At times a brush with history can be a brush with the future—and even with historians. As an editor I’ve had the luck to know six Presidents, in casual conversations or working relationships. One pertinent conversation dates to 1965, when I went over the last pages of Dwight D. Elsenhower’s presidential memoirs with him.
We were in his Gettysburg office. I asked what he thought of a recent poll of historians, ranking American Presidents, in which he had come out way below normal.
My guess was that he might dismiss the poll, or be angered by it, or ask whether any of the historians had ever commanded anything larger than a rowboat. Instead, his answer was calm and considered and, as DDE could often be, surprising. He put the fingertips of his big hands together and said (I paraphrase): Well, it depends a good deal on what happens with the fellows who come after us. If they managed to turn things around and undo what he and his “associates” (a favorite word) had been trying to do, and if they succeeded and made their programs look good, than the eight Eisenhower years would not be much more than a small blip on the screen of history. But if those who came after him in succeeding administrations did not fulfill their objectives, or looked less good, for whatever reason, then his years, the 1950s, would be better regarded.
This response appears, characteristically muted and less colloquial, in Waging Peace (pages 653–55). His answer and the two volumes anticipate LBJ’s difficulties (I once heard DDE say the words “Stay out of land wars in Asia”), the advent of civil rights violence, inflation, conservatism, economics as a form of warfare, Ronald Reagan, communist threats, and glasnost.
Since that moment, especially considering the full-scale academic and historical revisionism about his Presidency we have witnessed, it seems to me that if he had once lost a skirmish with history, he had won the battle and, to the extent that there may be one between historians and their subjects, the war.