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Ambrose on Ike

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 27, 2023 3:00 am

Ambrose on Ike

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 27, 2023 3:00 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, Stephen Ambrose wrote the definitive biography of Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was born in a small rented shack beside the railroad tracks in Denison, Texas. He was raised in a family of Mennonites—fundamentalists in their Christian faith who were also pacifists. 

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Stay free this week into your Xfinity voice remote. This is Lee Habib and this is Our American Stories, and we tell stories about everything here on this show. And our favorite subject, history. And all of our history stories are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College. You can go to study all the things that are beautiful in life, all the things that matter in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

Go to Hillsdale.edu. Stephen Ambrose was one of America's leading historians. Stephen Ambrose passed in 2002, but his storytelling accounts can now be heard here at Our American Stories, thanks to those who run his estate. Ambrose wrote the definitive biography of Dwight Eisenhower. Ike was born in 1890 in a rented shack near the railroad tracks in Denison, Texas.

He was raised in a family of Mennonites, fundamentalists in their Christian faith who were also pacifists. Here's Stephen Ambrose with the story of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dwight David Eisenhower was a great and a good man. These two qualities don't always, or even often, go together, but they did with him.

Obviously, that is an assertion that needs proof. Let me begin with some definitions. In 1954, President Eisenhower wrote his childhood friend, Swede Hazlett, on the subject of greatness. He thought greatness depended either on achieving preeminence in some broad field of human thought or endeavor, or on assuming some position of great responsibility, and then so discharging his duties as to have left a marked and favorable imprint upon the future. The qualities of goodness in a man, I believe, include a broad sympathy for the human condition. That is, an awareness of human weaknesses and shortcomings, and a willingness to be forgiving of them, a sense of responsibility toward others, a genuine modesty combined with justified self-confidence, a sense of humor, and most of all, a love of life and of people. That last is the key. Eisenhower loved life, and he loved people.

To me, that's the heart of his character. From it flowed all the rest. In the fall of 1912, third-class cadet Dwight Eisenhower, 22 years old, was walking down a hallway at West Point when a plebe running full tilt on some fool errand for an upperclassman ran into him, knocked him over. Reacting with what he called a bellow of astonishment and mock indignation, Eisenhower scornfully demanded, Mr. Dungard, the generic term for a plebe, what was your PCS, previous condition of servitude? What did you do before you became a cadet? And then Eisenhower added sarcastically, You look like a barber. I was a barber, sir. It was Eisenhower's turn to go red with embarrassment. Without a word, he returned to his room, where he told his roommate, I'm never going to haze another plebe as long as I'm at this place.

As a matter of fact, they'll have to run over and knock me out of the company street before I'll make any attempt again. I've just done something that was stupid and unforgivable. I managed to make a man ashamed of what he did to earn a living.

He never hazed again. And as an adult, he never shamed a man. Respect for others. Honesty in his dealings. Love of life. These were some of the basic parts of his character.

From whence did they come? Nurture and nature played their respective roles in shaping Dwight Eisenhower. Physically, he inherited a strong, tough, big, athletic body and extremely good looks, with a quite fabulous grin, along with keen intelligence. He also inherited a strong competitive streak from his parents, plus a bad temper, along with unquestioning love, stern discipline, ambition, and religion. They made him study, his parents did. Read the Bible aloud.

Do chores. Hold jobs as soon as he was old enough. They instilled in him a series of controls over his emotions, his temper most of all. They gave him a solid Victorian outlook on the relations between the sexes and on proper conduct.

All his life, he would blush if he slipped and set a hell or a dam in front of a lady. Thus, he grew up in a strong Christian atmosphere, not a sectarian atmosphere. He said once as president that this country has to be founded on a strong religious faith, and I don't care what it is. What he meant was he didn't care if it was Baptist or Methodist or Presbyterian or River Brethren.

