President #34, C-SPAN Historians’ Ranking #8
It’s Been Said That People Liked This Guy
When I was a kid in the 1970s, the 1950s were considered a cool time. “Happy Days” and “Laverne & Shirley” dominated television. Coming out of the turbulent 1960s (a decade glamorized in much different way from the 1950s), the 1950s were a time when America was strong, although tensions with the Soviet Union were high. People were happy. Girls dressed in poodle skirts. All guys were pretty much like Fonzie. Annoying baseball historians (and I’m looking at you Ken Burns) sometimes refer to the 1950s as the best time of the sport because New York teams faced off in the World Series in five of the ten years.
The President for a good chunk of this period (1953-1961) was Dwight D. Eisenhower, the last President to make his way to the White House, almost exclusively on the basis of what he achieved on the battlefield. He was a solid, dependable leader. He was able to bring people together. He seemed like everybody’s grandfather.
However, the reality of the 1950s was that it was an incredibly divisive time. The Supreme Court case of Brown v. The Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas transformed the civil rights issue in such a way that it could no longer be ignored.
Additionally, the country became paranoid about a Communist takeover from within. This led to the rise of men like Senators Joseph McCarthy and Richard Nixon. Their career paths would take extraordinarily different paths.
The United States increasingly turned to covert activities to achieve foreign policy goals. Some would succeed in the short term, but others, such as the intervention in Iran, would affect the United States for decades to follow. There would be international crises in places like Vietnam, Hungary, and Egypt. They seemed to pop up all the time.
And, although the United States had the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet, the public grew increasingly fearful of tensions with the Soviet Union. Topping it off would be the USSR’s foray into space with Sputnik before the United States could even launch a small object into orbit.
The Dwight Eisenhower who had to deal with all of the above crises is the one that Tom Wicker, a longtime political columnist for the New York Times, writes about in his biography of the 34th President. Wicker presents a portrait of a man who wanted to lead, but didn’t want to get his hands dirty. Wicker’s Eisenhower is a much shrewder politician than people realize. But, in the end, you still aren’t sure just what Dwight Eisenhower was all about. What did he want to accomplish? What were his motivations? Why did he want to become President?
Dwight Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas on October 14, 1890 (and if you’re reading this on Wednesday wish Ike a happy 119th birthday!) His family moved to Abilene, Kansas when he was one. Eventually, Eisenhower made his way to the United States Military Academy in 1911, graduating in 1915.
This timing proved to be fortuitous for Eisenhower. The class of 1915 at West Point would eventually include 64 graduates who became generals, including Eisenhower and Omar Bradley. In 1912, Eisenhower, while playing on the Army football team, played against Jim Thorpe and his Carlisle Indian School team. (Carlisle won the game 27-6.)
Although Eisenhower was in the Army during World War I, he didn’t serve in any combat action during the brief American involvement in that bloody conflict. Eisenhower worked his way up the ranks as a career military man. He had married his wife, Mamie Doud, in 1916. They had two sons, one of whom died at age three of scarlet fever.
In 1926, Eisenhower found himself installed as the aide to the Army’s new Chief of Staff, Douglas MacArthur. Eisenhower learned the ways of Washington working under MacArthur. He also managed to endear himself to another Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall.
When the United States entered World War II, Eisenhower quickly shot up the ranks to become chief of the War Plan Division. Then, he commanded Operation Torch in North Africa. His success there put Eisenhower in position to assume command of the Allied Forces in the D-Day Invasion of 1944. The success of that operation made Eisenhower made him the envy of politicians from both parties, who saw Eisenhower as the Presidential material. MacArthur may have garnered more headlines, but it was Eisenhower who seemed to be held in the highest esteem by politicians. (Wicker whizzes through the pre-Presidential part of Eisenhower’s life figuring that most people already know it.)
There was talk of the Democrats trying to draft Eisenhower to run for President in 1948 in place of the unpopular Harry Truman. Obviously, he didn’t take that job. Instead, he took a position as president of Columbia University in 1948. He left that job in 1950 to assume the lofty title of Supreme Allied Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
In 1952, Eisenhower realized that it was his time to become President (Wicker claims that Eisenhower first realized that he had a shot at becoming President as early as 1943). Eisenhower announced that he was a Republican, although he had worked behind the scenes to start lining up support for the nomination. Eisenhower wanted to avoid being labeled, although he would declare himself to be a “liberal Republican.”
The Republican Party nomination battle in 1952 pitted Eisenhower against Ohio Senator Robert Taft, who was called “Mr. Republican.” The Republican nomination battle would between its “old guard” which was more isolationist against Eisenhower’s more internationalist wing. In a tight battle on the convention floor, Eisenhower prevailed on the first ballot. As a political compromise, Eisenhower allowed Taft’s faction to pick his running mate. This turned out to be California Senator Richard Nixon.
