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 was left to the bankroll of the CIA rather than to the napalm of the US Air Force, where the entry of a handful of Negro children into an Arkansas school seemed like a triumph for racial equality, where the orbiting of the first Sputnik could be dismissed as a cheap publicity stunt, where Sherman Adams’s vicuna coat seemed like the depths of depravity in government, and where an abstract political moralism was tempered by a coldly pragmatic reluctance to involve Americans capriciously in fighting other people’s wars. It was an era of insufferable moral posturing abroad and of irresponsible political abdication at home. But it was one which took its moralizing seriously and was not very adept in the arts of cynicism. It may have been sanctimonious; it was never deliberately sacrificial.
Eisenhower’s great appeal rested upon the conviction—one which he seemed to share with the voters—that he was above petty limitations of class, interest, or party. Until he ran for President no one even knew what party he belonged to; and the Democrats were quite ready to nominate him in 1952 if the Republicans didn’t. He was the apostle of the Great Consensus, a kind of elective monarch whose rare descents into the political arena seemed somehow shocking and out of character. He did not want to dirty his hands, nor did his admirers want him to, for it would have cheapened his political currency and destroyed the image of Ike the Father. This is why, for example, despite his undoubtedly sincere belief in the advancement of civil rights, and the fact that his administration secured the passage of the first civil rights bill since 1875, he refused either to approve or disapprove the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision against segregated schools, on the grounds that comment “could tend to lower the dignity of government.”
This conception of executive impartiality carried over into foreign affairs, where it led him to see the United States as an arbiter working selflessly to spread the rule of law and the triumph of justice throughout the world. If only other nations would follow America’s inspiration there would be no problems, no strife, no oppression. “The difficulties facing the Free World in Cuba, Vietnam, Berlin and elsewhere,” he says with an ingenuous simplicity, “can be handled with confidence and success if those who love freedom will work together in the knowledge that individual selfish interest must never prevail over the welfare of the total free community.” It is all very inspirational, but it seems never to have occurred to him that men may honestly disagree not only about the means of reaching an objective, but about the objective itself; that the American Dream may be somebody else’s nightmare; and that US foreign policy may not be quite so disinterested or self-evidently infallible as seems from the vantage point of Foggy Bottom. His inability to recognize that there may be more than one kind of truth, or perhaps that there may be no truth at all, often led him to see the frustration of his desires as due to veniality, ignorance, or duplicity on the part of his adversaries. Recalcitrant foreign statesmen show “incomprehensible sensitivity” before the brilliance of his proposals; the failure to make any progress on disarmament or the reduction of East-West tensions is entirely the other side’s fault, since “no one can justifiably charge the bleak record to any lack of striving on our part”; Kennedy’s defeat of Nixon in 1960 “showed again how much elections can be controlled by sentiment and emotion…and the importance of successful appeals to large special interest groups,” since otherwise “I cannot ascribe any rational cause for the outcome.”
This refusal to conceive any opposition as rational, this penchant for always seeking the middle way, is the key to a career which has been truly breathtaking in its triumph of technique over matter. Eisenhower’s great role as a wartime leader was never as a strategist, but as a staff officer: a reconciler, an organizer, a delegator of responsibilities. There is a great need for such men in any large organization—be it the army, government, or business—and Eisenhower reached the top in two of them, just as he probably would have been a captain of industry, like his Cabinet officials and golf cronies, if he had had the time. But the qualities that made Eisenhower a great chief of staff were the very qualities that failed him as President, for politics is not only logistics and administration, it is passion and commitment and conviction. It is all those things that stand in the way of a good administrator and which are absolutely indispensible to a great political leader. For all his admirable qualities, and there are many, he was not a great President, nor even a particularly good one. The reasons can be glimpsed even through the curiously opaque and impersonal pages of these memoirs; for they reveal a mind which sought consensus at the expense of conviction, which avoided rather than harnessed responsibility, which delegated so much power that it had little to exert itself, which relied so heavily on the expertise of others that it lacked any apparent direction of its own, which drifted with the tide of events rather than seeking to master it, and which looked upon political leadership as a burden to be borne rather than as an opportunity to be used.