He wants to find an atheist as someone who could watch southern Methodists play Notre Dame and not care who won. As president, he began attending church regularly because he felt it was important to set an example. It wasn't something that he had done earlier in his life, but the religion was always very deeply there. He began his first inaugural address with a prayer, and it went over so well, he decided to begin all of his cabinet meetings with prayers. About a year after he'd been in office, he was a half hour into a cabinet meeting when he slapped himself on the head and said, God damn it, we forgot the prayer. From his parents and from his experiences in Abilene, which is after all, almost exactly in the heart of America, the lower 48, he absorbed such values as honesty and fair play in all dealings into the very marrow of his bones.

He abhorred the idea of cheating or lying, and he never did either. He also absorbed a fervent attachment to democracy that amounted to a religious faith. This grew naturally in the soil of that little town out there on the Kansas prairie. And you've been listening to Stephen Ambrose tell the story of Dwight D. Eisenhower, more of this remarkable story here on Our American Stories. Stephen Beebe here, the host of Our American Stories. Every day on this show, we're bringing inspiring stories from across this great country, stories from our big cities and small towns, but we truly can't do the show without you. Our stories are free to listen to, but they're not free to make. If you love what you hear, go to OurAmericanStories.com and click the donate button. Give a little, give a lot.

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Visit Goldcode.com slash iHeart. And we continue with our American stories, and with the story of Dwight D. Eisenhower, told by the person who wrote the best book on Ike, and we're talking about Stephen Ambrose. Let's return to Ambrose with more of this remarkable story. At West Point, and in his first 25 years in the Army, Eisenhower satisfied few of his ambitions. He didn't get to war in the First War, the Great War, and he was still a lieutenant colonel when the Second World War began and he sought to be forcibly retired. But he had learned his profession, and he had demonstrated another characteristic trait, patience.

And it was rewarded. After Pearl Harbor, his star rose, and soon he was in Washington making war plans for Chief of Staff George Marshall, and then on to London to take command of the American forces in the European theater of operations. It threw him into the middle of the great decision-making process of the Allies at the very highest level. In London, dealing daily with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, he proved to be an outstanding diplomat and politician, not only with Churchill, but with de Gaulle and other French leaders as well.

He was successful because he was true to his character. The situation in North Africa following the invasion in the fall of 1942 was exceedingly complicated with a lot of false promises coming from the British, the Americans, to the various French factions. But not from Eisenhower.

I know only one method of operation, he wrote in his diary, to be as honest with others as I am with myself. When President Franklin Roosevelt pressured him to get tough with the local French, Eisenhower refused explaining my whole strength in dealing with the French has been based upon my refusal to quibble or to stoop to any kind of subterfuge or double dealing. The French responded to this. De Gaulle told him, as long as you say that, I believe it. He was equally successful with his sometimes difficult British subordinates and his sometimes egotistical American subordinates. And he'd only mention the names of Montgomery and Patton.

You know what I'm talking about. They might not agree with his decisions, but they gave him their trust. Indeed, whenever his wartime associates described Eisenhower, whether they were superiors or subordinates, there was one word that almost every one of them used. It was trust. General Montgomery didn't think much of Eisenhower as a soldier, but he appreciated other qualities. His real strength lies in his human qualities, Montgomery said.

He has the power of drawing the hearts of men towards him as the magnet attracts the bit of metal. He merely has to smile at you, and you trust him at once. Scrupulous honesty was an integral part of Eisenhower's character and a learned experience.

He saw and experienced the payoff for this trust. He knew that telling the truth was the only way to deal effectively with his problems. He also developed a technique to deliver his message. I refuse, he wrote, I refuse to put anything in diplomatic or suave terminology and carefully cultivate the manner and reputation of complete bluntness and honesty.

Just a man too simple-minded to indulge in circumlocution. Thus did the Kansas farm boy approach Charles de Gaulle and Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt and so many others, and it always worked. He was the general who hated war. Some like Patton gloried in it, but Eisenhower could not. He signed every letter of condolence coming out of Europe for three years.

A very sobering experience. He was the one who ordered the bombing and shelling of German cities. He hated doing that too. Hated having to destroy when he wanted to build.

