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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
Critics charged that Ike was spineless in his refusal to openly fight Sen. Joseph McCarthy.
Early in 1952, Gen. Dwight David Eisenhower confided to a friendly Republican politician why he was reluctant to seek the Presidency: “I think I pretty well hit my peak in history when I accepted the German surrender.”
Emerging from World War II as the organizer of the Allied victory, Eisenhower was America’s most celebrated hero. Both major political parties sought to nominate him for the Presidency. And when Ike decided to risk his historical reputation, he captured the 1952 Republican presidential nomination and ended twenty years of Democratic rule. Ronald Reagan was among the millions of Democrats who crossed party lines to support the Republican general. Afterward, the badly beaten Democratic candidate, Adlai E. Stevenson, asked his friend Alistair Cooke: “Who did I think I was, running against George Washington?”
Not only did Eisenhower win two terms by margins of historic proportions, but he maintained his popularity throughout his Presidency. He left office in 1961 still revered by two-thirds of his countrymen, and the American public never stopped liking Ike.
But until recently it seemed that Eisenhower had lost his gamble with history. Like Ulysses S. Grant and Zachary Taylor, Eisenhower was frequently portrayed by historians and political scholars as a mediocre Chief Executive. Soon after Ike left the White House, a poll of leading scholars ranked him among the nation’s ten worst Presidents.
Since then, however, Eisenhower’s historical image has been dramatically rehabilitated. In 1982 a similar poll of prominent historians and political scholars rated him near the top of the list of Presidents. Eisenhower is gaining recognition as one of the large figures of the twentieth century, not just for his role as Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, but also for his eight years as President of the United States.
One of the reasons for Eisenhower’s comeback is nostalgia for an enormously popular President after an era of assassinations, political scandals, military defeat, and economic turmoil. Another factor in the reassessment is Eisenhower’s record of eight years of peace and prosperity, which is unique among twentieth-century Presidents.
Eisenhower, a man of war, conducted his foreign policy with restraint and moderation. During the most turbulent era of the Cold War, he ended the Korean War, blocked British and French efforts to crush Arab nationalism, opposed military intervention in Southeast Asia, opened a new dialogue with the Soviet Union, and alerted the nation to the dangers of the expanding military-industrial complex. He was criticized for being too passive by the Cold Warriors Henry Kissinger and Gen. Maxwell Taylor, and the same critics berated him for a missile gap that turned out to be nonexistent. In retirement, Eisenhower said his most notable presidential achievement was that “the United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace.”
In domestic affairs, Eisenhower also strove to maintain a peaceful equilibrium in handling such explosive issues as McCarthyism and segregation. While critics charged that Ike was spineless in his refusal to openly fight Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the President worked behind the scenes to reduce McCarthy’s influence. Despite private doubts about a Supreme Court decision that outlawed segregation, he sent the 101st Airborne into Little Rock, Arkansas, when the state’s governor defied the law. He also pushed through the first federal civil rights law since Reconstruction and established the United States Commission on Civil Rights.
Although Eisenhower’s memoir of his first term was entitled Mandate for Change, his most notable achievement in domestic policy was the continuance of New Deal reforms initiated under President Roosevelt. For nearly a generation, congressional Republicans had been pledging to dismantle FDR’s social programs. But Eisenhower had other ideas. “Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history,” he wrote to his brother Edgar, an outspoken conservative. During the Eisenhower era the number of Americans covered by Social Security doubled, and benefits were increased. The Department of Health, Education, and Welfare was established as a domestic Pentagon. Eisenhower also launched the largest public-works project in American history by building the federal highway system, which turned out to be almost as important as the transcontinental railroad. Barry Goldwater denounced the Eisenhower administration as a “dime-store New Deal,” and another conservative critic, William F. Buckley, Jr., characterized Eisenhower’s record as “measured socialism.” But the Republican President’s acceptance of the Roosevelt legacy effectively ended debate over the New Deal and meant that the reforms would endure.
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
Commager says that Eisenhower’s election was the decisive factor in ending the Korean War. “Only a general with enormous prestige could have made peace in Korea. An outsider couldn’t have done it.” Even Adlai Stevenson told a reporter that the election of Eisenhower in 1952 had been good for the country. (He did not, however, feel the same way about Ike’s second term.)
William Appleman Williams, the dean of revisionist historians, says that Eisenhower was far more perceptive in international politics than his predecessor or those who followed him. “He clearly understood that crusading imperial police actions were extremely dangerous,” Williams notes, and he was determined to avoid World War III.
In the final months of his Presidency, Eisenhower made this private assessment of his managerial style: “In war and in peace I’ve had no respect for the desk-pounder, and have despised the loud and slick talker. If my own ideas and practices in this matter have sprung from weakness, I do not know. But they were and are deliberate or, rather, natural to me. They are not accidental.”