To many Americans, Dwight Eisenhower is just a name, not a memory. There is little firsthand knowledge left of his military stewardship in World War II or his 8 year tenure in the presidency. William I. Hitchcock’s tome attempts to reestablish the importance of Eisenhower, whom he considers underappreciated by many pundits. Hitchcock’s biography imparts a great deal of information about Ike and his times, enough so that the reader can make his or her own judgment about his career. One of the work’s weaknesses is that it does not set Eisenhower’s presidential choices within the context of the times, namely public opinion. The question remains as to whether he was a leader of his era or whether he merely reflected it.
From a humble boyhood in Kansas, Eisenhower attended West Point and moved up the ranks in the Army. As his status grew, his friends became men of considerable wealth with whom he hunted or played golf. These men certainly supported his presidential quest and affected his opinions and actions. He was clearly intelligent, hard-working, and steadfast. He believed in a strong America with a good but limited government. It can be noted that for someone who never held public office, he was not unprepared for the presidency. He played his share of golf but was able to respond to the challenges of the nation’s highest office. Only a heart attack and intestinal surgery could take him out of action. But what he did in office is more salient than how. In examining that record, we can see how he represented the times, not how he changed them.
The civil rights movement burgeoned during Eisenhower’s tenure. Eisenhower successfully finished his predecessor’s integration of the armed forces. However, he showed less leadership as the movement began to touch our de jure and de facto segregated daily life. The Supreme Court’s Brown decision which ended separate but equal in the public schools and the Montgomery bus boycott marked his years in office. His response was generally tepid and Hitchcock sees it as a lost opportunity. Truth be told, he was no supporter of civil rights. His Kansas background helped to shape his thinking according to Hitchcock. He worried about black male teenagers sitting next to white girls in high school. He did not wish to challenge the Southern segregated way of life. He leant no moral authority to the black struggle for equal rights. He looked for gradual change where lynchings, denial of the right to vote, and sizeable barriers to employment were the status quo.
Only a heart attack and intestinal surgery could take him out of action. But what he did in office is more salient than how. In examining that record, we can see how he represented the times, not how he changed them.
Eisenhower is noted for sending federal troops to Little Rock to bring about the desegregation of its Central High School. Yet it was a reluctant move based on the constitutional grounds of honoring a federal court decision, not on the need for equal protection. Here he did the right thing but could not be called a leader. He probably was one with the spirit of the times that emphasized the inferiority of black Americans. Kevin Kruse’s story of desegregation in Atlanta, White Flight aptly displays the dominant white sentiment.¹ There, demonstrators protested the integration of municipal golf courses, busing, schooling, and housing. The hate level was high and instances during World War II with housing for black war workers in Michigan and elsewhere showed us that the South was not alone in desiring to keep the old ways. Ike was right in that you can not legislate people to love one another but he failed to enlighten his many supporters about the decided pitfalls of inequality. This is the major area that Hitchcock sees as an important lost opportunity and he demonstrates that well.
Communism was the bête noire of the 1950s. It spawned the accusatory Joe McCarthy and various decisions to intervene abroad, particularly in the Third World. The McCarthy period is one that Hitchcock is less successful with because the context is not well-established. The Red Scare and the Palmer Raids that shipped anarchists, et al., back to their home countries took place just after World War I. Aside from the alliance with the USSR fighting the Axis nations, the communist threat remained. Senator McCarthy took up the cudgel just after World War II as a reelection ploy. His attacks on communists in the State Department resonated in a population very distrustful of anything tinged with red. A public opinion study at the time showed that the vast majority of people would not hire a communist as a stock clerk.² The fear of internal subversion was strong and was stoked by various politicians. In this period, many in entertainment, academia, public schools, and other callings lost their jobs because they were suspected of communist leanings. Attendance at one meeting in the thirties could mark someone forever.
It was a time of fear that Eisenhower did not publicly address In fact, he selected Richard Nixon as his running mate because of his strong anti-communist credentials. The Army-McCarthy hearings which finally tarnished the Wisconsin senator are not fully explored. Eisenhower did not support McCarthy or his attacks on the military but he did not educate the public about the nature of McCarthy’s accusations. Hitchcock does not mention the hearing where the Army’s chief counsel, Joseph Welch, finally asked the senator, “Have you no decency?” Perhaps Eisenhower could have done the same but he did not want to alienate Republicans in the Senate who shared red-baiting views.
Eisenhower is noted for sending federal troops to Little Rock to bring about the desegregation of its Central High School. Yet it was a reluctant move based on the constitutional grounds of honoring a federal court decision, not on the need for equal protection. Here he did the right thing but could not be called a leader.
