I was intrigued by the quotes from Eisenhower that I found while writing a previous post, and I decided I needed to learn more about this man. So I picked up the one-volume biography by Stephen E. Ambrose, an abridgment of his original two-volume work.
There were several supersalient things about Eisenhower that I noticed. The biggest was that, politically, he was a true conservative, sometimes to a fault. He was president during the establishment of the nuclear arms race, an extremely expensive endeavor, but he did all he could to rein in spending on it. He once wondered aloud how many times over the U.S. could kill the Russians, meaning the effectiveness of “deterrence” does not increase unlimited with an unnecessary number of nuclear weapons.
One of the mantras during his two terms was that “a balanced budget is more important to our security than nuclear weapons.” Oh, how we could use that kind of leadership today! In 1957 he was faced with no fewer than five situations in which his entire cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff pressured him to use nuclear weapons against China and/or Russia. Luckily, he stood his ground. He got the U.S. out of Korea and avoided involvement in Vietnam, already becoming a problem. It seems strange that the most celebrated Army General or the 20th century would be so averse to war, but so he was because, he said, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can, only as one who has seen its brutality, its futility, its stupidity.” He would only go into a war where the lines of right and wrong were clear and he had an overwhelming force for the job. Thus, he presided over the longest period of peace in the 20th century.
His conservatism hurt him when he assumed that the Brown v. Topeka Supreme Court decision would be implemented gradually. He didn’t see the reason for the rush to integrate, and the South saw his ambivalence as sympathy to their cause. This eventually led to situation that forced Eisenhower’s hand in sending federal troops into Little Rock.
Eisenhower set two precedents that have backfired on us today. First, he claimed executive privilege for high-ranking officials in the agencies of the Executive Branch. This was precipitated by Joe McCarthy’s haranguing Army officials about Communists in the military. Eisenhower simply wanted to shut down McCarthy. Of course, under GWB, the concept of executive privilege has become a weapon against the freedoms of the people and the Congress to investigate unethical and criminal behavior in the executive branch.
Eisenhower’s other tragic precedent was seeking unlimited power to use whatever tactics he saw as necessary against North Korea. He did this to scare North Korea into backing down against South Korea after the armistice. Unfortunately, GWB sought and got the same power against “terrorism,” a nebulous enemy at best. The difference is that Eisenhower was a capable man with knowledge of military strengths and threats, whereas GWB et al were simple ideologues with too much power and too big an appetite.
If there were a “conservative” on the national scene like Eisenhower, my party loyalties might be trending a different way. I see in him financial, military, and diplomatic conservatism, none if which is present in today’s self-proclaimed “conservatives.” Ironically, one of the planks in JFK’s platform in 1960 was lower taxes.
In all, Eisenhower was a smart, good man with human faults. It seemed he did what he felt was best for the country and its citizens as a whole, not the euphemistic “national interest.”
The book itself is a great study of the U.S. in the 20th century. It goes through WWI, the country’s international involvement between the wars, WWII, Korea, the beginnings of the Cold War, the seeds of Vietnam, etc. It gives a very interesting perspective on the transformation of the United States from a member of the community of nation-states to a world-wide superpower. It’s a really good suggested read.