Because his conception of the Presidency was such a circumscribed one, because he often seemed to be quite unaware of the conflict of wills and the struggle for political power that was going on around him, this book is neither “one of the most important memoirs of our time,” as the publishers claim, nor even the more modest “personal account” that the author no doubt intended. Although he has furnished a meticulous rendering of the major events of his administration, Eisenhower still remains a hazy and strangely impersonal figure. The portrait that emerges from these pages is blurred, and even the events themselves have an abstract quality, as though they had taken place long ago somewhere on the sea coast of Bohemia. There is none of the historical sweep and grandeur that Churchill painted in his memoirs; none of the devastating penetration or the stylistic brilliance of De Gaulle. Nor perhaps is it fair to ask such things of Eisenhower, for he does not claim that genius as his own. What we can expect, however, are the qualities in which he presumably excels: a simple honesty, an open directness, an ungrudging willingness—now that the cares of office are far behind and there is no reason to dissimulate—to go beyond sweet reasonableness and speak candidly. This Eisenhower has not done, and without it his memoirs are little more than a ponderous office diary, dutifully listing the visits of the Boy Scouts and the musicales of Fred Waring alongside the crises on the Berlin Autobahn and the downing of Francis Gary Powers’s U-2.
There are few revelations, but they are nonetheless intriguing, the most celebrated being the “spasm” Eisenhower suffered in November 1957 which prevented him from expressing himself clearly and which for a time led him to consider resigning the Presidency. We also learn that Dulles knew the Israelis were mobilizing six weeks before the assault on Sinai, and that he was expecting the British to use force against Nasser as early as July 31—three months before the landings at Suez. His indignation came not from surprise, but from being disobeyed. With regard to Quemoy and Matsu, Eisenhower reveals that he was ready to use atomic bombs against Chinese airfields if the communists invaded the off-shore islands—this despite the fact that his Secretary of Defense, Neil McElroy, had ‘old him that Chiang’s refusal to reduce his excessive troop forces on the islands was “a reflection of his hope of promoting a fight between the United States and the Chinese communists.” On the subject of Hungary, Ike wonders whether he might have intervened if it had been accessible by sea or through allied territory, but decides that his administration did “everything possible to condemn the aggression.” This may be the case, but it is hardly the point, since his Secretary of State had been preaching “liberation” and “roll-back” for a decade. Without a sigh or even the blowing of taps, those windy campaign promises were hastily shuffled into a pauper’s grave.
In addition to the diplomacy of empty rhetoric, there was also the special Eisenhower brand of diplomacy by indirection, an art which reached its apogee in 1959 when Khrushchev was invited to America by error because the State Department misinterpreted the President’s conditions for a summit meeting. Without the loyal Dulles around to protect and interpret for him, Eisenhower was forced to make himself understood by less-than-clairvoyant functionaries and to take over responsibility for foreign policy. The effort was not always crowned with success. “I realized,” he writes of the Khrushchev invitation. “that the cause of the difficulty lay more in my own failure to make myself unmistakably clear than in the failure of others to understand me. After all, here were some of the most capable men I knew in their field, and apparently all had failed to comprehend the idea in my mind. It was now up to me to make the best I could of the situation.” All things considered, Eisenhower did not do too badly without Dulles, and the last two years of his administration—the U-2 fiasco apart—were marked by a consistent, although often frustrating, search for an accommodation with the Russians that was never one of Dulles’s strong points. Yet Eisenhower sorely missed his Secretary of State, and his deep loyalty and affection for Dulles, his sense of bereavement on his death, is one of the few touching and truly personal elements in the memoirs.
