Term in Office: 34th president, 1953-1961
Political Party: Republican
Home State: Kansas
Dwight Eisenhower is proof that while there may not be second acts in American lives, you can, if you are lucky, enjoy a second act in American posterity. When Arthur Schlesinger Jr.’s presidential rankings were published in 1962, the 75 historians that he surveyed put Ike at a pitiful 22nd out of 31. Some of this is surely contextual; in the mid-60s, the Eisenhower administration must have seemed very drab and very torpid in the youthful, exciting, and dynamic Camelot era. However, the Harvard-grade historians that Schlesinger polled brought their own set of conclusions- I won’t say “biases” because they were largely learned and well-reasoned conclusions- to the table. Most of the Schlesinger crew consisted of academics who publicly pulled for Adlai Stevenson, Eisenhower’s opponent in both the 1952 and 1956 presidential races. Small wonder; Stevenson had, for a brief moment, made wit, eloquence, and intellectual savvy seem sexy and powerful. These traits, combined with his progressivism, endeared him to the country’s brain trust. But as a consequence, that means those historians would not be kindly disposed toward the man whose popularity and success twice denied their hero the presidency. Since that era, Eisenhower’s reputation has strongly improved, thanks to some excellent work on his presidency, the opening of his records and archives, and input from younger historians less immediately invested in his time. I am as glad as anyone to see Eisenhower rise out of the bottom ten, but I also worry that perhaps too sharp a reversal has taken place, that we’ve reappraised his presidency a little too highly. We remember Ike’s moderation on domestic issues, and his skillful mastery over American foreign policy, but we forget some of the more sinister qualities he brought to the table, particularly in respecting democracy in other nations during the Cold War.
The public image of Dwight Eisenhower has not quite caught up. We still see him as the old war hero, the genial dolt, the benign grandfather of the stable, square 1950s, an “empty carriage” with a vacuous grin. 8 years ago, The Onion had a funny piece that pokes fun at this view set in 1957, where Eisenhower addresses America’s biggest problem: overdue library books. Truth be known, a clever, sharp, and even Machiavellian mind was behind that grin.
Eisenhower’s narrative importance, though, is really the first place to begin. Remember, he was the first Republican elected president since 1928; the Democrats had won five consecutive elections going back to 1932 before Eisenhower took office. It was only a matter of time until the GOP won again. Having a relative moderate be the victor was nearly an act of providence. It meant that the banking reforms of the New Deal, social security, the G.I. Bill, the Marshall Plan, and the Containment Policy were all here to stay. They would not become “Democratic policies”, but part of the accepted American political consensus, one that validated the mandate voters made, that the government had a role in making sure that no one got left behind. Even the 91% percent top tax rate on America’s wealthiest earners was left intact– it was Kennedy, not Eisenhower, who lowered it. I cannot understate the value of all this. This is all the more remarkable because, privately, Eisenhower was far more conservative in his preferences than his actual record suggests- but he was the consummate student of political realism.
In earlier essays, I used the “Value Over Replacement Player” idea to show how good a president was with respect to the other political talent that existed at that time. Well, Eisenhower’s VORP is through the roof. Ironically, the general who had never held elected office knew the political game better than almost anybody in Congress, than any governor, at that time. Consider what would have happened if we elected a dinosaur like Robert A. Taft in 1952, a man who wished to roll back the New Deal, kneecap organized labor, and possibly reverse our commitments to NATO. Indeed, it was the prospect of Taft becoming president that finally convinced a reluctant Eisenhower to run for office. At the 1952 GOP convention, when neither candidate was a clear first-ballot winner, Eisenhower’s popularity among delegates and some tactical “dirty pool” in challenging Taft’s Southern delegates both gave him the nomination and presaged how his administration would run: an apolitical and aloof veneer masking a sharp chessmaster.
When looking back on his successes in his retirement, Eisenhower reflected: “The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened- by God, it didn’t just happen. I’ll tell you that.” Eisenhower’s penchant for organization often made the difference between success and failure, and one could argue it was the single greatest trait he brought to the presidency. When you look at other former generals who were president, like Zachary Taylor or Ulysses Grant, they were fundamentally battlefield guys. They gave orders from the field, and they were carried out. Eisenhower was, in a very sharp contrast, an “office general.” He wasn’t physically present for a single major WWII battle, but he understood bureaucracies and power, how giving an order does not automatically mean it will be carried out, even in the military. So, he developed a keen mind for making sure those orders were carried out, choosing good subordinates, and gathering as much information as he could. He learned to coordinate agencies, and not foster rivalries between them. Eisenhower brought this sensibility to the Oval Office. He formalized the offices of Chief of Staff, indispensable to the complex federal bureaucracy the modern presidency must manage, and National Security Advisor. Looking back at his presidency, which began by skillfully ending the era of open warfare in Korea, and there is an astonishing absence of rookie mistakes, or novices’ flubs. Eisenhower knew, through his experiences, how to act and maneuver as president, an extremely rare gift.
