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Posted on Nov 7, 2005 in Carlo D'Este, Front Page Features

Ike: World War II’s Indispensable General, Part 1

By Carlo D'Este

Conspicuously missing was the man who had orchestrated the events leading to this historic moment. Eisenhower evinced his disdain for his enemy by declining to even be present at the surrender ceremony. When General Hans-Jurgën von Arnim surrendered Army Group Africa in Tunisia in May 1943, Eisenhower had said, "I won’t shake hands with a Nazi!" Since then nothing had changed except that after viewing Nazi atrocities his hatred of the unbelievable evil that Jodl represented had deepened. Eisenhower delegated to his SHAEF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Walter Bedell Smith, the task of signing the surrender documents on behalf of the Allied Expeditionary Force.

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After the German surrender signing. Ike is holding one of the pens. His SHAEF Chief of Staff, Gen. Walter Beddell "Beetle" Smith is on Ike’s right and the SHAEF Deputy Commander, Air Marshal Arthur Tedder is to Ike’s left.

Under the document’s terms, the German surrender was to take effect at one minute before midnight, May 8, 1945. "The strange thing," wrote Smith, "was the lack of emotion that was shown when the surrender was signed. The Germans – Jodl and Admiral von Friedeburg – were militarily correct in their stone-like expressions … It was a moment of solemn gratitude." While the surrender ceremony was taking place, Eisenhower paced back and forth in his office like a caged lion. His driver and confidant, Kay Summersby, described the atmosphere as "electric with his impatience." Afterwards, the German delegation was summoned to the Supreme Commander’s office where, with his G-2, British general Kenneth Strong as escort and interpreter, a stone-faced Eisenhower stood rigidly behind his desk, looking more military than Kay Summersby had ever seen him. Coldly, his voice brittle, Eisenhower curtly said, "Do you understand the terms of the document of surrender you have just signed?" When Jodl replied, "Ja, ja," Eisenhower declared that he would be held officially and personally accountable should there be any violation of its terms. "That is all," said Eisenhower, signaling the interview was at an end. Jodl made a slight bow, saluted as Eisenhower stared silently in dismissal without returning the gesture of respect military men express to one another. As Jodl did a precise military "about face" to leave the room – and a date with the hangman after being tried and convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg – from his nearby place under Eisenhower’s desk his Scotty dog, Telek, growled his displeasure at the back of the retreating Germans. Only after the Germans had departed did Eisenhower finally unbend and relax. As a horde of photographers were admitted to his office and scrambled to record the scene, Eisenhower gathered Smith, Strong, Kay Summersby and Tedder around him. Although exhausted, Dwight Eisenhower’s famous grin reappeared at an historic moment, as he signaled a "V" for Victory by holding aloft the two gold pens with which the German surrender documents had been signed.

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Eisenhower proclaimed that the special occasion merited champagne and everyone decamped to his quarters where, for the next two hours, there was surprisingly little gaiety or joking or even a sense of pride. Instead, there was a rather somber realization of the significance of the day. Few words were said. "Everyone simply seemed weary, indescribably weary," remembered Kay Summersby. "There was a dull bitterness about it. Everyone was very, very tired." Before he fell into bed exhausted at 5:00 A.M. Eisenhower performed one final duty. During their many nights together, Eisenhower and his naval aide, Captain Harry Butcher, had joked about what language the supreme commander would use to inform the Combined Chiefs of Staff when the day finally came that Germany surrendered; homilies such as, "We have met the enemy and they is ours." As a soldier, Eisenhower understood that it was not his place to announce the end of the war in Europe, but a function of the heads of state, who would make the formal announcement the following day. "Beetle" Smith recounts that in the afterglow of the surrender ceremony, "the staff prepared various drafts of a victory message appropriate to the historic event. I tried one myself and, like all my associates, groped for resounding phrases as fitting accolades to the Great Crusade . . . General Eisenhower rejected them all, with thanks, but without other comment, and wrote his own." Eisenhower often wrote long-winded missives, but on this occasion he dispatched the briefest cable of his tenure as Supreme Commander. It was typical of Dwight Eisenhower that he would not take credit for the Allied victory. Instead his message to his bosses was utterly devoid of self-congratulation and as unpretentious as the man himself. Only a single sentence long, it read simply: "The mission of this Allied force was fulfilled at 0241 hours local time, May 7, 1945. //signed// Eisenhower"

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Algiers, 1943. (Left to right surrounding Winston Churchill) Anthony Eden (British foreign minister); Field Marshal Alanbrooke (Chief Imperial General Staff); Air Marshal Arthur Tedder (later Ike’s deputy commander of SHAEF); Admiral Andrew Cunningham (CinC, Allied Naval Forces, Mediterranean); General Harold Alexander (later Supreme Commander, Mediterranean); General George C. Marshal (US Army Chief of Staff); Ike; General Bernard Montgomery (Commander, Eighth UK Army).

A witness to this historic event, CBS correspondent Charles Collingwood, called it "the best news the world ever had." On this equally modest note, May 8, 1945, World War II in Europe officially ended.

The war took its toll on Dwight Eisenhower, a soldier as hardboiled in his own way as Patton. For all his military experience, Eisenhower ultimately came to detest war and everything it stood for. He once said, "I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity."

That Ike well understood that sometimes war is inevitable is beyond question. Yet so profound was his experience that – as president of the United States – he was moved to state in 1953: "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed."

Whether in war or peace, Eisenhower always insisted there was no such thing as an indispensable men. Twenty-years after World War II he was aboard the liner Queen Elizabeth for a nostalgic return to Normandy, the scene of his greatest triumph. One night over dinner he said he had read a poem that summed up his attitude about indispensability. He reached into his wallet for the clipping and read it aloud. It ended this way:

The moral of this quaint example
Is to do just the best that you can.
Be proud of yourself, but remember,
There is no indispensable man.

The historian, Ernest May, has written: "Eisenhower had a grand conception of what America could be – a land of equality as well as opportunity; a nation physically united by a transportation system that allowed most if not all citizens to go anywhere they wished; and above all, a place where shared resources went to making life better for individuals, and where no life was unnecessarily lost and no penny unnecessarily spent for national security."

It goes without saying that America can ill-afford to stop producing such men as Dwight Eisenhower who – I submit – was, indeed, indispensable.

* * *

In the coming months we will examine just why Eisenhower was the right man at the right time and place to lead the Allies to victory in the West.

*Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (Henry Holt, 1992 & Owl Books (paperback edition], 1993).

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