The Lessons of Family
Ida Stover Eisenhower was a woman of special depth-cheerful and sunny, serious and devoted, a dedicated pacifist whose aversion to war was forged in the aftermath of the Civil War, into which Ida was born. Her memories of those days must have been dim-born in 1862, she barely experienced the war itself-but she came of age in Virginia, a land torn to pieces. Ida's mother died when she was five, her father when she was eleven, leaving her a small inheritance. She was raised by her mother's father, taught for a time, and then, in 1883, decamped for Kansas and college.
Ida's determination to get a college degree, so uncommon for a woman of her era, suggests her distinction. She was studious and religious, though hardly doctrinaire. She read Greek and consulted Greek texts of the Bible when she had questions about its commands. As a student at Lane University in Lecompton, Kansas, she met David Jacob Eisenhower, an aspiring engineer of German stock who had come west in 1878. Ida was a year older. They were married on September 23, 1885.
By 1890, David and Ida had two sons, as well as a burden and a grudge. Their wedding present from David's parents was a 160-acre farm and $2,000, but he had no interest in farming, so he mortgaged the land to his brother-in-law and used the money to open a store in Hope, Kansas. Hard times followed, and as farmers fell behind on their credit, the store suffered, then collapsed when Eisenhower's business partner stole what little cash there was left. The failure of that enterprise shadowed the Eisenhower family and impressed on David Eisenhower a devotion to frugality; never again would he go into debt or allow his family to borrow a dime.
The loss of his store wounded David, and those around him felt he never quite recovered. Ida was less rattled by the episode but no less resolute. So determined was she to see justice done that she taught herself the law, pining for a confrontation with the ex- partner that never came.
David took his family to Texas, where he secured work as a railroad engineer and tried to rebuild their lives. It was there, in a Texas thunderstorm on October 14, 1890, that Ida gave birth to her third son, David Dwight Eisenhower.
David may have been the family patriarch, but he was a brooding, remote presence, especially in his later years. He administered discipline and provided for his family, but he was serious to the point of being glum. Ida, by contrast, was the steadfast center of a boisterous home. Although she appears dark haired in some pictures, especially as she grew older, her children remembered her as blond and fair. She played the piano and often sang to herself. She was an accomplished baker who cooked as quickly as her sons could eat. She could whack the head off a chicken without remorse, impart gentle bits of wisdom, chuckle over mischief. "I have seldom seen an unsmiling photograph of her," recalled one of Ike's brothers.
Religion, too, was at the core of their lives. David Eisenhower was raised as a member of the River Brethren, a Pennsylvania Mennonite sect whose Kansas migration swept along the Eisenhower family. Of the nine River Brethren congregations that settled in Kansas in the 1880s, four were clustered in Dickinson County, where Abilene was located. They nevertheless remained a small sect, never numbering more than six hundred followers in the area. They practiced a firm, devotional faith, with emphasis on the moral value of work, the permanence of marriage, and an aversion to gambling, smoking, and drink. Dinner was followed by readings from the Bible; when members of the family fell ill, their fellow congregants prayed for their recovery. But if religion was central to the Eisenhower home, so was a spirit of inquiry. Though David grew up with the River Brethren, he and his wife dabbled with the Baptists and the Methodists and finally joined the Bible Students, a tiny Mennonite group devoted, as the name suggests, to biblical study.
Ida's force of will and David's financial distress combined to create, in some minds, the impression that David was a marginal figure in the Eisenhower home. Ida was indeed a source of great strength. She cared about her values and was entirely devoted to her sons. The slighting of David, however, does him an injustice. Ike recalled his father as a forceful parent, an occasional wielder of the hickory stick against his sons; he fought, usually successfully, to control a brooding temper. "He was not one to be trifled with," Ike wrote many years later, "unless you were prepared to take the consequences."
Their stay in Texas was brief. Soon after Dwight was born, the family returned to Kansas, where the Eisenhowers settled first into a small cottage, then into a modest home that they purchased from David's brother, Ike's uncle Abe. From that point on, David and Ida and their growing family of boys shared a two-story white clapboard ranch house, most of the boys sharing bedrooms in decidedly tight quarters: the home was 818 square feet, smaller than the office Dwight would eventually occupy as chief of staff of the Army.
