“Who did I think I was, running against George Washington?” – Adlai Stevenson, 1952 
This future president was born into a large family, had a mother who wasn’t a big fan of his military career, first served his country as a general in the military before becoming president, and ended his presidency with a warning against partisanship. No, I am not talking about George Washington. This time, I am talking about Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th President of the United States, born 130 years ago today on October 14, 1890.
With voting underway in the 2020 presidential election, it is impossible not to reflect on some of our past leaders and, of course, here at The George Washington Foundation, we would be remiss if we didn’t look at the leadership qualities of George Washington. As a young boy living at Ferry Farm, no one could have possibly known what would become of George. With our hindsight, we can look to the influence of his mother and older half-brother, who both molded him. Washington’s leadership qualities are difficult to quantify, but we can certainly say that his commanding presence (he was 6’3” and quite athletic from all that horseback riding) was a good first step.
Eisenhower also possessed a commanding presence as a young man. At 5’11” he wasn’t the tallest of his contemporaries nor did he rival Washington’s height, but he was an exceptional athlete, who played football at West Point. His presence was felt in a room. It was a presence certainly felt by his bride, Mamie Doud, daughter of a meatpacking executive, and considered quite out of Ike’s league when they met. Similar to George and Martha, Ike and Mamie were mismatched financially but had a strong marriage despite war, politics, and long periods of separation.
Early in Eisenhower and Washington’s military careers, they both found their roads blocked. Washington, initially hoping to join the Royal Navy, was shot down by his mother. Only later did he join the Virginia militia, experiencing combat for the first time during the French and Indian war. Eisenhower went to work straight out of high school, helping to support his family and allowing his older brother to attend school first. With the financial stability of his family in question, Ike wasn’t sure he’d even get the chance to go to college at all until a friend pointed out that the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis was tuition-free. He decided to request consideration for both the Naval Academy and for the United States Military Academy at West Point. He was too old for Annapolis but got into West Point. His mother, a pacifist, was disappointed, but understood Ike’s decision. Here we see one differentiation in our parallel men; Eisenhower did not see any combat experience during World War I. Instead, he frustratingly found himself stuck stateside.
As to learning military leadership, Washington had first-hand experience while Eisenhower spent several years training others for a war he missed. However, both Washington and Eisenhower served as aides to generals from whom they learned much. Washington, even at the end of his life, credited British General Edward Braddock with giving him his first command opportunity and teaching him the knowledge he needed to succeed in his military career. Similarly, Eisenhower spent four years of the 1930s in the Philippines with General Douglas MacArthur. While theirs wasn’t a mentor/mentee relationship like Washington and Braddock, Eisenhower’s time with MacArthur taught him skills that would prove vital when he encountered difficult personalities throughout the rest of his career.
Indeed, both Eisenhower and Washington had their fair share of thorns in their sides. For Washington, during the American Revolution, people like Charles Lee left him fuming. During the presidency, his constant disagreements with Thomas Jefferson were infuriating. Eisenhower faced similar issues. During World War II, he struggled with generals like George Patton and British Bernard Montgomery who refused to follow orders. Later, in his presidency, Ike faced the likes of Nikita Khrushchev. Ike and George handled these challenges with poise and delicacy.
When given the opportunity to choose their own staff, both men had a knack for picking good ones. Washington’s reliance on Henry Knox, Nathaniel Greene, Daniel Morgan, and others was a big part of what led to our victory in the Revolution. Eisenhower surrounded himself with Walter Bedell Smith, Omar Bradley, and Matthew Ridgway – generals who all helped execute the victory in World War II.
After the Revolution, Washington desired nothing else but retirement at Mount Vernon. At the end of World War II, Ike expressed his desire to do the same, purchasing a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to serve as his retirement home. All the same, both men found their country was yet not finished with them. Washington and Eisenhower were each approached and convinced by others to stand for president. Having spent his entire adult life in the military, Eisenhower lacked political party affiliation but eventually decided to run as a Republican. Non-partisanship was something Washington officially maintained throughout his presidency. With immense popularity assured by their monumental military victories, the generals won electoral landslides.
Throughout their presidencies, George and Ike struggled with deepening clashes between political parties, an overly powerful military, and a nation recovering from tragedy and loss. Both men focused much of their administration on domestic issues. Washington helped build a victorious but infant nation while Eisenhower helped move forward a victorious but war-weary nation. George created the role of president, setting standards for the future, the most important of which was the two-term limit. He brought together several states that had once viewed themselves as individual nations into one nation of many states. Ike established the Interstate Highway System, used the National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division to enforce desegregation in Arkansas, and admitted Alaska and Hawaii into the Union. However, as leaders of a nation in the world, neither man could ignore foreign affairs either. Washington focused on remaining neutral and chose not to help the French during their own revolution. Eisenhower ended the Korean War and sought to contain Communism without breaking the federal budget through an increased reliance on nuclear deterrence.
At the conclusion of their time in office, both men gave memorable Farewell Addresses. In fact, both speeches are considered two of the greatest given in our nation’s history. As part of his legacy, Washington warned against political parties as paths to division. He expressed worry about creating too close of an alliance with another country, fearing it could drag the nation into conflict. He stated that “overgrown military establishments” were a threat, and stressed the need for “peace and harmony”. For Eisenhower’s part, he warned against a too powerful “military industrial complex”, discussed the need to cultivate positive foreign relations, and said that “America’s prestige” would be defined by “how we use our power in the interests of world peace”. These two great men who gained their fame from war and had seen war’s horrors up close both hoped the country would not have to face another conflict.
While their lives certainly contain many parallels, perhaps the greatest similarity between Washington and Eisenhower was their leadership style. Both men were optimistic in the face of adversity, lead with exemplary character and morality, and were willing to accept the blame for failure entirely on themselves. They both respected and admired the soldiers who fought under them. They were able to control their emotions and exhibit remarkably strong will. But, in the end, perhaps the one quality that allowed both of them such success was their general likability.
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 Cooke, Alistair, “Adlai Stevenson: The Failed Saint” in Six Men. London: Penguin, 2008.