We Ought to Like Ike

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Timmers_07-2019

As a second-year West Point cadet in March 1969, I was returning to my room after chemistry class midafternoon on a Friday. As I stepped inside Pershing Barracks, I saw a number of cadets huddled around a note posted on the stairway railing. In neat penmanship were the words: “General Eisenhower died this morning.”

Neither I nor any of the other cadets were particularly moved by this momentous news. At the time, Eisenhower had struck me as a celebrity general, particularly since he had also been president.

Sure, he had led Allied forces to victory over Germany in Western Europe and had written about it in his book Crusade in Europe, which was later made into an Emmy and Peabody award-winning television documentary. And, of course, he had won the presidency without having previously held elected office.

But while Ike was in office, the American economy hummed along. The U.S. refrained from starting new wars and unemployment remained low. Coming from the deprivations of World War II, Americans basked in the era of Ozzie & Harriet; all was sweetness and light—why, the country practically ran itself! This assessment of Eisenhower’s presidency as carefree and easy is an appealing cliché. But, like so many generalizations of famous men and their times, it’s wrong.

Now, thanks to University of Virginia  professor William Hitchcock, we learn just how wrong that facile assessment is. Eisenhower gets a fair evaluation even though Hitchcock’s book is far from a typical fawning presidental hagiography. Rather, he presents a clear-eyed view of a public servant who held two of his nation’s top jobs and served his country well through many crises.

The World War II achievements of Eisenhower are well known, at least among those born before 1960. The June 1944 D-Day invasion and subsequent march through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany have inspired a number of books, movies, biographies, and even video games. But Hitchcock has instead chosen to focus on the period starting at the end of World War II and extending to Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961, or what he rightly calls the “Age of Eisenhower.” Importantly, he argues that this age shaped the U.S. in three lasting ways.

First, Eisenhower put in place a long-term strategy to win the Cold War.

Second, he bolstered the role of government in the lives of Americans. He expanded Social Security, increased the minimum wage, funded the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and pushed through the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first piece of civil rights legislation since Reconstruction. And it was Ike who ordered the 101st Airborne Division to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957 to enforce the racial integration of the school system.

Third, he provided a presidential model of leadership the author characterizes as disciplined: “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.”

Hitchcock divides his book into three parts: the first describes his “ascent,” the second details the first Eisenhower administration following his successful election in 1952, while the third recounts his re-election as president as well as the key events between 1956 and 1960.

As the U.S. Army chief of staff, Eisenhower was disillusioned with the enormous scale and slow pace of post-World War II demobilization. So when the opportunity arose in 1948 to become the president of Columbia University in New York, he grabbed it. Eisenhower hoped the job would help him reinvent himself as a man of ideas capable of leading the nation. But Columbia’s trustees were more interested in exploiting Ike’s celebrity to entice wealthy donors to open their wallets. And Columbia’s faculty and staff expected the Eisenhowers to open their doors for social occasions. Unbeknownst to the university mandarins, the Eisenhowers preferred to entertain only old acquaintances and army buddies. “Before long,” Hitchcock writes, “it was clear that Eisenhower did not fit in.”

Yet he needn’t have worried. For years Eisenhower had developed connections with a cohort of wealthy, influential Republican businessmen. As early as 1946 this group had tried to convince Ike to run for president. Instead, in 1950 Eisenhower accepted Truman’s appointment to become supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe. His reception by the Allies was lukewarm, and he worried that Robert Taft was meanwhile outmanuevering him by collecting delegates for the 1952 Republican primary. Any hope Eisenhower had of winning the presidency had to be acted on soon. In a letter dated April 2, 1952 Eisenhower told Truman that he had asked the Secretary of Defense to relieve him of his post effective June 1, 1952. The request was granted, and on June 4 Eisenhower began his campaign for president in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas.

Hitchcock does an admirable job pointing out the highlights of Eisenhower’s two terms as president. Starting with the Korean War and extending to McCarthyism, Civil Rights, the Suez Crisis, a growing Soviet threat, and the downing of the U-2 spy plane over Russia, the author details the unfolding events with clarity and precision. 

Eisenhower’s move to end the Korean War best illustrated his leadership and strength of character. Ike had inherited Truman’s conflict, which eventually killed more than 36,000 U.S. troops. He rejected calls for increased troop strength, reasoning that it would only prolong and widen the war’s scope. To keep his opponents guessing, Eisenhower had both the courage and the wisdom to publicly state that he would not rule out the use of nuclear weapons. It was a risky move, but he was serious. As he told the National Security Council at its February 1953 meeting, “The taboo which surrounds the use of atomic weapons would have to be destroyed.” By May of the same year both sides in the Korean War had signed an armistice that remains in force to this day.

Eisenhower’s second greatest leadership achievement was his civil rights legislation during his second term. He repeated the four-point proposal he had previously submitted to Congress: 1) to create a bi-partisan congressional commission to investigate civil rights violations, 2) to create a civil rights division at the Department of Justice, 3) to empower the attorney general to pursue contempt proceedings against anyone who violated the 14th Amendment, and 4) to empower the attorney general to do the same with respect to any violation of the 15th Amendment. On September 9, the 1957 Civil Rights Act—the first piece of civil rights legislation since 1875—became law.

Eisenhower’s reputation needs no rehabilitation. Hitchcock rightly places him in the pantheons of great American presidents and great American generals. To think that in my West Point days I had thought of him as a celebrity general—reading this book dispelled any such prejudice.

In the meantime, several small errors diminish the book’s substance. On page three, the author writes that at age 20 Eisenhower left Kansas to “enter upon a career in that most political of institutions, the U.S. Army. . . . ” The Army, like any large institution, has fallen prey to politics. But is the superlative necessary? Perhaps professor Hitchcock should descend from the Ivory Tower and wander the halls of Congress or attend a congressional budget meeting. Later in the book he discusses Georgia Senator Richard Russell’s attack on the proposed 1957 Civil Rights Act, writing that the “attack sounded like the kind of apocalyptic fearmongering that one could hear across the South in the 1950s, from tobacco-stained taverns to corporate boardrooms.” Again, Hitchcock’s poor choice of a simile and his historical imagination—he was born in Japan in 1965—give readers grounds to contest an otherwise excellent work of history. Finally, proofreaders should have caught minor inaccuracies such as his claim that Gen. George Patton graduated from the Virginia Military Institute. “Old Blood and Guts” attended VMI for one year before accepting a congressional appointment to West Point, from which he did graduate in 1909.

But these corrections amount to trifles. Serious students of Eisenhower will find that Hitchcock’s book stands on its merits and is a welcome addition to the body of scholarship on a great man.

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[The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, by William I. Hitchcock (New York: Simon & Schuster) 672 pp., $35.00]

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