D-Day and the Faith of Dwight Eisenhower

By Gary Scott Smith

On July 9, 1943, Dwight David Eisenhower knelt in prayer on a mountaintop overlooking the island of Malta to ask for God’s help as the Allies began their all-out assault on Sicily. As the weather rapidly worsened, the American general had to decide whether to proceed with the carefully planned invasion. After praying passionately, he ordered the attack to go forward, and it succeeded beyond his and other military leaders’ expectations.

In early June 1944, Eisenhower, now the supreme commander of the Allied Expedition Forces in Europe, had to make an even more momentous decision—whether to go ahead with the D-Day invasion of France. Weather conditions were again problematic, but Eisenhower seized a small window of opportunity to send Allied troops on shore on June 6. “If there was nothing else in my life to prove the existence of an almighty and merciful God,” the general later wrote, those two events did it. Religious faith, he asserted, “gives you the courage to make the decisions you must make in a crisis and then the confidence to leave the result to a Higher Power.”

Eisenhower told author and politician Clare Boothe Luce in 1952: “Do you think I could have fought my way through this war [World War II], ordered thousands of fellows to their deaths, if I couldn’t have got down on my knees and talked to God and begged him to support me and make me feel that what I was doing was right for myself and the world.… I couldn’t live a day of my life without God.”

June 6 marks the 80th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that changed the course of World War II and thus the trajectory of history. Extensive planning and the incredible valor of American, British, and Canadian troops enabled the Allies to establish a foothold on the shores of France. The invasion was the most significant Allied victory during World War II. The catastrophe the German army suffered at Normandy was greater than its inability to vanquish Stalingrad in 1943, its defeat in North Africa that same year, or the Soviet summer 1944 offensive. After numerous costly battles to reinforce their gains, the Allies advanced into the interior of France and began their drive toward Berlin, which culminated in May 1945 with the surrender of Germany, a major step in ending the horrors of the most destructive war in world history.

These two episodes were not the first time that Eisenhower’s faith had played a significant role in his life. His brother Milton insisted that Dwight, as a child, prayed as naturally as he ate food. When Dwight was sixteen, he nearly lost his left leg because of blood poisoning. Fearing that he might die if they did not, physicians recommended amputating his leg. Three weeks later, after extensive prayer by Dwight and his family, his leg miraculously healed, which strengthened the future general and president’s belief in the efficacy of prayer.

Eisenhower would go on to become one of the most religious presidents in American history. As the nation’s chief executive, he attended church faithfully, proclaimed national days of prayer, invited the Rev. Billy Graham and other influential clergy to the White House, and helped create the Foundation for Religious Action to “unite all people who believe in a Supreme Being” in a spiritual and ideological crusade to defeat communists around the world.

Eisenhower also frequently met with religious delegations and spoke to numerous religious assemblies. His speeches contain more religious rhetoric than almost any other president, and he repeatedly called for a spiritual revival to remedy the nation’s ills.

Eisenhower’s faith played a major role in his presidency, influencing his priorities and policies, and providing him with strength to do his work. He continually prodded Americans to rededicate themselves to traditional moral values and the religious convictions of the founders. By repeatedly referring to God, religion, and spirituality in public addresses, arguing that spiritual revival was essential to national renewal, worshipping regularly at National Presbyterian Church in Washington D.C., and supporting religious groups and activities, Eisenhower encouraged Americans to deepen their spiritual lives and act righteously.

“I have constantly tried to make clear,” Eisenhower wrote in 1955, “my own belief in the superiority of moral principles as guideposts for the actions and policies of our nation.” “To keep our bearing firm in the conduct of international relations,” he asserted, “our government must be guided by ethical precepts.” He invited members of the World Council of Churches to show his administration and Congress better ways to apply Christian ethics “to all sorts of problems” they faced.

As president, Eisenhower supported the beginning of the national prayer breakfasts, the addition of the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, and Congress’s making the phrase “In God We Trust” the national motto.

Given America’s religious and moral context in the 1950s, Eisenhower’s interest in religious matters and support of religious causes did not create any controversy about violating the separation between church and state. Instead, it helped increase public approval of and esteem for the nation’s 34th president.

Articles in both religious and secular magazines extolled Eisenhower’s faith, and his friends and admirers—Billy Graham, Edward Elson—his pastor at National Presbyterian Church—Senator Frank Carlson of Kansas, and others—praised his commitment to God, prayer, and biblical moral principles.

As we commemorate the 80th anniversary of the invasion that helped turn the tide of World War II and preserve democracy in the Western world, let us remember Dwight Eisenhower’s contributions and the role his faith played in his actions, not only during the war but throughout his entire life.