As a second-year West Point cadet in March 1969, I was returning to my room after chemistry class midafternoon on a Friday. As I stepped inside Pershing Barracks, I saw a number of cadets huddled around a note posted on the stairway railing. In neat penmanship were the words: “General Eisenhower died this morning.”
Neither I nor any of the other cadets were particularly moved by this momentous news. At the time, Eisenhower had struck me as a celebrity general, particularly since he had also been president.
Sure, he had led Allied forces to victory over Germany in Western Europe and had written about it in his book Crusade in Europe, which was later made into an Emmy and Peabody award-winning television documentary. And, of course, he had won the presidency without having previously held elected office.
But while Ike was in office, the American economy hummed along. The U.S. refrained from starting new wars and unemployment remained low. Coming from the deprivations of World War II, Americans basked in the era of Ozzie & Harriet; all was sweetness and light—why, the country practically ran itself! This assessment of Eisenhower’s presidency as carefree and easy is an appealing cliché. But, like so many generalizations of famous men and their times, it’s wrong.
Now, thanks to University of Virginia professor William Hitchcock, we learn just how wrong...