- Historic Sites
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
But like most second terms, Eisenhower’s last four years were less productive than his first. The nation was jolted when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, and it took months to rebuild American confidence. The recession of 1958 marked the worst economic slide since the Great Depression; more than five million workers were jobless before the recovery began. Ike’s 1957 stroke, his third major illness in three years, reinforced doubts about his health and capability to govern. His chief aide, Sherman Adams, became entwined in a political scandal and was forced to resign in 1958.
Eisenhower’s 1960 Paris summit with Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev and leaders of the Western alliance was ruined when an American reconnaissance aircraft, the U-2, was shot down over Central Russia and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured. Khrushchev stormed out of the summit, withdrawing his invitation for the President’s scheduled June visit to the Soviet Union. Had Elsenhower followed his instincts, the U-2 fiasco might have been avoided. A year earlier, he had suggested that the spy flights be halted, but he relented when his National Security Council advisers objected. Later he personally approved Powers’s flight. In suggesting that Eisenhower might not have known of the secret mission over the Soviet Union, Khrushchev provided Ike with an alibi that might have salvaged the summit. Indeed, Sen. J. William FuIbright had urged Ike to disclaim responsibility. But Eisenhower told associates that denials would have been ineffectual because of the overpowering evidence. Furthermore, Eisenhower did not want to give credibility to the charge made by his detractors that he was not in control of his own administration.
In his critical 1958 portrait, Eisenhower: Captive Hero, the journalist Marquis Childs suggested that Ike was in the wrong job. “If his public record had ended with his military career, it seems safe to assume that a high place would be secure for him,” Childs wrote. “But Eisenhower’s performance in the presidency will count much more heavily in the final summing up.” Childs offered the interpretation that Eisenhower had been a weak and ineffective President, “a prisoner of his office, a captive of his own indecisiveness,” another James Buchanan.
Striking a similar theme, the Harvard political scholar Richard Neustadt depicted Eisenhower as a passive, detached Chief Executive in his 1960 study, Presidential Power. According to Neustadt, Eisenhower became too isolated from his staff and should have been more involved in discussing policy options. “The less he was bothered,” Neustadt quoted a White House observer, “the less he knew, and the less he knew, the less confidence he felt in his own judgment. He let himself grow stale.”
In a revised 1960 edition of The American Presidency, Rossiter concluded that Eisenhower had been a disappointment. “He will be remembered, I fear, as the unadventurous president who held on one term too long in the new age of adventure.” Without directly attacking Eisenhower, Kennedy suggested in his 1960 presidential campaign that the Republican incumbent was a tired old man, whose lack of leadership had weakened America’s prestige in the world. Following his election; Kennedy privately acknowledged that he was struck by Eisenhower’s vitality and ruddy health.
Eisenhower’s own history of his Presidency was more authoritative but less provocative than those written by his critics, and it had little immediate impact on his reputation. The first volume, Mandate for Change, was published in late 1963, and Waging Peace, the second installment, came out two years later.
The former President’s refusal to disclose his unvarnished opinions of political contemporaries or admit mistakes helped set a bland tone for both volumes. In Mandate, Eisenhower described a secret meeting at the Pentagon with a prominent Republican senator in the winter of 1951, without revealing the other man’s identity. At the meeting Ike offered to renounce all political ambitions if the senator would make a public commitment to economic and military aid to Western Europe and American participation in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When the senator declined, Eisenhower began thinking much more seriously about running for the Presidency.
This meeting had been a turning point in modern American history because the senator Eisenhower neglected to identify in his memoirs was Robert A. Taft, the leading conservative contender for the 1952 Republican presidential nomination. Ike’s memoirs would have been much more compelling reading if he had written what he told associates—that in the wake of their meeting he considered Taft a very stupid man. Had the Ohio senator accepted Eisenhower’s offer at the Pentagon, it is more than likely that he would have been nominated for the Presidency and Eisenhower would have remained a soldier.