censure Joseph McCarthy. And actually, the Senate supported Joseph McCarthy. And this was the President’s own political party, so he had to use surgery rather than, you might say, bombardment of this particular problem because his own party needed to survive this really toxic confrontation that McCarthy had begun.
Now, the other thing about McCarthy is that he was a junior senator. He wasn’t in the leadership at all. And so Eisenhower decided as a second way of looking at this is that, he would not give McCarthy the thing that McCarthy wanted most. Joseph McCarthy wanted to be elevated to a level where he could be in direct dialogue with the President of the United States, because he had presidential ambitions of his own. And Ike said, “I’m going to deprive this guy of the one thing he wants most,” which is to engage the office of the presidency in an unworthy debate about these many fallacious accusations that McCarthy made. And so today, there is some resonance to that, but still, Eisenhower’s own handling of this is still not understood, because the third pillar of this strategy was to work behind the scenes with members of the Republican Party. To make them understand that this, the activities of Senator McCarthy, were toxic, unjustified and very possibly ultimately damaging for the party itself.
And it turned out to be the case. The Army-McCarthy hearings at the end of this drama revealed McCarthy for who he was, and the Senate finally censured the senator. But this idea that the President of the United States could have done anything to stop McCarthy is just wrong. It was up to the Senate colleagues. And he worked, Eisenhower worked very adroitly behind the scenes to help them understand that they had to take measures.
Brett McKay: And I imagine this took a lot of… All throughout his presidency, he was very principled in this middle way and his style of governing. And I’m sure he was getting pressured all the time saying, “You need to confront McCarthy directly. You need to hit the bully pulpit and say this.” But he had to resist that pressure all throughout his presidency.
Susan Eisenhower: He was under enormous pressure. He was under pressure from people in his administration, he was under pressure from family members, he was under pressure from everybody. But he truly believed, he understood he did not have the power or the authority to censure Senator McCarthy. What he had to do is create the condition so that Senator McCarthy’s own colleagues would do it. And it took longer than I know he liked, but that’s just the reality of our constitutional government. In the meantime, he managed to preserve the integrity of the presidency itself by not “getting down into the gutter with that guy,” and allowing McCarthy to set the rhetorical agenda.
Ike used the bully pulpit all right, he just never mentioned Senator McCarthy. He was out giving speeches about… He’d say, “You can’t fight communism by destroying America.” Or, “Only Americans can hurt America.” He really believed that we had a choice about whether or not we were going to allow this kind of unwarranted accusations to occur. In the meantime, of course, he also had an internal security system, as Truman had, to actually make proper investigations. But certainly the McCarthy effort was over the top and out of bounds.
Brett McKay: So another big issue he faced as president was the Brown v. Board of Education decision in the Supreme Court. And as the head of the Executive Branch, his job is to enforce decisions made by the Supreme Court. But this was an issue that was fraught with a lot of… It was just a really highly contentious issue. How did Eisenhower handle enforcing the Brown v. Board of Education decision?
Susan Eisenhower: I think if there’s one thing about some of the scholarship, not all of it, that’s out there today that distresses me, it is simply some people interpreting what Eisenhower meant by some very forceful words. I don’t know why there’s any question about it, but repeatedly, from the campaign through the first State of the Union Address, and on and on, Eisenhower said that his strategy was to desegregate everything that the federal government controlled, which he pretty much accomplished by the end of his eight years.
Let’s remember that Brown v. Board of Education was a measure that came before the Supreme Court that called for the desegregation of schools. And but by this time, Dwight Eisenhower, because he controlled the District of Columbia, had already desegregated Washington DC schools, and actually the City, the District of Columbia itself. So this idea that he would do what he could control, was what a good strategist would say, “This is what I can accomplish in eight years. A change in the hearts and minds of the public in general is going to be a very, very tough road to hoe. And it’s going to take time.”
Now, with respect to Brown v. Board of Education, it was his Supreme Court appointee as chairman, that would be Earl Warren, who was the one who produced that result in the Supreme Court, and Eisenhower had absolutely no problem enforcing a set of… In enforcing a Supreme Court decision that he agreed with. I’d like to single out David Nichols’ wonderful book called A Matter of Justice, which was really a turning point in the understanding of Eisenhower’s policy on civil rights. Let’s not also forget that he was the first President since reconstruction to achieve passing a Civil Rights Bill in 1957.
Brett McKay: And another thing that was really controversial that he did is he sent in the 101st Airborne. It was in Arkansas, right, to enforce desegregation.
Susan Eisenhower: Yes. Eisenhower believed in the idea of the appearance of overwhelming force. That particular decision to send the 101st Airborne came after Governor Faubus refused to enforce Brown v. Board of Education. The President gave Faubus a chance to do the right thing after a meeting, and when Faubus didn’t do the right thing and stepped back from assurances he made the President at that meeting, the 101st Airborne was called into action. What they did was to help escort and protect nine African-American students as they made their way to Central High School for the beginning of the school year.
