The Age of Eisenhower
“When I think about Dwight Eisenhower,” wrote Capt. Edward Beach Jr., Eisenhower’s naval aide, “I like to recall an incident that took place aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg shortly after he was inaugurated for his first term in 1953.”
The Williamsburg, a steel-hulled vessel of 1,800 tons, had served as President Harry S. Truman’s pleasure craft; he used it for cruises with friends and political cronies. In May 1953 President Eisenhower ordered it decommissioned. He thought the ship frivolous and wasteful and felt it should be used for recreation by GIs who had been injured in the Korean War. One evening the president met the ship at the dock in the Washington Navy Yard as it returned from a cruise on the Potomac.
“As Eisenhower boarded the Williamsburg, he stepped in among the soldiers, brushing aside his Secret Service guards with words to the effect, ‘Just let me be for a while. I know these men.’?” Captain Beach remembered the scene:
The soldiers crowded in around him. They were young men whose bodies had been ravaged by war in some way; some lacked an arm or a leg, some hobbled on crutches, others had heartbreaking facial disfigurements. . . . They gathered as close to the President as they could get, and I heard him talking to them.
This was an Eisenhower that the public never saw. He talked to the soldiers of love of country, and of sacrifice. He said their country would never let them down, but no matter how much it did for them it was nothing compared to what they had done for it. And then he said that even with all they had already given, they must yet be prepared to give more, for they were symbols of devotion and sacrifice and they could never escape that role and its responsibilities.
Beach never forgot the electricity of Eisenhower’s presence and the impact it had on these wounded warriors. “His voice had a deep friendly
warmth, with a somewhat different timbre than I had ever heard before. It reached out and grabbed the men around him, so that they kept crowding in closer and closer as he talked, as if an unseen magnet were pulling at them.”1
Historians who study Eisenhower know how those men felt in his presence. Ike draws you in. He radiated authenticity, idealism, sincerity, and charisma, and these personal qualities were the keys to his political success. Between 1945 and 1961 no person dominated American public life more than Eisenhower. He was the most well-liked and admired man in America in these years. And he was also the most consequential. This book argues that the era from the end of the Second World War up to the presidency of John F. Kennedy deserves to be known as the Age of Eisenhower.
• • •
Such a claim would once have prompted chuckles and even sneers from historians, journalists, and politicians. From the start of his active pursuit of the presidency in 1951, right through eight years in office, and for a decade after he retired to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, critics styled Eisenhower as a lightweight, an amateur, an orthodox pro-business do-nothing president, a lazy leader who, despite all his grinning, was often callous and distant, more interested in golf than governing. The Washington press corps depicted him as unimaginative, slow-witted, out of touch, and frankly uninterested in the daily affairs of the country. Even as the nation enjoyed a period of unprecedented prosperity at home and a stable if fragile peace abroad, and even as the American people grew ever more fond of Ike, his political rivals were scathing about his shortcomings as a leader. It is the central paradox of the Eisenhower presidency: that a man so successful at the ballot box and so overwhelmingly popular among the voters could have been given such poor marks by the political class.
His critics never grasped the profound appeal of the man and never appreciated the depth of his political talent. His two-time opponent for the presidency, Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, mocked Eisenhower as dim and tongue-tied and declared him little more than a tool of wealthy right-wingers. President Truman, campaigning on Stevenson’s behalf in 1952, went further: he told whistle-stop audiences across the country that Eisenhower had only “a military mind” and that voters should “send Ike back to the Army where he belongs.” The radical muckraker I. F. Stone, writing what many liberals felt, predicted that Ike, a “rather simple man who enjoys his bridge and his golf and doesn’t like to be too much bothered,” would be a “president in absentia.”
