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Why Like Ike

by Kevin D. Williamson

Conservatives got Eisenhower wrong the first time around

Rancho Mirage, Calif. – This was Republican country — there’s no mistaking the fact. You can hardly get from Point A to Point B in the golf belt of the California desert without paying homage to a particular kind of Republican: You motor down Gerald Ford Drive, and if you make a right turn on Frank Sinatra, you might recall that he made one, too, beginning his political days as a JFK man but ending them raising money for Ronald Reagan. Just down the road, President Barack Obama is meeting with his Chinese counterpart at Sunnylands, the former home of Republican moneyman Walter Annenberg, publisher of TV Guide and ambassador to the Court of St. James’s. (To get there, exit the Sonny Bono Memorial Freeway on Bob Hope Drive and go just past Gerald Ford — if you hit Country Club Drive, you’ve gone too far.)

Sunnylands is a masterpiece of midcentury modernism, and Palm Springs and its environs are famous for their Jetsons-flavored houses. The architecture is such a draw that Modernism Week is an important buttress for the area’s tourism-driven economy, and design aficionados come from around the world to tour the famous residential works of Richard Neutra, William Cody, and others. The architecture is not incidental: Whereas Washington’s monumental, fascist-flavored buildings (especially the works of Paul Cret and other practitioners of “stripped classicism”) take their inspiration from Greek and Roman public buildings, the most notable architecture of the California desert is uniquely American and private — sometimes aggressively private: Other places in the country have gated communities, but Canyon Lake, just down the road, is a gated city, one of five in the region.

The midcentury-modern style reached its fullest flower in southern California, the center of post-war American optimism, around 1957, the cultural high-water mark of American history. It is a bold and open style of architecture, one that employs techniques and materials associated with commercial buildings and mass production, bringing high design to the upper reaches of the middle class. These are homes meant to have new cars parked in front, under carports rather than in garages — no need for a full enclosure in the perfect California weather. (Ronald Reagan quipped that if the Pilgrims had landed on the West Coast, New England would still be a wilderness.) These are homes meant to be built on golf courses, but not stuffy, aristocratic golf courses of the sort one sees around Greenwich, Conn., Lower Merion, Pa., or other exhausted bastions of East Coast WASP culture. In its golden age, Palm Springs may have been in part a playground for the rich and famous — legend is that Gerald Ford and Jackie Gleason used to liven up their golf games with wagers of $1,000 a hole — but it was also home to a new affluent class of professionals and entrepreneurs with their roots firmly in the middle class. Its amusements were American high-bourgeois — golf and tennis, convertibles — its style was American high-bourgeois — from tailfins to Dorothy Draper — and its politics were American high-bourgeois, meaning Republican.

As everything from the local hospital system to the nearby elementary school to mountain-overlooking Eldorado Country Club documents, this was Eisenhower country.

Dwight D. Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, at the nadir of his parents’ marriage. His father, David, a member of the puritanical River Brethren offshoot of the Mennonite faith, did not drink or smoke, but was nonetheless plagued with a vague personal inconstancy and suffered from wanderlust. He frittered away a substantial inheritance and left a comfortable life among his prosperous family in Abilene, Kans., ending up in Texas as a menial laborer for the Katy railroad.

Like Abraham Lincoln, Dwight Eisenhower was motivated by the desire to put as much economic, social, and (not coincidental) physical distance between himself and his impoverished childhood as he could. Whereas Lincoln found his way out in practicing law, Eisenhower, the last president born in the 19th century, was delivered from a laborer’s life by that most characteristic of modern American institutions: a standardized test. U.S. Senator Joseph Bristow (R., Kans.) was a reformer, and rather than using appointments to the service academies as a tool of political patronage, he administered a competitive examination. Ike came in second, and ended up at West Point rather than his first choice, the Naval Academy at Annapolis. Eisenhower’s indefatigable confidence was in no small part rooted in the fact that he, like Lincoln, had lived the American promise in full, and, like Lincoln, Eisenhower would make broadly shared prosperity the hallmark of his domestic agenda after the war. Like Lincoln, Eisenhower would preside over very large investments in what the former called “improvements” — Eisenhower’s interstate highways were his answer to Lincoln’s railroads, and the St. Lawrence Seaway that Ike helped bring into being would have delighted Lincoln.

Ike also finished some of Lincoln’s work, especially regarding access to education and economic opportunity, and desegregated those schools and institutions over which he had direct federal power as president more than a year before Brown v. Board of Education was decided. In his first State of the Union speech, he announced his hostility to segregation, but he did not feel that he was legally empowered to crusade against it outside his specific federal jurisdiction. (He was, in the words of one biographer, the “last president who actually believed in the Constitution.”) After Brown, he was empowered, and when Democrats attempted to use the National Guard to block the desegregation of southern schools, Ike sent in the 101st Airborne, which was among the units he had commanded at D-Day.

President Truman had never enforced his order to desegregate the U.S. military, and two-thirds of the units were segregated when Ike took office, along with many auxiliary facilities. None of them were by the end of his first term — not even the southern shipyards, the segregation of which had been assumed to be destined to endure in perpetuity. Adam Clayton Powell rightly identified Eisenhower as having done more to “restore the Negro to the status of first-class citizenship than any president since Abraham Lincoln.” Minnijean Brown, one of the students escorted to school in Little Rock by Eisenhower’s troops, declared: “For the first time in my life, I felt like an American citizen.”

Eisenhower believed strongly in meritocracy. He had enjoyed basic economic security as an Army officer, but he had also known frustration. His career stalled in the peacetime Army, and he was nearly court-martialed for mishandling housing-allowance paperwork. He wasn’t a businessman — his one major achievement in free enterprise was figuring out how to pay the 25 percent capital-gains tax rate on his memoir income rather than the very high personal tax rates that prevailed at the time. He sometimes annoyed the business community, as when he signed off on a bill that increased the minimum wage by a third. The minimum wage was higher in real terms under Eisenhower than it is today.

When Ike was president, his management style was still very much that of the military commander: Much as he had aligned, as a general, the actions of infantry, armor, and air support, he now saw himself as mustering national resources in a coordinated strategy. “I patiently explain over and over again that American strength is a combination of economic, moral, and military force,” he said. “If we demand too much in taxes in order to build planes and ships, we will tend to dry up the accumulations of capital that are necessary to provide jobs for the millions of new workers that we must absorb each year.” But unlike his European counterparts, Eisenhower sought to rally the nation’s resources not through subjecting the economy to political discipline but by setting it free. While France and England were nationalizing industries, Eisenhower’s America was abolishing wage and price controls.

And it was Eisenhower’s experience as a commanding general that led him to the most important item on his political agenda: “waging peace.”

“Waging peace” was an idea that Eisenhower took seriously — he made it the title of the second volume of his memoirs — and it was the key to both his domestic and his overseas political success.

As the man principally responsible for shaping NATO, Eisenhower could not be accused of failing to take the worldwide Communist threat seriously enough. But Eisenhower, as he said over and over again, saw NATO first and foremost as a tool for the prevention of wars rather than the fighting of them — that was a secondary mission and, in the case of the Soviets and Chinese, a last resort. Harry S. Truman left him with a lot of peace to be waged. By ending the unpopular and fruitless conflict in Korea, Eisenhower relieved the nation of a major drain on its economy and excised a cancer eating away at the United States’ national military credibility. He scrupulously abjured what he contemptuously called “brushfire wars,” which would have sapped military manpower, matériel, and prestige, but left no doubt in Moscow or Beijing that any serious threat to U.S. national security would be met with overwhelming force. He twice had the good sense to overrule subordinates who wanted to use nuclear weapons, the second time dispatching a note to his military advisers reading: “You boys must be crazy.” In doing so, he established the nuclear threshold — in effect, a no-first-use rule — that has held ever since.

