Editor’s note: Today, Oct. 14, marks the date of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s birthday. In tribute to his memory, the author thought it appropriate to examine the inner Ike — as opposed to the public figure.
Exactly 51 years ago, I purchased a copy of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s recently published autobiography. I immediately noticed it bore the same title (“At Ease”) as an article I’d written some time previously for a military magazine.
What did Mr. Eisenhower know about that? And when? Feeling a bit mischievous, I decided to settle the matter by force of arms.
In those gentler times — compared to today’s fortress mentality — little if any risk was attached to the kind of assault I had in mind. Meaning: no SWAT team would surround my house as a result.
Truth to tell, I didn’t really believe Mr. Eisenhower had swiped my story title. I only wanted him to think I did.
My battlefield strategy was simplicity itself: drop an accusatory letter on his desktop. Open with a barrage of verbal artillery fire. Then gradually calm myself, and conclude by humbly petitioning for a presidential favor.
Beneath the letter’s salutation I typed my opening slammer: “For shame!” And below that: “Immediately after your autobiography was published, I contacted my lawyer.”
At this juncture I envisioned the general knocking over his coffee mug — just as in late 1944 when his G-2 came bursting into SHAEF headquarters shouting that the Wehrmacht had broken through in force into the Ardennes. Result: Battle of the Bulge.
I next informed Mr. Eisenhower that while plagiarism was a serious matter, on the advice of counsel I had decided to pursue a non-legal course of action. After all, I conceded, what chance did I— an ex-Navy petty officer — have in a civil court of law contesting a five-star general and Presidential commander-in chief?
Could he therefore simply drop me a note “allowing” as how he had “lifted” my title heading from the enclosed magazine article? In time, I pointed out, his humane gesture would become a treasured souvenir I could show to my grandchildren “...all of whom are as yet unborn.” In closing, I pleaded that a forthright letter from the president would put both of us “at ease.”
Two weeks later I received a reply, date stamped Gettysburg. Plain envelope and no return address. Ike had probably rushed off to Kansas on business and left my annoying letter for his golf caddy to deal with. With scant expectation, I sliced it open...
“I AM GUILTY!”
I swear it! There they were. Three words no American president has ever uttered, much less committed to paper. I glanced at the signature. It was Eisenhower’s for sure, and written on his embossed stationery.
My eyes leaped back to the top; the trio of typed words hadn’t budged. “I am guilty!” The punctuation — so emphatic, like a drill sergeant’s shout — rang loudly in my ears.
But wait... what’s this next line? “Of what, I am not quite sure.” Is Ike pleading sudden memory loss brought on by shell shock? Or maybe it’s one of those Philadelphia lawyers loitering around the Eisenhower farm, mooching Mamie Eisenhower’s brownies in exchange for legal advice?
I read on. “By chance your letter arrived minutes before the senior editor of Doubleday and Company (my publisher) visited my office, and I assure you that for a few moments he showed serious concern, as I did before him, upon reading the first few lines.”
Make that two spilled cups of coffee. If attention-getting letter writing is indeed an art form, then Eisenhower himself deserves a standing ovation.
To better understand Ike’s own way with words when confronted with a challenge, let’s trace his tracks back to June of 1944.
Recorded history tells us that General Eisenhower at that time was struggling to put his thoughts on paper as D-Day approached. Pencil in one hand and a burning cigarette clinched in the other, the Supreme Commander commenced writing the first of two proclamations — letters, if you will — addressed to the Allied military forces under his control.
Within the coming week, Ike’s message would also reach hundreds of thousands of newspaper readers, while millions more would hear his recorded voice broadcast over radio stations reaching half-way around the world.
The first letter, released on the D-Day morning of June 6, set the stage for the Great Crusade (as Ike labeled it). Ike wrote, in part, “Your task will not be an easy one. Your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened. He will fight savagely.”
Ike’s concluding remarks revealed the faith he held as to the outcome: “I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory! Good luck! And let us all beseech the blessing of the Almighty God upon this great and noble undertaking.”
A second letter speaks to the level of responsibility bearing down on his conscience — and his alone. Ike carries this “mea culpa” hand-written notation tucked away in his wallet, ever mindful of the torrent waiting to descend on both his name and reputation should the invasion fail. No ifs, ands or buts tolerated. To wit: “Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the Air and Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do.” And then came the clincher. “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
When Dwight David Eisenhower ran for president in 1952, countless campaign buttons were distributed nationwide among the Republican electorate. Printed beneath the candidate’s image were these three words: “I LIKE IKE!”
Indeed — what’s not to like? And what better proof of the inner man than Mr. Eisenhower’s departing words to a pesty intruder: “My best wishes to you, your children, and the grandchildren yet unborn.”
Three of my adult grandchildren reside in The Dalles area. Should they happen to read this... they’ll likely spill their coffee.