Even after his resounding triumph at the polls in 1952, Eisenhower still earned nothing but scorn from his critics. “Poor Ike,” Truman said on his way out of office. “It won’t be a bit like the Army. He’ll sit here, and he’ll say, ‘Do this! Do that!’ And nothing will happen.”2
His presidency changed few minds among the commentators. A 1958 book by journalist Marquis Childs described Ike as a “captive hero,” a man unable to make decisions, passive, complacent—little more than a ventriloquist’s dummy who mouthed words prepared by others. That same year the New York Post’s Washington columnist William V. Shannon drew up a balance sheet and concluded that Eisenhower had largely sustained the policies of his Democratic predecessors in both the domestic and the international realm and had made almost no major initiatives of his own. “The Eisenhower era,” he wrote, “is the time of the great postponement.”3
Norman Mailer, the novelist, was nastier. In a celebrated 1960 essay in Esquire that hailed the nomination of the youthful and energetic John F. Kennedy for president, Mailer derided Eisenhower’s era of “security, regularity, order.” The 1950s for Mailer was a time when “many a mind atrophied from disuse and private shame.” Mailer struck a note that has continued to reverberate ever since in some circles: “Eisenhower’s eight years have been the triumph of the corporation. Tasteless, sexless, odorless sanctity.”4
With Eisenhower’s departure from office in January 1961, critics gleefully got out their spades and began to bury the ex-president. On the eve of Kennedy’s inauguration, New York Times journalist James Reston wrote an essay on the Eisenhower years that read like an epitaph. Eisenhower “was not in tune with the world-wide spirit of the age, which was convulsive and revolutionary.” He was merely “a good man in a wicked time; a consolidator in a world crying for innovation; a conservative in a radical age; a tired man in a period of turbulence and energetic action.” Scholars agreed. In July 1962 Harvard historian Arthur Schlesinger Sr. published the results of a poll that asked 75 historians to rank the presidents. Eisenhower placed 22nd out of 31 chief executives, nestled between Chester A. Arthur and, incredibly, Andrew Johnson. President Kennedy himself had a good chuckle about this; after all the adulation and public frenzy, Eisenhower would now see “how he stood before the cold eye of history—way below Truman; even below Hoover.”5
Indeed Camelot almost killed Ike. Not only did Kennedy run a brilliant campaign for president in 1960, contrasting his youth and dynamism with the septuagenarian Eisenhower, but his tragically shortened life only
enhanced the sense of his sparkling singularity. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had served as special assistant to JFK, rushed out an elegiac account of the Kennedy presidency. In his 1965 testament, A Thousand Days, Schlesinger used the complacent Eisenhower as a foil to better reflect sunlight upon the glittering years of Camelot. In every respect the comparison between the two men and the ideas that inspired them was unflattering to Eisenhower.6
By the time of his death, on March 28, 1969, at the age of 78, Eisenhower had been largely forgotten by the press. Obituaries summed him up as a worthy man whose greatest role had been played on the European stage in the Second World War and whose presidency was a postscript to a life of noble military achievement. The New York Times asserted that as president he “had governed effectively through sheer force of his popularity among average Americans”—a distinctly backhanded appraisal. Time magazine commented that many Americans would remember Ike “not as the 34th president whose stewardship may long be disputed, but as ‘the soldier of peace’ who led the greatest alliance of armies the world has ever seen.” By the close of his years in office, Time concluded, he was “more figurehead than president” and “out of touch with his people.” As a politician Eisenhower seemed destined to be written off as a benign mediocrity.7
• • •
Tides, once having ebbed, always come back in. The revival of interest in Eisenhower began in the late 1960s, prodded perhaps by the deep national crisis that his successors, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon, had confronted and exacerbated. In an era of student protest, war in Vietnam, racial upheaval, and economic malaise, the 1950s began to look curiously alluring. One of his most acerbic critics, the shrewd New York Post columnist Murray Kempton, penned a 1967 essay that almost single-handedly gave rise to a new school of thought about Eisenhower. He was neither benign nor mediocre, Kempton concluded, but malevolent and brilliant. His skills ran not to governing but to manipulation, dissimulation, and guile. He sought always to profit from the success of others and to avoid the taint of any failures, especially his own. Eisenhower was “cold,” “immoral,” determined to conceal “his marvelous intelligence from admirer and critic alike.” Kempton summed up Eisenhower’s political motto: “Always pretend to be stupid; then when you have to show yourself to be smart, the display has the additional effect of surprise.”8
