Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Meteoric Rise from “Obscure Lieutenant Colonel” to Wartime Commander
Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from Michael E. Haskew’s book, West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell On.
On the afternoon of Sunday, December 7, 1941, Dwight Eisenhower was exhausted. The Louisiana Maneuvers had just been completed, and after returning to Fort Sam Houston, he settled down for a long nap, leaving orders that he was not to be disturbed.
Within a few minutes, those orders were disobeyed with the alarming news that the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and other American military installations in Hawaii. The United States was at war. As the army leadership swung into responsive action, Eisenhower’s plans for Christmas leave at West Point to visit with son John, who was then a plebe, were dismissed.
Five days after the Japanese attack, the telephone in Eisenhower’s office clanged. “‘Is that you, Ike?’” he remembered the caller asking. “‘The Chief says for you to hop a plane and get up here right away. Tell your boss that formal orders will come through later.’ The ‘Chief’ was General George Marshall, and the man at the other end of the line was Colonel Walter Bedell Smith, who was later to become my close friend and Chief of Staff throughout the European operations.”
During the flight from Texas to Washington, D.C., Eisenhower considered the implications of a staff assignment during wartime. Throughout his career, he had endeavored to command troops in the field. Now, just as the United States had entered World War II, he had been ordered away from a troop assignment to the War Department. Years later, he called the message a “hard blow.”
There was little time to contemplate personal preference, though. When Eisenhower arrived at Marshall’s office on the morning of Sunday, December 14, he was ushered in, “and for the first time in my life talked to him for more than two minutes.”
Marshall presented an overview of the bleak strategic situation in the Pacific and the obvious peril in the Philippines. The Japanese were certainly planning to take the islands, and without substantial resupply and reinforcement, the American and Filipino forces there could be expected to put up a spirited resistance that was destined to fail. Marshall inquired matterof- factly, “What should be our general line of action?”
Drawing on his card-playing experience, Eisenhower was poker faced. He asked for a desk and a few hours to contemplate the question, utilizing his unique understanding of the situation in the Philippines gleaned from his years of service there. He concluded that the islands could not be reinforced sufficiently to hold the Japanese at bay but that everything that could be done to support the troops there should be done.
Eisenhower told Marshall, “It will be a long time before major reinforcements can go to the Philippines, longer than the garrison can hold out with any driblet assistance, if the enemy commits major forces to their reduction. But we must do everything for them that is humanly possible. The people of China, of the Philippines, of the Dutch East Indies, will be watching us. They may excuse failure, but they will not excuse abandonment.”
Eisenhower further asserted that the base of Allied operations in the Pacific should be established in Australia and that the aerial supply routes from there to Hawaii should be preserved at all costs.
Marshall listened to the short, succinct report and snapped, “I agree with you. Do your best to save them.”101 In all likelihood, the chief of staff had already come to the same conclusions. Eisenhower had passed his test with flying colors and contributed heavily to his rapid rise in rank and responsibility.
Before the two parted company, Marshall offered a glimpse of his perspective on command. “Eisenhower,” he stated, “the [War] Department is filled with able men who analyze their problems well but feel compelled always to bring them to me for final solution. I must have assistants who will solve their own problems and tell me later what they have done.”
Two other factors contributed significantly to Eisenhower’s ascent in late 1941 and early 1942. Marshall had initiated a massive overhaul and reorganization of the army’s command structure, and Eisenhower’s West Point classmate Maj. Gen. Joseph McNarney was placed in charge of the undertaking. The chief of staff had also asked an old friend of Eisenhower’s from West Point for a list of ten officers he thought best qualified to lead the new Operations Division of the War Department General Staff.
Brigadier General Mark Clark was an ambitious staff officer destined to command the Allied Fifth Army during the Italian Campaign in World War II. He was a graduate of the Class of 1917 who had been assigned to Eisenhower’s barracks at the Academy, and he emphatically responded to Marshall’s request with only one name. “Ike Eisenhower. If you have to have 10 names, I’ll just put nine ditto marks below.”
