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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
The prosperity of the Eisenhower years was no accident. He produced three balanced budgets; the gross national product grew by over 25 percent; and inflation averaged 1.4 percent. To hold the line on inflation, Eisenhower made the tough choice to accept three recessions. The AFL-CIO president George Meany, who often criticized Ike’s policies, nonetheless said that the American worker had “never had it so good.”
Although he continued Roosevelt’s social programs, Eisenhower’s concept of presidential leadership was very different from FDR’s. Ike’s style was managerial with an orderly staff system and a strong cabinet. FDR was an activist who encouraged chaos and creative tension among his hyperactive staff and cabinet. Most political scholars shared Roosevelt’s philosophy of government and viewed Eisenhower as an ineffectual board chairman. There were jokes about the Eisenhower doll; you wound it up and it did nothing for eight years. A memorable Herblock cartoon showed Ike asking his cabinet, “What shall we refrain from doing now?”
The early Eisenhower literature consisted of affectionate memoirs by World War II associates and adoring biographies by war correspondents. But as Chief Executive, Ike suddenly found a more independent panel of observers judging him by new and different standards.
Many of Ike’s critics were Democratic partisans. A large factor in his low rating among scholars and liberal commentators was the extraordinary popularity among intellectuals of his major political rival, Adlai Stevenson. Stevenson’s admirers were bitter that Eisenhower had twice routed their champion. In Anti-lntellectualism in American Life, the historian Richard Hofstadter described Stevenson as a “politician of uncommon mind and style” and Eisenhower as “conventional in mind, relatively inarticulate.”
Arthur Larson, the University of Pittsburgh law dean who became an Eisenhower speech writer, recalled: “It was one of the paradoxes of my position in those days that the people I was most at home with, intellectually and ideologically, were more often than not bitterly critical of Eisenhower, if not downright contemptuous of him.” Eisenhower did not improve his image in the academic community by flippantly remarking that an intellectual was someone “who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” As for the syndicated columnists, he declared that “anyone who has time to listen to commentators or read columnists obviously doesn’t have enough work to do.”
What shall we refrain from doing now?” Ike asked his cabinet in a Herblock cartoon.
Eisenhower’s poor showing in the poll taken shortly after he left office in which Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., got seventy-five historians to rate Ike’s Presidency should not have been surprising: the participants included two of Stevenson’s speech writers, a leader of the 1952 “Draft Stevenson” movement, and other Democratic partisans. Malcolm Moos, a political scholar and former Eisenhower speech writer, declined to participate in the survey, which he believed was stacked against Ike.
In the poll, Eisenhower finished twenty-second out of thirty-one Presidents, which placed him just between the White House mediocrities Chester Alan Arthur and Andrew Johnson. John F. Kennedy reportedly chuckled over Ike’s low score in the Schlesinger survey. Elisenhower’s associates were concerned that the negative rating might have staying power. “I’m very distressed at this tendency of academics to look down their noses at the Eisenhower administration,” the former White House chief of staff Sherman Adams acknowledged years later. “It’s a common sort of thing with the intelligentsia. It’s just typical. Look at Mr. Roosevelt. He’s a great favorite with the academics, and he’s probably a great man. But he lost a lot of battles, didn’t he? …Well, we may not have done as much, may not have been as spectacular in terms of our willingness to break with the past, but we didn’t lose a lot of battles either. A lot of our most important accomplishments were negative—things we avoided. We maintained a peaceful front and adjudicated a lot of issues that seemed ominous and threatening at the time.”
Ike was labeled a prisoner of his office, a captive of his own indecisiveness another James Buchanan.
Had Eisenhower served just one term, it is unlikely that his historical stock would have dropped so much. Near the end of his first term, his reputation looked fairly secure. A respected journalist, Robert J. Donovan, had written an authoritative history of Eisenhower’s first term, which in many ways remains the best study of a sitting President, and which showed Ike firmly in charge. The Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Merlo Pusey had written a friendly treatment of the Eisenhower administration and predicted that Ike would be remembered as a great President, while the political scholar Clinton Rossiter wrote in The American Presidency (1956) that Eisenhower “already stands above Polk and Cleveland, and he has a reasonable chance to move up to Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt.”