It is not easy to reorient the prejudices in the vox populi. Eisenhower, as a beloved general and popular figure, could have tried but he was caught up in the spirit of the times himself and feared being seen as soft on communism. The fear of communism also affected the conduct of international relations and perhaps was the most difficult part of his legacy.
Eisenhower and his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, saw the world, particularly the Third World, in terms of red and not red. Ike is frequently praised for not sending troops to Vietnam after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower had supported the French but did not want to send American ground forces to Southeast Asia so soon after the involvement in Korea. Ike certainly deserves credit for that armistice but the role he had America take in other countries often laid the seeds for greater adversity in the future.
When the French departed Vietnam, they left a country divided in two. The North was led by patriot and communist Ho Chi Minh. The South was basically an oligarchy. Eisenhower and many others failed to grasp the importance of nationalism in Third World struggles. It was easier to see communist threats than to comprehend how western colonialism had shaped the views of indigenous populations. Eisenhower gave notable amounts of aid to South Vietnam and placed some advisors there. Although he did not start a war, he left the seeds for it.
In retrospect, other U.S. actions also proved very problematic down the road. There was little regard for inequalities abroad, often aided and abetted by American corporations and statecraft.
Hitchcock is cognizant of these mistakes in judgment. Here again, in stifling leftist leaders abroad Eisenhower was caught up in the spirit of the time, without appreciating the winds of change. Mossadegh was removed as prime minister in Iran and the Shah was promoted to power. Similarly, Albeniz was deposed in Guatemala, a man who favored land distribution that threatened a major American company. These were actions that the Central Intelligence Agency took. They similarly plotted to assassinate Patrice Lumumba in the Congo though others got there first. The nature of the bureaucratic mission is key to the policies the CIA advocated and which they presented to the president. The CIA, formed in 1947, was led by veterans of the wartime OSS which specialized in covert activity. According to James Q. Wilson, that factor downplayed the gleaning of intelligence while emphasizing the legacy of covert activity.³
The status quo was anti-communist and that was all that mattered. These interventions in the Third World fit with America’s anti-communist mood but left bitter seeds behind in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The United States became quasi-colonial. Hitchcock recognizes these failings, but his overall tone is one of considerable sympathy for Ike.
To Hitchcock, Ike defined his era. He was moderately conservative, competent and made some wise decisions. However, others were not so wise in the long term. The ground was laid for intervention in the civil war in Vietnam. The Shah led to the Ayatollah in Iran. The civil rights struggle continued and became more brutal. The era was one of red or not, with few shades in between.
Hitchcock is cognizant of these mistakes in judgment. Here again, in stifling leftist leaders abroad Eisenhower was caught up in the spirit of the time, without appreciating the winds of change.
Hitchcock’s biography is never boring. He discusses many salient issues. But, he is clearly sympathetic to Eisenhower and not to those who challenged him. His treatment of John Kennedy, Ike’s successor, stands out. JFK was clearly wrong about the missile gap featured in the 1960 presidential race. However, Hitchcock uses demeaning language about Ike’s successor and faults Kennedy on the Bay of Pigs operation. However, the Eisenhower administration had begun the planning and execution of this failed invasion and certainly bears some responsibility. His advisors strongly felt that the Cuban populace would rise up against Castro.
Hitchcock sees Ike as a steady hand at the tiller who personally was very popular with the citizenry. Yet, his popularity did not carry over to Republican office seekers. He was not a figure of transition. He did not like change. Presidents are usually mixture of good and not so good. Eisenhower handled some things well but failed to move beyond contemporary thinking in others.
Hitchcock’s book is a great reminder of a time few think about today. There is a great deal of information in his pages. (He could elaborate on some of his footnoting, however.) The work is not a hagiography but occasionally comes close. It does present a good start for those interested in the Cold War and the thinking of the time. It also shows the antecedents of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, the urgency of the civil rights movement, and the perception of America in many other countries.
Interestingly, John Kennedy did not represent a break with the foreign policy of Eisenhower and he never denounced McCarthy while he was in the Senate. Fighting communism remained a touchstone. But he did move more boldly on civil rights. Kennedy’s style was more challenging than Ike’s and his poll ratings were not as high as his more comforting predecessor.
The key here is that the prevailing ethos in American thinking was congruent with policy implementation during the Eisenhower presidency. In that sense, Eisenhower reflected his era; he did not attempt to change the ethos. He did not utilize his bully pulpit. He was not an FDR or a TR. But, by and large, the populace trusted him and he enjoyed popularity quite unknown today. Certainly he was underrated by some but never in the slash-and-burn style characteristic of today’s politics. He also did not have to face the 24-hour news cycle. He fit in the fifties in a way that was comfortable to many, comfortable because he reflected the spirit of the times. It was his era but he did not mold it.