Dwight Eisenhower’s presidency has been consistently underappreciated. Partly that is because Eisenhower, having commanded the Allied forces to victory over the Axis powers in Europe in World War II, had attained monumental historical importance before he became president in 1953. Partly it is because an attack line from Eisenhower’s opponents on the left — that he was a passive and detached figurehead who presided over an age of stagnation — became embedded among intellectuals in the 1960s. Eisenhower’s successors John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and their aides and auxiliaries in academia and the media, were master propagandists of this critique.
It was always bosh. Fair-minded historians have been contradicting it for years. In this comprehensive new book, University of Virginia historian William Hitchcock makes the case that Eisenhower was so much the preeminent figure in American and world politics from the death of Franklin Roosevelt in 1945 to the election of Kennedy in 1960 that the era can be deemed the age of Eisenhower; that his influence on his administration’s foreign and domestic policies was direct and extensive; and that those policies were mostly successful at the time and left a lasting, positive legacy. It is a compelling argument, even an easy one to make, and long overdue.
Eisenhower was prepared for the presidency by experience and suited for it by judgment and temperament. And he knew it. In a diary entry shortly after he took office, Eisenhower wrote of the challenges and worries he faced: “Such has been my portion for a long time — the result is that this just seems (today) like a continuation of all I’ve been doing since July 1941 — even before that.”
As president, Eisenhower was a strategist, just as he had been as a military commander. He was a habitual planner who sought to take the initiative rather than respond defensively to events. As Hitchcock demonstrates, on most major foreign and domestic issues Eisenhower had a principle or objective in mind and then systematically tried to muster and move resources to achieve it.
On taking office, Eisenhower faced an international environment fraught with peril. The basic contours of the Cold War were in place by 1953. The nature of the threat posed by the Soviet Union was understood, the nuclear-arms race was under way, and the U.S. national-security doctrine of containment had been established under President Truman. Eisenhower himself had served as the first military leader of NATO in 1951–52.
Yet much was in flux. Mao and his Communists had triumphed in mainland China only a few years before. U.S. forces were engaged in combat against the Chinese and North Koreans in the Korean War. European empires were disintegrating across Asia and Africa, providing potentially fertile ground for Communist expansion.
Hitchcock rightly argues that “Eisenhower’s approach to international affairs was masterful.” Eisenhower played the long game. He brought an end to the Korean War, which had bedeviled the Truman administration and had ground into stalemate. Thereafter, during Eisenhower’s presidency, as during Ronald Reagan’s decades later, major combat actions fought by American forces were conspicuous by their absence. Eisenhower’s foreign policy would constitute the original peace through strength: He sought to wage a vigorous, sustained competition with the USSR and China in the Cold War, and to do it on terms that favored America.
Eisenhower had been exasperated by the erratic swings in defense spending and military readiness under the Truman administration. It had rushed to cut defense in the aftermath of World War II, which Eisenhower knew was dangerous and foolhardy in the dawning Cold War, and then dramatically boosted defense spending during Truman’s second term, in large part to fund the Korean War. In contrast, as president, Eisenhower sought and secured what were remarkably high peacetime defense budgets as measured by percentage of GDP and of federal spending. As a result of that sustained investment, his administration served as the bridge between the U.S. military of World War II and that of today. It was during the Eisenhower presidency that the United States developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, high-altitude spy planes, and spy satellites. Both before and after the Soviets launched Sputnik in 1957, Eisenhower championed government investment in science and technology, and encouraged scientific and technological education.
Having led alliances in war and in peace, Eisenhower knew their value and competitive advantages. He worked assiduously to strengthen existing military alliances and establish new ones to maintain peace and hold back Communist expansion in critical regions.
Communists forced crises during his two terms — including China’s menacing Taiwan twice in perilous episodes and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s attempt to force Western powers out of Berlin — but Eisenhower, in displays of steady, calm diplomacy backed by strength, including that of America’s nuclear arms, forced them to back down. Eisenhower resolutely opposed deploying American ground forces to reinforce France’s crumbling colonial position in Vietnam. He sought to avoid direct U.S. involvement in combat there; he also wanted America to lead the free world against the Communist bloc, and to do so with as little taint from the legacy of colonialism as possible.
Hitchcock faults Eisenhower for his response to Senator Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower’s failure to defend his own mentor and hero, General George Marshall, from McCarthy more forcefully was indeed shameful. But Eisenhower was wary of elevating McCarthy by engaging in direct attacks on him and made a cold-blooded calculation, later proved correct, that McCarthy would ruin himself (a process that Eisenhower’s team helped along behind the scenes, while also trying to root out actual Communist influence).
Hitchcock makes a convincing case that the Eisenhower administration played a more constructive part in the civil-rights struggles of the era than it has been given credit for. Guided by Attorney General Herbert Brownell, the administration played a small but material part in nudging along Brown v. Board of Education, deployed the 101st Airborne Division to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock, and sought and secured passage of civil-rights legislation in the face of bitter and extreme intransigence on the part of southern Democrats, who pilloried Eisenhower. Yet Eisenhower was overly cautious in deploying his immense personal popularity and leadership in addressing civil rights.
One of the strengths of Hitchcock’s book is a reassessment of Eisenhower’s economic policies; Eisenhower, he writes, “deserves to be known as one of the shrewdest managers of the nation’s economy.” Eisenhower imposed fiscal discipline, keeping federal spending in check even while sustaining significant allocations for defense, and ended up with years of balanced budgets or relatively small deficits. He tried to favor private enterprise and personal responsibility while sustaining Social Security as a backstop against misfortune. He was respectful of and encouraged faith as an essential element of civil society. Church membership actually increased during his tenure. Eisenhower developed the interstate highway system, which was at once an economic boon and a throwback to the Lincoln-era Republican focus on internal improvements. During his years in office, inflation was kept low, and labor unrest decreased relative to the Truman years.
Economic growth during Eisenhower’s presidency was both broad and deep. Standards of living for most Americans improved to an extent that induces wistfulness and admiration today. Hitchcock rightly notes that some of that was structural and singular: The U.S. was the only major power whose economy had not been ruined or exhausted by World War II, and a manufacturing-intensive era helped spur employment and wage increases across the board. Eisenhower was dealt a good economic hand, but he deserves credit for playing it well.
His image throughout his presidency was that of a steady, authoritative leader. Eisenhower was essentially conservative in his purposes and principles, and disciplined and methodical in pursuing his objectives. He was possessed of clear-eyed vision and sound judgment about what needed to be done at the time to improve the likelihood of good outcomes over the long term. Enormously popular throughout his tenure — his average approval rating was 65 percent over his eight years in office, far higher than that of Reagan or Bill Clinton, and he was elected and reelected by wide margins — he presided over an era of peace and broad prosperity. Doing our best to understand why and how is not of merely academic interest.