The theme of a devious and effortlessly political Eisenhower appeared
in Garry Wills’s masterful 1970 study of the early Nixon, in which “the Great One” was the perfect contrast to the restless, insecure, and nakedly ambitious Nixon. The relationship hinged upon Nixon’s desire to supplant Eisenhower and his awareness that he never could. Eisenhower’s supreme self-confidence, his immense popularity, his ability to compel others to serve him while never appearing to ask for such loyalty—all these were mysteries of character Nixon could never hope to understand, let alone emulate. Eisenhower, Wills believed, “had the true professional’s instinct for making things look easy. He appeared to be performing less work than he actually did. And he wanted it that way. An air of ease inspires confidence.” It was in Nixon Agonistes that a leading intellectual of the era first called Eisenhower a “political genius”—a far cry from the smirks and chortles of the Camelot clan.9
The picture really began to change, though, in the late 1970s, when the voluminous archives held at the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library in Abilene, Kansas, became available to scholars. In a 1982 book titled The Hidden-Hand Presidency, political scientist Fred Greenstein added depth and detail to the sketch offered by Kempton and Wills. Drawing on new evidence, Greenstein argued that Eisenhower’s apparent aloofness and absenteeism had been part of a deliberate governing strategy. Greenstein believed that Ike hid his abilities and his own engagement with the issues in order to exercise power more effectively. He used intermediaries to do his political dirty work, baffled reporters with garbled syntax, refused to publicly acknowledge political rivals by name, delegated responsibility to cabinet secretaries, and fed the public reasoned, calm, simple bromides about the American way of life. “Eisenhower went to great lengths,” Greenstein concluded, “to conceal the political side of his leadership.”10
A “hidden” Eisenhower, then. Perhaps. But later work, drawing on much more material than Greenstein could access, suggested otherwise. During the 1980s and 1990s the boom in Eisenhower studies gained momentum, sustained not principally by biographers but by historians of U.S. foreign relations. Scholars who wanted to know about the origins and course of the cold war; the Korean War; the rise of covert operations and the CIA; grand strategy and nuclear weapons; American policies toward China, Latin America, Europe, and the Middle East; the rise of the Third World—all trekked to Abilene to inspect the Eisenhower archives in hopes of finding hitherto unseen treasures. The subsequent cascade of studies on Eisenhower’s cold war policies shattered forever the myth that Ike was disengaged
from the running of government. And it became increasingly difficult to sustain the idea that he “hid” his power and authority.11
The Eisenhower era suddenly looked, well, interesting. The new research revealed a complex president who at times showed exceptional restraint in the use of America’s power but who also had a taste for daring and even recklessness, especially when ordering the use of covert operations against left-wing governments. The documents portrayed a deeply engaged leader struggling to forge policies in a vast array of fields, from civil rights to economic policy, infrastructure, science and education, religion, communist “subversion” on the home front, and national security policy abroad. Eisenhower now appeared principled but adaptive, ideological at times but usually pragmatic, a problem-solver who dominated his cabinet, the military, and the bureaucracy and put his imprimatur on the age.12
Above all, the evidence showed how hard Ike worked over eight years. The allegation that he had been a golf-playing no-show was deeply unfair. “No man on Earth knows what this job is all about,” he said one afternoon in 1954. “It’s pound, pound, pound. Not only is your intellectual capacity taxed to the utmost, but your physical stamina.” It wasn’t so easy after all.13
• • •
This book stands on the shoulders of the many previous Eisenhower scholars who have worked diligently for years to unearth the secrets of the period and to flesh out our understanding of the man and his era. It also benefits from many newly declassified documents that have become available only recently, thanks to the efforts of the dedicated staff at the Eisenhower Library. Taking into account all this material, this book offers a comprehensive account of the president and his times and concludes with a decisive verdict: Dwight Eisenhower must be counted among the most consequential presidents of modern American history.14
Eisenhower shaped the United States in at least three lasting ways. First, he dramatically expanded the power and scope of the 20th-century warfare state and put into place a long-term strategy designed to wage, and win, the cold war. This book deals with national security and foreign relations a good deal because Eisenhower spent much of his time forging a global role for the United States. Unlike the isolationist faction in his own party, he believed that to defend freedom and liberty at home, Americans would have to defend these principles overseas as well.
