I’m currently reading my second book in row about Dwight D. Eisenhower. Last week I finished Eisenhower: The White House Years, by Jim Newton, and now I’m reading a brand new biography of Ike that just came out last week: Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith (who wrote a great biography of FDR that I read a couple of years ago).
Eisenhower seems to be a forgotten president these days: a genial caretaker of peaceful 1950s America, smiling and playing golf between heart attacks. FDR, JFK, and Reagan are icons; LBJ and Nixon are larger than life, almost Shakespearean. By contrast, Ike seems like he was a normal guy presiding over a noncontroversial era. But he didn’t merely preside over a time of peace; he helped maintain that peace, at a time when the U.S. and the Soviet Union could have destroyed each other with nuclear weapons. He ended the Korean War, he declined France’s request to get involved on the ground in Vietnam, he worked with Krushchev, he let Joe McCarthy implode, he signed the first civil rights act in 100 years (albeit a pretty weak one, and he had to be dragged to do it), he initiated the interstate highway system, and he maintained the existing social safety net, and as he left office he warned against the growing military-industrial complex.
True, he also authorized coups in Iran and Guatemala. But on the whole, his record looks good.
In his first year in office, he said:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron. […] Is there no other way the world may live?
He was not a liberal, as we think of the term today: he wasn’t interested in expanding the social safety net to include national health insurance — for the elderly or for anyone else — and he barely did anything to rectify racial inequality. But he had no interest in lowering taxes or in destroying the existing safety net:
Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.
He was the last Republican president before the GOP went nuts.
And of course, before he was president, he commanded the D-Day invasion. He is one of the few U.S. presidents who, had he not been president, would still hold a revered place in American history.
I’d always wanted to learn more about Eisenhower, and I’m enjoying reading about him now. The more I read about him, the more I admire him.
(By the way, isn’t it weird that the man who was president during the all-American 1950s had a German last name?)