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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
But while many recent historians have portrayed Eisenhower as a dove, a pioneer of détente, there are dissenters. Peter Lyon argued in his 1974 Eisenhower biography that the President’s 1953 inaugural address was a “clarion” that “called to war,” and that the general was a hawkish militarist. In her 1981 study The Declassified Eisenhower, Blanche Wiesen Cook says that Eisenhower used the CIA to launch a “thorough and ambitious anti-Communist crusade” that toppled governments on three continents.
His commonsense response to Sputnik may have been his finest gift to the nation.
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who had previously described Eisenhower as a weak, passive, and politically naïve executive, asserted in his 1973 book The Imperial Presidency that Ike went overboard in his use of presidential powers by introducing claims for “executive privilege” in denying government documents to Sen. Joseph McCarthy and by also approving the buildup of the CIA. Even so, Schlesinger now ranks Eisenhower with Truman and his former White House boss, John F. Kennedy, as the successful Presidents of the postwar era.
Another Eisenhower critic, William Leuchtenburg, insists that Ike was not so different from his more obviously hawkish successors. He points to Eisenhower’s covert intervention in Iran and Guatemala, his threats to use nuclear weapons in Korea, and his war of words with China over the islands of Quemoy and Ma-tsu. Leuchtenburg also blames Eisenhower for neglecting major public issues, especially in the field of civil rights, “at a considerable cost.” Even so, Schlesinger and Leuchtenburg both concede that Eisenhower was much more of a hands-on executive than was realized during his administration.
The records of the Eisenhower administration have ended the myth that the old soldier left foreign policy to his influential secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. A leading Eisenhower revisionist, Fred I. Greenstein, reported in his 1982 study The Hidden-Hand Presidency that Ike made the decisions and DuIles carried them out. Greenstein said that it was Eisenhower’s international political strategy to be the champion of peace in his public statements, while his secretary of state acted as a Cold Warrior. Dulles once claimed that he, as secretary of state, had ended the Korean War by threatening the use of atomic weapons. But the diplomatic historian Robert A. Divine wrote in Eisenhower and the Cold War (1981) that Dulles had exaggerated his role. “It was Eisenhower, in his own characteristically quiet and effective way, who had used the threat of American nuclear power to compel China to end its intervention in the Korean conflict. …”
Eisenhower’s decision not to intervene militarily in Vietnam is described by some revisionists as his finest hour. Nine years later Eisenhower explained in a private memorandum that he had not wanted to tarnish the image of the United States as the world’s foremost anticolonial power. “It is essential to our position of leadership in a world wherein the majority of the nations have at some time or another felt the yoke of colonialism. Thus it is that the moral position of the United States was more to be guarded than the Tonkin Delta, indeed than all of Indochina.”
Largely because of his White House staff structure and the authority that he delegated to ranking subordinates, Eisenhower was often characterized as a disengaged President. His chief of staff, Sherman Adams, wielded more power than any White House adviser since FDR’s Harry Hopkins, and a popular joke of the fifties had the punch line: “What if Sherman Adams died and Ike became President?” But the memoirs of Adams, Richard M. Nixon, Henry Cabot Lodge, Hagerty, Emmet John Hughes, Milton and John Eisenhower have shown a President firmly in command.
Eisenhower’s uneasy relationship with Nixon has also been distorted by some revisionist scholars. While Ike and Nixon were never close, some historians have demonstrated political naïveté in accepting Eisenhower’s private criticism of his Vice-President at face value. If Eisenhower held such strong reservations about Nixon as they have suggested, it is unlikely that he would have retained him on the ticket in 1956 and supported him for the Presidency in 1960 and 1968. Eisenhower did not share Nixon’s zest for Republican partisanship, but he considered him a loyal and capable Vice-President. Had one of Ike’s personal favorites, such as his brother Milton or Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson, emerged as a potential heir, there is evidence that Eisenhower might have supported them over Nixon. But Ike definitely preferred his Vice-Président over Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater.