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dwight d. eisenhower

29 october 2008

Tom Wicker concludes his fluent, compellingly readable study of President Eisenhower by saying that Ike "was a good man, at times a great man, and it seems unnecessary to try to make him out a great president, too" (140). Like several of his predecessors, Eisenhower led a far more illustrious career outside the White House than in. Yet unlike Grant or Hoover, he gave the appearance of capable leadership while in office. Wicker admires the steadiness of the campaign-tried general, but has reservations about some of his key decisions. When faced with crucial moments in American life, like the plague of McCarthyism or the end of judicially-blessed segregation, Eisenhower tried to stay above the fray. He ended up following the trends of history rather than leading the country in a new course.

Someone once said of Eisenhower c.1950 that all he needed in order to become President was to choose a religion and a political party. The other elements of the resumé were certainly in order. Ike was a military hero, but not along the mercurial lines of a MacArthur or a Patton. He was the quintessential staff officer who had learned diplomacy and executive skills (in fact, learned them while serving MacArthur, who used the patient, steady Eisenhower as a counterweight to his own volatility). He picked up civilian credentials as president of Columbia University. For a while, he seemed the natural successor to Harry Truman for the Democratic nomination, but his domestic politics were more of the consensus-conservative kind. He didn't want to erase the New Deal, but he certainly didn't want to expand it further. Ike was a natural Republican, according to Wicker, and in short course he became the leader of the GOP in the 1952 campaign.

In terms of domestic policy, Eisenhower didn't achieve much, wasn't really interested in achieving much. The interstate highway system, still named after Eisenhower, was his signal accomplishment. He also oversaw construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, an international project with major domestic economic benefits.

But Eisenhower, as Wicker relates, was slower to tackle more controversial domestic topics. Privately, he despised Joseph McCarthy, the Red-baiting Senator who stamped his name to a whole brand of incipient, home-grown American fascism. But he would not publicly upbraid McCarthy. (In the version I've read elsewhere, Ike is supposed to have said that it wasn't a good idea "to get into a pissing match with a skunk"; Wicker merely relates that Ike refused to "get into the gutter" with McCarthy [72].) Many others, from Edward R. Murrow to Prescott Bush, got into the gutter instead and came out clean enough. McCarthy was deposed, without much toppling from the White House, and Eisenhower retained his untarnished stature.

Still more troubling, for Wicker, is Eisenhower's lack of response to the epochal Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). Eisenhower could move boldly on the international front – handling huge issues with despatch in Korea, Indochina, Eastern Europe, Iran, and the Suez Canal – but when it came to enforcing court-mandated desegregation, he suddenly seemed to revert to the mode of a powerless mid-19th-century figurehead President, a Fillmore or a Pierce. Ike had no trouble overthrowing the lawful government of Guatemala, but he treated the insurgent governor of Arkansas with kid gloves. In the end, Eisenhower did the right thing, exerting federal control over school security in Little Rock so that integration could proceed despite Orval Faubus.

Wicker ends by deploring Eisenhower's puzzling decision to authorize U-2 espionage overflights of the Soviet Union even as he was hoping to conclude a sweeping test-ban treaty with the Soviets. The result was a captured U-2 pilot, a scuttling of the treaty, and another ratcheting-up of the Cold War arms race. Internal Soviet politics had as much to do with lack of progress on arms control as did American spycraft, of course; perhaps no treaty was really possible, and Khrushchev was just looking for an excuse to undermine it. But the U-2 incident remains a blemish on Eisenhower's otherwise decisive (for better or worse) record as a foreign-policy leader.

Still, Eisenhower's very lack of interest in domestic affairs meant that he was no ideologue. He governed on the same basis as British prime ministers Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan, conservatives who did not challenge the vast welfare-state systems enacted by their leftist predecessors. One senses that Ike really did have the best interests of the entire American commonwealth at heart. And that's why people liked him.

Wicker, Tom. Dwight D. Eisenhower. New York: Times Books, 2002.