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The Sweet Music of Dwight D. Eisenhower

Mandate for Change, 1953-1956. The White House Years, Volume I

by Dwight D. Eisenhower
Doubleday, 612 pp., $6.95

There are no surprises in the Eisenhower memoirs. Any American who in the 1950’s had his normal daily fill of two or three newspapers a day, news reports every hour on the hour, the news on television at twelve, three, six, and eleven, the commentators on television, the interviews with the President and his cabinet and sometimes even Mr. Hagerty on television, the press conferences on television, the editorials, Mr. Lippmann, Messrs. Alsop, Mr. Reston, Mr. Krock, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Drummond, not to forget “Meet The Press,” “World Report,” “What Washington Thinks,” the gossip in Winchell, the real story in Time, the columns in Newsweek, the closeups in Life, the Washington lowdown in Hedda Hopper and Hy Gardner—will find it all familiar, especially if since the 1950’s he has read Sherman Adams on Eisenhower, Robert J. Donovan on Eisenhower, Merlo J. Pusey and Marquis Childs and Emmet Hughes on Eisenhower.

Everything “political”—which in current usage means the buzz surrounding eminent persons in Washington—is now constantly reported and interpreted by the armies of professional communicators who often work hand in hand with the eminent persons who are themselves busy establishing their image in history with the Rankes and Toynbees of the Newspaper Guild. The Kennedy Administration has, in matters of self-exculpation and self-glorification, already shown itself to be to the Eisenhower Administration what “Telstar” is to Western Union. The usual “leak” to a friendly correspondent by an official hopeful of inspiring a little action in Congress has been replaced by a courting of writers, editorialists, journalists, historians, and poets so open that the present administration began writing its history before it made any. But even in the days of clumsy Charley Wilson and Ezra Taft Benson and Arthur Summerfield—simple corporation presidents and auto dealers who were never suspected of reading Lord David Cecil and Stendhal—there was such a deluge of “news” about what Charley Wilson had said to Ike and how Ezra Taft Benson was in direct touch with the Almighty on the farm problem and what “Jerry” Persons thought and “Bob” Taft is supposed to have said and now “Sherm” bawled out the Congressman and what “Foster” really said about the President’s not doing his “homework” that it turns out now that the generalissimo of the Business Man’s Administration, the commander-in-chief of the country in the last days of McCarthy’s terror, knew little more than the rest of us did, and that much of what he has to tell us the reporters and inside dopesters told us first. Indeed, the author acknowledges that his own initial drafts of this book were so sketchy—“contained little more than those things that left rather vivid impressions in my memory”—that his researcher had to look up “much in the way of facts and statistics” to stimulate “recall of my attitudes and thoughts in those years.”

The President of the United States for eight years had to look up the public record that most of us more or less know in order to find out what actually happened during his administration. And this lack of authoritative knowledge on the part of the chief executive himself is due only incidentally to the mad proliferation of communications. For if Eisenhower had had a political philosophy relevant to the ordering of our society he would have been authoritative enough, at least in conflict with his adversaries, to have kept something back from the general ruck of publicity. But as all the Saint-Simons of the inside track told us years ago, and as Eisenhower revealed in everything he said out loud when he was president and in everything he says in this book, he had, in the field of domestic policy, not political ideas but just pious hopes, nostalgic abstractions, virtuous incantations. And so the man whom the “liberal” and Eastern Republicans picked to become their candidate because there was no other Republican with his genially amorphous philosophy who could win, found himself locked in combat with the Tafts, Knowlands, Brickers, Jenners, McCarthys—the arrogant, reactionary, spiteful crew who ran their party in Congress and could tell the president where to go—he could only shift his ground in exasperated compromise and, except when he was happily conferring with “Foster” and “Winston” and “Anthony” about the real issues, those which required his notable military-diplomatic-political gifts of compromise and sweet unction, he had to look on as passively and become as non-significant an actor as everyone else reading the Washington columnists and commentators in those fumbling years.

One reads these memoirs with the realization that on some basic issues the President of the United States knew even less of what was happening than did the columnists and dopesters. How could the Eisenhower memoirs be significantly informative when he says, of his first talks with Taft during the Truman administration, that he had the impression that Taft “and some of his colleagues were interested, primarily, in cutting the President or the Presidency, down to size. I obtained similar reactions from others with whom I conferred”—and than adds to this same sentence that this “impression” was “possibly a mistaken one”? If in 1950-52 General Eisenhower thought himself “possibly mistaken” in this “impression,” the former President of the United States now knows, after the buffeting he got from Taft and Knowland as leaders in Congress of his own party, that this Congressional campaign to cut the President down to size—any President no matter how “conservative” he may think himself—is the most important fact of political warfare in the United States. Whether motivated by hatred of FDR still, or small-town resentments, or by isolationist and racist and greedy interests, this Congressional ambition was what gave McCarthy his opportunity, what has made the Senate the spawning-ground of all recent presidential candidates, what has turned out to be the most significant check on even the genuine and limited aspirations of the New Frontier. And Eisenhower, who was always frothing with amazement, rage, frustration at this obstinacy and unreasonableness and slyness of important Congressmen, came to suffer opposition from his own party in Congress that not even Truman had suffered. Yet never in these memoirs, though he describes with feeling this opposition from the right wing, does he show the slightest awareness of why it went after him, or what this Congressional “fourth” party represents, or to what extent his own lack of knowledge and interest in domestic affairs made these attacks possible and kept them alive.