Beyond his organizational prowess, Eisenhower, was also a cunning political actor, as Fred Greenstein’s book, The Hidden-Hand Presidency aptly demonstrated back in 1982. He let his chief of staff, Sherman Adams, be seen as the partisan hatchet man, leaving Ike room to maneuver as the “good cop”, the leader who was above all this partisan nonsense, someone every American, Republican or Democrat, could trust. This is a very sharp contrast indeed from Harry Truman’s scrappy, and often deeply partisan and confrontational style. Greenstein believes that Eisenhower intentionally played the doofus on the public stage, uttering banalities in speeches and vague generalities at press conferences, giving himself a veneer of dull neutrality.
This strategy was crucial to Eisenhower’s sense of crisis management. Eisenhower’s public silence but private maneuvering gave him leverage against someone like Joseph McCarthy. In public, Ike avoided any personal reference to McCarthy whatsoever, and never once publicly railed against him. Instead, he worked exhaustively behind the scenes to discredit him, and even line up conservative Republican votes for his eventual censure. This tactic took time, and McCarthy and others like him ruined plenty of lives and tarnished hundreds of innocent reputations in the interim. Whether he could have been brought down in a hastier, and more forthright way, remains to be seen.
Eisenhower was able to pull off this act in large part because of his overwhelmingly strong and reassuring reputation. Remember, the Gallup Poll average approval rating for Eisenhower throughout his administration was a staggering 62%. Again, that is not the high point, it is the average. Eisenhower’s status as a war hero was part of this, as was his Obamaesque “no drama” approach to the presidency. But the ace in Ike’s sleeve was, in some ways, his use of religion. Eisenhower himself was on the fuzzy side of theology (he once said, “our form of government has no sense unless it is founded on some deeply-felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”) In a manner of speaking though, the United States of America was Eisenhower’s religion, and he was instrumental in making the presidency more priestlike in its role in American life. He was the first president to routinize the words that conclude nearly every speech every president makes: “God Bless America.” He instituted the banal “putting on the pious” that is the Presidential Prayer Breakfast. He was the first of many presidents to cultivate a symbiotic relationship with Billy Graham, America’s most trusted man. Through all this, he made America’s common religiosity, no matter how vague it was, a rampart against communism.*
Eisenhower largely succeeded in his goal of keeping the United States committed to NATO and limiting communist expansion in Europe, with the important exception of Hungary. In this sense, Eisenhower’s approach was a continuation of Truman’s Containment Doctrine and his general approach to the Cold War. There was, however, one crucial difference, and that difference is what persuaded me to kick Eisenhower out of the top ten. The difference is subtle. Consider that when Greece and Turkey were both trying to put down internal communist threats, Truman supported these administrations with money and arms to defend themselves, a policy that became known as “The Truman Doctrine.” Eisenhower’s policy shared the larger goal of checking the spread of communism, but it crossed a red line. Namely, he used the CIA for an array of covert activity across the world, and often this amounted to deposing democratically elected rulers in favor of someone more suitable to U.S. interests. This included aiding a coup against Mohammed Mossadeq in Iran after he nationalized the oil wells, training insurgents in Guatemala who overthrew Jacobo Arbenz after his land reform measures confiscated land from the United Fruit Company, and leading a revolt in the Republic of Congo that ended in the assassination of its premier, Patrice Lumumba. Under Eisenhower, the CIA became a kind of shadow government unto itself with limited accountability before the public. In his zeal to win the Cold War, Eisenhower also compromised civil liberties at home, broadening the FBI’s ability to spy on potentially subversive groups unconnected to communism, supported removing citizenship of those convicted of conspiring against the government, and removed J. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, although he privately thought there was scarcely any real evidence against him.
