Saturday, January 25, 2020

Letters to Mamie

I don’t normally write reviews of books but I was in bucolic Waxahachie, Texas (Crepe Myrtle Capital of the world…or so the sign says) cruising the antique and curio shops (yes…I really have taken up the practice) in search of the unusual when I came upon the book which caught my eye.

Now, these little Courthouse Square shops often have lots of classic Americana, ancient medicine bottles, real wooden secretary desks and a plethora of dishes, jewelry and family heirlooms from bygone eras as well as an amazing number of funny T shirts (Diane), hanging signs and coffee cups on subjects which would (possibly) make your Mother cringe as she pulled out the bar of soap.

As an amateur historian of little stature, my eye was immediately drawn to the title, “Letters to Mamie” by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Compiled by their son John S.D. Eisenhower, they are an interesting window into the Eisenhower story during World War II. Mamie apparently kept all 319 letters the General and future President wrote during those harrowing days up to the first Allied invasion of Africa in November of 1942, the Invasion of Italy up to and soon after D-Day until the end of the war. Alas, the future President did not keep any of her letters.

Image result for mamie eisenhowerThe letters were kept in a box in the Eisenhower home until Mamie offered them to John in 1972 after the Generals passing in 1969. John reviewed all of the letters (all handwritten by a man who normally dictated all his correspondence) and then set them aside. John had himself graduated from West Point on D-Day and spent some time attached to his fathers command during the war. John is an accomplished writer himself, having written one of the defining historical accounts of the Battle of the Bulge, “The Bitter Woods”.

Finally, in 1976, he began editing the letters for publication. It should be noted that these letters were never included in the Eisenhower papers ensconced in the Eisenhower Presidential Library so they are a unique outside perspective into the inner thoughts of Eisenhower during those troubling times. The book was published in 1978 a year before Mrs. Eisenhower’s passing in 1979.

John describes his fathers mood as “pensive” on his last visit home after being told by President Roosevelt he had been chosen to lead the American effort in Europe to plan, stage and execute the invasion of Africa and the ultimate liberation of Europe. Realizing, though a graduate of West Point class of 1915, Eisenhower missed WWI and had yet to prove himself in the field. Noted for his formidable skill set as a planner and organizer, he was still a Lt. Colonel when suddenly promoted by Roosevelt to Major General (unheard of at the time) to begin operations for the invasion of Europe. He was thus thrust into the world of proven military leaders like Churchill and Field Marshal Montgomery. Hey…congratulations on your promotion above more experienced officers and if you find the time, liberate Europe and defeat Hitler. Tough gig I’d say.

These letters not only show his affection for “Mrs. Ike” as he often referred to his wife, but some of the frustrations he was experiencing in his new role, the politics of disparate national leaders like DeGaulle and Stalin as well as his own Government and military like Patton. At the same time rigidly censoring his letters but often closing his letters with an oft-repeated plea that she not “forget” him.

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Mamie and Ike
Eisenhower has a real connection to North Texas, where I live. He was born on October 14th, 1890 in  Denison, Texas and his boyhood home is a State Park in Denison today. In 1892, the family moved to Abilene, Kansas where he spent most of his life. He met Mamie Doud while stationed in Texas and proposed to her Valentines Day, 1916. His mother was a self-made historian and had an extensive library of history books Eisenhower read which led to his interest in the military. His mother wasn’t very supportive of that. She was a Mennonite and later Jehovah’s Witness who hated war and was very disappointed when Eisenhower applied and then was admitted to West Point.

Little has been known of the perils Eisenhower faced while in that theater. He hated being stuck behind a desk and, often flying in terrible weather, flew many times throughout the British Isles, Africa and most of Europe in cantankerous transports and bombers while German aircraft still plied the skies to get real-time reports of battle. Because of this rugged schedule (and his constant struggle with cigarettes) he constantly fought a resilient flu throughout most of the war.

Eisenhower often refers to his loneliness and how much he misses Mamie. At one point he voiced to friends a need for animal companionship. He said he couldn’t speak to people about his mostly secret work but a dog couldn’t repeat anything and it would stave off the loneliness. So his co-workers got together and bought him a Scottish Terrier puppy named,“Scotty.”

Even in the most troubling moments, he notes that Mamie had moved back to their home from Officers Quarters and took the time to remind her to make sure she started their car occasionally to keep the battery up and to make sure she got the oil changed and drove it around to keep things running well. Even while dealing with the Nazi threat they still had to deal with the mundane day-to-day husband and wife stuff that make it marriage. His biggest complaints are the constant meetings, press conferences, political and diplomatic dinners and working lunches with people he really didn’t like being around. He wasn’t a big fan of big egos.

Interspersed in his letters Eisenhower often showed concern over the new world order and how it might effect our Democracy and the future world map after WWII. As you recall, Eisenhower first coined the phrase and his fear of the “military-industrial complex” and how it threatened America and its policies overseas. Eisenhower often voiced admiration for the Russian’s fighting spirit but always spoke cautiously about the future Communist leader’s intentions after the war.

As the successful African landings took place, the stress of his first real test of his plans really mounted. In one letter, he refers to Mamie as his “counter balance” and wished she were there,

“No one else in this world could ever fill your place with me-and that is the reason I need you. Maybe a simpler explanation is merely that I LOVE you!! (His emphasis) which I do, always. Never forget that, because, except for my duty, which I try to perform creditably, it is the only thing to which I can cling with confidence.” Algiers, December 30, 1942.