But he did his duty with all his skill and energy. In 1943, his older brother Arthur sent him a newspaper clipping that stressed his mother's pacifism and the irony of her son being a general. Eisenhower wrote back to save the pacifists, I doubt whether any of them detest war as I do. They probably have not seen bodies rotting on the ground or smelled the stench of decaying human flesh.

Probably they have not visited a field hospital crowded with the desperately wounded. What separates me from the pacifist is that I hate the Nazis more than I hate war. He told Mamie in a wartime letter, I think that all these trials and tribulations will come upon the world because of some great wickedness.

Yet one would feel that man's mere intelligence, to say nothing of his spiritual perceptions, would find some way of eliminating war. The contrast between Eisenhower and those generals who gloried in war could not have been greater. He had a very keen sense of family, of the way in which each casualty meant a grieving family back home. In 1963, when he was filming with Walter Cronkite a television special entitled D-Day Plus 20 Years, Cronkite, sitting on that stone wall that looks onto that magnificent cemetery at Omaha, Cronkite asked him what he thought about when he returned to Normandy. In reply, he spoke not of the things that other generals would have brought up. He didn't speak about the tanks or the guns or the planes or the ships or the personalities of the commanders or their opponents or how he fooled the Germans or of the victory. Instead, he spoke of the families of the men buried in the American cemetery.

He said he could never come to this spot without thinking of how blessed he and Mamie were to have grandchildren and how much it saddened him to think of all the couples in America who had never had that blessing because their only son was buried here. So far, he looks like a saint. But he was a healthy, vigorous man in his early 50s during the war. And men at war are notoriously receptive to female charm when they are far from home and close to danger.

For many people, the test of character is the marriage vow. In other words, what about Kay Sommersby? Kay was Ike's personal secretary and sometime driver. She was young enough to be his daughter, very attractive, with a bubbly personality that Churchill and almost everyone else found charming. She had lost her fiancé in North Africa and had fallen in love with her boss.

For his part, how could he help but be responsive? He liked her enormously, probably had a crush on her. They were always together but almost never alone. Decades later, in a book published after her death, Kay claimed that they had fallen in love and that both had realized it in January 1944 when he returned to England from a short visit to Washington. They had their only evening together alone. There was a fireplace.

They sat on the floor. His kisses absolutely unraveled me, Kay wrote. According to her account, it was a passionate but unconsummated experience because after they took off each other's clothes, Eisenhower was flaccid.

This may have been because, as one aide put it in a grand understatement, he had a lot on his mind. More likely, it seems to me, his stern sense of morality, character, and honesty overrode his passion. He was incapable of cheating on his wife. Or it may be that the incident never happened, that it was merely an old woman's fantasy.

No one will ever know. What is important to note is that not even Kay ever claimed that they had a genuine love affair. Nor is it true that Eisenhower asked President Harry Truman for permission to divorce his wife in order to marry Kay. Which was always a ridiculous story to begin with because he was a five-star general.

They don't ask anybody's permission to do anything. What he did ask Truman for was permission to have Mamie join him in occupied Germany. Throughout the war, when Kay was with him always, his love for Mamie was constant. His sustaining force was the thought that when the war was over, he and Mamie could live together again. He loved Mamie for half a century. Except when he was off at war, they slept in the same bed for 50 years.

And you've been listening to the voice of Stephen Ambrose. The story of Dwight D. Eisenhower continues here on Our American Stories. And personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with Myasthenia Gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone. Listen to Untold Stories, Life with Myasthenia Gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Experience the power and design of the all-new, all-electric 2023 Nissan Ariya.

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Visit Goldco.com slash iHeart. And we continue with our American stories, and with the story of Dwight D. Eisenhower as told by Stephen Ambrose. Let's return to the story. Loving Mamie did not necessarily preclude Loving Kay, or at least loving her under the special situation in which they lived from the summer of 1942 to the spring of 1945. He was lucky to have her around, and the allies were lucky she was there. The best advice in attempting to pass any judgment on the Eisenhower-Summersby relationship was given by one of Eisenhower's staff officers to an office gossip back in 1943.

Leave Kay and Ike alone. She's helping him win the war. In 1939, when it looked like he might be forcibly retired as a lieutenant colonel, his son John had asked him if he regretted having spent his career in the Army.

