One of the most popular presidents during his time in office, Dwight D. Eisenhower, has been slighted by posterity. His detractors, when they deign to notice him at all, present Ike as a do-nothing chief executive: riding out the prosperity of the 1950s, whiling away the hours on the golf links, and making no effort to prepare America for its future challenges. Viciously, they decry his alleged inaction on civil rights and nuclear brinksmanship with the Soviet Union. The only good thing Eisenhower accomplished, it seems, was his vast expansion of the Federal highway system.
William I. Hitchcock is not the only historian to question this narrative; it originated in the late 1950s by presidential hopefuls John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and their followers, to draw a sharp distinction between what had been, and what they promised to build. In The Age of Eisenhower, Hitchcock offers the fullest and most balanced assessment yet of Ike, his presidency, and America of his era. Rejecting the notion of Eisenhower as an ineffective chief executive, Hitchcock argues that he was unremittingly active, thoughtful and forceful—if not always right.
Briefly surveying Eisenhower’s early life, service in World War I, and conduct as commander of allied forces in Europe during World War II, Hitchcock begins his intensive study with Ike’s decision to run for president in 1952. Eisenhower, we learn, was no tool of a Republican Party that had been shut out of the White House for twenty years, but a man with deeply held principles. His primary personal and political beliefs included fiscal responsibility, small government, forceful foreign policy, military strength, and religious faith.
By then, he thought America was on the wrong track, and somebody had to set things right, again.
He would have eight years to do it.
Hitchcock focuses his investigation of Eisenhower’s record on foreign policy and civil rights—not altogether ignoring–but giving relatively short shrift to Ike’s economic and domestic policies, including his expansion of the highways. Agreeing with most Americans that communism, as embodied in the Soviet Union and China, was the primary threat to world peace, President Eisenhower talked and acted tough about holding back what looked like an expansionist red tide. But, about his efforts to roll back Jim Crow policies on African Americans, Ike walked a tightrope, by attempting to promote progress without overt federal intervention.
As Hitchcock shows, Ike’s stance in these areas was far more nuanced than it appeared. Though fervently anti-communist, he deplored the red-baiting paranoia of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy, but was unwilling to take on the powerful senator directly. The president worked haltingly, and eventually successfully undermined McCarthy’s reputation and political strength. Likewise, Eisenhower held the line against America’s enemies abroad—seriously considering using tactical nuclear weapons against China on a number of occasions, ended the Korean War, pursued détente with the Soviet Union, and generally sought to avoid military intervention in Vietnam and Cuba. Highly critical of Eisenhower’s covert operations through the C.I.A. in Guatemala and Iran—sometimes perhaps too often exercising the benefit of hindsight—Hitchcock highly praises Ike’s statesmanlike handling of the 1956 Suez Crisis, during which Anglo-French and Israeli military intervention in Egypt very nearly heaved the world into war.
Few topics concerned Eisenhower more than civil rights. Almost immediately after taking office, he ended segregation in the federal government (instituted by President Woodrow Wilson); took forceful steps to fully integrate the military; and abolished Jim Crow in Washington, D.C. He also enabled, although he did not explicitly endorse, the efforts of Attorney General Herbert Brownell, Jr., to implement Supreme Court rulings against Jim Crow in the South. Yet Ike was a gradualist. Opposed in principle to federal intervention, even in states that openly defied the law of the land, Eisenhower preferred to allow white southerners to come to their senses over time and end injustice in increments. Though well-intentioned, such a stance was hardly visionary. It also did almost nothing to postpone the coming 1957 confrontation in Little Rock, Arkansas, when he was forced to send the 101st Airborne to implement integration over white mobs and recalcitrant civil authorities.
Hitchcock’s exhaustive analysis of Eisenhower’s presidency reads like an academic treatise, and would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand to expunge repetitive text and some unfortunate grammatical gaffes. Taken on the whole, though, The Age of Eisenhower is a significant achievement. Readers will come away impressed by Eisenhower’s formidable political mind and largely judicious statesmanship. Though imperfect like everyone else who has inhabited the White House, Ike deserves to be considered among the foremost of those who have served as president of the United States.
Ed Lengel is an author, a speaker, and a storyteller.