These views did not lead Eisenhower to seek war. On the contrary, he
ended active hostilities in Korea, avoided U.S. military intervention in Indochina in 1954, deterred China’s military adventures in the Taiwan Straits in 1955 and 1958, compelled Britain and France to reverse their ill-conceived invasion of Egypt in 1956, and even established stable personal relations with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. Eisenhower worked hard, and successfully, to keep the peace. His global strategy required the steady accumulation of immense national power and a willingness to deploy that power when necessary. Building on the legacy of Truman, who laid the foundations of the cold war state, Eisenhower deployed American economic muscle, diplomatic leverage, generous deliveries of arms, and a global nuclear shield to deter and intimidate America’s enemies. He mobilized science, universities, and industry to boost American military power, even going so far as to take the first steps in the militarization of space. He presided over a significant expansion of America’s secret intelligence agencies and ordered them to conduct covert operations and coups d’état around the world. He frequently evoked the image of an “America in peril” and in so doing generated an enduring national consensus to support his robust cold war policies.
Eisenhower built the United States into a military colossus of a scale and lethality never before seen and devoted an enormous amount of the national wealth to this effort. Biographers have often hailed his tight-fisted budget policies, but when it came to national defense, he was not stingy. In the Eisenhower years the United States spent about 10 percent of its GDP each year on the military establishment—a higher percentage than any peacetime administration before or since. This book offers abundant evidence that the man who warned later generations about the military-industrial complex did a great deal to build it.
Second, Eisenhower recast domestic politics by strengthening a national consensus about the place of government in the lives of American citizens. Before Eisenhower, the political pendulum had swung from the archconservative nostrums of Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover to the bold, all-encompassing activism of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal. Eisenhower, perhaps the least partisan president of modern times, sought to stop the pendulum in dead center. To be sure, when he ran for president in 1952, he thundered against the “statism” of the New Deal and its expansive federal programs. But once in office he adopted centrist and pragmatic policies that fairly reflected the preferences of most of his fellow citizens. Early on he made his peace with the New Deal, expanding social security, raising the minimum wage, and founding the Department of Health,
Education, and Welfare. He even suggested ideas for a national health insurance system. Eisenhower found a way to make government work without making it too big; his interstate highway system is a good example. Though building its thousands of miles of roads cost billions of dollars, most of the money came from user fees in the form of a gas tax, used to replenish the Highway Trust Fund. The burden on the U.S. Treasury was relatively minor.
In confronting the greatest social and moral challenge of his times, the civil rights movement, Eisenhower—like many white Americans of the era—responded with caution and wariness. Crucially, though, he did not obstruct progress on civil rights. Instead he channeled it along a path that aligned with his own ideas about managing social change. Knowing that he was out of his depth on such matters, he accepted guidance from the most consequential cabinet officer of the decade, Attorney General Herbert Brownell. Together these two men worked quietly through the courts to weaken Jim Crow segregation. They appointed five moderately progressive jurists to the U.S. Supreme Court and ushered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 through a skeptical Congress. The Act was a landmark only because it was so rare: the first civil rights law since Reconstruction. Eisenhower took an enormous risk, and one that was deeply uncharacteristic, when he ordered federal troops to surround Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, to ensure that court-ordered desegregation proceed despite the hostility of local authorities. It is true that Eisenhower never publicly or personally embraced the fundamental demand of African Americans for equal justice, but he did use his power to aid rather than halt the work of a courageous generation of civil rights crusaders who were just emerging onto the American scene.
Third, Eisenhower established a distinctive model of presidential leadership that Americans—now more than ever—ought to study. We might call it the disciplined presidency. Raised in a strict and frugal family and trained for a career of soldiering, Ike believed that discipline was the key to success.
Not only did he apply discipline to his own person, maintaining his weight at a trim 175 pounds and quitting a four-pack-a-day cigarette habit overnight, but discipline infused his governing style. Coming into Truman’s disorganized and improvisational White House, Eisenhower imposed order on it, establishing clear rules of procedure. Each Monday he met with leaders from Congress; Wednesday he held his weekly press conference with the print, radio, and (after January 1955) television reporters; Thursdays he chaired the National Security Council; Fridays he met with his cabinet.