Abilene was then, as it is today, a modest post on the Kansas plain, windswept in winter, blazing in summer. Wide porches shielded residents from the sun of the prairie, and dust gathered in the corners of every home. The sun beat down on the wheat that extended for miles in every direction. Shade trees shimmered in the evenings and supplied the switches used to discipline the Eisenhower boys. Floods enriched the soil and occasionally did damage. Cattle thundered through the rail yards, heading for eastern markets.
Though destined for a career of breathtaking consequence, Dwight gave bare indication of such potential in his early years. He jockeyed for position in a home of intense competition. Ida and David ran a formidable household where Ike was one of six brothers. Arthur was the oldest, followed by Edgar, then Ike; Earl, Roy, and Milton were younger. A seventh, Paul, died of diphtheria in infancy. Surrounded, Dwight had to wrestle for an identity. Even his nickname, Little Ike, was a nod to his brother Edgar, known in those years as Big Ike. Nor was school a source of distinction. He was a bright student but hardly a dazzling one. Ike's math teacher mildly recalled him as "a very capable and interesting boy." Ike himself recognized his limits. "Baseball, football, boxing were all I wanted to know," he confessed.
For Little Ike, Abilene was formative in ways both subtle and obvious. He fished and trapped and would remain comfortable sleeping in tents and wading in streams his whole life. He struggled with a powerful temper, once beating his fists until they were bloody because he was denied the right to trick-or-treat with his older brothers. He was fascinated by history, particularly military affairs and leaders. He took to sports and learned to play poker percentages with calculating skill. He assumed his share of responsibility in a working home where the boys made money raising and selling vegetables on a small plot near the house.
Ida rotated chores weekly to avoid fights. She was, among her many other characteristics, intensely devoted to fairness. Late in life, when her middle son had vanquished Hitler's Germany and earned the gratitude of the free world, Ida was asked what she thought of her "famous son." Her reply: "Which son do you mean?"
In addition to the family vegetable garden, the boys oversaw a small flock of chickens; they milked the family cow, tended the orchard, washed dishes, cleaned clothes. Among the chores as the boys grew older was cooking, and that, too, left a lasting impression on Ida's middle son. For the rest of his life, Eisenhower would cook to please family and friends-and to calm his nerves.
Ida would later describe Ike as the most difficult of her six boys, but she handled most flare-ups with equanimity. Problems that reached David were often solved with "the old leather strap," but Ida "would philosophize . . . As you thought it over years later, you realized what she had given you." That was no small feat with young Ike, for the boy manifested at least one outstanding trait: he was magnificently stubborn. One fistfight at age thirteen was destined for the history books not because he won it but because he and his combatant fought to exhaustion; by the time it was over, Ike "couldn't lift an arm." And when an infection overwhelmed him and threatened to cost him a leg, even in his delirium, Ike resisted. He enlisted Edgar, Big Ike, to fend off the doctor. Edgar stationed himself at the door to his brother's room, and Dwight, drifting in and out of consciousness, gritted his teeth and toughed it out. Finally, on what the doctor judged as the last opportunity to save him, they painted the young boy's body with carbolic acid. Ike screamed, but it stopped the creeping infection. The leg and the boy were saved.
Eisenhower in those years acquired an enduring and endearing folksiness, one that would ground his achievements in a solid sense of home. Take, for instance, the notes he appended to his final memoir. Among them: his stirring 1945 Guildhall address in London and his recipe for vegetable soup. And Abilene, too, supplied lessons and imagery of the Old West. In his later years, when Ike would visit home, he would often stop by the grave of Tom Smith, the town marshal in its wilder days, axed to death by local outlaws in 1870, just twenty years before Ike was born. Smith, his gravestone reads, was a "martyr to duty . . . who in cowboy chaos established the supremacy of law." Eisenhower extended a schoolboy fascination with Smith into a lifelong admiration. He loved the romance, the triumph of order, the paean to duty. From it was born, among other things, a devotion to Westerns.
