THE AGE OF EISENHOWER: AMERICA AND THE WORLD IN THE 1950S
By William I. Hitchcock
Simon & Schuster, $35, 650 pages
Academic historians are giving the presidential performance of Dwight D. Eisenhower a well-deserved second look, and the results show the contemporary political pundits who derided him were either biased or blind to his accomplishments.
A 2017 poll of presidential historians ranked Gen. Eisenhower fifth, behind Lincoln, Washington and the two Roosevelts.
William Hitchcock, of the University of Virginia, spent eight years of meticulous research in newly accessible archives to produce a splendid biography that belies the image of Mr. Eisenhower as a benign do-nothing president who was more interested in golf than governing.
Mr. Eisenhower had already achieved fame as the conqueror of Germany, a feat that made him the most popular person in America.
As a military man, he had no interest in — or need for — further acclaim. Thus powerful Republicans expended much energy in convincing him to seek the presidential nomination in 1952. (Disclosure: My father was in the Texas delegation whose vote helped him defeat the early favorite, Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio.)
The slogan “I Like Ike” echoed around the country, and he won handily on a pledge to “fix the mess in Washington” resulting from 20 years of Democratic rule. He cited “unchecked inflation, a spike in taxes, and the spreading tentacles of a grasping bureaucracy.”
But once in office, Mr. Eisenhower eschewed political billingsgate. For instance, he decided that the best means of deflating the demagogic Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his overblown anti-Communist hunt was to ignore him. Mr. McCarthy’s blunders caused him to self-destruct.
His “principal obsession” was a balanced budget; he likened inflation and deficit spending to “simple theft.” He inherited a $10 billion deficit budget from President Truman which he balanced by 1956, chiefly by cutting public spending. But tax code changes gave a break to lower-income persons with no cuts in benefits.
A major change in the Social Security program brought coverage to millions of self-employed persons excluded by the original 1935 act. Benefits went to persons ranging from doctors and lawyers to farm and domestic workers, waiters and fishermen.
In doing so, he bucked grandees of his own party. He decried the “Texas oil millionaires” and other fiscal hard-liners who opposed social spending, using memorably blunt terms in saying, “their number is negligible and they are stupid.”
A major public works project literally changed the face of America: The interstate highway program. The plan earmarked slight increases in federal gasoline taxes for a highway trust fund that could not be used for other purposes.
Expressways supplanted outdated two-lane highways, benefitting to this day uncountable millions of motorists.
Having witnessed the ravages of war, Ike was cautious in foreign affairs. In 1954 he came under enormous pressure — ranging from Republican senators to Pentagon brass — to intervene in France’s attempt to preserve control of its colonies in Indochina. The French wanted American bombers to save a key redoubt known as Dien Bien Phu.
Ike refused. The outpost fell, and The Washington Post denounced him as causing “one of the most humiliating diplomatic defeats in [U.S.] history.”
After an international conference divided Vietnam, Mr. Eisenhower took a dim view of the autocratic President Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled the south. The CIA station in Saigon urged reform and political liberalization to gain popular support. He refused. Ike continued economic aid but refused to involve American troops.
Mr. Eisenhower displayed diplomatic deftness in other crisis situations. He rebuffed Chinese Communist nuclear threats to bluff their way into control of off-shore islands around Taiwan. He refused to join a British-French attempt to seize control of the Suez Canal. And he stood down a Soviet attempt to drive the U.S. out of Berlin.
But in each crisis, he made plain — through silent channels, rather than public declarations — that there were limits to American patience.
On domestic issues Mr. Eisenhower drew much criticism for not supporting legislation giving the federal government greater authority to force state compliance with the U.S. Supreme Court decision banning segregation in public schools.
But he did take the bold — and controversial — step of dispatching federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to escort black students through a threatening mob to integrate a high school.
Mr. Eisenhower suffered two debilitating illnesses during his presidency which undoubtedly hampered his leadership at times. But he presided over a White House that was relatively devoid of turmoil and corruption (although he did fire one chief of staff from taking unwise contributions from a lobbyist).
As a president, Dwight Eisenhower deserves the judgment of historian Hitchcock that he was a “model of loyalty, dignity and decency Eisenhower lent his name to the age. And his people had lived in the presence of greatness.”
• Washington writer Joseph Goulden covered the last two years of the Johnson administration for The Philadelphia Inquirer.