This week’s post has little to do with Alzheimer’s, other than the act of writing and reading on a daily basis is a means of keeping my mind sharp. In a typical evening at home, I will read for one or two hours. Over the past month I’ve been engrossed in Jean Edward Smith’s 766-page biography of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Why Ike? After all, the fifties are often remembered as an age of stultifying conformity, shoehorned between the heroic war years and the upheavals of the sixties. Long before Eisenhower was elected president, in 1952, he had far-reaching international experience, having been stationed in Paris, the Panama Canal zone, and the Philippines–this all long before World II broke out. And he was the architect, of course, of the largest amphibious landing in the history of war. Unlike two other famous World War II generals—George Patton and Douglas MacArthur—Ike had a healthy ego, not an oversized one.
Smith describes Eisenhower as a “progressive conservative.” Is this a contradiction in terms? Another way to put it is to say that the changes Eisenhower brought about came at a slower pace than under FDR or Lyndon Johnson. After the war—and the emergence of the Cold War—Eisenhower was the principal architect of NATO. Ike was no hawk. He was not involved in the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—Harry Truman was the president then—but later he commented, “it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.” MacArthur, on the other hand, appears to have favored using atomic weapons during the Korean War.
By the time Eisenhower came into office, the Democrats had occupied the White House for twenty years. Unlike in our more polarized era, in the 1950s both parties had liberal and conservative wings. In 1952, when Eisenhower was serving as the president of Columbia University, both the Democrats and Republicans sought him to be their nominee. He chose the GOP. But there is no question that many of his views and policies had a liberal or internationalist slant. He defended General George Marshall, the architect of “The Marshall Plan,” the infusion of $12 billion (more than $120 billion in today’s economy) to stabilize Western Europe in the aftermath of World War II. Rarely before or since has public money been so effectively deployed.
To the extent that there were problems on the way to the presidency, they were provided by Richard Nixon, Ike’s running mate. Nixon, then a fierce anti-communist, was on the ticket to placate the party’s right wing. Ike was never fully comfortable with Nixon as his running mate, and when Nixon became involved in a campaign-funding scandal, Eisenhower was intending to drop him. But Eisenhower, in a rare episode of poor judgement, permitted Nixon to address the nation, and Nixon’s maudlin “Checkers” speech—“Checkers” was Nixon’s young daughter’s dog—turned out to be a national sensation. Thousands of telegrams arrived overnight, almost all of them urging Eisenhower to keep Nixon on board.
Smith, whose biography of Eisenhower was published in 2012, describes the 1952 campaign as the nastiest in modern times. J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime FBI director, was in his evil glory. So was Joseph McCarthy, the deplorable hunter of alleged Communists and “deviants.” Eisenhower won in a landslide, helping to discredit McCarthyism and strengthen the rule of law. But he was stuck with Nixon as his running mate. “From that point on,” Smith notes, “Eisenhower never trusted Nixon.”
Just months after Ike’s defeat of Democrat Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower, fulfilling a campaign pledge, traveled to the Korean Peninsula. The president’s son, John Eisenhower, was stationed at the front, serving as a major. This appears not to have been a token gesture. Certainly Ike could have arranged for his son to have a less risky role, one far from the actual fighting. But this, I think, points out an essential fact about Eisenhower—his conviction that all Americans should be treated in the same way.
Much later in his presidency, Eisenhower directed federal troops to enforce a court directive to desegregate the schools in Birmingham, Alabama. The decision, Brown v. Board of Education, had profound implications. Until then, legal doctrine held that “separate but equal” accommodations, in housing, in public transportation, and in schools, was permissible. A president with other priorities might have ignored the implications of Brown v. Board and left it for his successor.
A few years earlier, in 1956, the Eisenhower administration faced separate geopolitical crises months apart. In Europe, the Soviet Union sent troops into Hungary to quash a popular uprising, instantly raising the temperature of the Cold War. A couple of months later, the Eisenhower administration had to walk a diplomatic high wire between nominal allies France, Britain and Israel on one side and the United States on the other, concerning the fate of the Suez Canal, the lifeblood of Middle Eastern commerce, oil in particular.
Most surprising to me is that it was Eisenhower, not some think-tank guru, who coined the term “military-industrial complex”—Eisenhower’s understanding that the relationship between defense contractors and government officials had become much too cozy, to the detriment of democracy. In his farewell speech, 56 years ago this week, Eisenhower commented, “In the councils of government, 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 exists.
“We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes,” Eisenhower continued. “We should take nothing for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of huge industrial and military machinery with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
And this wasn’t the only time that Eisenhower spoke out on militarism during his presidency. In 1953, in an early phase of the Cold War, Eisenhower made a speech that might have been written by a Quaker. The opening lines were, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
Eisenhower, in other words, was pretty much the complete package—a president who was a champion of civil rights, who didn’t regard defense spending as a sacred cow, who didn’t overeact to international crises, who rarely lost his cool. Was he the most accomplished president of the twentieth century? No, that would be FDR. But Eisenhower was the right president at the right time.
And what can we say about the man who will become our president today? Does he have any of the attributes that informed the Eisenhower administration? Ike’s lack of pomposity? His willingness to treat his own son as just another soldier? His level-headed decision-making? His fair-mindedness? His empathy?