Not at all, Eisenhower replied. He said he had found his life in the Army wonderfully interesting. It brought me into contact with men of ability, honor, and a sense of high dedication to their country. The real satisfaction for a man is to do the best he can.

My ambition in the Army was to make everybody I worked for regretful when I was ordered to other duty. Leadership was another part of his character. He was born to lead, and he was trained to lead. He told John once that leadership was the one art that could be learned, but of course only the born leader can say that. Eisenhower reinforced his natural talent. He studied the subject of leadership intensely, and he wrote some of his best analytical material on the subject. An important part of leadership for Eisenhower rested on certain matters of character.

These included modesty and a genuine eagerness to share the applause. Thus, through the war, he never forgot how much he was dependent on others. Thus, through the war, when reporters came to him, he would say, go see Bradley, go see Patton, get your story there.

They're the ones that are winning this war for us. Sharing the credit for his success and taking the personal blame for what went wrong was Eisenhower's leadership style. In all the announcements of D-Day, the operative words were the allies, or we. In the announcement Eisenhower wrote by hand, to release to the press in the event of failure, the operative word was I, as in it's all my fault. Always take your job seriously, never yourself was one of his favorite lines.

A corollary to that sentiment was his willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the whole. In early 1944, Eisenhower wanted to put the allied bombers to work on transportation targets in France in order to isolate Normandy. The bomber commander said no. They wanted to continue the strategic bombing campaign inside Germany. Eisenhower felt so strongly about the issue that he told the combined chiefs of staff who they gave him his transportation targets, railroads and turntables and marshalling yards and bridges and the like, in France, or I'm simply going to have to go home. In other words, Eisenhower was not ready to commit his forces to the attack until he was certain that he had utilized every asset he had to the uttermost.

If he couldn't use the assets as he saw fit, he would resign his commission. When he made the threat, he was holding the most coveted command in the history of warfare. He got his way, and the transportation plan was a big success. He later used the same threat in a knockdown dispute with Montgomery over strategy and command, and he again had his way. It was an integral part of him, this ability to know exactly when to use his personal asset, the power of his name, to make the ultimate threat. It showed a nice sense of balance about political factors and an accurate measurement of his own strength in a struggle over policy. He much preferred working with the team to having to act on his own. A stress on teamwork began when he was a child, showed again at West Point, and was reinforced by his experiences as a football coach on various Army bases in the 1920s. By 1952, the year Eisenhower entered into politics at age 62, his character as formed by heredity and experience was set in cement. It included, as I have said, the qualities of love, honesty, faithfulness, responsibility, modesty, generosity, duty, and leadership, along with the hatred of war. These were bedrock.

Or were they? This paragon of virtue I am describing had lived in the shelter of the Army nearly all of his life. Character testing opportunities or temptations were almost unknown to him. It's easy to be virtuous when virtue is rewarded, and this will be a hard sell to many veterans in here, but it usually is in the Army.

It's not so easy to be virtuous when virtue is ignored and partisanship is rewarded, as in politics. He grew up in the Army and he swore like a sergeant. Although the words he used were never sexual or had anything to do with anatomy, they were always Christ and damn and god damn and words like that. Once he was at a luncheon with some cabinet members during the 56th re-election campaign and someone said something about somebody proposing something and Eisenhower snorted these damn amateurs, he said, you know, in all the world there's only two places where amateurs think that they're better than the professionals. Military strategy and prostitution. Now this was an all-male luncheon.