Truman did not convene his NSC often, and Kennedy simply dismissed it. Eisenhower, by contrast, endowed the NSC with enormous importance. He used the weekly meetings of this body to craft, review, and approve policies. In his eight years in office, the NSC met 366 times, and Eisenhower was present at 329 of those meetings—a 90 percent attendance rate. It is easy to lampoon this bureaucratic drudgery, but for Eisenhower good government required such constant focus. “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything,” he often remarked. “If you haven’t been planning, you can’t start to work, intelligently at least.” In the hour of crisis Ike wanted a disciplined, well-trained staff and system already in place, ready to work.15
Discipline carried over into Eisenhower’s approach to the economy and defense. A champion of the free market, Ike told Americans that prosperity would come only to those who worked hard and made sacrifices; the government would do no more than clear a path so that individual Americans could demonstrate their God-given talents. It is no accident that Eisenhower’s closest friends were self-made millionaires who, like him, had started out in life with little. He also told Americans they needed discipline to wage and win the cold war. From his first inaugural to his Farewell Address, he insisted that to prevail in the struggle against global communism, Americans needed to demonstrate vigilance and steadfast purpose. They needed to pay taxes, serve in the military, and rally to the defense of their country. They needed to spend wisely on defense so as not to jeopardize the health of the economy or trigger inflation. Most significant, he believed, the American system could endure only if citizens willingly imposed self-discipline and prepared themselves to bear the common burden of defending free government. Americans like to think of themselves as the inheritors of Athenian democracy, but Eisenhower, a soldier-statesman who believed his nation faced a dire threat from a hostile ideology, also drew inspiration from the martial virtues of Sparta.16
Ike’s insistence on vigilance, discipline, restraint, and individual self-reliance sometimes worked against him politically. He was never comfortable in the role of a purely partisan leader. He did have strong views on many issues, and he presented himself at election time as a conservative, small-government, budget-balancing Republican. But he considered the president a national leader, above the partisan fracas. This tendency to leave the job of party politics to others got him in trouble. In the elections of 1954, 1956, and 1958 Republicans lost 68 seats in the House and 17 seats in the Senate, and Eisenhower had no good answer for this implosion. When
Democrats attacked him from late 1957 on for his alleged lapses on a series of issues, from national defense to economic growth and social programs, Eisenhower failed to mount an effective partisan rebuttal to these charges. In 1960 Senator John Kennedy got a jump-start in the presidential campaign, running against the allegedly cold and complacent Republican Party, and nimbly raced to victory.
Yet one of the reasons Americans admired Eisenhower was his indifference to narrow party advantage. Though voters put Democrats in charge of Congress, they loved Eisenhower: he garnered an astonishing average approval rating of 65 percent during his eight years in office, higher than Ronald Reagan (53 percent) or Bill Clinton (55 percent). More striking, Eisenhower found support in both parties. Over eight years, 50 percent of Democrats approved of his performance. In our more polarized times, such cross-party affinity is rare. On average only 23 percent of Democrats approved of George W. Bush during his eight years in office, while a mere 14 percent of Republicans offered their approval of Barack Obama during his two terms. Eisenhower had that rarest of gifts in politics: he brought Americans together.17
• • •
And so we come back to that scene on the deck of the Williamsburg depicted so movingly by Captain Beach, a scene filled with pathos and deep humanity, and in a way the perfect metaphor for the Age of Eisenhower. There sat the most powerful man in the world, relaxed in a circle of wounded soldiers, men who had given so much for their country, men who would never be whole again. It was a moment of quiet intimacy, a gathering of brothers. “I know these men,” Ike had said.
These kindred spirits felt bound to one another not by their desire for power or their yearning for material rewards or their partisan affiliation. Instead, these men formed a family because of their belief in the ennobling act of personal sacrifice and public service. In their midst, Ike drew their attention not to the benefits they could now expect from their government but to the additional role they must play as exemplars of the American spirit. Nothing could more perfectly capture the hopes and the enduring appeal of the Age of Eisenhower.