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Cyr column: Eisenhower’s enduring legacy

Arthur I. Cyr
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St. Augustine Record

Columns share an author’s personal perspective.

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On June 22, 1945, 75 years ago, Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower spoke in Abilene, Kansas, his hometown. He received a monumental welcome, in every sense.

Local people of the town and many others were assembled, an enormous crowd. The locals were bursting with pride and the audience overall personified happiness and relief that World War II in Europe ended the previous month.

After a procession of introducers, including the governor of Kansas, Ike himself spoke. His remarks were brief (unlike some of the introductions), clear and powerful. He spoke of a young boy’s ambitions, perhaps to become a railroad conductor and went on to underscore the importance of returning home.

Eisenhower’s profound main point was that any importance he held was as a representative of the 3 million American men and women who had served in the European theatre during the war that just ended. They were the true heroes, in particular those who died.

The end of spring and beginning of summer contain other dates resonant from World War II. On May 8, 1945, Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. On June 6, 1944 - D-Day - the Allies launched the gigantic, enormously complex, extremely risky and vitally important invasion of Nazi occupied Europe on the beaches of Normandy in France.

Germany surrendered without ceremony. Eisenhower remained in his office. Afterward, General Alfred Jodl was escorted there.

Ike briefly confirmed Jodl understood the terms, stated Germany’s delegation was personally responsible for any violations. He avoided saluting. In contrast, General Douglas MacArthur turned Japan’s surrender into a gigantic public extravaganza worthy of Hollywood.

The Normandy invasion combined thorough planning, vast matériel and great imagination. A year of extremely brutal, almost continuous combat lay ahead, but the end of Nazi Germany was in sight once forces secured the beaches.

Eisenhower was crucial. He demonstrated great executive ability in supervising the enormous logistics, and brilliant interpersonal skill that welded and held together the most diverse military alliance in history.

Remarkably, he was able to establish overall unity of command. This eluded even the American military alone in the Pacific, where flamboyant, theatrical MacArthur pursued one strategic vision, while the U.S. Navy implemented a different approach.

Extensive bombing of transport routes and supply depots in France was viewed by Eisenhower as crucial preparation. Such action would bring an estimated minimum of 60,000 civilian casualties, and perhaps far more. For various reasons, many American and British air commanders resisted, arguing for a more limited effort.

He was adamant about the absolute need for heavy bombing, arguing that less would put the risky invasion in even graver danger. Free French General Charles de Gaulle agreed and gave unequivocal support. Ike was correct, and had managed to establish an effective working relationship with the difficult French leader.

Ike never lost awareness of the terrible human costs of war, borne primarily by the enlisted ranks. He constantly stressed the fundamental role of the combat soldier, and regularly visited troops in the field. Photographs with young American paratroopers preparing to depart on D-Day are gripping. Like U.S. Grant, his uniform was plain and unadorned.

He was a supremely gifted leader of Americans, and others as well. He demonstrated public modesty but when necessary also employed an iron fist.

When Eisenhower died, President Richard Nixon’s eulogy placed him with George Washington: “first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen.”

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact acyr@carthage.edu.