Dwight Eisenhower continues to have broad appeal to many Americans. In presidential ranking polls, which really are just favorability polls, Ike usually ranks between 8 and 10—and he has been in the top 10 since the 1980s. He is no danger of going down: in fact, a 2013 composite of polls showed Ike at 8, just behind Wilson and Truman but just ahead of JFK and Reagan.
Now it is easy to understand why names like Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson rank high in these sorts of popularity polls. They all have a signature achievement to their name: Lincoln saved the Union; FDR started the New Deal and won WW2; Washington founded the nation; Jefferson doubled the size of the nation thru the Louisiana Purchase; and so on.
But why is Ike popular? What is it about him that appeals to us, over 50 years after he left office? Can we name his signature achievements? What is his great lasting legacy?
Probably one reason that Ike usually comes out high in such rankings is that he was so well-known as the great military leader who led the Allies to victory in World War II. Ike was a winner in a very literal sense, and his leadership of the great wartime coalition tends to heighten his popularity overall. Fair enough.
But what about his presidential leadership do we most admire? What was his lasting legacy?
The answer to these questions is a bit more tricky than you might think, and it why writing a biography of him as president is a bit of a challenge. Let me give you a few examples of how elusive Eisenhower can be.
One thing people say they like about Ike was that he seemed to be “above politics.” True: until; 1952, no one knew if he was a Republican or a Democrat. In fact, Harry Truman, at three different times, tried to persuade Ike to run for president—as a Democrat! Truman even said he would resign the presidency and run as Ike’s Vice-President. Ike was not a natural partisan—he did not like the dirty business of building up a party, using its machinery, helping out party members in out-of-the-way races, and so on.
As president, he tried to govern as a moderate. On the one hand, he vigorously pursued a balanced budget; on the other hand, he did not dismantle social security as many conservatives wanted; in fact he expanded it. Certainly, he would have been aghast at the scale and scope of the welfare programs we run today. But as president he did not seek to destroy the legislative legacy of the New Deal.
In fact, in a letter he wrote to his arch-conservative brother Edgar on Nov. 8, 1954, he stated his opinion quite clearly: “it is quite clear that the federal government cannot avoid or escape responsibilities which the mass of the people firmly believe should be undertaken by it. … 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. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes these things… Their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
But was he in fact so non-partisan? Take a look at the 1952 election. Eisenhower ran for president as an anti-New Deal conservative. He sharply denounced the legacy of Roosevelt. He railed against big government. He took the Democrats to task as the party of Korea, Communism and Corruption. He chose the most ardent Red-hunter of the era, Richard Nixon, as his running mate. In office, he was deeply reluctant to tangle with Sen. Joe McCarthy. He launched vigorous loyalty programs combing “Reds and Pinks” out of government. In short, Ike could be partisan when it suited him.
Indeed, some believed he was not partisan enough to be a successful president. This was not just the conservatives in the GOP, like Barry Goldwater, who saw Ike as the problem with the Republican Party—basically a Democrat in sheep’s clothing. But Ike also did not win GOP majorities in Congress, for example, and faced Democratic houses for all of his term in office, with the exception of the Senate between 1953-54. He also notably failed to get his vice-president elected president. And moderate Republicanism has had a pretty tough time surviving in America since Ike’s days: so one criticism of Ike is that he did not use his great gifts to build up a serious political party machine that could follow his lead.
Another thing people say they like about Ike is that he handled the economy well—look at the prosperity of the 50s and his ability to balance the budget. Eisenhower balanced three out of eight budgets, and came very close with the others. Since Eisenhower left office, 52 years ago, we’ve had exactly five budget surpluses: one in 1969, and four years under Bill Clinton. No wonder Ike gets high marks for his toughness on the budget. Furthermore, he cut the federal budget by reducing the growth of defense spending—the last Republican president willing to face down the military over spending. So he was not only a budget hawk, but quite courageous in cutting spending.
It is hard to argue with the results: in 1955-1956, the economy boomed, with annual growth of four percent. The US enjoyed a large trade surplus, and a standard of living higher than any nation in the world.
However, the record is not perfect: In 1957-58, the US economy entered a recession and unemployment rose to over 7%. Ike took a great deal of heat for failing to use the levers of government to create jobs through public works programs or through more tax cuts. In his second term, the US economy grew only at 2.2% a year—not very robust. As a result, the GOP did very poorly in Congressional elections in 1958, losing 48 seats in the House and 15 seats in the Senate and giving Democrats huge majorities in both houses.
So while Eisenhower managed the economy in line with conservative principles, those principles did come at a steep political price.
What about foreign affairs? Here, Ike has often earned high marks in the eyes of history. He ended the Korean War, which was in 1953 a very unpopular war that we were not winning. He brought the boys home. And he kept the US out of Indochina in 1954, when the French were begging for help as they faced the final stage of their colonial war there. Ike also used US leverage to make the British and French withdraw from an ill-considered invasion of Egypt in 1956. And he delivered a number of powerful speeches in favor of peace, arms control, and international control of atomic energy.
Eisenhower wanted to be known as a “champion of peace.” That is how he is depicted at his presidential library in Abilene.
