Milton Eisenhower (1899-1985) gained national recognition for his careers in government and higher education. He was best known for his advisory role to his older brother, President Dwight D. Eisenhower. He also served presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Richard M. Nixon as a special consultant.
Milton Stover Eisenhower, the last of six sons of David and Ida (Stover) Eisenhower, was born on September 15, 1899, in Abilene, Kansas, a farm-oriented town of about 5,000. His paternal grandfather, Jacob, a farmer and Mennonite minister, had brought his family to the midwest from Pennsylvania after the Civil War. He prospered, but son David, despite a wedding gift of a 160-acre farm plus $2,000 in cash, did not. So Milton Eisenhower grew up in relatively poor circumstances, but he was surrounded by the support of many relatives.
Another major influence on Milton was religion. The entire family took turns reading the Bible before and after dinner. In addition, his mother held meetings of the Watch tower Society in the home. Hence, the Protestant work ethic of fairness, hard work, thrift, and community service was strongly instilled in Milton Eisenhower, and his long and illustrious career exemplified both the dream and the reality of American life in the 20th century.
Many doors were opened to the young Eisenhower. Probably the most important door proved to be that of Charles M. Harger, editor of the Abilene Reflector and the first of several significant mentors. Harger gave Eisenhower a job as a reporter and a year later offered to pay his way to Harvard, Harger's alma mater. By Eisenhower's account he could not accept such largesse, so Harger opened the door to Kansas State, where he was a member of the board of trustees.
College to Foreign Service to Bureaucrat
Eisenhower's initial start on his college career was not auspicious. After nearly dying of influenza in the epidemic of 1918-1919 he returned home, recuperated, and resumed his career as a journalist until returning to college in the fall of 1919. As a 20-year-old freshman, Eisenhower was a standout. He was accepted by the brothers of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity and selected as editor of the student newspaper. As the voice of the student body and protege of Harger, Eisenhower won the attention of Kansas State president William M. Jardine, who opened several more doors. So did Jardine's close friend Leroy Eakin, self-made millionaire and local businessman, whose only son, Jack, was also Eisenhower's fraternity brother. Eakin's daughter Helen was the campus belle, and Eisenhower soon won her affection.
When he graduated five years later, Eisenhower accepted a position at Kansas State teaching English and journalism. Several weeks later he was offered a job in the U.S. foreign service. Eisenhower presented his dilemma to Jardine, and with his mentor's support Eisenhower spent an enthusiastic two years in Scotland. He would have made a career in the foreign service, but he could not refuse Jardine's offer in 1926 to serve under him in his new role as secretary of agriculture. The fact that Eisenhower's fiancee, Helen Eakin, was living in Washington, D.C., with her parents was an even more compelling reason for his leaving the diplomatic corps. On Columbus Day 1926 the two were married (they subsequently had a son and daughter).
In his career as a bureaucrat Eisenhower's ability and savoir faire became obvious. He served successfully during the long Democratic tenure of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, his skill/expertise as a go-between gained the attention of the president, who asked him to draw up a plan for an Office of War Information during World War II. Eisenhower's success with this project led to his presidential appointment as director of the board established to relocate the West Coast Japanese and Nisei (Japanese-Americans). In his own words it was "the most difficult and traumatic task of my career." When he completed the relocation Eisenhower returned to the Office of War Information, but only briefly.
President of Three Colleges
In mid-1943 he accepted the offer of the presidency of Kansas State University from his initial mentor, Charles M. Harger, then serving as chairman of the Kansas State Board of Regents. In his inaugural address Eisenhower declared, "Our concern is the education of men and women determined to be free." His ultimate goal was "to create a new American—one who had the ability and the educational background and the desire to formulate sound and creative judgments on world affairs and to take part in the world in which the United States had to be the leader." To accomplish this he borrowed heavily from the ideas of Harvard president James B. Conant. He stressed the liberal arts, and those of his own heritage, which emphasized "the old-fashioned patriotism—just that sense of loyalty and obligation to the community that is necessary to the preservation of all the privileges and rights that the community guarantees." By stumping the state with such values Eisenhower won increased legislative support for the university. He also utilized his contacts in the Department of Agriculture to obtain research funds.