Eisenhower would face Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, who had won the Democratic nomination. Although Stevenson appealed to intellectuals and even cultivated an image as “an egghead,” he had little chance against Eisenhower. The Democrats had controlled the White House since 1933. Americans wanted a change. Eisenhower trounced Stevenson, winning nearly 55% of the popular vote, along with 442 electoral votes. The Republicans also took control of both houses of Congress.
Wicker doesn’t spend a lot of time on Eisenhower’s domestic accomplishments (such as the establishment of the Interstate Highway System and the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway) with one exception: civil rights. Eisenhower, however, didn’t accomplish much in this area except to react to events.
In 1953, Eisenhower unexpectedly got a chance to appoint a justice to the Supreme Court. And it was the Chief Justice position to boot. Eisenhower decided to appoint California Governor Earl Warren to the post. Warren had been Thomas Dewey’s running mate in 1948, and Eisenhower wanted to reward Warren for his support during the nomination battle.
This turned out to be a fateful appointment. A collection of school desegregation cases were before the Supreme Court and Warren served as a recess appointee and heard the cases being reargued. (The first set of arguments were deemed insufficient for the Court to make a decision.) After the arguments, Warren was confirmed by the Senate. On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in the desegregation cases. Warren, writing for a unanimous court, declared:
“We conclude that, in the field of public education, the doctrine of “separate but equal” has no place. Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
Eisenhower was not expecting the decision to be so sweeping and he was slow to embrace it. He expressed only begrudging support for it. Eisenhower wouldn’t take any action in school desegregation until 1957 when Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus refused to follow a Federal court order desegregating Little Rock’s Central High. Faubus mobilized the Arkansas National Guard to keep the African-American students out. This proved to be provocative enough to get Eisenhower to act. He sent in the 101st Airborne to work on crowd control and Federalized the Arkansas National Guard. However, aside from these actions, Eisenhower’s actions in civil rights were few and far between. (A very weak civil rights bill was passed in 1957, in part to Democratic Senate Leader Lyndon Johnson, who worked very closely with Eisenhower.)
One of Eisenhower’s biggest domestic problem was Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, who was determined to unearth the great Communist spy network that was going to ruin America. While many of McCarthy’s targets were Communists at some point in their lives, few were spies or disloyal to the United States. (The actual spies were too clever to get caught and most weren’t revealed until after the breakup of the Soviet Union.)
Eisenhower had to pay some lip service to McCarthy and his smear tactics during the 1952 campaign, but he quickly tired of the Senator. McCarthy finally overreached when he decided to take on the Army, an institution that Eisenhower was understandably quite proud of. McCarthy blamed George Marshall for harboring Communists in the military, an accusation that rankled Eisenhower. McCarthy even suggested in a speech that Eisenhower failed to occupy Berlin before the Soviet Army did in 1945, further endangering the country.
McCarthy was given televised hearings to investigate the Army. But, Eisenhower and his aides had developed a strategy to thwart McCarthy. If McCarthy asked for any White House documents involving the Army, Eisenhower would cite “executive privilege” and claim that he could not disclose certain activities to Congress. McCarthy began to become increasingly frustrated.
The hearings went poorly for McCarthy. He began to look more like a bully picking on defenseless people than a man thwarting the Red Menace. Eventually, McCarthy was dressed down on national TV by Army lawyer Joseph Welch. McCarthy would soon be condemned in the Senate for his behavior soon after. He would pass away in 1957 from the effects of alcoholism, which was one weakness Eisenhower and his staff tried to exploit.
Eisenhower had early successes in foreign policy. He was able to negotiate an armistice in Korea in July of 1953. That armistice lasts until this day. A covert revolution sponsored by the CIA overthrew Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and consolidated power in the Shah. This seemed like a good idea at the time as the U.S. gained a steady ally in the Middle East. But, eventually, there would be … complications.
In 1954, the French suffered a major defeat in Vietnam at the hands of Communist revolutionaries at a fortress called Dienbienphu. After the French withdrew, Vietnam was partitioned into a Communist north a non-Communist south. Elections to unify the country were scheduled for 1956. But, the elections never came to pass. Eisenhower spoke of how the U.S. had to support Vietnam because if it fell into Communist hands other parts of Asia would do so as well. This gave birth to the “Domino Theory,” which became a centerpiece of American policy in Southeast Asia until the 1970s.
The nation was shaken up in September of 1955, when news that the President had suffered a heart attack while traveling in Colorado. Vice President Nixon never formally took over the Presidency while Eisenhower recovered. Fortunately, Eisenhower made a fairly rapid recovery. However, Eisenhower’s mortality would now be a campaign issue in 1956 if he chose to run for a second term. (Eisenhower would also suffer a small stroke in November of 1957, but recovered quickly with no noticeable side effects.)
As it turned out, most Americans weren’t too worried about Eisenhower’s heart. They wanted him around to look after the troubled world situation. 1956 brought about two crises, both of which the U.S. could only act as a spectator. In Egypt, President Gamel Adbul Nassar, blocked in an attempt to get financing to build the Aswan Dam, moved to nationalize the Suez Canal. This brought about the ire of Britain and France, who didn’t trust Nasser and Egypt to operate the vital waterway.
