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Eisenhower and the Planners

Jan 11


I recently read Steven Ambrose’s two-volume biography of Dwight Eisenhower. In it, Ambrose tells a couple of amusing stories about Eisenhower’s encounters with planners.

When Nikita Krushchev came to the United States in 1959, Eisenhower gave him a helicopter ride over Washington, DC. “Eisenhower had wanted Krushchev to see all those middle-class homes, and all those automobiles rushing out of Washington in the late afternoon to get to them,” says Ambrose (see pages 542-543 of volume II). “Krushchev did, but he would not say anything or even change expression.”

But a week later, Krushchev raised the subject. Far from being impressed by American homes and automobiles, “he was shocked at all the waste. Those vast numbers of cars, he said, represented only a waste of time, money, and effort,” said Krushchev. Krushchev’s reaction to American “sprawl” was identical to those of modern “smart-growth” planners.

Anticipating the “accessibility” argument, Krushchev noted that “In his country there was little need for such roads because the Soviet people lived close together, did not care for automobiles, and seldom moved.” Of course, as soon as the Soviet Union fell, many Russians went out and bought cars.

Krushchev also foresaw the costs of sprawl argument, which was then fourteen years in the future. “All those houses, Krushchev continued, cost more to build, more to heat, more for upkeep and surrounding grounds than the multiple-family housing in the Soviet Union.” As I detail in Smart Growth and the Ideal City, Russian apartments were tiny–averaging 600 square feet for a family of four.

Ambrose tells another interesting story on page 387 (volume I). When the allies were invading Germany in World War II, allied planners assumed that the Germans would destroy all the bridges across the Rhine River. So they planned to use pontoon bridges to make crossings at two different locations, one for Montgomery’s army and one for Patton’s army.

When Omar Bradley’s army got to the Rhine, however, they found an intact bridge at Remagen that the Germans had failed to blow up. The explosives were in place but the Americans forced the Germans away before they could blow them. Naturally, the Americans swarmed across the bridge to defend the prize.

When Bradley reported to Eisenhower’s headquarters (SHAEF) that he had taken a bridge and was using it to invade Germany, General Pinky Bull (I am not making this up) ordered Bradley to bring his troops back to the French side of the River because “a crossing at Remagen was not part of the SHAEF plan.” “What am I supposed to do,” asked an exasperated Bradley, “blow it up?”

When Bradley finally reached Eisenhower, Eisenhower encouraged him to use the crossing and gave him reserve divisions to exploit it. When Bradley mentioned General Bull’s concerns, Eisenhower’s response was, “To hell with the planners!”

This illustrates a problem that planners still have today. Once they have written a plan, they are so invested in it (and often have generated special interest groups to make sure it is implemented) that new information is ignored, even if the information shows that the plan is wrong. Unfortunately, few cities or government agencies have leaders with the authority or courage to say “to hell with the planners!”


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Reprinted from The Antiplanner