Main Content

Rubenstein Center Scholarship

The Life and Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower

The Official 2019 White House Christmas Ornament historical essay

The White House Historical Association’s Official 2019 White House Christmas Ornament honors Dwight D. Eisenhower, thirty-fourth president of the United States. His administration spanned the years 1953 to 1961, between President Harry S. Truman and President John F. Kennedy. Throughout his notable army career and presidency, Eisenhower was an innovator, a trait to which the helicopter represented in the ornament pays tribute. The “whirlybird” saw its first official use during World War II in 1942. Although security personnel feared for the president’s safety, Eisenhower, who loved flying, prevailed and on July 12, 1957, became the first president to fly in a helicopter while in office. The helicopter became a feature of White House life, used often by the president to commute short distances, demonstrating to the public and indeed the world that it was safe. Privately the U.S. Secret Service saw it as a means of quick escape from the White House in case of a nuclear attack.

The design of the Official 2019 White House Christmas Ornament follows President Eisenhower’s example of fairness. As the first president to regularly use a helicopter, he had two Executive Flight Detachments for his transport. These were provided by flight crews of the United States Army and the United States Marine Corps. To demonstrate his impartiality, the president alternated between these helicopters and their respective military personnel. Likewise, the 2019 White House Christmas Ornament does not represent a single helicopter. One side features the Presidential Seal, representing Eisenhower’s two terms as commander in chief of the Armed Forces. On the other is his five-star rank, honoring his military service as a general in the United States Army

This oil on canvas portrait of President Dwight D. Eisenhower was painted by James Anthony Wills. Prior to being elected president, Eisenhower was supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II, the first military governor of the U.S.-occupied zone in Germany, president of Columbia University, and the supreme commander of NATO. He served as president from January 20, 1953 until January 20, 1961.

White House Collection/White House Historical Association

Dwight David Eisenhower, 1890–1969

When Eisenhower’s presidential library was being planned, it was widely believed that the president had been born in Abilene, Kansas, where he grew up. He thought so himself until his mother corrected the record. Eisenhower had in fact been born in Denison, Texas. His library’s location was not changed, for the president loved Abilene, and the cottage where he was actually born was acquired by a nonprofit organization and is restored and open to the public in Denison.

Abilene was home to Eisenhower. Brought there as a baby, he was raised with six brothers in a snug Queen Anne frame house on a tree-shaded street. His parents, David Jacob Eisenhower and Ida Elizabeth Stover Eisenhower, provided for their sons modestly but fully. Eisenhower treasured memories of his childhood and youth, his joining local organizations and playing football and baseball at Abilene High School. He was reared in the Christian faith with a strong work ethic, and his mature life was characterized by both. One day he would sign the legislation officially adding the phrase “under God ” to the Pledge of Allegiance.

Admitted in 1911 to the United States Military Academy at West Point, Eisenhower starred in football until a knee injury precluded both that and baseball. He was a good student, but outstanding in his human interactions. He was appointed second lieutenant upon his graduation in 1915 and ordered to duty at various posts in Texas.

During his time in Texas, Eisenhower met Mamie Geneva Doud, whom he married in 1916. From a prosperous Denver, Colorado, family, she would accompany her husband through more than fifty years of happy marriage and through more than thirty moves from army post to army post, to Paris, and to the White House. She remembered decorating drab army quarters any way she could to render them presentable for the man she, and history, would call “Ike.” They had two sons. The first, Doud Dwight, died at the age of three in Lieutenant Eisenhower’s arms, a victim of scarlet fever. John Sheldon Doud Eisenhower was born in 1922 and lived a long life as an army officer and later as a historian.

On the day of his July 1, 1916, wedding, Eisenhower was promoted to first lieutenant, beginning a rhythmical rise in rank that would establish his generalship in less than thirty years. Two years after his promotion to the rank of major in 1920, he was ordered to the Panama Canal Zone. In 1926, he graduated first in his class from the Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, an officers’ graduate program. During the 1930s he was ordered to the Philippines to serve as assistant to General Douglas MacArthur, the army’s chief of staff, and in 1940 returned to the United States.

Eisenhower’s request for a combat assignment in Europe at the outbreak of World War I had not been granted. Instead he filled various roles at home, including the training of troops. An excellent troubleshooter with ambition and extraordinary leadership ability, Eisenhower was always successful in carrying out his assignments and developed a notable military reputation. By 1940 another war was brewing with Germany. Eisenhower was eager to take part, and this time he had his way. In 1942, after two years of assignments on the West Coast and at Fort Sam Houston, he was ordered to Washington, D.C., and promoted to major general.

Eisenhower’s role in World War II is well known. As chief of the War Plans Division, he was party to the logistics of the Allied command that consisted of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. He planned and commanded the invasion of North Africa. After commanding the climactic Normandy invasion on D-Day, he was promoted to five star general. Following the war he served as military governor of the U.S. Occupation Zone in defeated Germany. In 1948 he became president of Columbia University, taking a leave of absence in December 1950 to accept appointment by President Harry S. Truman as supreme allied commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, stationed in Paris.

The VCH-34 presidential helicopter, which carried President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on display at the U.S. Army Aviation Museum.

Nathan Pfau

The Eisenhower Administration, 1953–1961

Supporters had already urged Eisenhower to run for president in 1948, so it was rather foreordained that he would be a candidate in 1952, but whether he would run as a Democrat or a Republican remained on the table for quite a while. President Truman urged him toward the Democrats, but the Republican Party won him, and his campaign slogan “I Like Ike” became a household jingle as the hero of World War II rode a landslide into office. Eisenhower was the only army general elected president in the twentieth century, though he had notable earlier predecessors in George Washington, Andrew Jackson, and Ulysses S. Grant.

To reflect upon Eisenhower and his amazing career both before and during his two-term presidency is to contemplate one of the most unusual and smoothest paths anyone ever made to the office. Most of his career years in the 1920s and 1930s, up to the war, had been quiet ones where the general public was concerned. His achievements were many; he had strong executive ability and the gift of command. But this was known only within the army. His emergence before the public came at first modestly, in his outstanding command of army maneuvers in Louisiana and East Texas. This earned him his generalship, and those who would fight the war, such as General George Patton, were singled out by him and General George C. Marshall as excellent prospects for leadership on the battlefield. As for Eisenhower the war hero, he never experienced the blood of actual battle but commanded from headquarters. In this as in everything else he undertook, he excelled.

The electorate expected greatness from the new president. He took office after World War II had been over for nearly eight years. But if the warring world wanted peace, it had not settled, for conflict had flared in a divided Korea. During the campaign, Eisenhower promised “to go to Korea” to end it, and he did. An armistice in July 1953 established a demilitarized zone between the Communist North and the Republic in the South. In Europe, Eisenhower continued Truman’s peace policies, notably the successors of the Marshall Plan that ensured the recovery of war-torn nations. But the menace of tensions between the democratic West and the Communist East, and specifically between the superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, marked Eisenhower’s entire presidency. The Cold War was intensified by nuclear threats and each nation’s power to destroy the other. This arduous standoff, a war without the fire of direct confrontation, long outlived Eisenhower’s administration.

At home, Eisenhower accomplished the admission of Hawaii and Alaska into the Union. He founded the United States Information Agency and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He established the federal interstate highway system, patterned on the Autobahn in Germany, only greater in scope, covering the vastness of the entire United States and creating ready access, in military necessity, to its parts. Expressing long-held personal views, he supported the Civil Rights Act, which he signed September 9, 1957, in an office reserved for him at the naval base in Newport, Rhode Island. Activated that day, the first civil rights act since 1875, it was a voting law. Later that month Eisenhower sent U.S. troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to protect nine African American students in the desegregation of the city’s Central High School. In a televised address to the nation he declared, “We are a nation where laws, not men, are supreme.”

As president, Eisenhower became increasingly aware of his role in calming turbulent waters and the power of his visual presence to comfort the public. Even in the fall of 1955, when he suffered a heart attack while in Colorado, he made appearances, flashing his famous grin, assuring the world that he was okay. His situation was in fact more serious than he said, and his health at several other junctures did seem precarious. The public’s recent memory of the death in office of President Franklin D. Roosevelt sharpened fears about Eisenhower’s well being.

Innovator that he was, Eisenhower turned to television. He called in the movie star Robert Montgomery, a key player in the popularization of TV, to set up appearances that would extend but modernize the idea of President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats. On the Ground Floor of the White House, beneath the Entrance Hall, President Truman had turned the old kitchen into a Broadcast Room, designed for radio communication. Montgomery adapted it to television. Taking into account that the president was accustomed to live audiences and not TV, he hung up a black curtain with holes in it for the cameras and lights. The president was seated at a desk. Montgomery remembered his terror at puffing makeup powder on the shiny bald spots on the head of the most powerful man in the world. To Montgomery’s delight, President Eisenhower fared well with TV and became such a skilled performer that the black curtain could be folded away.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower arrives via U.S. Marine Corps helicopter on board the U.S. Navy heavy cruiser USS Des Moines, December 15, 1959.

Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command

President and Mrs. Eisenhower at Home in the White House

The Eisenhowers moved into a White House that seemed in many respects brand new following the renovation of the Truman administration. To Mrs. Eisenhower’s request for alterations, the president declined, saying that more than $5 million had been spent and the house needed no changes. Mamie Eisenhower, however, triumphed in small ways. Once, early on, when the president consulted the chef about a menu and the two decided what would be served, she informed him that he might run the nation but she ran the house. And so the rule stood. Mrs. Eisenhower did little to alter the physical house, except to permit the redecoration of the Diplomatic Reception Room with antique furniture and to outfit the private quarters with sheer curtains made of parachute silk—obtained through military surplus with the thrift she had learned as an army wife.

Mamie Eisenhower was a very popular first lady, somewhat in the mold of Dolley Madison. Recalling Henry Clay’s statement that “everyone loves Mrs. Madison,” the same was said of Mrs. Eisenhower many times over. Her hand was seen in everything about the house. She loved to decorate for parties. Halloween saw hay and pumpkins on the marble pillars in the Entrance Hall; Christmas saw a great tree in the East Room, spangled with colorful ornaments and lights. To satisfy an enormous surge of interest by the public in seeing inside the Eisenhower White House, she introduced special group tours, in which she participated with a short greeting before turning the groups over to volunteer guides. Every employee in the house received the first lady’s favor of a birthday gift. She became part of their lives, showing her gratitude in a certain familiarity not shared by the president.

The Eisenhowers entertained officially more than any before them. There were breakfasts and dinners. The State Dining Room held about 115 guests, a little cramped. For the president’s businessman breakfasts and luncheons, President William Howard Taft’s old pine tables were brought out from storage, covered with white damask tablecloths, and snaked around the State Dining Room in configurations sometimes odd but seating as many as necessary. Most of the large lunches and dinners were served to men, with no women in attendance, in contrast to the largely equal representation of today. Each formal occasion followed traditional White House style. Cocktails were served by butlers in the East Room, then the march two-by-two to dinner, devised, like the seating, with the definitive advice of the Department of State. The menus were planned with an eye to banquet thrift: hearty American cooking, with several wines. On the tables were special flower arrangements supervised by Mrs. Eisenhower personally.

All in the Eisenhower White House was not work. The Eisenhowers paced themselves carefully, programming leisure into their official schedule. In 1950, anticipating retirement, the general purchased a farm of 189 acres near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with a deteriorating old house. He and Mrs. Eisenhower had never owned a home, and this farm became the roost they loved. Over time the land was increased to 690 acres, and the house was virtually reconstructed, the front wall and stair alone surviving as part of a new house. The Eisenhowers went to Gettysburg as often as the busy job of president permitted.

Another retreat less used, but still provided by the government, was Franklin Roosevelt’s “Shangri-La,” a converted children’s summer camp, a sort of Daniel Boone village in the Maryland mountains. President Eisenhower renamed the camp for his grandson, David, thus the famous Camp David of today. The Eisenhowers made good use of these retreats, both for their enjoyment and health and as quiet places to work. And it is in reaching those two places the president liked to try his hand at flying the White House helicopter himself. Mrs. Eisenhower was afraid to fly with him and always commuted by automobile.

The Eisenhower Christmas Celebrations

The official Christmas celebrations at the White House included the great tree in the East Room and the lighting of the National Christmas Tree, once in Lafayette Park but moved during the war into the White House Grounds. Mamie Eisenhower decorated the house extensively, with lights and greenery. Christmas fetes were expected and duly held by the Eisenhowers, although they actually spent few Christmas days at the White House. For the first two years they escaped to Augusta, Georgia, where a cottage had been built for them flanking the famous golf course. By the 1955 holiday season home was the Gettysburg farm, and Mrs. Eisenhower decorated it with garlands, trees, wreaths, holiday ornaments, and gifts for all. When official celebrations were over at the White House, and the president had made his Christmas address, the Eisenhowers headed for home, he in the helicopter and she in a car, to join son John and his four children. After the last Christmas season of his presidency, President Eisenhower, on January 17, 1961, addressed the nation with his valedictory and his greatest speech. He looked to the future, in terms of all that happened during his administration, and expressed his deep concern for the welfare of the United States. He famously warned against the influence of “the military industrial complex” and the “plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow.” He hoped that “all peoples will come to live together in a peace guaranteed by the binding force of mutual respect and love.” It was a farewell, a grave yet hopeful assessment for the younger generation, waiting in the wings for challenges to come.

After the Presidency

On January 20, 1961, President Eisenhower left the White House for the last time and, upon completing his final duties, drove himself and Mrs. Eisenhower to their Gettysburg farm to begin their long-awaited retirement. He spent his final years enjoying time with his family, raising Angus cattle, capturing the tranquil Gettysburg farm landscapes in paintings, and remaining active in national affairs. Early in the afternoon of March 28, 1969, at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., General and President Dwight David Eisenhower passed away, holding Mamie Eisenhower’s hand, and was later interred in the small chapel at his presidential library in Abilene, Kansas.