The British and French, along with Israel, mobilized forces in Egypt. Israel attacked the Sinai Peninsula. The British and French moved forces in toward the Canal. This all happened very close to Election Day on November 5, 1956. U.N. peacekeepers would be called in to settle down the situation.
Meanwhile, in Hungary, dissatisfaction with the Soviet-backed leadership exploded in wide scale protests. Former Prime Minister Imre Nagy returned to power, and it appeared that Hungary would throw off Communism and return to some form of a multiparty democracy. Nagy said that Hungary would withdraw from the Warsaw Pact.
But, the Soviet Union would not accept this. On November 3, 1956, the Soviet Union, which now had Nikita Khrushchev in charge, sent troops into Hungary. Nagy and many members of his government were arrested and later executed. By November 10, a new regime, one sympathetic to the Soviet Union, was in place.
Eisenhower was caught unaware by the Suez Crisis and could only react to it and try to contain it the best he could. The Eisenhower Doctrine was developed which stated that any country could request economic or militar aid from the U.S. if it felt threatened. (This policy would be invoked in 1958 when American forces intervened in Lebanon.) As for Hungary, it was impossible for Eisenhower to take any action to support the Nagy regime in Hungary without triggering World War III.
Election Day in 1956 was November 6. Eisenhower, still running with Nixon, a man he didn’t trust very much, easily won reelection in a rematch against Stevenson. Eisenhower won 57% of the vote and 457 electoral votes.
Under the terms of the 22nd Amendment, Eisenhower couldn’t run for reelection. He was the first President to face this dilemma. Some thought he would be hamstrung in his ability to accomplish anything. As it turned out, Eisenhower’s problems in his second term would mostly come from events not in this world.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the successful launch of Sputnik. It was the first successful launching of an earth-orbiting satellite. It would make one orbit of the earth every 96 minutes, beeping along happily.
The American public was stunned that the Soviet Union had seemingly pulled so far ahead of the United States in technology. There were fears that the Soviets would be able to exploit space to send nuclear weapons at the United States. The educational system was blamed for poor math and science education. Fingers were pointed among various branches of the military over who was responsible for developing rockets.
Eisenhower, to his credit, realized that the problem with Sputnik was a political one, not a military one. Eisenhower appointed a science advisor and established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Presidents Kennedy and Johnson would get the fame for the space program, but it was under Eisenhower that it began.
Wicker spends a fair amount of time in the book on one of the last big crises of Eisenhower’s administration. One of Eisenhower’s goals was to negotiate a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. Before Eisenhower would go to meet with Khrushchev in Paris of May of 1960, the President possibly overreached in his attempt to gather intelligence on Soviet nuclear capabilities.
The main instrument of intelligence gathering in the era before satellites was the U-2 aircraft. Eisenhower continued to order flights over Soviet airspace in the days preceding the summit. One plane, that took flight on May 1, 1960, was shot down and the pilot, Francis Gary Powers, was captured in the Soviet Union. On May 5, Khrushchev announced to the world that an American pilot had been captured and that Soviet airspace had been violated. Eventually, Eisenhower had to admit that he had ordered the spy flights. The summit meeting that would start on May 14, accomplished nothing.
Wicker holds Eisenhower’s feet to the fire for this, feeling that Eisenhower wasted the best chance to negotiate a test ban treaty and greatly reduce the threat of nuclear war. Wicker believes that many of the U-2 flights that Eisenhower had ordered were needless. They were inviting disaster. And a disaster occurred.
In 1960, Eisenhower stayed on the sidelines for most of the campaign between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy. Nixon did not seek out Eisenhower’s help during the campaign. Eisenhower, when asked by a reporter for a major decision that Nixon took part in, replied “If you give me a week, I might think of one.”
Eisenhower’s most famous speech as President was his Farewell Address. In it, Eisenhower warned against the creation of a permanent armaments industry as part of the American economy. He most notably came up with the phrase “the military-industrial complex” to describe the situation.
After leaving the White House, Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower retired to his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Aside from a speech at the 1964 Republican Convention, Eisenhower spent much of his retirement out of the public eye. On March 28, 1969, Dwight Eisenhower died in Washington, D.C. His Vice President, Richard Nixon, was now in the White House.
Wicker’s book is not one of the better efforts. The book needed some editing and several events are listed as taking place in the wrong year. You don’t get a feel of just what Dwight Eisenhower was about. What made him tick? What was his political philosophy? Why did people like him so much? There aren’t enough answers here. Just a lot of questions.
Other stuff: The Dwight Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum is located in Abilene, Kansas. The Eisenhower National Historic Site is in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. You can also find Eisenhower’s face on some of the older one dollar coins. They aren’t in circulation in any more.
The National Archives lists Dwight Eisenhower as a New York resident when he ran for President, but others contend he was a native of Pennsylvania at the time.