Friday, June 06, 2014

Eisenhower and the invasion of Europe

Eisenhower with US troops, June 5, 1944

Since this is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Europe, I'll use the occasion to plug a good recent book (Ike's Bluff, by Evan Thomas) on Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the allied forces who gave the order for the invasion to take place on June 6 in spite of his worries about the weather. 

That he knew that the invasion could fail is reflected in a hand-written note Eisenhower wrote and tucked into his jacket pocket before the invasion: "If any blame or fault attaches to the [failed]attempt it is mine alone." 

This echos Robert E. Lee's statement after the failure of the final Confederate assault he ordered at Gettysburg ("All this has been my fault."), of which Eisenhower was surely aware. (Eisenhower bought a home in Gettysburg in 1948.)

Bad behavior by American troops in Europe after the invasion angered Eisenhower:

Eisenhower had witnessed how war brought out courage and comradeship, the best in men, and also the worst. During the Battle of the Bulge, Eisenhower knew that most men who were "separated from their units," in official jargon, were in fact trying to desert. He was vexed that American soldiers in jail for petty infractions almost always declined a pardon if it meant going to the front. 

As the American army liberated Europe in the winter of 1944-45, Eisenhower was so disturbed by reports that American GIs had raped local women that "at one point," wrote military historian Mark Perry, he "thought the only solution was to line up the perpetrators and mow them down."

Eisenhower was a career military man who learned important lessons about the military long before his famous "military industrial complex" speech:

Eisenhower had a healthy skepticism about the grandiose schemes of the military. He knew how the top brass used worst-case scenarios to frighten their civilian masters into spending more on unnecessary new weapons systems and pet boondoggles. [Emmet]Hughes recalled Ike getting worked up during a review of the military budget and telling his advisers, "Look, let me tell you something. I know better than any of you fellows about waste in the Pentagon and about how much fat there is to be cut---because I've seen those boys operate for a long time."

Speaking of invasions, at President Kennedy's request, Eisenhower met with him after the Bay of Pigs fiasco:

The young president was chastened. "Well, just somewhere along the line I blundered, and I don't know how badly," Kennedy told Eisenhower. "Everyone approved---the JCS, the CIA, my staff." Eisenhower started asking a series of pointed questions to learn precisely what the military had said about the CIA plan. Uncomfortably, Kennedy admitted that the Joint Chiefs of Staff had only offered "guarded approval." 

Gingerly, Eisenhower pressed a little further. "Mr. President," he addressed Kennedy, "before you approved the plan did you have everyone in front of you debating the thing so you could get the pros and cons yourself and then make a decision, or did you see these people one at a time?" Kennedy smiled ruefully and admitted that he had not forced a full or formal airing of the invasion plan.

Fortunately for world peace, Kennedy learned an important lesson from the Bay of Pigs, since he resisted pressure from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to attack Cuba during the Cuban Missile crisis in 1962. 

The Joint Chiefs were outraged at Kennedy's blockade strategy and subsequent deal with Khruschev, which General Curtis LeMay compared to appeasing Hitler at Munich. 

That's the sort of thing that could get a president killed.

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