The Congressional oppositional in his own party was unreasonable. Equally unreasonable and regrettable was the tendency of labor not to make common cause with capital. Even the one plumber in the cabinet of millionaires, Secretary of Labor Durkin, unaccountably thought it his job to represent the interests of labor, and even thought that he would never get a job with a union again if he remained as loftily above the battle as the President wanted him to be! Political life was full of unreasonable people who helped bring the Eisenhower “crusade” low. Not that the crusade ever failed officially. For if these memoirs don’t bring in much news, they certainly are an attempt to justify a disastrous administration, to put Dwight D. Eisenhower back on his pedestal again. This can be done only by rhetoric and incantation, by words that try to obliterate the real facts of political conflict, the real ambitions among the Eastern Republicans and corporation executives who put Dwight D. Eisenhower into the Presidency, and that in the image of McGuffey’s Reader and Abilene (as before 1911, when Dwight D. Eisenhower entered West Point and got lost to ordinary society forever) tries to take all specific interests out of politics, all the social truth out of American life. This book represents an effort to transform the past by rhetoric, and it is the rhetoric of a man whose success have always been those of a diplomat, staff leader, and conciliator.

In the days of Eisenhower’s press conferences, when the President would regularly turn purple at some “unwarranted” question and, shaking his index finger at the reporter as he began, “Now I’ll say this,” gamely throw himself into some strangled explanation as if it were D-Day itself, it was of course assumed that the old warrior was just not used to words. Eisenhower is very sensitive about his reputation on this point. “I soon learned that ungrammatical sentences in the transcripts caused many to believe that I was incapable of using good English; indeed, several people who have examined my private papers, many in my handwriting, have expressed outright astonishment that in my writings syntax and grammatical structure were at least adequate, By consistently focussing on ideas rather than on phrasing, I was able to avoid causing the nation a serious setback through anything I said in many hours, over eight years, of intensive questioning.” Grim self-control is a notable fact about Eisenhower’s public statements, and his incoherencies at the press conference were probably due to enforced restraint on his notoriously choleric temper, for he was often simply outraged by his opponents in Congress and elsewhere but had to act, as always, as if he were above the battle. Of course it is also true that his idea of comment on public affairs was to advance his “convictions” and “feelings” (“Now I’ll say this“), and that these propositions were being half-defiantly, half-pompously articulated by someone who could never connect or develop abstractions. But Eisenhower, the graduate of elite technical schools like West Point and the War College, the commander-in-chief of the most formidable armies ever assembled by any coalition of nations, never had a field command, had always been a staff man and bureaucrat, and his success was as a mediator and executive, which required a special gift for getting along with people and for making them get along with each other. In twelve years Eisenhower rose from being an unknown lieutenant colonel to the Presidency of the United States because of his “human” gifts, his personal smoothness and charm—and all of these, as he went on to show as head of NATO, required glad and happy words, authoritative and comforting words, words both fatherly and stern, severe yet comforting.

Mr. Eisenhower is, in fact, a cunning rhetorician. In this book his words seek to do more than make the reader overlook the early sellout to McCarthy and the actual private opposition to Negro advance; he wants to make you believe that he was powerless against McCarthy and that his frigid acknowledgement of “rights” for everybody took care of Little Rock. In an age of publicity, manipulated news and slanted news, an age in which public leaders must consciously play a part, Dwight D. Eisenhower shows in the words of this book why he became the great figure he did—not as a general’s general, but by persuasion. And to judge by the ease with which he falls into talking about Churchill as “Winston” and Eden as “Anthony,” this book had its mental origins in Eisenhower’s favorite setting—a few world leaders gathered in his den for a quietly decisive chat. This “informal,” simple, clubby, consciously “human” atmosphere sets the tone of the memoirs—as he recites incidents from the 1952 campaign, we actually hear the great man “chuckling” at one point, remembering “a ripple of amusement” about members of his staff missing the campaign train as it pulled out of a station. Even the peculiar stiffness of some phrases (as when “Winston” “couched his concurrence”) shows the middle ground he takes in this book between the abstractions of his public speeches and the explosive, slangy and profane examples of his private conversation furnished us by Emmet Hughes in The Ordeal of Power.