An appreciation of history and the outdoors, self-reliance, and ruddy athleticism were among the traits Ike learned in Abilene-along with a fierce will and a clumsy way with women-but what may have most shaped him in those early years were his lessons in moderation, the skill he developed as a boy to navigate between powerful forces, to fight his way past school-yard bullies, and to claim a place in his crowded home of brothers. It is no coincidence that the architect of the "middle way" grew up smack in the middle of six strong boys, their passions channeled by a patient mother.
Two other memories of Abilene influenced Ike in fact and legend. A battle with a stubborn goose as a five-year-old ended when his uncle armed him with a broom handle. The lesson: "Never . . . negotiate with an adversary except from a position of strength." At school, meanwhile, Ike appreciated that students were summoned back from recess with a drum, a system that promoted "quiet, orderly movement . . . The drum communicates a message and calms as it warns. The siren is an assault on the senses." He would always favor steadiness and order and be repelled by the shrill or abrupt.
David and Ida Eisenhower wished for their sons to acquire an education and, with it, prosperous careers; David mercilessly beat Edgar one day when he discovered that Edgar had been skipping school to work in a local doctor's office. Despite occasional setbacks, however, the hopes of the Eisenhower parents were largely realized, as most of their sons pursued higher education. Arthur left home at fifteen and was one of two who did not attend college, but he became a successful banker anyway; Edgar went on to be a lawyer (that irritated his father, too; neither Ida nor David Eisenhower liked lawyers); Earl worked in journalism, radio, and newspapers; Milton, whom his brother liked to refer to as the brains of the family, compiled a distinguished career in academia, capped by the presidency of Johns Hopkins University. Roy also avoided college but worked as a druggist; he died young, too soon to see the crowning moments of Dwight's career in Europe and the United States.
The Eisenhower brothers differed in looks and dispositions: Arthur and Roy were dark haired, Edgar and Milton had light brown hair, Ike was blond, and Earl was a redhead; Arthur, Roy, and Milton were easygoing; Edgar, Earl, and Ike were "hot-tempered and quarrelsome." Edgar was a cranky conservative and Milton an elegant liberal, and they often jostled for their middle brother's ear; Milton almost always prevailed.
If Ike's mother raised him and brothers enveloped him, still another source of sustenance was his friends. In those years and across the decades to come, one particularly meaningful chum was a strapping young man from Abilene, the imposing but shy son of a town doctor. Everett Hazlett, known to Ike as Swede, had gone off to military school and returned to Abilene with a determination to win an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy; Hazlett's signature contribution to the history of his nation was that he persuaded Ike to join him. Ike in those days was working nights and had concocted a plan with Edgar to spot each other through college: Little Ike worked for two years at a local creamery to help pay Big Ike's way, at which point Edgar was to take time off to subsidize Dwight. That promised, however, to be a protracted undertaking, and when Ike first learned of the military academies, he was especially drawn by the prospect of a free education.
Taken with the idea and prodded by Hazlett, he spent several hours each afternoon huddled with Swede studying for the entrance examination for Annapolis. He solicited letters of support from friends and neighbors-discovering in the process the great esteem with which many Abilene residents regarded his parents-but then was chagrined to learn that by the time he would be ready to enter the academy, he would be too old to be admitted. Fortunately, the examination for West Point was nearly identical to that for Annapolis, and when the tests were tallied, Ike finished first among the Annapolis candidates and second among those applying to West Point. The leading West Point contender failed the physical, and Ike secured his appointment.
His mother, who had stoically accepted this turn of events despite her steadfast pacifism, was now forced to acknowledge that her third son was embarked on a military life. On a June day in 1911, he boarded the train with a single suitcase and headed east. Ida and David saw him off, then returned home. Ida entered the bathroom and closed the door behind her. From outside, Milton listened as, for the first time in his life, he heard his mother cry.
It was a Sunday afternoon in October 1915 when Lieutenant Eisenhower, the officer of the day, was making his inspection of the base at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, Texas. Eisenhower was on his first assignment since graduating that spring from West Point. He took his duties seriously.
Excerpted from Eisenhower by Jim Newton. Copyright © 2011 by Jim Newton. Excerpted by permission of Anchor, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.