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As the battles went on, moving through Tunisia, there was a stalemate at the Kasserine Pass which caused Eisenhower a lot of angst as his drive to rid North Africa of Germans came to a halt. Rommel had put together a substantial defense and the Allies were stalled and suffering. In the early days, Eisenhower had noted that the suffering and risk had been shared equally by his staff as well as the front line troops. But as time had gone by, he noticed the staff had fallen into a more office routine. Eisenhower was a real proponent of leading from the front and often took time to meet with troops (at great peril) close to the battle to talk and shake their hands. So among his staff and senior officers, he instituted the philosophy: Nobody who is not in a foxhole has a right to complain.

Of course, in wartime, soldiers can stray. He had initially brought over secretaries and staff from the U.S. in England (women Mamie knew personally) but now on the Continent, more women soldiers in the form of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAACs) were doing the clerical work. Always concerned for his wife’s feelings, he ended one of his letters:

“Well my love, I’ve had a whole half hour alone. Seems like something must have happened to the place. I love you all the time-don’t go bothering your pretty head about WAACS-etc-etc. You must hold the thought that I’m not so worn out by the time this is all over that you’ll just have a wreck on your hands; because I’m on the run to you the day the victorious army marches into Berlin!” Algiers February 15th, 1943

From Algiers he reemphasized his love for Mamie:

“It would be difficult to tell you how much I agree with your idea of just getting together after this war is over and never letting anything part us again. Sometimes I get so homesick for you, I don’t know what to do. But I always know this-for me there is only one woman and only one ambition with respect to a woman-that is to come a-running to you and hold on to you firmly-forever." Algiers February 28th, 1943

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Kay Summersby
Much has been made of the alleged affair between Kay Summersby and Eisenhower, mostly of a book she wrote, “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower” after diagnosed with cancer in 1973. Since then, there has been much evidence that Summersby was not involved in the book but it was “ghost written” after her death, a complete fabrication according to those in the know.

There is mention of Summersby in a few letters, mostly talking about her service as a driver in England and then her engagement to a young US Army officer Lieutenant Colonel Richard "Dick" Arnold who was killed by a land mine during the African Campaign. Eisenhower thought she was an excellent driver asked her to join his staff in Africa and ultimately to become his personal secretary as well. To Mamie he wrote:

“So Life says my old London driver came down! so she did-but the big reasons she wanted to serve in this theatre is that she is terribly in love with a young American Colonel and is to be married to him come  June-assuming both are alive. I doubt that Life told that. But I tell you only so that if anyone is banal and foolish enough to lift an eyebrow at an old duffer such as I am in connection with WAACs-Red Cross workers-nurses and drivers-you will know I’ve no emotional involvements and will have none.” Algiers March 2nd, 1943

After successes in North Africa and Italy, Eisenhower was tasked with planning and executing the invasion of France (no pressure). By 1944, Eisenhower was interested in the politics of the time in that they had Roosevelt since the beginning of the war and he wondered aloud how he might have a new commander-in-chief to deal with (not initially in that Roosevelt returned for an unprecedented 4th term that year). He wrote to Mamie:

“Judging from the newspapers the political pot is really boiling at home. Of course the local papers don carry the full story of American politics, but I do see enough to know there are quite a few people that would like to be President. I wonder how many of them really believe they could swing the job.

I wonder how I’ll feel about staying in the Army a while after all this is over. I suspect I’ll want to retire to go our own way-but we can never tell that far ahead. But so long as you are right with me I don’t care much what I do.” London April 24th , 1944

Even during this pressure cooker period leading up to D-Day, Eisenhower had to respond to an inquiry of Mamie’s about payment of taxes. He wrote her:

“I suppose you’re keeping up the income tax payments. After I came back from the U.S. I paid our residue on 1943-which, as you remember was about $450. But I asked the Captain from Stoner’s office to keep in touch with you to keep up payments during ’44. (Yes Tonia….even the Eisenhowers had to pay the IRS).

Of course, everyone knows the story of the ending of World War II, constant pressure from both the Allies from Europe and those pesky Russians from the east put the nail in the coffin of Hitler and his sometimes reluctant Generals do save the 1000 year Reich on May 8th, 1945. With Hitler’s death and the end of hostilities, Eisenhower became a witness to Hitlers efforts to eliminate Jews and other cultural groups in the final solution. Eisenhower was clearly moved and appalled by what he saw, mandating that residents of neighboring towns to the various death camps be forced to see the evil and destruction which they blindly ignored for years.

Eisenhower was relieved on November 10th, 1945 and made it back to his beloved Mamie. After the war, he served as Army Chief of Staff (1945–1948), as president of Columbia University (1948–1953) and as the first Supreme Commander of NATO (1951–1952). Although he promised Mamie he would hang up his spurs and just end his days in Abilene, Kansas with her, in 1952, Eisenhower entered the presidential race as a Republican to block the isolationist foreign policies of Senator Robert A. Taft; Taft opposed NATO and wanted no foreign entanglements. Eisenhower won that election and the 1956 election in landslides, both times defeating Adlai Stevenson II.

This book is not just about history, although it certainly contains many little tidbits which make Eisenhower come to life, it is a testament to an enduring love between two soulmates married for 53 years when Eisenhower passed away on March 28th, 1969. He was 78. Mamie survived him by ten
years passing away on November 1st, 1979 at 82.