Eisenhower’s view of the world was less Manichean than that of Dulles, but it was also a good deal more simpleminded. He quite failed to realize, for example, that as nominal leader of the “free world” his visits to Spain and Portugal might have enormous political repercussions among America’s European allies and the Latin Americans, “Whatever the reasons for the Spanish revolution,” he commented on his trip to Madrid, “it was clear that Franco had proved himself a strong and enduring leader.” Which nobody can deny. This simplistic view of the cold war led him to misinterpret the significance of the anti-colonialism that inspires most of the new states, and to confuse nationalism with communism. In Cuba, for example, with little to go on but his own hunches, he had by April 1959 “become highly suspicious that Castro was a communist”—although Allen Dulles of the CIA had just reported that “Castro’s government is not communist-dominated”—and refused to see the Cuban leader on his visit to the United States. By July 1960, even though the administration was still unable to demonstrate that Cuba had become a communist base, Eisenhower slashed the Cuban sugar quota, announcing that this “amounts to economic sanctions against Cuba. Now we must look ahead to other moves—economic, diplomatic, strategic.” Did Castro jump into Russian arms, or was he pushed by us economic sanctions? The issue is still in doubt, but the portrait that emerges of Eisenhower is one of a man too often given to unexamined assumptions and facile generalizations.
Just as he “knew” Castro was a communist before anyone else did, including Fidel himself, so he decided that Nasser was also a communist, and tried to build up the ineffectual Ibn Saud of Arabia as a counter-weight because “he at least professed anti-communism.” It could have been the slogan for the Eisenhower administration’s whole foreign policy, for its alphabet soup regional pacts, and particularly for the fatuous Middle East doctrine which provided the cover for the farcical 1958 landing in Lebanon where 14,000 Marines charged up the beaches of Beirut to be greeted by ice-cream vendors and girls in bikinis. Eisenhower never understood then, nor does he apparently even now, that clever nationalists can use both communist and Western aid for their own purposes without having the slightest allegiance or sympathy for either bloc. Like Dulles, Acheson, and all the Good Soldiers who manned the barricades in 1948 and were never able to adjust to the new realities of a changing world, he is today in the mid-Sixties still proclaiming the slogans of the late Forties. “The truly virulent problems in international affairs,” he writes with a staggering disregard for everything that has happened since the Sino-Soviet split and the rise to political consciousness of the have-nots in the southern hemisphere, “spring from the persistent, continuing struggle between freedom and communism.” Would that our problems were that simple.
For all his shortcomings, Eisenhower was a man deeply dedicated to the search for peace, and his title, Waging Peace, is a deliberately chosen one. The misfortune, and it is ours even more than his, is that he was never able to translate his yearning for a better world into specific foreign policy objectives designed to bring about his ambitions. He failed not only because the Russians were uncooperative, but also because he never had anything that could be seriously described as a foreign policy. What he, and for that matter his successors, had was a set of Band-aids for dealing with crises, and a set of vague formulas looking forward to the brotherhood of man. “Our purposes abroad,” he writes in describing American foreign policy, “have been the establishment of universal peace with justice, free choice for all peoples, rising levels of human well-being, and the development and maintenance of frank, friendly and mutually helpful contacts with all nations willing to work for parallel objectives.” It is an inspirational goal for the long run, but, as Keynes once remarked, in the long run we will all be dead.
One cannot read these memoirs without being once again convinced that Eisenhower was a man of enormous good will, of noble instincts, and sincere compassion. There is a time in the life of nations when such virtues are essential, and such a time was 1952 when the United States lay paralyzed in the grip of McCarthyism and the Korean War. With a steady hand and a mind that eschewed partisanship, he helped restore the nation to sanity. Four years of economic stagnation at home and political foundering abroad were not too high a price to pay for such national therapy. But what was relaxation for four years turned into paralysis when stretched out into eight. Eisenhower indeed had a Mandate for Change, and we have little reason to regret that he fulfilled it, but he was probably right in his suspicion, expressed in this second volume of memoirs, that he should have “withdrawn from politics in 1956 and thus allowed Dick Nixon, or some other nominee, to carry on the campaign of that year as the Republican standard bearer.”
By coming when the people needed a reconciler and by healing the wounds of a deeply-divided nation, Eisenhower will always have the gratitude and affection of Americans; but by staying too long and turning a convalescence into an infirmity, by coddling us in our fears and telling us there were no harsh realities he put the nation into traction and diluted his own considerable achievement. It is sad, but unfortunately just, that the Great Reconciler is likely to go down in history as the Great Pacifier.
January 6, 1966