Ike’s Exam

On December 12, 1941, five days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower, then on maneuvers at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, got a call on the base’s direct line to the War Department.

It was Colonel Walter Bedell Smith, later to become Ike’s chief of staff. “The Chief says for you to hop a plane and get up here right away. Tell your boss that formal orders will come through later.” The Chief was General George Marshall, army chief of staff.

Ike was disappointed. He had spent “eight years of desk and staff duty in the rarefied atmosphere of military planning and pleading” and had only just been able to get himself assigned to troop duty.

He had tried to get a command overseas in World War I, but was given the assignment of training recruits for the newly-formed tank corps. After Pearl Harbor, like so many other soldiers, he was anxious to see action.

“I reported to General Marshall early on Sunday morning and for the first time in my life talked to him for more than two minutes,” Ike relates. “Without preamble or waste of time, the Chief of Staff outlined the general situation, naval and military, in the western Pacific.

“All the evidence indicated that the Japanese intended to overrun the Philippines as rapidly as possible, and the problem was to determine what could now be done. General Marshell took perhaps twenty minutes to describe all this, and then abruptly asked, ‘What should be our general line of action?’

“I thought a second and, hoping I was showing a poker face, answered, ‘Give me a few hours.'”

When Ike returned he gave this assessment, “It will be a long time before major reinforcements can go to the Philippines, longer than the garrison can hold out with any driblet assistance, if the enemy commits major forces to their reduction.

“But we must do everything for them that is humanly possible. The people of China, of the Philippines, of the Dutch East Indies will be watching us. They may excuse failure but they will not excuse abandonment. Their trust and friendship are important to us.

“Our base must be Australia, and we must start at once to expand it and to secure our communications. In this last we dare not fail. We must take great risks and spend any amount of money required.”

“He merely replied, ‘I agree with you.’ His tone implied that I had been given the problem as a check to an answer that he had already reached. He added, ‘Do your best to save them.’ With that I went to work.”

So even though we knew we were going to lose, we did all we could to defend the Philippines in order to maintain the trust of our allies. Ike passed his exam.