In December 1941, Eisenhower attended the first meeting of the newly formed Anglo-American Combined Chiefs of Staff. During three weeks of talks in Washington, D.C., the Arcadia Conference reinforced a consensus that Nazi Germany, which had declared war on the United States on December 11, would be the priority while Japan would be contained and dealt with as resources permitted. Recognizing Eisenhower’s promise, Marshall made it possible during the conference for his protégé to gain exposure to both the British and American senior military and political leaders.
In February 1942, Eisenhower succeeded his longtime friend Leonard Gerow as assistant chief of staff in charge of war plans. Although his new role was one of great responsibility, Eisenhower envied Gerow, who received promotion to major general and command of the 29th Infantry Division. In March, Eisenhower was named chief of the newly created Operations Division. He was promoted to the temporary rank of major general, reflecting briefly that he had achieved the grade that most army officers of the day considered the pinnacle of an exceptional military career.
The spring of 1942 was a time of incredible challenge, and serving as the chief war planner for the US Army required Eisenhower to work long hours. Tempers, including Eisenhower’s, were often short. While his staff formulated plans for both the European and Pacific Theaters, he did all he could do to allocate scarce resources to the embattled Philippines, where his old boss MacArthur howled that his command had been abandoned. The horrible truth was that the Philippines would be lost. It was only a matter of time.
Meanwhile, Eisenhower’s staff worked feverishly on operations that might relieve the pressure on the embattled Soviet Red Army, which had been fighting the Nazis on the Eastern Front for a year. Operation Sledgehammer constituted an emergency landing in Western Europe in the event of an imminent Soviet collapse. Operation Bolero outlined the massive troop and supply buildup in Great Britain that would be necessary in support of any major offensive in Western Europe. Operation Roundup was the precursor of the Allied invasion of Northern France that later became known as Operation Overlord.
Growing in urgency were the plans for the Allied invasion of North Africa, known as Operation Torch. The impetus for Torch had grown out of pressure to assist the Soviets in their fight to the death with the Nazis in the East by establishing a second front. Although Soviet Premier Josef Stalin had demanded action, the British had insisted that an attack against Nazi-occupied France involving an amphibious operation across the English Channel could not be mounted with any expectation of success prior to 1944. Marshall and most American senior officers were frustrated by the circumstances but acquiesced. Operation Torch was scheduled for the autumn of 1942.
On March 10, Eisenhower’s father, David, died in Abilene. Although he had never been exceptionally close to his father, Dwight felt the loss deeply. However, the exigencies of war prevented his attending the funeral. He sent a telegram to his mother and locked himself away for several hours on the day of his father’s funeral to meditate and pray.
Within weeks, word reached the War Department that the heroic defenders of Bataan and Corregidor had surrendered. The Philippines had fallen. On orders from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, MacArthur and his wife and young son had been spirited out of immediate danger aboard a Navy PT boat. Left to the bitter end, Gen. Jonathan Wainwright had surrendered more than eighty thousand troops to the Japanese. It remains the largest capitulation in American military history.
In late May, Marshall’s growing concern about the implementation of Operation Bolero prompted him to send Eisenhower on a fact-finding mission to England. Eisenhower and Mark Clark determined that the performance of the American command then in place was inadequate. Their chauffeur was a young woman named Kay Summersby, with whom Eisenhower was later and most likely incorrectly linked.
The American officers met with the British chiefs of staff and described ongoing preparations for Operation Roundup, which, at the time, they were still projecting for early 1943. Eisenhower asserted that the most pressing item of business was the naming of a commander for the invasion.
When one of the British officers posed the question to Eisenhower as to who he thought would be best to lead Roundup, he considered the fact that in 1943 the British would initially supply the preponderance of the troops committed to the invasion. He remembered Marshall’s high opinion of Adm. Lord Louis Mountbatten and mentioned his name as an individual who had been studying amphibious operations for some time and was also thought of as vigorous, intelligent, and courageous. Eisenhower made the statement without realizing that Mountbatten was seated across the table from him. A moment of embarrassment was followed by an introduction, and the two officers became great friends.
