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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
Nothing damaged Eisenhower’s standing with intellectuals; more than his vague position on McCarthyism. Eisenhower historians are sharply divided over the President’s role in ending the Wisconsin senator’s reign of fear. Ambrose criticizes Eisenhower’s “muddled leadership” and unwillingness to publicly condemn McCarthy and his abusive tactics. But Greenstein and William Bragg Ewald have made a strong argument that Eisenhower’s behind-the-scenes efforts set the stage for McCarthy’s censure by the Senate and destroyed his political influence. Eisenhower loathed McCarthy but believed that a direct presidential attack on him would enhance the senator’s credibility among his right-wing followers. “I just won’t get into a pissing contest with that skunk,” Eisenhower told his brother Milton. The President’s papers indicate that he never doubted his strategy against McCarthy, and in the end he felt vindicated.
So as not to tarnish our image as the foremost anticolonial power, Ike stayed out of Vietnam.
Eisenhower is also still criticized for not showing sufficient boldness in the field of civil rights. The President was not pleased with the 1954 Supreme Court decision that overturned the “separate but equal” doctrine in public education, and he privately observed that the firestorm touched off by the Brown v. Board of Education decision had set back racial progress fifteen years. Despite his misgivings, Eisenhower never considered defying the Court, as his successors Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan would do, over the volatile issue of school desegregation. Eisenhower enforced the Court’s decision in sending federal troops into Little Rock, and he went on to establish a civil rights division in the Justice Department in 1957 that committed the federal government to defend the rights of minorities and provided momentum to the civil rights movement.
As a national hero, Eisenhower’s popular appeal transcended his political party. According to a 1955 Gallup Poll, 57 percent of the nation’s voters considered Eisenhower a political independent, which may have been why Eisenhower was unable to transfer his enormous popularity to the Republican party. Between 1932 and 1968, he was the only Republican j elected to the White House. Ironically the GOP-controlled Eightieth Congress may have shortened the Eisenhower era five years before it began by adopting the Twenty-second Amendment, prohibiting any future President from serving more than two terms. Without the constitutional limit, John Eisenhower said his father would have run for a third term in 1960. Even Truman acknowledged that Eisenhower would have been reelected in another landslide.
Revered as a national hero, Ike’s popular appeal far transcended that of his political party.
Of Ike’ “high rank on the list of presidents,” Robert Donovan wrote, “there can be little doubt.”
Eisenhower restored confidence in the Presidency as an institution and set the agenda for the economic growth of the next decade. He understood public opinion as well as Roosevelt had, and he had a keener sense of military problems than any President since George Washington. As the failings of his successors became apparent, Eisenhower’s Presidency grew in historical stature. A 1982 Chicago Tribune survey of forty-nine scholars ranked him as the ninth best President in history, just behind Truman and ahead of James K. Polk.
With the renewed appreciation of Eisenhower’s achievements, Ambrose predicts that Ike may eventually be ranked ahead of Truman and Theodore Roosevelt, and just behind Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, and FDR. “I’d put Ike rather high,” the historian Robert Ferrell says, “because when he came into office at the head of an only superficially united party … he had to organize that heterogeneous group, and get it to cooperate, which he did admirably with all those keen political instincts of his.”
“Whatever his failings,” Robert J. Donovan wrote of Eisenhower in 1984, “he was a sensible, outstanding American, determined to do what he believed was right. He was a dedicated peacemaker, a president beloved by millions of people … and, clearly, a good man to depend on in a crisis. Of his high rank on the list of presidents there can be little doubt.”
Henry Steele Commager, who was among Eisenhower’s most thoughtful critics during his Presidency, said recently that he would now rank him about tenth from the top. Though Commager faults Eisenhower for not showing leadership against McCarthyism and on behalf of civil rights, he gives Ike high marks in foreign policy for not intervening in Vietnam and “having the sense to say ‘no’ to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”