OPINION: Eisenhower’s Example Now More Important Than Ever

There’s a lot of talk these days about leadership, but damned little of the stuff to be found.

Never have we needed effective leadership more than now, as we watch Russian tanks rumble into Ukraine, in the biggest military offensive since World War II. The number of troops, estimated at up to 190,000, is about the number of Allied soldiers that hit the beaches at Normandy. The Russian invasion, aimed at crushing a fledgling democracy, signals the end of the relative geopolitical stability we have known for a lifetime. While still far away in a country that most Americans can’t identify on a map, this new European war will bring challenges yet unimagined. If we are lucky — and by that I mean smart and lucky — we will manage to avoid World War III.

What kind of leaders do we need?

Not the kind that praises dictators, certainly, or one that has a disturbing affection for strongmen in general. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, once a Kansas congressman, recently called Vladimir Putin a talented and savvy statesman, and Donald Trump routinely expresses admiration for leaders like Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Not long ago it would be difficult to imagine any American politician who expressed such views remaining politically viable for long, yet here we are.

Years of political division and pandemic have turned our conventional ideas of leadership inside out. It’s easy to find various theories of leadership online, from accidental leaders to adaptive ones, and each school has its own list of desired traits. Such rubrics are typically used in leadership workshops or self-help books aimed at shaping a particular type of leader: an entrepreneur, a civic leader, a teacher. The goal is to shape leaders committed to the common good. But now the most effective leaders (if you measure effectiveness as influence) are grubby, empty-headed hucksters and would-be authoritarians.

What passes for leadership tends toward public displays of power, in which people who in other contexts would be called bullies are elected or promoted to positions of authority, and they throw their weight around while mouthing empty slogans about choice and freedom. The Kansas Legislature is lousy with these types, and they get behind whatever half-baked and fear-mongering slogan finds the most traction on social media. They continue to succeed because they manage to frame the message, whether it’s misunderstood “critical race theory” or baseless claims of voter fraud.

It’s a poor excuse for leadership.

Contrast this with the career of Dwight D. “Ike” Eisenhower, probably the best leader to ever come from Kansas. Ike was, of course, president from 1953 to 1961. But in his old job as the supreme Allied commander during World War II, he was responsible for the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944, the turning point that broke the Nazi stranglehold on Europe.

 Dwight D. Eisenhower’s boyhood home in Abilene, Kansas, as it appeared in 1965. (Historic American Buildings Survey/Library of Congress) 

Born in 1890 in Texas, Eisenhower came to Kansas as a child with his family and always considered Abilene, Kansas, as his hometown. He grew up with six siblings and as a boy spent his days fishing and playing baseball. He pursued a calling as a soldier, in spite of his mother being a pacifist, and graduated from West Point. During World War II, he oversaw the invasions of North Africa and Sicily before being named supreme commander. He was confident and inspiring. But the night before D-Day, Eisenhower made a hasty note in pencil for himself, to read in the event the Allied invasion was a failure.

“Our landings in the Cherbourg-Havre area have failed to gain a satisfactory foothold and I have withdrawn the troops,” the note said. “My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion to duty could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”

The note is now housed at the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home at Abilene. Historian Tim Rives has called the note the crown jewel of the collection because it is a glimpse into Eisenhower’s character. Rives has explained Eisenhower made similar notes before every major battle, but tore them up after victories.

Such willingness to shoulder blame after defeat seems alien today, but is indicative of the mettle of a Kansan who would become president — and also, perhaps, of the generation that defeated the Third Reich.

Let’s hope that we won’t need another “Ike” to lead us in another fight against fascism.

I don’t know how we can instill the kind of leadership that Ike possessed. I doubt that it can be taught in a workshop, or learned from a book. It might be something a person is born with, or perhaps comes to them in a time of need. Trying to define leadership makes Justice Potters of us all, because we know it when we see it.

And we haven’t seen the kind of leadership we need on Ukraine for the past three administrations. Since 2014, when Russia invaded and “annexed” the Crimean peninsula, U.S. leaders (and the world) have watched the unfolding of one of the most predictable global crises. Despite the heaviest sanctions imposed since the end of World War II, Putin kept Crimea — and harbored a taste for the rest of the country.

Ukraine is a country of 44 million bordering the Black Sea in eastern Europe and is between Poland, Romania and Moldova in the west and Russia in the east. It is slightly smaller in land area than Texas. Since the 1850s, it has been the flashpoint for conflicts that have defined Europe. To get an idea of what war looked like in the Crimea during the Victorian era, take a look at the photographs of Roger Fenton.

After the collapse of czarist Russia in 1917, according to the CIA World Factbook, Ukraine endured two devastating forced famines between the world wars and lost up to 8 million more people as it was crushed between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Although it gained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has struggled with the legacy of state control and endemic corruption. A pro-West president was elected in 2014, after mass protests for democracy shook the country. Two separatists regions in the eastern part of the country, Donetsk and Luhansk, have been the source of skirmishes since 2014. Ukraine’s current president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, was elected in 2019 and is a former actor and comedian.

Perhaps sensing weakened opposition because of two years of pandemic and growing authoritarian movements that threaten to destabilize western governments, Putin acted last week on his long-held desire to take Ukraine. He used the excuse of “peacekeeping” in the separatist territories as cover for the invasion, although that is widely recognized for the canard it is.

What is currently happening in Ukraine — a hot war with a flood of refugees packing roadways and bus stations in an attempt to escape to the west — is the result of weakened resolve in the west to deploy diplomatic and economic pressure to protect democracy. Brexit contributed to this weakening, as did political polarization here. Russia was indeed listening, all along, to everything.

That’s what makes our current partisan divide so dangerous. It emboldens the wicked.

Calling our current situation a divide is not entirely accurate, because that implies both sides have become equally extreme. It’s more of a tectonic shift, with the left staying relatively the same — liberals want about the same things we did 50 years ago — but with the right moving so far to the extreme that it now tolerates former presidents and secretaries of state praising maniacs like Putin.

If we don’t end the almost casual erosion of democracy here, we can never hope to help shore up freedom elsewhere. The darkness is never as far away as you think it might be, and too many of us are unwittingly inviting it home, through the support of candidates who have a weak grasp of history and the social media we choose.

We do not yet need an Eisenhower to direct an allied military force to defend democracy, but we do need his postwar vision and confidence. While Ike was a soldier, he did not love war, and as president he used American influence judiciously. He was a leading proponent of NATO. He rarely committed American troops abroad. He supported science education, signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent the Army to Little Rock to enforce it. He also warned of the “military industrial complex” as a threat to democracy in his farewell address. Ike was not a perfect leader, because he naively considered the use of nuclear weapons to end the Korean War, which he inherited. But his leadership was effective and contributed to the imperfect but striving America in which many of us grew up.

We do not need perfect leaders now.

But we do need effective ones, and those committed to core democratic principles, in offices from city hall to the Statehouse to Capitol Hill. Joe Biden has sanctioned Russia, but he needs the support of Congress and the American people if we are to achieve lasting and meaningful solution to the crises in Eastern Europe. To avoid World War III, we must choose strength over appeasement.

So, here’s to Ike, the kid from Abilene who helped save the free world. Visit his boyhood home and presidential library, if you have the chance. It might just give you an idea of the kind of leadership that sustained us during the worst of World War II, when failure was always a possibility, and in the tenuous peace which followed.

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Opinion by Max McCoy / Kansas Reflector