Of course, unfortunately, and this is where the federal government could only do so much, whether or not the schools remained public schools was really up to each state of the union. So unfortunately the following year, the state took it upon themselves to cancel classes. And we’re still having this struggle, as we know. We do have everything desegregated, but we’re still having this terrible struggle. But it is worth nothing that Eisenhower used federal forces to protect the African-American youngsters who were being harassed and threatened by a white mob.
Brett McKay: But again, he got criticized ’cause people felt that was… He was just overstepping his bounds, it was tyranny. But at the same time, he was also getting criticized, he got criticized throughout his presidency that he didn’t do enough for Civil Rights as well. And again, it’s sort of like a theme that you see throughout… Even as a general, his career, he was really committed to this principled middle way. And he understood that it wasn’t going to make everyone happy.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, here’s the thing about the middle way. In his mind, the middle way was the middle ground where people could come together from both sides and compose their differences and find compromises that would lead to progress. As it is now, we’re in a winner and loser situation, where we either get everything we want, or we don’t cooperate. And of course, that would have been an anathema to him, that progress is key, and that middle way was the area in the middle that could bring people into that place where a progress could be realized.
And I think also that it is worth noting that the idea behind a middle way is what I would call devising sustainable strategies. Everybody can have a strategy, but if it isn’t sustainable because it’s actually built on something that isn’t universally agreed, or at least generally agreed, then it’s not sustainable. And then you get thrown back, back on it next time around. Actually, if you look at the things that he undertook in his presidential career, it’s remarkable how many of the frameworks he put into place are still with us today.
Brett McKay: So we talked earlier, part of his leadership strategy or his understanding of leadership was that a leader… He has to take care of personal issues himself, because the morale of the people you’re leading is often dependent upon what the leader looks like. If they’re optimistic, people are going to be optimistic. And that can be lonely, because you might have… You might want to grouse, you might have just doubts. You might get depressed. So, who was Eisenhower’s inner circle that he would go to so he could get some support, or sort of vent, ’cause if he couldn’t do that with his subordinates, ’cause he was really adamant about keeping that sort of distance between leader and subordinate.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, let me take the leader and subordinate thing here, first. You know, I understand it. He wanted to be in a position to be unencumbered in his relationship with his colleagues and subordinates at work, be unencumbered from the social aspect because of potential for it skewing your thinking. So he wanted to come in and have a highly professionalized environment that was not colored by a social relationship, let’s put it that way. And so he obviously depended on having friends elsewhere. There were a number of rules in the Eisenhower orbit, and that was that there are no favors to be asked.
He told… I discovered this in the scholarship and in books written by his colleagues, many, many comments about if anybody calls you and says that they’re a friend of mine, ignore it. Give them no help because we don’t do that, right. So, you know, that, of course, to some degree, reflected the fact that of his friends, he wanted them to be friends and not to make the situation more complex. But even ultimately, when somebody has that much power, it’s a very distorting thing for a lot of relationships.
In the book, I had some fun thinking of the many relationships that get distorted by this kind of power, including one’s relationship with one’s doctor. And at the end of the day, I think it’s just inevitable that anybody in that position of authority is going to be relying pretty much on his family, and that is the inner circle. Ike benefited from having an older brother who was a extremely conservative Republican, and a younger brother who was a liberal Republican. So, he got lots of pushback and lots of differing advice, even from his own family, not to mention my father, John, who was one of his confidants.
Brett McKay: That was some of the interesting things about his relationship with his brothers and the discussions they would have via letters, and sometimes they would spill out into the public. He’d get asked at a press conference, “Your brother Edgar said this.” And Eisenhower would be like, “Well, that’s Edgar’s opinion. I don’t care.”
Susan Eisenhower: Yeah. And in one case, he says, “Oh, yeah, that’s Edgar, he’s been criticizing me since I was five years old.”
Brett McKay: Yeah.
Susan Eisenhower: I don’t know, I enjoyed looking into these letters. I knew Edgar Eisenhower. I mean, he was quite a charismatic character and very sure of his opinion. And God love him, but he certainly gave his younger brother the President a run for his money, and I think at the end of the day, Ike would say that it was helpful, just as he relied on Milton Eisenhower, his younger brother, for a view of what the liberals were saying and thinking in his party. But at the end of the day, Brett, and I think this is the thing that stood out for me most, he really believed in the privacy of heart and mind. He didn’t like fussers and cluckers, and he wanted to go into his quiet space to process what he’d seen, to process what he’s hearing, and to make his own decisions, and then he would stick with them and live by them. And I think that it was kind of a maturity that has always stayed with me.