There was also the enduring question of who had access to power. Eisenhower is famous for declaring, “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States of America.” Eisenhower’s modus operandi was a government run by business leaders and friendly to business leaders. Charles Faber writes in his book, The American Presidents Ranked by Performance, that Eisenhower’s vision, such as it was, posited “the United States as a self-disciplined, cooperative society marked by enlightened corporate leadership.” Eisenhower’s pro-business governance included National Steel Corporation chair George Humphrey as Secretary of Treasury, and General Motors CEO Charles Wilson as Secretary of Defense. In fact, out of his entire cabinet, only one person was not a millionaire. This is problematic, and highlights my belief that the government should not be run as a business. The purpose of a business is to make a profit. The purpose of a government is to secure justice, and the two are often at cross-ends. Small wonder, then, that this was the era of military buildup and brinksmanship. Plenty of people, many of them tied to the industries represented among Eisenhower’s advisors, made a great deal of money off of the Cold War. While ordinary Americans may have loved Ike, they did not always have a voice at his table.
This effective and efficient, but morally agnostic, worldview also spilled over into one of the biggest “values” questions of Eisenhower’s day: the civil rights movement. Throughout his career, Ike viewed civil rights activists as a “special interest,” the same way he viewed labor, women’s issues, and frankly, nearly everything besides business. Eisenhower inadvertently moved the country closer to a just resolution on the color line through his Supreme Court appointments, several of which turned out to be far more liberal than he could have ever imagined, most notably his choice for Chief Justice, Earl Warren. A year and a half into Eisenhower’s presidency, the court unanimously (!!) passed the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, which ruled that racially separate schools were inherently unequal, and declared that such schools should integrate with “all deliberate speed.” Eisenhower was, to say the least, annoyed at the court for forcing his hand on such a delicate issue. The decision invariably led to entrenched opposition in Dixie (and beyond Dixie, but don’t worry, we aren’t at Nixon yet.) When Arkansas’s governor, Orval Faubus, defied the ruling, Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne (or rather, the white guys in the 101st Airborne) to enforce it. This made Eisenhower the first president since Ulysses Grant to use federal troops to enforce civil rights for black Americans in Dixie– an important laurel, but one Eisenhower carried out not out of any passion of equal opportunity, or any anger at justice denied, but simply because Faubus defied the courts.
In the end, sorry Ike. I just can’t put you in the Top Ten. It is a shame, though. I look at someone like Jimmy Carter, who did not know how to use power well or instill public confidence. Yet, his decisions- whether pivoting to a human rights foreign policy, appointing Volcker to the Fed, or even installing solar panels on the White House, created short-term pain and frustration and sacrifice for long-term gain. A lot of the problems that Ike addressed were quite the opposite: short-term, but popular, solutions that would bear bad fruit in the decades to come. His use of the CIA has ramifications we are still dealing with in the Obama years with respect to domestic and foreign surveillance. His attempts to depose unfriendly regimes may have given a temporary leg up to the U.S. side of the Cold War, but created a reservoir of ill will against the United States. Come to think of it, this included the pent up rage against the Shah that triggered the Iranian Revolution in ’79 and torpedoed Carter’s presidency. Even the interstate highway system, his most trumpeted domestic accomplishment, contributed to suburban sprawl, the pitifully low use of public transportation, and our lamentably high carbon footprint. Good for General Motors, indeed.
My review is full of criticisms, but their purpose is to show that Eisenhower’s presidency was able and effective, but cannot be called “great” without some heavy qualifiers along the way. John McCain used the phrase “a steady hand at the tiller” during the 2008 presidential debates to describe himself, and there is no question that Eisenhower had a steady, calming hand in tumultuous times. He may have prioritized internal order over justice, and he may have been slow and obfuscating on urgent matters where others might have been more forthright. In the end, it amounts to a masterful handling of the presidency, and the very important retention and continuity of the New Deal, commingled with a reluctance to side with the less fortunate. Eisenhower’s farewell address is the only one we remember aside from Washington’s, and in it, he warns his countrymen of “the military-industrial complex.” After eight years of doing everything in his power to embolden and enrich said complex, his warning may be seen as facetious, but I see it as tragic, as if, at the very end, Eisenhower had realized that the U.S. was winning the Cold War at the loss of its soul.
*To be sure, though, Eisenhower’s vagueness on “religious faith” helped to make room for Catholic and Jewish voices in public discourse. In a way, he helped pave the way for Bishop Sheen, John Kennedy, Rabbi Heschel, Michael Novak, and plenty of others.