In this book we see the great man (now happily retired from all irksome responsibility) reminiscing to a few friends in the consciously correct style suitable to a book that is meant to put everything straight, to explain away a disastrous record—yet all this must hold to the tone of detachment and “amusement,” as befits a successful general who, unlike Caesar, turned down the crown in private even more often (he says) than he did in public. The condescending style seems to reflect not clumsiness so much as respect for his own importance—“I thought it completely absurd to mention my name in the same breath as the Presidency. Mr. Pinkley (the correspondent who first mentioned possible presidential glory to him) still chuckles as he reminds me of my rather violently phrased and somewhat embellished ‘No.”’ In his image of himself, for this book, Dwight D. Eisenhower is always relaxed, idealistic, genuine, fatherly. As you read his account of certain notorious failures and surrenders, you wonder how in the world argument would ever be possible with this general as he comfortably remembers now that in the 1952 campaign “I did want to make clear my ideas and attitudes.”

How did he do that? Speaking to young people, “I asked for help in sustaining individual liberty, competitive enterprise, and freedom of opportunity, as visualized by our Constitution.” Of course this is pure bunk, especially when he says “I asked for help,” yet it is imposable to imagine young people ever talking back to the General, even questioning him; those famous blue eyes, born to lead and to inspire, would turn on them in wrathful amazement. In his acceptance speech “I said I accepted their summons to lead a crusade for freedom in America and freedom in the world.” What can an outraged reader do with this, except wonder why the same man is always so moral and lofty about living up to campaign promises? Why did he want Nixon as his running mate? “The feature that especially appealed to me was the reputation that Congressman Nixon had achieved for fairness in the investigating process. Not once had he overstepped the limits prescribed by the American sense of fair play or American rules applying to such investigations. He did not persecute or defame. This I greatly admired.” This account of Nixon as investigator is untrue, and I am not sure, from the tone of this recommendation, that Eisenhower believes it to be true. But I am sure that when the general dictated these words, or suggested the “idea” to the man who actually found the words, he believed in what he was saying. He believes in his own sincerity. The General, I am convinced, really thinks he believes in what he says he believes. He thinks that words are meant to uplift, to comfort, to support, to make Americans feel safe and strong and happy. Of course he did not rely on his sincerity alone when he wrote or talked to Churchill and Eden about foreign affairs—there, as the chapters on Korea and Suez show, he was sophisticated, brisk, and expert. He did not talk this way when he was in the White House. According to Emmet Hughes, he would break out in the fiercest exasperation, and like a Babbitt or an Arrowsmith shouting in private about the bunk he has to endure in public, he would talk straight to the point and from the heart, in phrases broken by genuine feeling—. “Oh, absolutely. Anything that will get us out of complacency—and make this next Congress realize how serious things are—that’s all to the good…. Look, I know—I admit—you’re right in a lot of what you say….”

But in these memoirs language is employed just to paint over. In 1952 there was no “surrender on Morningside Heights.” “The fact was that Senator Taft and I agreed emphatically on the need for fiscal sanity in the government, as on most other issues, long before the breakfast talk.” Nor did he surrender to McCarthy in Wisconsin by taking out the paragraph praising Marshall alter the Jenner-McCarthy attacks on him as a “traitor.” It’s just that Governor Kohler, looking the speech over in advance, pointed out that the praise for Marshall had obviously been added to an already prepared address, and seemed out of place. Of course General Eisenhower cannot bear anything in his speeches like that. As for Senator Nixon’s rich friends and their private benefactions—“I have long admired and applauded Senator Nixon’s American faith and the determination to drive Communist sympathizers from offices of public trust.” Poor Secretary Durkin, the plumbers’ union official, didn’t seem to understand that he was in the Cabinet to represent Eisenhower’s views to labor, and now the author wants to make it clear that “to suggest that I had any prejudice against labor, either as work (sic) or a political and social force, was perfectly ridiculous and, from my viewpoint, unthinkable.”

Words, says the General, my words, will take off all your doubts and misrepresentations. Was there perhaps an impression in the country at the time of the Supreme Court decision on desegregation that the White House wasn’t making its moral support felt? “My feelings could well be summed up by one sentence: There must be no second-class citizens in this country.” Did Eisenhower depress Churchill at one time by saying that “we would feel free to use the atomic bomb against military targets, whenever military advantage dictated such use”? “I earnestly assured Winston that I had no intention of acting rashly…” Admiral Radford, it seems, was chosen head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff because he understood Eisenhower’s own philosophy of unification better than anyone else. Eisenhower was always in agreement with John Foster Dulles. Did the Congressional Republicans obviously laugh in his face when “I said it was my intention to redeem the pledges of the platform and the campaign.” “Whenever politicians expressed these cynical considerations to me, they invariably encountered a rebuff that left them a bit embarrassed.” In short, words will take care of anything and everything—even of the Kennedy’s culture. The White House arrangements conveyed to President and Mrs Eisenhower “much of the dignity, the simple greatness of America. Because of this feeling, we never felt that we had any right to make major changes in the structure itself or in the principal furnishings.” There’s a shot in the eye for Jackie, and notice how calmly and you might say unctuously the shot’s delivered. How can one fault a Personage like this? How dare one review him?

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