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Why We Were Right To Like Ike
Thirty years after judging Eisenhower to be among our worst Presidents, historians have now come around to the opinion most of their fellow Americans held right along.
December 1985 | Volume 37, Issue 1
Critics charged that Ike was spineless in his refusal to openly fight Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Early in 1952, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower confided to a friendly Republican politician why he was reluctant to seek the Presidency: “I think I pretty well hit my peak in history when I accepted the German surrender.”
Emerging from World War II as the organizer of the Allied victory, Eisenhower was America’s most celebrated hero. Both major political parties sought to nominate him for the Presidency. And when Ike decided to risk his historical reputation, he captured the 1952 Republican presidential nomination and ended twenty years of Democratic rule. Ronald Reagan was among the millions of Democrats who crossed party lines to support the Republican general. Afterward, the badly beaten Democratic candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, asked his friend Alistair Cooke: “Who did I think I was, running against George Washington?”
Not only did Eisenhower win two terms by margins of historic proportions, but he maintained his popularity throughout his Presidency. He left office in 1961 still revered by two-thirds of his countrymen, and the American public never stopped liking Ike.
But until recently it seemed that Eisenhower had lost his gamble with history. Like Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor, Eisenhower was frequently portrayed by historians and political scholars as a mediocre Chief Executive. Soon after Ike left the White House, a poll of leading scholars ranked him among the nation’s ten worst Presidents.
Since then, however, Eisenhower’s historical image has been dramatically rehabilitated. In 1982 a similar poll of prominent historians and political scholars rated him near the top of the list of Presidents. Eisenhower is gaining recognition as one of the large figures of the twentieth century, not just for his role as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, but also for his eight years as President of the United States.
One of the reasons for Eisenhower’s comeback is nostalgia for an enormously popular President after an era of assassinations, political scandals, military defeat, and economic turmoil. Another factor in the reassessment is Eisenhower’s record of eight years of peace and prosperity, which is unique among twentieth-century Presidents.
Eisenhower, a man of war, conducted his foreign policy with restraint and moderation. During the most turbulent era of the Cold War, he ended the Korean War, blocked British and French efforts to crush Arab nationalism, opposed military intervention in Southeast Asia, opened a new dialogue with the Soviet Union, and alerted the nation to the dangers of the expanding military-industrial complex. He was criticized for being too passive by the Cold Warriors Henry Kissinger and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and the same critics berated him for a missile gap that turned out to be nonexistent. In retirement, Eisenhower said his most notable presidential achievement was that “the United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace.”
In domestic affairs, Eisenhower also strove to maintain a peaceful equilibrium in handling such explosive issues as McCarthyism and segregation. While critics charged that Ike was spineless in his refusal to openly fight Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the President worked behind the scenes to reduce McCarthy’s influence. Despite private doubts about a Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation, he sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, Arkansas, when the state’s governor defied the law. He also pushed through the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction and established the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
Although Eisenhower’s memoir of his first term was entitled Mandate for Change, his most notable achievement in domestic policy was the continuance of New Deal reforms initiated under President Roosevelt. For nearly a generation, congressional Republicans had been pledging to dismantle FDR’s social programs. But Eisenhower had other ideas. “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” he wrote to his brother Edgar, an outspoken conservative. During the Eisenhower era the number of Americans covered by Social Security doubled, and benefits were increased. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was established as a domestic Pentagon. Eisenhower also launched the largest public-works project in American history by building the federal highway system, which turned out to be almost as important as the transcontinental railroad. Barry Goldwater denounced the Eisenhower administration as a “dime-store New Deal,” and another conservative critic, William F. Buckley, Jr., characterized Eisenhower’s record as “measured socialism.” But the Republican President’s acceptance of the Roosevelt legacy effectively ended debate over the New Deal and meant that the reforms would endure.