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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
When Johns Hopkins University Press issued the first five volumes of Ike’s papers in 1970, the former President’s historical image received a boost almost overnight. John Kenneth Galbraith, who had been Stevenson’s adviser and had once described the Eisenhower administration as “the bland leading the bland,” wrote in The Washington Post that Ike’s private writings demonstrated that he had been an “exceedingly vigorous, articulate, and clearheaded administrator, who shows himself throughout to have been also a very conscientious and sensible man.”
With the opening of Eisenhower’s private correspondence and other key documents of his administration to scholars in the seventies, experts were soon focusing attention on the primary source material, and a major reassessment of the Eisenhower Presidency was inevitable. Herbert S. Parmet, one of the first historians to make extensive use of newly declassified papers, made the argument in Eisenhower and the American Crusades (1972) that those who rated presidential greatness had overlooked Ike’s importance in restoring confidence and building a national consensus in postwar America. To many erstwhile critics, Eisenhower’s restrained style of leadership looked better in retrospect during the Vietnam War. At a time when thousands of Americans were dying in a long, bloody, fruitless struggle in Southeast Asia, there were new interpretations of the Eisenhower foreign policy. Murray Kempton’s “The Underestimation of Dwight D. Eisenhower,” which appeared in the September 1967 issue of Esquire, described how Ike had rejected the advice of Cold Warriors to seek military adventure in Vietnam. “He is revealed best, if only occasionally, in the vast and dreary acreage of his memoirs of the White House years,” wrote Kempton. “The Eisenhower who emerges here … is the President most superbly equipped for truly consequential decision we may ever have had, a mind neither rash nor hesitant, free of the slightest concern for how things might look, indifferent to any sentiment, as calm when he was demonstrating the wisdom of leaving a bad situation alone as when he was moving to meet it on those occasions when he absolutely had to.”
Other influential political analysts later expanded the same theme. On the left, I. F. Stone noted that Eisenhower, because of his confidence in his own military judgment, was not intimidated into rash action by the Pentagon.
Eisenhower’s most enduring and prescient speech was his 1961 farewell address warning of the potential dangers of the military-industrial complex. “In the councils of government,” he declared, “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
When the first volumes of Ike’s papers were published, his image received a boost almost overnight.
Eisenhower’s correspondence effectively demonstrates that his farewell address was an accurate reflection of his political philosophy. In an October 1951 letter to the General Motors executive Charles E. Wilson, Eisenhower wrote: “Any person who doesn’t clearly understand that national security and national solvency are mutually dependent, and that permanent maintenance of a crushing weight of military power would eventually produce dictatorship, should not be entrusted with any kind of responsibility in our country.” The White House press secretary James Hagerty wrote in his diary that Ike had confided, “You know, if you’re in the military and you know about these terrible destructive weapons, it tends to make you more pacifistic than you normally have been.”
Stephen E. Ambrose, a former editor of the Eisenhower papers and author of the most comprehensive Eisenhower biography, shows how Ike slowed the arms race and exerted firm leadership in rejecting the Gaither Commission’s call for sharp increases in defense spending. “Eisenhower’s calm, common-sense, deliberate response to [the Soviets launching of Sputnik] may have been his finest gift to the nation,” wrote Ambrose, “if only because he was the only man who could have given it.” Because of his military background, Eisenhower spoke with more authority about the arms race than his critics. In a 1956 letter to Richard L. Simon, president of Simon & Schuster, who had written him and enclosed a column urging a crash program for nuclear missiles, Eisenhower replied, “When we get to the point, as we one day will, that both sides know that in any outbreak of general hostilities, regardless of the element of surprise, destruction will be both reciprocal and complete, possibly we will have sense enough to meet at the conference table with the understanding that the era of armaments has ended and the human race must conform its actions to this truth or die.”