His sense of fair play added tremendously to the country’s diplomatic standing in the world: When the English and French (using the Israelis as a ruse) violated Egyptian sovereignty during the Suez crisis, Eisenhower backed Egypt and threatened to crush the pound if the Brits would not behave. Likewise, when Chiang Kai-shek made needlessly provocative moves against Red China, Ike allowed Beijing to impose some modest losses on the generalissimo — but never let them think they would get away with seizing Taiwan. Both of those episodes put American enemies, allies, and rivals alike on notice that the United States was conducting a foreign policy that took seriously the idea of collective security and national nonaggression, not only for reasons of principle but because they were the best way of pursuing legitimate U.S. national-security interests.

When Eisenhower did sign off on foreign interventions — in Iran and in Guatemala — he chose to act through covert operations with discrete, well-defined goals: reversing the advance of Communism in Guatemala and deposing the Mossadegh regime in Iran. In both cases, the United States was taking sides in an internal conflict, largely at the behest of commercial interests whose property was being stolen by nationalizing regimes. Eisenhower, who famously warned Americans about the growing influence of the “military-industrial complex,” was wonderfully parsimonious with the blood of U.S. troops — after he ended the war in Korea, there were no American combat deaths for the remainder of his presidency — but took a more interventionist view of CIA-led covert operations.

In all of that, Eisenhower was not entirely unlike President Reagan, who sought to frustrate the Soviets in Afghanistan and Angola, and the Communist enterprise in Central America, but not at the cost of dispatching divisions there. Reagan’s deployment of the military was a mixed bag — disaster in Lebanon, 19 dead in the course of rolling back a Communist coup d’état in Grenada, and an airstrike in Libya. His covert actions in the Contra matter were not entirely unlike Ike’s, with the exception of being in the end a good deal less covert. He was happy to get an arms-reduction treaty with the Soviets and never came close to provoking them into a direct military confrontation. He oversaw a large military buildup and — contra Madeleine Albright — saw the point of having it and not using it.

There is, perhaps, a lesson in that for contemporary conservatives. The main U.S. adversary in the early 21st century is Islamic radicalism, and we suffered the worst-ever terrorist attack on U.S. soil on September 11, 2001, because of intelligence and law-enforcement failures, not because we needed another division to occupy Iraq or another air wing to deploy in the Persian Gulf. The invasion of Afghanistan — taking the fight to al-Qaeda directly and to their Taliban patrons — was a relatively straightforward proposition. The ongoing nation-building occupation of Afghanistan and the related operation in Iraq are precisely the sort of brushfire war that Eisenhower hoped to stay out of. As predicted, they have sucked a great deal of money out of the Treasury and filled a large number of graves, while the inability of the United States to comprehensively impose its will on either country has diminished our standing in the world rather than enhanced it. Eisenhower’s war machine was not in the nation-building business, but in the nation-unbuilding business. Which is why he made so little use of it.

The prospect of total war was Eisenhower’s horror but also, in a way, his deliverance. Eisenhower inherited a large budget deficit and desired to eliminate it. At the time, the U.S. national-security establishment was spending an amount of money each year exceeding the combined profits of every American corporation, according to Jean Edward Smith’s delightfully written Eisenhower in War and Peace. Unencumbered by fanciful ideas about self-financing tax cuts and other fiscal fairy tales, Ike set about cutting the budget, starting with the biggest piece: the military. Recognizing that the spread of nuclear weapons and the existence of a Communist bloc had fundamentally changed the model of warfare, Eisenhower began by cutting the budget and head count of his own service branch — the Army — by a third, and then rolled back naval expenditures. The only branch to see its head count and budget expand was the new U.S. Air Force, which had the largest responsibility for maintaining the credibility of the nuclear deterrent. Eisenhower thought it was absurd to worry about having enough infantry divisions to occupy the Soviet Union and China after a nuclear strike on the United States. The response to a nuclear attack would be a nuclear counterattack: “God damn it, it would be perfect rot to talk about shipping troops abroad when fifteen of our cities were in ruins.”

