10 Facts About Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

One of the most popular U.S. presidents in history, Dwight David Eisenhower won the presidency twice on the back of national adoration for his leadership in WWII as General of the Army. Eisenhower served as president from 1953 to 1961, during which time he significantly expanded the highway system, created NASA, and put five justices on the Supreme Court. Here are 10 facts about the Ike we like, who was born on this day in 1890.

1. HIS BIRTH NAME WAS SLIGHTLY DIFFERENT, AND MIGHT HAVE BEEN CONFUSING.

We all recognize him as Dwight D. Eisenhower, but his birth name was David Dwight. The future president shared his father’s first name, but wasn't called a "junior" because he had a different middle name. Instead, his mother inverted the two monikers to avoid the confusion of having two Davids in one house and of having people mistakenly calling him "junior." His high school yearbook (and their family’s Bible) has his name written as David Dwight.

2. “IKE” IS THE ENTIRE FAMILY’S NICKNAME.

Speaking of names, it’s easy to assume that his nickname (as in “I like Ike”) came from his first name. But the nickname stems from Eisenhower, and it’s the nickname the whole family went by. All seven Eisenhower boys used it (Edgar was “Big Ike” while Dwight was actually “Little Ike”). Dwight was the only one still using the nickname by WWII.

3. HE NAMED CAMP DAVID AFTER HIS GRANDSON.

The Presidential getaway in Maryland was called “Shangri-La” by President Franklin Roosevelt after it was converted from a WPA-built government employee camp to a working retreat for the commander-in-chief. In 1953, Eisenhower renamed it Camp David, honoring both his father, David Jacob, and his 5-year-old grandson, Dwight David. It would later be the location of Eisenhower's meeting with Soviet Union head Nikita Khrushchev to discuss the Cold War in 1959.

4. HE QUIT SMOKING BY SURROUNDING HIMSELF WITH CIGARETTES.

Eisenhower smoked three or four packs of cigarettes a day, picking up the habit while he was a student at West Point and quitting only a few years before he became President. His initial attempt involved excising tobacco and the related accoutrements from his daily life, but it didn’t work, so he went in the other direction. “I decided to make a game of the whole business and try to achieve a feeling of some superiority when I saw others smoking while I no longer did,” he said. The politician crammed cigarettes and lighters into every nook of his office. “I made it a practice to offer a cigarette to anyone who came in and I lighted each while mentally reminding myself as I sat down, ‘I don’t have to do what that poor fellow is doing.’"

5. BOTH PARTIES WANTED HIM TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT.

In 1945, President Truman began nudging Eisenhower toward running for president, and two years later, promised to be his running mate on the Democratic ticket in the 1948 election. Eisenhower refused, claiming he had no ambition for the job, but by the 1952 election, both parties were begging him to be their candidate. The public didn’t know Eisenhower’s party affiliation until he declared himself a Republican in 1951, at which time the “Draft Eisenhower” efforts resumed and intensified on the GOP side. In January 1952, Congressman Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr. submitted Eisenhower’s name to the New Hampshire Republican primary without Eisenhower’s permission, which forced the general to make a public statement. He declared that he wasn’t actively seeking the nomination, but that he’d serve if asked. After 25,000 showed up for a rally at Madison Square Garden and Eisenhower bested far right Senator Robert Taft in the New Hampshire primary, Eisenhower announced an official candidacy, saying, “Any American who would have that many other Americans pay him that compliment would be proud or he would not be an American.”

It turns out the Democrats were doomed as soon as Eisenhower said he was a Republican. He won against Adlai Stevenson in a 442 to 89 landslide. Not bad, considering he beat Stevenson again in 1956, 457 electoral votes to 73.

6. HE PRESIDED OVER DESEGREGATING THE MILITARY AND THE SCHOOLS.

President Truman started the process of desegregating the military in 1948, but President Eisenhower completed it by actively campaigning, using budgets as leverage, and declaring racial discrimination a national security issue. In a bold move, Eisenhower also briefly federalized the Arkansas National Guard and committed the 101st Airborne Division to protect nine black students as they attended, for the first time since Reconstruction, an all-white school in Little Rock after Governor Orval Faubus refused to comply with the desegregating court order handed down in Brown v. Board of Education.

7. ALASKA AND HAWAII BECAME STATES UNDER HIS WATCH.

After Arizona was admitted to the Union in 1912, the United States went 47 years with 48 stars on the flag. The United States had purchased Alaska from the Russian Empire in 1867 and annexed Hawaii in 1898, but it took Eisenhower campaigning on the issue of statehood and the right Congressional environment for both to make the leap from territory to state. Congress thought Alaska, with its oil riches, should come first, but Eisenhower was worried the new state would disrupt his plans to set up military installations close to Soviet Russia. Congress won out. Alaska was admitted January 3, 1959, and Hawaii eight months later on August 21.

8. HE WAS THE FIRST PRESIDENT CONSTITUTIONALLY PREVENTED FROM SEEKING A THIRD TERM.

Until Franklin Roosevelt, no President served more than two terms, but the man who dragged the United States out of the Depression and on to victory in WWII was elected to serve four. The Twenty-second Amendment was congressionally approved on March 24, 1947, in direct response to his electoral success. The states didn’t complete the ratification process until February 27, 1951. Since it passed while he was in office, President Harry Truman was grandfathered in (although it didn’t matter because he was profoundly unpopular by the end of his second term), so President Eisenhower became the first to be affected by the amendment. He was also the first to be affected by the Former Presidents Act, which gave him a lifetime pension, paid staff, and security detail.

9. HE LEFT ACTIVE DUTY TO BECOME PRESIDENT AND RETURNED TO ACTIVE DUTY WHEN HIS TERM WAS OVER.

Though he never saw active combat, Eisenhower’s military career spanned WWI and WWII. After graduating from West Point he served in logistics and, later, infantry units located stateside, and after the United States entered WWI, he trained tank crews in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He languished after the war, spending 12 years as a major, but he also served as chief military aide to then-Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur, and acted as commanding officer for the 15th Infantry at Fort Lewis and chief of staff to then-Commander of the Third Army General Walter Krueger during his climb up the promotion ladder to Colonel. By the attack on Pearl Harbor, Eisenhower was already a Brigadier General (one star) in a command role that would have kept him far from the battlefield.

Still, Eisenhower was one of only nine Americans to reach the five-star rank as General of the Army, the second-highest possible Army rank. As a rule, Generals of the Army never retire but remain on active duty status until they die. That's why President John F. Kennedy signed a Public Law on March 22, 1961 returning Eisenhower to active duty at his five-star rank following Ike’s presidential service. You may have seen the insignia of the General of the Army (five stars in the shape of the star) posted on highway signs commemorating Eisenhower’s military service and infrastructure expansion.

10. HE MADE OVER 200 PAINTINGS.

After showing interest in the craft when his wife Mamie sat for a portrait, then-president of Columbia University Eisenhower received a paint kit from the artist Thomas E. Stephens. Still, it wasn’t until he was 58 (and when Winston Churchill encouraged him) that Eisenhower took up painting seriously as a hobby. The former President made at least 250 paintings, but had a self-deprecating sense about his art. At an exhibition of his work at the Huntington Hartford Museum in 1967, a reporter asked Eisenhower about the symbolism of one of the works. Eisenhower replied, “They would have burned this sh*t a long time ago if I weren’t the President of the United States.”

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table.

In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

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