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Remembering Ike: How Eisenhower's military career shaped his presidency

Inside the renovated Eisenhower museum
Inside the renovated Eisenhower museum 03:43

In our series "American Wonders," we're exploring places that make America wonderful, from majestic natural landscapes to spectacular man-made creations. This morning, we visit a recently-transformed museum to celebrate the life and accomplishments of our 34th president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Honoring Ike appears to be the "in thing" these days. In Washington, D.C., a memorial to Eisenhower will open in the spring, and if you want to be inspired by Eisenhower right now, the place to go is his hometown of Abilene, Kansas, where they just completed a major renovation of the Eisenhower Museum. 

President Eisenhower's time in office has been called the "hidden-hand presidency" because of how effectively he operated behind the scenes. He proposed NASA; was instrumental in the civil rights movement; and even created the interstate highway system.

"That's Ike; Ike did a lot of things you don't know about," said Dawn Hammatt, director of the newly-renovated Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home, which hopes to change that. 

A visit to the newly-renovated Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum & Boyhood Home in Kansas recalls the 34th president as a "warrior for peace." CBS News

As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower planned the invasion of Normandy. The museum features the actual table around which Allied leadership planned D-Day.

Prior to the June 1944 invasion, General Eisenhower spoke to the troops: "Soldiers, sailors and airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force, you are about to embark upon the great crusade toward which we have striven these many months."

That military service shaped his presidency. "At the end of the war he said, 'I hate war as only a soldier who lived it can,'" said Hammatt. "And we believe that that quote set him up for what his presidency was going to be. And everything he did in his presidency was to keep the Cold War cold, and keep us out of a battle, keep us out of harm's way."

"He was a warrior who wanted nothing more than peace," said CBS News correspondent Chip Reid.

"He was a warrior for peace," agreed Hammatt.

Mary Jean Eisenhower, Ike's granddaughter, remembers his softer side. As a young girl, she spent a lot of time at the White House. "A lot of people will come through the museum and see all these serious pictures of him in the war and all that, and they say, 'What do you remember best about him?' And I would say, 'It's his belly laugh!' It would come from the back of his toe and all the way up!

"And when he laughed, his laugh was so funny it didn't matter whether it was funny or not, you had to laugh, too."

The museum's renovations also highlight another vital reason for Ike's success: Mamie, his wife of more than 50 years.

Hammatt said, "Mamie says a wife plays a big part, and what she meant was in the military career, 'I bought into the partnership idea strongly.' She knew her role in this partnership, and she did it, and she did it well.

"They were completely different, but they had these two skill sets that, together, created this couple that was so necessary for our world."

Eisenhower's presidency was a very prosperous time for the United States, but it was also a very frightening time, because it was the beginning of the Cold War. Historians give Eisenhower a lot of credit for keeping tensions with the Soviet Union from spiraling out of control.

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