Getting his domestic agenda passed through Congress was relatively easy. Eisenhower was enormously popular, and he was a wily if occasionally brutal politician. He’d spent years juggling the egos and agendas of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Charles de Gaulle — Sam Rayburn and Lyndon Johnson were not much by comparison. If anything, he had more trouble with the Republican opposition, who wanted — get this — a more aggressive foreign policy and large tax cuts. Conservatives did not know how good they had it: William F. Buckley Jr. launched this magazine and the conservative movement in part to oppose Eisenhower-style Republicanism — “Our principles are round, and Eisenhower is square,” he wrote in a 1955 letter to Max Eastman. But National Review ended up grudgingly endorsing Eisenhower in 1956 — not “We Like Ike” but “We Prefer Ike” — and later, in the heat of the 1964 battle, WFB suggested that Barry Goldwater name Eisenhower his running mate, an idea that Richard Brookhiser called “both crazy — Ike would not have played second fiddle to Abraham Lincoln — and possibly unconstitutional.”

Conservatives would have to wait for John F. Kennedy for their big tax cut and their proxy war with the Soviets. The interstate highway system was paid for out of a dedicated gasoline tax, while other new spending was offset by intelligent cuts in the military and elsewhere. Eisenhower inherited a large deficit in 1953 (large by the standards of the time, some $6.49 billion) and left office with a surplus, following surpluses in 1956 and 1957. If he had not signed off on a $12.8 billion deficit in 1959, a product of the arms race, he would have presided over an aggregate surplus.

There were no major recessions in his eight years in office — indeed, the U.S. manufacturing and export sectors were performing at unprecedented levels of productivity, as a result of which employment and wages remained strong. That had something to do with the post-war global economic situation — the United States was the last industrial economy standing — but Ike’s insistence that budgets be balanced, resources be diverted from unproductive military engagements, and education and economic opportunity be more widely accessible helped convert what could have been a post-war bubble into a decade of broadly shared growth. General Eisenhower brought general peace and general prosperity.

In retirement, the golf-addicted Eisenhower drifted away from Augusta National, where his decisive action against racial segregation was not received with universal admiration, and toward the California desert, where every day was a good day for golf and the dry climate agreed with him. Eisenhower had been tormented by ill health of various kinds — an intestinal disorder, heart trouble, and a mild stroke — and California was a tonic. It was both more democratic and less than his life in Washington. He had little use for the monarchical trappings of office (he rolled his eyes at General Patton’s plumage) but had a strong desire for privacy, relatively little of which was afforded to him at his farm in Gettysburg. At Eldorado Country Club, he settled into another modern American institution — a gated community — which provided him with the privacy and security he needed. He did not live like a duke in exile — he lived like a reasonably well-off American. As Lucius Clay put it, “The American people took him for what they wanted Americans to be.”

Though you’ll meet any number of patrons of the Eisenhower health-care network around the Coachella Valley, and a few old-timers who speak glowingly of the general, you’ll meet relatively few committed Republicans or movement conservatives. Reagan’s is not a name to conjure with, either. Nearby enclaves such as Indian Wells are overwhelmingly Republican, but those GOP faithful are not numerous enough to overcome the liberal invasion of the desert. Palm Springs proper has become a gay mecca, with estimates of the city’s gay population running from one-tenth to one-third of residents. Its annual gay-pride celebration is one of the largest in the country. So made-over has been the politics of the area that Representative Mary Bono Mack, a painstakingly moderate Republican with a great deal of goodwill from the community, fell to a hard-left community-organizer type while Barack Obama became the first Democrat ever to win Riverside County twice, putting an exclamation point on the decline of the GOP in the area. (The political reality is that Mary Bono Mack had been married to the wrong half of Sonny and Cher.)

Though many blame social conservatives for Republicans’ decline in California, it is not obvious that this is the case. Eisenhower, who vowed never to set foot in a church once he was free of Army chapel requirements, became a nominal Presbyterian upon entering politics. He described himself as a deeply religious nonconformist, an orientation that was no doubt a legacy of his River Brethren past and of his great independence of mind. But he was not above exploiting religious feeling for political gain: The words “under God” were inserted into the Pledge of Allegiance under Ike’s watch, and he made a show of it.

