Presidential Feuds, Part 4

The Feud That Left a Mark on Presidential History

The last great presidential feud was strictly personal. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower just plain didn’t like each other. This was not a long feud, because the two men really didn’t know each very well prior to the Presidential campaign of 1952. Truman, finishing his second term, announced he would not run again. (Although the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution limited a President to two terms, it did not affect Truman. Eisenhower was the first President limited to two terms by the Constitution.) So Truman was not even a candidate, but he was certainly a target. The Democratic nominee was Adlai Stevenson, governor of Illinois and grandson of Cleveland’s Vice President.

The Republican nominee was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the hero of World War II. Although he refrained from making personal attacks during the campaign, other Republicans filled the void, especially his Vice-Presidential candidate Richard M. Nixon, Senator William Jenner and the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy.

The trouble started in the years before the campaign. The Republicans had not won a Presidential election since 1928, and knew they had a good chance in 1952. They began attacking President Truman and his Democratic administration with charges of corruption and appeasement of communism. Also, the stalemated Korean War presented more opportunities for the Republicans. The Republican campaign in 1952 was built on the issues of Communism, corruption and Korea. Truman had every right to take these attacks personally, but that was not what really made him angry.

General George C. Marshall, who Truman called the greatest living American, had been the top general during World War II, and had been responsible for promoting Eisenhower to the command of the European theater. In short, Truman believed that Marshall had made Eisenhower’s career. He also believed that Marshall had saved Eisenhower’s career.

During the war, Eisenhower had apparently become involved with his driver, Kay Summersby. It is not known how far the affair went. Summersby later wrote a book (after Eisenhower’s death) entitled “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower” saying that they had fallen in love during the war.

According to Truman (in the book “Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman”), at the end of the war Eisenhower had written to Marshall saying that he was going to divorce his wife and marry Summersby. Marshall wrote back to Eisenhower in very strong terms, and apparently brought him back to his senses. Marshall said he would bust Eisenhower out of the army and make his life miserable. In short, Marshall made Eisenhower’s career, and then Marshall saved Eisenhower’s career. After the war, Marshall retired, but was called back to serve as Secretary of State (where he instituted the Marshall Plan) and later as Secretary of Defense in the Truman administration.

So when the Republicans attacked Marshall as a traitor who was soft on Communism, Truman was angry. He especially expected Eisenhower to come to Marshall’s defense. Probably the worst attackers were Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and Senator William Jenner of Indiana.

Senator Jenner called Marshall a “front man for traitors.” When Eisenhower campaigned in Indiana, he had to appear with Jenner on the platform and Jenner embraced Eisenhower. Although Eisenhower later told aides he “felt dirty,” he nevertheless did nothing to defend Marshall from Jenner’s attacks.

Shortly after that appearance, Eisenhower had to appear with McCarthy in Wisconsin. McCarthy had called Marshall a traitor. In his speech, Eisenhower had a brief statement in support of George Marshall. He had written, “I know that charges of disloyalty have been leveled against General Marshall. I have been privileged for thirty-five years to know General Marshall personally. I know him, as a man and as a soldier, to be dedicated with singular selflessness and the profoundest patriotism to the service of America. And this episode is a sobering lesson in the way freedom must not defend itself.” This passage was in the press release, but it was removed from the speech to avoid offending Republican leaders in Wisconsin.

All this infuriated Truman, who accused Eisenhower of losing his nerve and of being afraid of “Mac the Knife” (McCarthy). Of course, Eisenhower did not like being accused of moral cowardice, and the anger between Truman and Eisenhower continued to escalate. At one point, Democratic leaders learned of the letter from Eisenhower to Marshall, still in Eisenhower’s file in the Pentagon. They wanted to use the letter to hurt and possibly destroy Eisenhower’s election campaign. Truman ordered Marshall to get the letter from Eisenhower’s file and destroy it. Once again, Marshall saved Eisenhower’s career.

Eisenhower never realized what Marshall and Truman had done for him, preventing the letter from being used in the campaign. The animosity between Truman and Eisenhower continued to escalate. By inauguration day, the two men were not speaking to each other. Tradition called for the President-elect to come to the White House, go in to escort the President out, and then the two would proceed together to the inauguration of the new President. When Eisenhower’s limousine arrived at the White House, Eisenhower refused to get out to escort Truman out of the White House. Truman was furious at the disrespect Eisenhower was showing, not to Truman personally, but to the President and the Presidency. Truman refused to go out to the car until Eisenhower came in as he was supposed to. It looked for a while as though there would not be an inauguration. Finally, as before, Truman put his personal feelings aside and did what was best for all. He walked alone out to the limousine and got in. He later said that things were so cold between him and Eisenhower that he (Truman) thought he might have to walk to Union Station to catch his train for Missouri. (The new President provides the outgoing President transportation, but Truman wasn’t sure Eisenhower would lend him the limo.) Of course, Truman was given a ride to the station.

The feud was never resolved. In 1962, the famous ratings poll of the Presidents by historians was published. Truman was listed high in the poll, and Eisenhower was listed considerably lower. It is said that when Eisenhower read the poll results, there was some colorful language previously unheard within the walls of his Gettysburg farmhouse. This feud, unlike the previous ones we have examined, was purely personal and had no lasting effect on history or our political system, but it certainly might have if Truman had not ordered Eisenhower’s letter destroyed.