Leadership

I Liked Ike
by Lt. Gen. Clarence E. McKnight, Jr.

In this period of political upheaval when comity and compromise are endangered species and many of our most sacrosanct traditions are routinely disregarded, I find myself dwelling in earlier times when there were giants in the earth who evoked the better angels of our nature and led us to greatness.
I chanced upon a Norman Rockwell portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower that appeared on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post back in October 1952 a few weeks before his first election to the Presidency. A note from his granddaughter is appended saying Rockwell was having trouble getting the great man to smile. Finally he showed Ike some pictures of his grandchildren, and that evoked the smile that brightens up the portrait.
Some would point out that Ike, like the current occupant of the White House, had no previous political experience, but that would be wrong. As Supreme Allied Commander in the European Theater in World War II, Ike had the most political of jobs - keeping all those disparate political and military leaders from different countries on the same page - as survival of the free world hung in the balance. By D-Day he was living on five packs of cigarettes a day, but kept his composure and got the job done.
The night before our troops went ashore in Normandy, Ike wrote out a press release to be issued if the great assault failed. In it he said all of the military people had done everything possible to achieve victory, and that responsibility for the failure was his and his alone. He was a leader for the ages.
As President, Ike had a vision of what this country could become. As a young officer, he had taken a military brigade across the country and appreciated how inefficient our mishmash of highways was. He was not the first to envision a nationwide system of broad highways, but he was the driving force that made it happen - launching the Interstate Highway System.
For eight years, Ike passed up one opportunity after another to lead our country into another war. He had seen enough of war. And he recognized the perils of the military-industrial complex and sought to keep it under restraint. He knew what those numbers in the annual military budget really meant, and chopped out the nonsense.
Like most of his generation, Ike was a reluctant convert to racial progress, but when the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional, and the racist firebrands fought back, Ike sent in the troops. That was only one chapter of a centuries-long quest for racial justice, but it was a critical one. Ike could make it stick because he had enormous stature. It was a time when the American people were first coming to terms with our role as a great superpower, and taking note of our own shortcomings. We were wrestling with dynamic forces that challenged our traditional attitudes under the cloud of nuclear annihilation, but we got through it because of inspired leadership. Looking back today, I realized how blessed we really were.
Lt. Gen. Clarence E. "Mac" McKnight, Jr., (USA-Ret) is the author of "From Pigeons to Tweets: A General Who Led Dramatic Change in Military Communications," published by The History Publishing Company.