By 1948 he had largely succeeded in implementing the reforms he wanted, so when he was offered the presidency of Penn State in 1950 he left his alma mater. Eisenhower replicated his Kansas State experience at Penn State, with similarly remarkable results. There were some notable controversies, however, as well as the significant additional responsibility of serving as adviser to his brother, President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961). One of the controversies involved his failure to take a strong stand for academic freedom and against the demagogic anti-Communist campaign headed by Senator Joseph R. McCarthy. Another was Eisenhower's unsuccessful campaign to change the name of State College, Pennsylvania, to Mt. Nittany after Penn State became a university. These two problems were overshadowed by the glamour that surrounded Eisenhower as presidential adviser. Not only did he make frequent trips to the White House, but he also represented his brother on official missions to Latin America, about which he wrote in The Wine Is Bitter (1963), and to the Soviet Union. He drew even closer to his brother in late 1955 following the death of his wife from cancer and the president's heart attack. These two factors, plus the ardent appeal of the board of trustees of Johns Hopkins University, largely accounted for Eisenhower's accepting the presidency there in mid-1956.
Philosophy of Public Service
Eisenhower was the first president of the prestigious private institution not to have an earned doctorate, but it did not deter his fundraising. He proved as successful with the heads of private foundations (notably Ford and Rockefeller) as with legislators in Kansas and Pennsylvania. Millions were received, and Johns Hopkins secured a new lease on its life as one of the leading American universities, particularly in the field of international affairs, through the establishment of the School for Advanced and International Studies (S.A.I.S.) in Washington, D.C.
In the area of desegregation Eisenhower's gradual, behind-the-scenes approach was less than stellar. Nonetheless, after the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Eisenhower (who had retired in 1967) as chairman of the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence. The report advocated gun control, reform of the criminal justice system, and improvements in law enforcement. He no sooner completed this task than he accepted the urgent call of the Johns Hopkins trustees to serve as interim president.
After his second retirement a year later, Eisenhower began to write his memoir, The President Is Calling (1973), in which he set forth a program of reform of the presidency. He thought that "Democracy contains the seeds of its own destruction," and hence he called for the creation of two supra-cabinet positions, both appointed by the president. One would serve as vice-president for international affairs and the other as vice-president for domestic affairs. Eisenhower also advocated empowering the president with a line-item veto and limiting presidents to a single six-year term.
His greatest concern, however, was the denegration of compromise. He rejected the prevailing notion of the time that compromise was a surrender of principle. Starting from the premise that man, individually and collectively, acted out of self-interest, he concluded that compromise was essential to human existence. Quoting Edmund Burke, Eisenhower declared, "All government—indeed every human benefit, every virtue and every prudent act—is founded on compromise and barter." This focus on public acts of agreement was in keeping with the perception that the dream of success was achieved through individual merit, yet the most notable reality of Eisenhower's career was, as he himself noted, that of "The president is calling." He died of cancer at Johns Hopkins Hospital, May 2, 1985.
Further Reading on Milton Eisenhower
A comprehensive account of Eisenhower's own thoughts and feelings about his public career is his memoir, "The President Is Calling (1973). For his account of his presidential missions to Latin America see The Wine Is Bitter (1963). His thinking is also imbedded in The Rule of Law An Alternative to Violence: A Report to the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Crime (1970). The most scholarly study of Eisenhower is Stephen E. Ambrose and Richard H. Immerman, Milton S. Eisenhower: Educational Statesman (1983). Partial accounts appear in Bela Kornitzer, The Great American Heritage: The Story of the Five Eisenhower Brothers (1955); Steve Neal, The Eisenhowers: Reluctant Dynasty (1978); and Robert P. Sharkey, Johns Hopkins: Centennial Portrait of a University (1975).
Additional Biography Sources
Ambrose, Stephen E., Milton S. Eisenhower, educational statesman, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983.