Brett McKay: Yeah, he took up painting. That was one of the things he did when he was processing information, he’d go and paint a landscape.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, it has been noted that his landscapes are very serene. As a matter of fact, I have a couple here that he gave me and they look so calm and, of course, you know that what he was dealing with at the time wasn’t calm at all. I have one painting from 1957, he was undoubtedly working on the deployment of the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock and the aftermath of the launching of the Soviet Sputnik into space. And you would have no idea from looking at this landscape that that’s what was on his mind. But he was very absorbed by color and, like anything else, it’s like people get this from playing golf or going out and engaging in athletics or sailing or something, by the time you get back, your brain’s been somewhere else and you can think about things more clearly.
Brett McKay: So, we talk about how Eisenhower was sort of aloof from people that he led, but at the same time, he was very interested in people. And you highlight these moments that people had with Eisenhower where you could see he was always thinking about people and their needs and their wants. And he’d just do little small, really thoughtful things that would just floor people ’cause they weren’t going to expect that from the President of the United States. Were there any moments like that that really stood out to you?
Susan Eisenhower: Yes. I’d just like to say one thing first is that I would use a different word than aloof, that he was not engaged socially, in other words, he didn’t like to mix business and pleasure, would be another way of saying that because it interferes with the way you think about an issue, an issue that needs clarity and thought, because of the relationship. There are always complaints that people in government decide and make their decisions based on the last person they’ve spoken to. Well, he wanted to avoid that kind of a trap. Now, with respect to, I think the thing… And I had an opportunity over the years to do a fair amount in the leadership and strategic leadership area, and character, of course, plays a huge role in any leader’s capacity to build a bond of trust with those he’s leading. And a huge part of that is how you treat those people. And in this respect, small gestures really matter.
I outline in my book so many small things he did that let his men during the war know that he was not… That this wasn’t about him. It was about us. Okay. And one of the ways he did that, rather ironically, is he never wore a helmet. I’d almost challenge anybody to find a picture of Ike with a helmet on, because he didn’t want to pretend he was out there on a day-to-day basis facing the same physical dangers they were, though sometimes he was in some physical danger. He passes up honors and awards that only go to GIs, like the Congressional Medal of Honor, etcetera.
But what I… The gestures I like the most, or at least I witnessed, and therefore was able to write about, were the gestures made to people who couldn’t do anything for him. They couldn’t vote for him, they couldn’t… They couldn’t recommend him to anybody of any importance, small gestures he made to kids he’d never met before, or GIs who after the war made his acquaintance. And it’s moving to me, because that’s what the Army calls when no one was looking, right. What are people doing when no one is looking? And I think that that benchmark is where you can begin to discuss what character really looks like.
Brett McKay: As you were researching and writing this book, was there anything new that you learned about your grandfather?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I’ll tell you, Brett, for… I was raised to compartmentalize my grandfather’s career from what I know of him as a grandfather. I’ve already made that point on numerous occasions, ’cause I think it’s important to know that I don’t expect everyone to agree with his decisions, but I did want to bring something new to this book that I had no insight into, which is how he handled things and how he thought about things.
And so for the first time in my life, I really put it all together. I mean, what I knew of him with his policies, and there were times when I would read somebody’s scholarship and they’d say, “Well, he did this because… ” And then I thought, “Well, no, that wasn’t really it, because he used to say at the dinner table dot dot dot.” I’m not going to say I was surprised by this, but I guess I will always, for as long as I live, will always be in awe of how he handled the burden of this power and consequential leadership, and in the face of that never became hard or cynical. I just saw no signs of it and I… Not only, it’s not just me. If you read the books of his associates, they were all amazed that he could still be an optimistic forward-thinking person after he’d been to some of the darkest places humankind has ever been.
And I think part of the way he did that is that he believed in something bigger than himself, this wasn’t about him, this was about our country, and it was about securing the peace for a world that had seen catastrophes beyond anything imaginable for today’s generation, that is World War II. And as he once said about this higher cause, he says, “A man just has to forget his fortunes,” and he forgot his fortunes and was able to serve his country, I think, in certainly a genuine way and in a way that was full of dedication and integrity.
Brett McKay: Well, Susan, this has been a great conversation. Where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I think probably my website. Apologies to everybody that it isn’t more fulsome than it should be, but a lot of information about the book is on there, that’s www.susaneisenhower.com, and I could be followed on Twitter, but I sometimes find myself simply speechless to know what I should be saying about the current situation. I look forward to engaging with anybody, and for those who are interested in a copy of the book, I can be reached through my website and would be happy to get a bookplate in the mail.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Susan Eisenhower, thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Susan Eisenhower: Well, I just want to thank you, Brett, for this opportunity and you’ve got a wonderful website there and I just wish you the best of luck.
Brett McKay: Thank you so much.
Susan Eisenhower: Take care.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Susan Eisenhower, she’s the author of the book, How Ike Led. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. And you can find out more information about her work at her website, susaneisenhower.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/howikeled, where you can find links to resources, read a little deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of The AOM podcast. Check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archives which hold thousands of articles we’ve written over the years, including a series about the leadership style of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
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