Eisenhower may have sometimes called himself a progressive, but his bedrock priorities — a strong military, balanced budgets, and limited government — are classical conservativism. He had a conservative cabinet, though one that was neither especially ideological nor partisan. He also knew how to throw the other side a bone: He sought out an AFL leader, a Catholic Democrat from the pipefitters’ union, for the labor slot, leading The New Republic to dismiss the Eisenhower cabinet as “eight millionaires and a plumber,” as Smith notes. When Mamie was redecorating the family home, she brought in the doyenne of American interior design, Dorothy Draper, for the work, but it was Ike who insisted on the use of union labor. He was committed to defending the American way of life against Communism, but he stood up for colleagues in government (and, perhaps more important, at Columbia University during his presidency of that institution) who were baselessly accused of having red leanings. He detected that Senator Joe McCarthy was keenly interested in publicity, and blew him off in public without ever mentioning his name. Like President Obama, President Eisenhower pronounced himself ready to meet with anybody in the pursuit of peace, and, like President Obama, he was pilloried for it by conservatives.

Conservatives berated Eisenhower for making peace with the New Deal and the unions. He said that a party that tried to undo Social Security and the labor laws would “never be heard of again.” Having drummed the general out of their midst, conservatives rallied behind Ronald Reagan, a self-professed New Deal Democrat and union leader who found himself alienated from the party of FDR by the rising influence of the far Left.

Comes the time, comes the man. Eisenhower entered office with ridiculous approval ratings — and he left office with the same ratings. In his last years, he was not only the most respected political figure in the United States, he was the most admired American bar none, at home and abroad. He executed a tremendously important policy agenda, and he made it look easy — but it wasn’t: There were real economic and social challenges at home, and the Soviets and the Chinese were playing for keeps. But Eisenhower had a deep appreciation for those most conservative of virtues: steadiness, judgment, predictability, attention to detail. It was an era of few surprises from the White House.

As though to underscore that point, his last notable public act was presenting the Eisenhower Trophy to Arnold Palmer at the Bob Hope Classic before shooting a hole-in-one (his first ever) at Seven Lakes. That being done, he died and was laid in state in an $80 Army-issue coffin in his customary field jacket — no fruit salad on his chest, just the five stars signifying his rank as General of the Army. Along with General Pershing, he was one of the few officers to have worn five stars — meaning that he outranked George Washington. (Washington got his five stars posthumously.)

“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can,” Eisenhower proclaimed, and he meant it. He took courageous stands on everything from Suez to civil rights, but he was never a preening moralist in the mold of Barack Obama, nor was he constantly congratulating himself on his courage like, to pull from a few recent memoir titles, Karl Rove, Tim Pawlenty, Barbara Lee, and Max Cleland. Eisenhower’s personal style and his policy agenda were in a sense perfectly matched: Both appealed to that broad swath of American society that thinks of itself as the middle class. Like Ike, they had served in the Army, come home with a new interest in higher education, played golf, watched westerns, hoped for better things for themselves and their children, and dreamed about retiring to a country club in California. Mamie Eisenhower insisted that the White House kitchen recycle leftover Cornish hens from official dinners as chicken salad — not exactly Michelle Obama’s style. Or Nancy Reagan’s.

Under Eisenhower, Republicans were able to communicate to Americans a sense of being on their side. Applying the Reagan standard — “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” — the answer would have been a nearly unanimous “Yes.” Big business, young families, blacks, soldiers, union workers, Republicans, Democrats, golf-course operators — all would have answered in the affirmative. Today’s conservatives can get half of that loaf: It is unlikely — almost unthinkable — that a man of Eisenhower’s personal stature will become a Republican presidential nominee in the near future, simply because there are few if any men of his stature available. But if they are looking for a policy agenda and a political style that communicate that most important message — WE ARE ON YOUR SIDE! — then they could do worse than to look to Dwight D. Eisenhower, who never had to prove it.

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