Having said that, he blushed and confessed, a bit shamefacedly, that's the only off-color story I know. Where his character showed most decisively was on questions of war, and more specifically a first strike against the Soviet Union or in Asia. He was president during the worst decade of the Cold War. He was the only president to have a decisive lead over the Soviets in nuclear weapons. A lead so decisive that he could have ordered a preventative war which would have destroyed the Soviet Union as a military power and they would have been unable to retaliate. Given the amounts of money the United States was spending in the arms race and the fear it engendered and the fact that the Soviets would soon be able to retaliate and eventually might pull even in nuclear weaponry, the temptation to use the bomb while we still had the lead was tremendous. At the time of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, during the various crises over the Chinese offshore islands in the mid-'50s and regularly with regard to the Soviet Union, some of Eisenhower's principal advisors gave in to that temptation. These included his joint chiefs of staff, his vice president, his secretary of state, members of his National Security Council and many pundits. Told on May 1, 1954 that the National Security Council was preparing a paper calling for the use of atomic bombs to save the French at Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower responded, I certainly do not think that the atom bomb can be used by the United States unilaterally. He then went on to get to the heart of the matter. You boys must be crazy.

We can't use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God. And you're listening to Stephen Ambrose recounting many of the stories he told in his definitive biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower. And I love a few of the things he said about Ike's leadership style and this the most important. Sharing the credit for success and taking the blame for what went wrong was his leadership style. And this quote perhaps best states his character.

Always take your job seriously, not yourself. When we come back, more of this remarkable story with one of the great storytellers in American history, telling the story of one of the great military leaders in American history, Ambrose on Eisenhower, here on Our American Stories. For each person living with myasthenia gravis or MG, their journey with this rare neuromuscular condition is unique. That's why Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis, a new podcast from iHeartRadio in partnership with Argenics, is exploring the extraordinary challenges and personal triumphs of underserved communities living with MG. Host Martine Hackett will share powerful perspectives from people living with the debilitating muscle weakness and fatigue caused by this rare disorder. Each episode will uncover the reality of life with myasthenia gravis. From early signs and symptoms to obtaining an accurate diagnosis and finding care, every person with MG has a story to tell. And by featuring these real-life experiences, this podcast hopes to inspire the MG community, educate others about this rare condition, and let those living with it know that they are not alone. Listen to Untold Stories Life with myasthenia gravis on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts. Experience the power and design of the all-new, all-electric 2023 Nissan Ariya.

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Visit Goldcode.com slash iHeart. And we continue here with our American stories and the story of Dwight D. Eisenhower is told by Stephen Ambrose. Let's return to the story.

It was characteristic of him always to ask what happens next. If we do such and so, what are the likely consequences? Suppose we do pull it off, then what?

And what do the other players do? It was an attempt to look into the future, and it stood him in good stead as president. After D.N.B. and Foo fell, the Joint Chiefs recommended a preventative attack against the Soviet Union.

Eisenhower asked them to think about what they were proposing. I want you to carry this question home with you. Gain such a victory, and what are you going to do with it? Here would be a great area from the Elbe River all the way to Vladivostok, just torn up and destroyed without government, without its communications, just an area of starvation and disaster. I ask you, what would the civilized world do about it?

I repeat, there is no victory except in your imagination. Another quality was patience. Make no mistakes in a hurry was a favorite axiom of his. When advisors urged him to destroy the Soviet Union while he could still get away with it, he told them to be patient, that in the end the Soviet system would implode because it was rotten at its core, that this would take a long time, maybe as long as 50 years.

But they would have to educate their own people in order to stay up with modern technology. And when they did, they would sow the seeds of their own undoing. He was a good steward. In his farewell address he pointed out, We, you and I, our government, must avoid plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. And then he uttered what, of all his lines, is my all-time favorite. He said, We want democracy to survive for all ages to come. And that faith in democracy was total, even after five years of dealing with Congress. In 1957 he told Swede, Each congressman thinks of himself as intensely patriotic, but it does not take the average member long to conclude that his first duty to his country is to get himself re-elected.

This leads to a capacity for rationalization that is beyond belief. It was characteristic of him to seek compromise. Extremes to the right and to the left of any political dispute are always wrong, he liked to say. The Democrats controlled Congress for six of his eight years in office. He got on with them smoothly. A brief assessment of his accomplishments as president reveals something more of the man and his character. First and foremost, he presided over eight years of prosperity.

He was marred only by two minor recessions. By later standards it was a period of nearly full employment. The average unemployment rate in the fifties was four percent. And no inflation. The average inflation rate in the 1950s was one and a half percent a year, about which he worried awfully.