Eisenhower and Clark also made their first acquaintance with feisty British Lt. Gen. Bernard Law Montgomery while observing an exercise in Kent, southeast of London. It was the beginning of a contentious relationship for Eisenhower, one that would require all the tact, diplomacy, and charm the man from Kansas could muster. Clark remembered that Montgomery arrived extremely late for a briefing:
He shook hands stiffly, making it very clear that we were mere major generals while he was a lieutenant general. He told us, “I’m sorry I’m late, but I really shouldn’t have come at all. I’ll make it brief.” He turned to a big map on the wall and, with a pointer, started showing us where the troops were, the German troops and his. Ike took out a pack of cigarettes, lit one and in a minute or so, Montgomery, not turning around, said, “Who’s smoking?” “I am, sir,” said Eisenhower, and Montgomery said, “Stop it. I don’t permit it here.” Ike dropped the cigarette on the floor, stepped on it, and looked at me, very red faced. Monty took a few minutes more, then said, “That concludes my presentation. Sorry to be so abrupt.” He shook hands, and out we went.
When he returned to Washington on June 3, Eisenhower stopped short of recommending the removal of the entire American command structure in England and starting from scratch. Nevertheless, he recommended that a headquarters be established to spearhead the coordination of the buildup. Marshall set Eisenhower at once to producing a job description for the officer who would command the growing US military presence in Europe. As Marshall read through the description a few days later, he asked Eisenhower for a recommendation to fill the post.
Eisenhower had already considered the available choices and responded that his friend and classmate McNarney was the man for the job. He wrote, “I believe that General McNarney has the strength of character, the independence of thought, and the ability to fulfill satisfactorily the requirements of this difficult task.”
McNarney was indeed a brilliant organizer, and the choice was solid. At the time, however, he had just completed the reorganization of the War Department that Marshall had mandated and been elevated to deputy chief of staff in the previous ninety days. Marshall would not release him for duty in the European Theater.
When Marshall sought the opinions of other officers concerning a European Theater commander, Eisenhower’s name came up more than once. Marshall had also been in close contact with Eisenhower for several months. The chief of staff appreciated the fact that his protégé, unlike so many other officers of excellent talent who seemed to lose their composure during direct communication with him, was never tongue-tied or awestruck in his presence. Although he possessed a fiery temper, Eisenhower had learned to keep it under control. His wide grin and affable manner made him instantly likable. Already Marshall knew that the successful prosecution of coalition warfare required a leader with a rare set of skills—soldier, diplomat, and consensus builder.
Eisenhower later recalled that when he presented his overview of the European Theater commander’s responsibilities to Marshall, “I remarked to General Marshall that this was one paper he should read in detail before it went out because it was likely to be an important document in the further waging of the war. His reply still lives in my memory: ‘I certainly do want to read it. You may be the man who executes it. If that’s the case, when can you leave?’ Three days later General Marshall told me definitely that I would command the European Theater.”
At this juncture, Eisenhower’s primary mission was two-fold: energize Operation Bolero and prepare for Operation Torch, seeing to it that the buildup for the cross-Channel attack that was surely to come proceeded apace and ensuring the success of the landings in North Africa. Command of the Normandy invasion itself was not part of the package. In fact, that important role, as far as Eisenhower knew, might well be reserved for Marshall himself. Nevertheless, Eisenhower’s success in his new post was critical to winning the war. It carried with it the double-edged sword of prestige and responsibility second only to that of the chief of staff.
Eisenhower’s effective date as commander of US Forces, European Theater of Operations was June 25, 1942. Less than a year earlier, he had been an obscure lieutenant colonel. At dinner on the evening of his appointment, Eisenhower told Mamie that he would be returning to London and that this time it would probably be for the duration of the war. She asked, “What post are you going to have?” He grinned and responded, “I’m going to command the whole shebang.”
Michael E. Haskew is the author of West Point 1915: Eisenhower, Bradley, and the Class the Stars Fell on.