As a footnote, Eisenhower helped to marginalize the career of Ridgway, the most gifted U.S. battlefield commander of his era. Ike bore grudges and was petty enough to write, quite untruthfully, that General James Van Fleet, not Ridgway, had recaptured Seoul — even though the former had not even yet arrived in the Korean theater. That unnecessary snub was reminiscent of another to his former patron George Marshall during the campaign of 1952. Ridgway, remember, would later talk Eisenhower out of putting more advisers into Vietnam.
The problem with the Obama administration is not that it does or does not intervene, given the differing contours of each crisis, but rather that it persists in giving loud sermons that bear no relationship to the actions that do or do not follow: red lines in Syria followed by Hamlet-like deliberations and acceptance of Putin’s bogus WMD removal plan; flip-flop-flip in Egypt; in Libya, lead from behind followed by Benghazi and chaos; deadlines and sanctions to no deadlines and no sanctions with Iran; reset reset with Russia; constant public scapegoating of his predecessors, especially Bush; missile defense and then no missile defense in Eastern Europe; Guantanamo, renditions, drones, and preventive detentions all bad in 2008 and apparently essential in 2009; civilian trials for terrorists and then not; and Orwellian new terms like overseas contingency operations, workplace violence, man-caused disasters, a secular Muslim Brotherhood, jihad as a personal journey, and a chief NASA mission being outreach to Muslims. We forget that the non-interventionist policies of Jimmy Carter abruptly ended with his bellicose “Carter Doctrine” — birthed after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, American hostages were taken in Tehran and Khomeinists had taken power, China went into Vietnam, and Communist insurgencies swept Central America.
As for Dwight Eisenhower, of course he was an admirable and successful president who squared the circle of trying to contain expansionary Soviet and Chinese Communism at a time when the postwar American public was rightly tired of war, while balancing three budgets, building infrastructure, attempting to deal with civil rights, and promoting economic growth. Yet the Republican Ike continued for six months the identical Korean War policies of his unpopular Democratic predecessor Harry Truman, and helped to lay the foundation for the Vietnam interventions of his successors, Democrats John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. That the initial blow-ups in Korea and Vietnam bookended his own administration may have been a matter of luck, given his own similar interventionist Cold War policies.
Bush was probably no Ike (few are), and certainly Obama is not either. But to score contemporary political points against one and for the other by reinventing Eisenhower into a model non-interventionist is a complete distortion of history. So should we laugh or cry at the fantasies offered by Andrew Bacevich? He writes: “Remember the disorder that followed the Korean War? It was called the Eisenhower era, when budgets balanced, jobs were plentiful and no American soldiers died in needless wars.”
In fact, the post–Korean War “Eisenhower era” was characterized by only three balanced budgets (in at least one case with some budget gimmickry) out of the remaining seven Eisenhower years. In 1958 the unemployment rate spiked at over 7 percent for a steady six months. Bacevich’s simplistic notion that “jobs were plentiful” best applies to the first six months of 1953, when Ike entered office and, for the only time during his entire tenure, the jobless rate was below 3 percent — coinciding roughly with the last six months of fighting the Korean War. This was an age, remember, when we had not yet seen the West German, South Korean, and Japanese democratic and economic miracles (all eventually due to U.S. interventions and occupations), China and Russia were in ruins, Western Europe was still recovering from the war, Britain had gone on a nationalizing binge, and for a brief time the U.S. was largely resupplying the world, and mostly alone — almost entirely with its own oil, gas, and coal. Eisenhower’s term was characterized by intervention in Lebanon, fighting for stalemate in Korea, CIA-led coups and assassinations, the insertion of military advisers into Vietnam, new anti-Communist treaty entanglements to protect Southeast Asian countries, a complete falling out with our European allies, abject lies about spy flights over the Soviet Union, serial nuclear saber-rattling, and Curtis LeMay’s nuclear-armed overflights of the Soviet Union — in other words, the not-so-abnormal stuff of a Cold War presidency.
And the idea that, to quote from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Eisenhower “could then take enormous pride in the fact that not a single soldier had died in combat during his time” is, well, unhinged.
— NRO contributor Victor Davis Hanson is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of The Savior Generals.