Mr. Clean

Waging Peace: 1956-1961

by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Doubleday, 741 pp., $6.95

Dwight D. Eisenhower
Dwight D. Eisenhower; drawing by David Levine

Of all the blessings of the Eisenhower years, that historical intermission when America stopped off for a snooze while the world churned inconsiderately on, surely the most wonderful was that we were in such safe hands. Ike was in his castle, and all was right with the world. Or so it would seem from this second volume of Presidential memoirs, covering the years from Eisenhower’s re-election in 1956 to the inauguration of Kennedy in January 1961. In 660 soporific pages of text the former President recounts how in his second term in office he met every crisis with wisdom, dispatch, and a heavy sense of responsibility.

Here is Ike taming Khrushchev at Berlin and Budapest, foiling Nasser in Lebanon and the Chinese at Quemoy, blocking Faubus at Little Rock, and defending international morality at Suez. While mutt-carrying Sputniks orbited, U-2s rose and fell, summit meetings blossomed and faded, and a protracted recession threw millions of Americans out of work, a benevolent and omniscient Ike sat in the White House taking care of us. In page after page we are treated to the exhilarating spectacle of Ike immediately grasping the essentials of every situation, weighing an infinity of possibilities against the yardstick of morality and national interest (usually interchangeable), suffering his critics with a Christ-like patience, and invariably doing exactly the right thing. No wonder everybody loved him. No wonder he remains a semi-sacrosanct figure, the nearest thing to a Big Daddy this nation has known since George Washington.

One has only to consult the memoirs to be struck by the truth of these observations. Critics are dismissed as irresponsible or naive, political opponents are self-seeking or ignorant, fiascos are buried under or forgotten, and failures are so embellished that they become a kind of success. What is left is a succession of triumphs marred only by a few minor disappointments of little lasting importance. Even the abortive 1960 summit conference, which is generally assumed to have been botched by Ike’s inept handling of the U-2 affair, is vindicated by the assurance that “the Paris summit, had it been held, would have proved to be a failure and thus would have brought the Free World only further disillusionment.” Thus did Ike, by seeming to commit a blunder, cleverly save the Free World from disappointment at the hands of an unscrupulous Khrushchev.

Can this infallible man be the Eisenhower we lived with for eight somniferous years? Sometimes it is hard to connect the real world remembered from the late Fifties—recession and racial troubles at home, nuclear confrontation and diplomatic stalemate abroad—with the gentle landscape portrayed in Waging Peace. So much of the Eisenhower administration, with its quaint nineteenth-century economics and its 1920-style politics of normalcy, has receded into the dim past that it already seems like an historical curiosity, a kind of pre-Lyndon golden age where the toppling of unfriendly governments…

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