Yes, but… Ike was hardly a pacifist, and he made some choices that worsened international tensions. In Iran in 1953, and in Guatemala in 1954, CIA planners engineered the ouster of democratically elected leaders who were perceived as hostile to US interests. Eisenhower approved both coups, and in both cases they sowed the seeds of conflict and anti-Americanism for many decades to come. Furthermore, although Ike kept American soldiers and airpower out of the French battlefield of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, under his administration US aid to South Vietnam dramatically increased; our involvement in South Vietnam deepened significantly under Ike, with obviously tragic long-term consequences.
So indeed, Ike is hard to place and to get right, because his legacy appears to be somewhat contradictory. And as a result it is hard to fix him in our minds: what was it about Ike we like best?
First, perhaps, we like his optimism, his smile, and his corny American-ness. We like the unaffected joy he took in simple pursuits like fishing and golf. We like his style.
Second, as president, Eisenhower showed a sense of balance. At times his presidency was reactive, rather than ambitious: but this conformed with his ideas about the role of the executive: not to be too daring, over-bearing, or imperial. His ideas of the presidency were conservative, a sharp break with everyone who came after him.
Unlike all his successors, he found many reasons not to act, not to intervene, not to go too far, in his use of presidential powers. In fact, he was far more conservative in his beliefs about presidential power, and the role of the executive, than was Reagan or George W. Bush—two men often held up as conservatives. Ike was also much more conservative in his handling of the federal budget than either of these two men; and far more conservative in his very limited use of military power than these two allegedly conservative presidents.
But a third reason for his enduring popularity is that Ike projected confidence, reassurance, and experience. No man in the 20th C was more qualified for the job of president upon taking the oath of office. A great war leader, then the chief of staff of the US Army, then the first leader of the NATO alliance, then president of a major University, Ike had been tested as almost no other president in our times had been. It is true that he had never been elected to any office before he became president; but in terms of experience, worldliness, and sound judgment, it would be hard to think of a man better prepared to be president that Dwight Eisenhower.
Since the 1960s, we have changed our ideas about what we expect the presidency to be and to do. We want the president to be all things: a bold leader but a compassionate accessible person; a daring visionary but a consensus builder; today we want the presidency to be a job agency, a health care provider, a global police force, and provider of housing, food and welfare, yet all the while we say we want the government off our backs. In short, nowadays, Ike’s basically conservative outlook about what government and the presidency ought to do is no longer our own.
If we compare Ike to his successor, the effervescent, radiant, youthful, dashing and irresistible John Kennedy, we can see how sharp a divide separates the two men: JFK is a man whose short presidency was very strong on rhetorical style, inspiration, glamour, and a sense of dynamism; yet it was short, tragically short, on substantive achievement. Ike’s was just the reverse: and we learn something about ourselves if we compare these two models of presidential leadership: the quiet, efficient, almost corporate style on DDE vs the heroic, dashing yet frequently superficial style of JFK.
Yet even here, I wonder if we are being fair to Ike. For he was not some unfeeling distant figure, or worse, a lazy man who tried to squeeze the presidency in between his rounds of golf at Congressional Country Club.
Above all, what I have seen emerging as his over-riding feature, his lasting legacy, was his profound and un-cynical belief in public service. This was a man who quite literally gave his life to his country from the age of 19 until the day he died. He never made any money except for the big book advance he got for his wartime memoirs; he retired to a farm in Gettysburg that was comfortable but hardly grand. Even in the short period that he was not officially on the govt payroll, he did not go into corporate work: he became the head of a University, and worked again in the service of others.
Many people have failed to notice that public service is the unifying theme of his career. And every now and then we get a revealing glimpse of the man at his personal best, expressing just what he means he by public service and why it is so important. As one piece of evidence for this, consider these words written by his naval aide, Capt Edward L. Beach, in a book published soon after Ike’s death in 1969.
“When I think about Dwight Eisenhower, I like to recall an incident that took place aboard the presidential yacht Williamsburg shortly after he was inaugurated for his first term in 1953. The Williamsburg, a handsome vessel, was being used as a sort of recreational ship for GIs who had been injured in the Korean War.” [One evening, after the men had enjoyed a cruise on the Potomac, Eisenhower met the ship at the dock in the Washington Navy Yard.] “As Eisenhower boarded the Williamsburg, he stepped in among the soldiers, brushing aside his Secret Service guards with words to the effect, ‘Just let me be for a while. I know these men.’
The soldiers crowded in around him. They were young men whose bodies had been ravaged by war in some way; some lacked an arm or a leg, some hobbled on crutches, others had heartbreaking facial disfigurements…. They gathered as close to the President as they could get, and I heard him talking to them.
This was an Eisenhower that the public never saw. He talked to the soldiers of love of country, and of sacrifice. He said their country would never let them down, but no matter how much it did for them it was nothing compared to what they had done for it. And then he said that even with all they had already given, they must yet be prepared to give more, for they were symbols of devotion and sacrifice and they could never escape that role and its responsibilities.
His voice had a deep friendly warmth, with a somewhat different timbre than I had ever heard before. It reached out and grabbed the men around him, so that they kept crowding in closer and closer as he talked, as if an unseen magnet were pulling at them.”