Thursday, December 01, 2011

What We're Reading: Eisenhower: The White House Years

Eisenhower: The White House Years by Jim Newton


2011 marks the 50th year since the end of the Eisenhower Presidency and the anniversary has prompted a number of new assessments of his administration. These titles will be interesting to the baby boom generation that grew up when Eisenhower was President, a time that as children, many of us remember only vaguely, and most of us more feel than recollect. We might have had some knowledge of nuclear missiles and Communist enemies, perhaps a sense of Cold War tensions in the world, but mostly we remember the years as a time of peace and the growth of family and a sense of opportunity and optimism about the American future.


In popular and historical memory, Eisenhower has been thought of as a President presiding over a world at peace, the leader of a country living on the fruits of its tremendous World War II victory, a President who wasn’t challenged much by world events, left things mostly to subordinates, and spent a lot of time on the golf course. But Newton gives us a portrait of a President who was in fact very involved in the international and domestic issues that faced his administration. Peace and American prosperity in the 1950s was the product of Eisenhower’s diligence and leadership. The image of ease and relaxation and, some would say, complacency, were, Newton argues, deliberate postures, studied projections of confidence and command that were intended to diffuse well-founded popular anxiety.


The Eisenhower years were a time in which the United States tried to work out the nature of the relationship between nuclear armaments and the conduct of foreign policy, particularly when it came to thwarting Soviet- or Chinese-backed third world insurgencies. During the Eisenhower years, the U.S. policy was to use nuclear arms in a massive way to prevent foreign military action that was identified as challenging U.S. security interests. Eisenhower was prepared to use nuclear arms in Korea, over a Chinese attack on Taiwan (which seemed to be threatened by the Chinese shelling of Quemoy and Matsu) and over the Soviet threat to seize West Berlin. These were all crises that could have resulted in nuclear war, but Eisenhower was also careful to make sure countries understood what the United States identified as vital interests, and in each of these cases, that clarity, the threat of American arms, and a willingness to seek a diplomatic resolution of these crisis worked together to effectively secure the peace.


All through the Eisenhower Presidency, military officials tried to convince Eisenhower that tactical nuclear weapons should be developed so that the United States could fight more limited wars using its nuclear superiority in regional conflicts. Eisenhower was never convinced, and felt that any tactical use of nuclear weapons would inevitably escalate to large-scale nuclear war. In regional conflicts, where there was not enough at stake to warrant the use of America’s nuclear arsenal, rather than develop tactical nuclear weapons or commit conventional ground forces, Eisenhower authorized use of the CIA in covert activities. In a number of cases--Iran, Lebanon, Guatemala, and Indonesia--these were successful. While covert activity solved immediate problems, it did result, however, in a legacy of antipathy to America in many regions, particularly in Latin America. Eisenhower’s distancing himself from U.S. allies allowed for a successful resolution of the Suez crisis, and he was able to diffuse any significant implications for the United States over the embarrassment late in his administration of the U2 incident. He was reluctant to come to the assistance of the French in their Vietnam debacle. There were many significant and dangerous international crises that the United States faced in the Eisenhower years. Eisenhower’s leadership and moderation helped the nation navigate those crises successfully. It seems that his military perspective and confidence in making strategic judgments during these years was a critical adjunct of American diplomacy. These allowed him to look through international political posturing, and to dismiss as well domestic political pressures when it came to foreign policy issues.


What is less clear perhaps about the 1950s is the legacy of Eisenhower’s domestic agenda. Where his innate conservatism and soldier’s experience were advantages in managing foreign affairs, he lacked some of the political experience that would have been useful when it came to navigating Washington politics. Eisenhower didn’t much like political ambition, and was not very fond of Joseph McCarthy. Newton believes that Eisenhower had a deliberate strategy in dealing with McCarthy, a plan to be patient and give him enough rope to hang himself. But others might reasonably argue that this was simply Eisenhower not responding as forcefully as he should have, and given his enormous prestige, as he could have. When it came to Civil Rights, the achievements of the Eisenhower administration seemed to be largely advances that came without much attention or support from Eisenhower. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 and the appointment of Earl Warren and other progressive judges to the Supreme Court was largely the work of Eisenhower’s more liberal Attorney General, Herbert Brownell. But while Eisenhower may not have welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision on school desegregation in 1954, his sense of the Chief Executive’s duty in defending U.S. law and Federal authority caused him to act in the case of Arkansas’s defiance of Federal Court ordered desegregation in Little Rock, an event that was one of the watersheds of the Civil Rights Movement.


Eisenhower’s popularity was not, of course, a by-product of the partisanship of the American political system. He had the luxury of not needing to be a politician, and perhaps his essential disdain for those who pursued their ambitions for power through traditional political calculations was best expressed in what seems to be his deeply equivocal feelings about his Vice-President, Richard Nixon, whose place on the ticket seems to have been his major concession to the Republican Party establishment. Richard Nixon may not be a figure who inspires much sympathy, but it is hard not to feel just a little embarrassed at the way Eisenhower treated him, first just letting him hang in the Checkers incident, seemingly encouraging a move to dump Nixon from the ticket in 1956, almost getting him killed on an assigned diplomatic tour in South America, and then making harmful gaffs and giving him ambiguous support in his run against John Kennedy.


Newton makes a good case that the critical view of Eisenhower as an aloof and hands-off President needs to be revised. Especially on the matter of foreign policy and guiding America through the early years of the Cold War, his judgment and circumspection were active and largely effective in seeing the country through some dangerous years. But we should not become too nostalgic for the Eisenhower years or for a man like Ike, because that’s not generally how the American political system works. The country had the great fortune of having someone who by his status as an American hero was someone “above” the partisan American political system, someone who was available at the very time someone like Eisenhower was needed most.

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