Listen: David Eisenhower on his Grandfather's Defining Military Operation

David Eisenhower, grandson of former President Dwight Eisenhower and speaker at the 2019 Governor's Lecture in the Humanities in Omaha. (Photo courtesy David Eisenhower)
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October 23, 2019 - 6:45am

75 years ago this year, Allied Forces stormed the beaches of Normandy, France in what was one of the most pivotal operations of World War II. The man who planned and led the D-Day operation against the Nazis was General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who would later become our nation’s 34th president. His grandson, David Eisenhower, will speak about D-Day and its importance in history October 24th at the Governor’s Lecture in the Humanities at the Holland Performing Arts Center in Omaha. He spoke with NET’s Jack Williams about his grandfather’s biggest moment.

NET News: D-Day was a massive undertaking. How much planning took place and how long did it take to get that plan ready to execute?

David Eisenhower: The planning process was pretty continuous from 1942 onward. There was an early test of what the German defenses would be like in northwestern Europe. It was the Dieppe Landings in July of 1942. It is one of the great planning feats in all of history. We knew everything. We knew terrain, we knew where their units were, we knew how the tides operated, we knew where the roads were, we knew where the supplies were, we knew how the transportation networks worked.  We had a great advantage in this operation based on our information edge. I think it was beyond the capacity of any other country in that period, way beyond the capacity of other countries. So it’s one of the great achievements in history, no question.

NET News: Your grandfather knew there would likely be massive casualties. How much did that weigh on him as the supreme allied commander of that operation?

Eisenhower: The knowledge that his decisions meant life and death for a lot of people and that the knowledge that his decisions could not be perfect and that in some ways more would be lost than had to be lost and so forth weighed very heavily on him. My grandfather had to process that and I think that he had to process a lot of things like this in the war. It’s remarkable to me how everybody associated with World War II on our side went through this and retained their humanity, but they did. I think because everybody had the overwhelming sense that this was necessary and that whatever sacrifices that we had to bear were absolutely necessary to sustain the success of this operation and victory in the European theater.

NET News: How much confidence did he have that the operation would actually work?

Eisenhower: He knew his own hand intimately, so he was aware of the weaknesses in our hand. He felt that he understood the weaknesses in the German hand. He expected it to succeed which is why he ordered it.  But there was also an element of risk. Everybody involved in something like that is going to be convinced of success. You do everything you can to make it succeed. You have a lot of faith in the subordinates and so forth that surround you, the staff, all of the provisions that are made for the soldiers and so forth. You expect it to succeed, but the magnitude of the stakes I think also magnified, I would say, his personal concerns that it not succeed and he was prepared to take personal responsibility for them.

NET News: What would have happened if D-Day hadn’t been a success? How would that have changed history in your mind?

Eisenhower: I would say that that operation, that achievement, is even more far-reaching than landing men on the moon. We know what the moonwalk did for American confidence and our self-esteem at the height of the American century.  D-Day was probably even greater, that is, this was something involving literally millions of soldiers in the teeth of formidable odds, taking on the most powerful army in Europe and doing this from the sea. This is an extraordinary event. I just think that it is a turning point in American history which had a great effect into the post-war. If it had failed, we would have tried again. Failure would have confirmed the cynics, it would have confirmed realistic thinking about this operation. This operation was a moon shot, it was a leap. It was the toughest of all the operations that we could have possibly anticipated, number one. Number two, we pursued it with total conviction.

NET News: You were in your early 20’s at the end of your grandfather’s life. Did you ever get that moment where you sat down with him and just had a deep conversation about his experiences in World War II and specifically D-Day?

Eisenhower: You know, I never had the moment and I grew up around him. He was a third parent and everything between my grandfather and me, and I see this in hindsight, was about me, practically everything. I think the closest we got was in 1962. I was a young teenager. My sister Anne and I were to go along with them on a trip through Western Europe. We got on a train. We went from Cherbourg to the Normandy landing area and trained all the way to Paris, stopping at practically every town along the way and tens of thousands of people turned out and so I’m not talking to my grandfather, I’m watching it. I’m watching him speak to them, I’m watching him shake hands, I’m watching the crowds, I’m watching this and that and I’m saying this is sufficient. I will learn about this someday and I will learn about it in-depth because this is one of the greatest stories probably ever and I am this close to it. I know the people involved. I will concern myself with this someday.

Editor's Note: By way of full-disclosure, NET Radio receives funding for humanities-related reporting from Humanities Nebraska, which is also a sponsor of the Governor's Lecture in the Humanities.   



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