There was a four percent rise in real wages each year for blue collar workers. Indeed, by almost every standard, GNP, personal income and savings, home buying, auto purchases, capital investment, highway construction and so forth, it was the best decade of the century. Shirley Eisenhower's fiscal policies, his refusal to cut taxes or increase defense spending, his insistence on a balanced budget played some role in creating this happy situation. His special triumphs came in the field of foreign affairs and were directly related to his character. By making peace in Korea five months after taking office and avoiding war thereafter and by holding down the cost of the arms race, he achieved greatness. No one knows how much money he saved the United States. No one knows how many lives he saved by ending the war in Korea and refusing to enter any others, despite a half dozen and more virtually unanimous recommendations to do so.

Dien Bien Phu, Kumoimatsu, many others. But he made peace and he kept the peace. Whether any other man could have led the country through that decade without going to war cannot be known. What we do know is that Eisenhower did it. Eisenhower seldom boasted, but he did on this one.

The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration, he said. We kept the peace. People ask how it happened. By God, it didn't just happen.

I'll tell you that. His magnetic appeal to millions of his fellow citizens seemed to come about as a natural and effortless result of his sunny disposition. But he worked at his apparent artlessness. That big grin and bouncy step often masked depression, doubt, or utter weariness.

He believed it was the critical duty of a leader to always exude optimism. He made it a habit to save all of his doubts for his pillow. For 40 years, he chained smoked cigarettes, four packs a day. At age 58, he quit cold turkey and he never again touched tobacco. Clearly, he was a man of tremendous willpower.

Although at the Paris Summit, the aborted Paris Summit in May of 1960, when Khrushchev was going on and on about Francis Gary Powers and U2 and demanding an apology and pounding the table and so on, Eisenhower scribbled on the back of his memo pad, God, I wish I had a cigarette. He used that tremendous willpower to conquer his own most negative characteristic, an awful temper. When he got mad, it just, everybody knew immediately.

His face just lit up, beet red, and the tension in his body was a palpable thing that could be felt all through the room. His aides lived in terror of those moments of outbreak of his temper. Now, anger that is contrived, that is put on for show and a purpose, an actor's anger, can be an effective tool of leadership.

It was one Eisenhower often used. But genuine anger, deep, blind anger, is the enemy of leadership. Eisenhower often felt it with Montgomery, with McCarthy, with others, but he never acted on it. One way he controlled his anger was to do his best to follow his own rule, never question another man's motives. His wisdom, yes, but not his motives. He also tried to always assume the best about others until shown otherwise.

He could do so consistently, even in a world full of high-powered men whose motives were often self-serving or base because of this most outstanding personal characteristic of his, his love for life and for people. No one ever caught this better than Richard Nixon, who observed on the day Eisenhower died in 1969 that everybody loved Ike, because Ike loved everybody. Nixon went on to confess that he could scarcely believe such a thing was possible, because he said, in my experience, most politicians are men with very strong hatreds. Well, Lord knows that Nixon was a man full of such feelings and a man who always questioned the other guy's motives. But as for Eisenhower, the only man he ever really hated was Adolf Hitler. He was the general who hated war but who hated the Nazis more. He was old-fashioned, a Victorian who came to power in the mid-20th century. His virtues were those of the 19th century. Honesty, integrity, and religious devotion and conviction were some of them. To my knowledge, he never lied in his private life, not once.

In his public responsibilities, he lied twice, once in 1944 to Hitler about where he was going to invade, and once again on May Day, 1960, to Khrushchev about what Francis Gary Powers was doing in that U-2 over the Soviet Union. In my own life, when I'm faced with a moral question or a dilemma or a personal problem of choice, I'm in the habit of asking myself, what would Ike do? Sad to relate, I often come up short of his standards.

My only consolation is that so do most of the men I know for whose lives I have studied. And you've been listening to Stephen Ambrose and what storytelling. A special thanks to the estate also, to Greg Hengler for pulling that all together.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-27 04:26:38 / 2023-07-27 04:42:48 / 16

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