Santayana’s dictum may be all right for statesmen, but for historians it should be rephrased: Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to rewrite it. The recent flood of Eisenhower books—a half-dozen or so this season, with a good many others on the way—demonstrates that old soldiers don’t even fade away, they get reinterpreted.
Ike was not, we are now told, lazy, tongue-twisted, and far out of his depth in the White House, as some of us who recall his reign had supposed. Rather, in the words of Blanche Cook, one of the more agitated Eisenhower revisionists, he was “the most undervalued and misunderstood statesman of the twentieth century.” In such a judgment—and Cook and the other reinterpreters give good evidence for revising our view of Eisenhower as a well-meaning bumbler—lies hope for all. Hope for presidents past, who will be deemed not so bad after all—since the past, even to those who lived it, almost always seems better than the present—and hope for historians future, who will one day (no doubt quite soon) reveal the as-yet-undiscovered greatness of Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter.
The continual rearrangement of the past to suit current prejudices is, after all, the historian’s work. It reminds us that no judgment is ever settled and no reputation ever secure. Why are we now, twenty years after Eisenhower’s departure from office, reexamining a presidency that once seemed, at least for liberals, the very model of what an enlightened administration should not be? Eisenhower, particularly in his flaccid second term, was a daily affront to liberal activists. He was phlegmatic and seemingly inarticulate. His press conferences were comic. One would rush to the newspapers the following morning to laugh maliciously at his assaults on the language. His idea of social pleasure was a weekend with corporate board presidents, and his conception of the duties of office seemed to be eighteen holes of golf every afternoon. True, he did not get us involved in any major wars during his eight-year reign. But under the guidance of the scowling and meddlesome John Foster Dulles we seemed to be perpetually on the brink—just recall Dien Bien Phu, Quemoy and Matsu, Suez, Lebanon, the U-2. And then there was always the grating fact that instead of having to suffer Ike we might have had the best: that is, Adlai Stevenson. Gracious, witty, liberal, charmingly self-deprecating.
Well, autres temps, autres moeurs. Stevenson no longer seems the best of even a bad lot. The self-deprecation looks suspiciously like egotism, and the liberalism probably had more in common with John F. Kennedy’s cold war interventionism than with FDR’s social compassion. By contrast, Ike, to judge from what followed rather than what preceded him, seems a man of decent instincts, incorruptible and unimpressed by titles, particularly military ones, and not noticeably afflicted with insecurities. Though he was born only once and in fact did not even join a church until after entering the White House, he seemed a man of sincere moral principles who nonetheless escaped becoming a prig. One could, with no offense intended, describe him as a secular humanist.
And then, of course, there is the basic fact that he managed to get through eight consecutive years in office (a feat unmatched by any since and by only three earlier presidents) without doing anything catastrophic. The nation was at peace and it was prosperous. Inflation was 1.5 percent a year, an accomplishment due in no small part to the fact that Eisenhower sternly kept the Pentagon to a $40 billion annual allowance. Like many conservatives he disliked the welfare state and put high priority on balancing the budget. But unlike the current occupant of the White House, he was determined to put a tight lid on military spending for fear that an uncontrolled Pentagon would destroy the economy. Despite accusations—later shown to be false—by such critics as Nelson Rockefeller and John F. Kennedy that he had caused a “missile gap,” he refused to engage in an arms race with the Russians. As a military man himself, he was not intimidated by gold braid. “Some day there is going to be a man sitting in my present chair who has not been raised in the military services and who will have little understanding of where slashes in their estimates can be made with little or no damage,” he wrote a friend in 1956. “If that should happen while we still have the state of tension that now exists in the world, I shudder to think of what could happen in this country.”
The irony of this, of course, is that liberals today find themselves quoting this indisputably conservative president in order to buttress their arguments against a Republican-sanctioned arms race. In fact, Ike’s warning against the “military-industrial complex” is probably the only phrase of his that most liberals remember. The spectacle of liberals preaching the need for budgetary restraint to Republicans who are happy to turn over their purses and their sons to the Pentagon is one that would more likely have baffled than amused Eisenhower.
He did not think that the cold war was a misunderstanding or that it could be negotiated away. He was confident of the falling “dominoes” he invented, and convinced, as he noted in his diary in 1950, that “communism is on the job every minute of every day of the 365…. I believe Asia is lost with Japan, the Philippine Islands, Netherlands East Indies, and even Australia under threat.” He went several times to the brink with the Soviets, arranged (with the help and encouragement of his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles) for the overthrow of uncooperative regimes in such places as the Congo, Iran, and Guatemala, plotted the invasion of Cuba, and even gave his tacit acquiescence to McCarthyism at home—both by refusing to condemn the senator from Wisconsin and by sanctioning a witch-hunt “loyalty” program in his administration.
What Eisenhower did not do—and what improbably makes him a hero to many beleaguered liberals today—is to believe that national security rested on an arms race or that there was an alternative to a nuclear truce between the superpowers. Ike thought that the United States could win the cold war, but only if it stayed economically sound (no inflation, no unbalanced budgets, no unnecessary toys for the military) and waged the struggle with “international communism” safely below the nuclear threshold.
What emerges from the recent studies of Eisenhower is a man of immense self-assurance, at ease with himself and his convictions, ambitious but neither venal nor petty, sure of where he wanted to go, and adept at using others (such as Dulles) to get him there. All of these books, and particularly the diaries, show a man who was skillful to the point of cunning, one whose purpose—as Murray Kempton, a trailblazing revisionist, wrote more than a dozen years ago—was “never to be seen in what he did.”
Although it was often assumed that Ike was always out to lunch, or on the eighteenth tee, and let Dulles run the State Department as he pleased, Robert Divine in Eisenhower and the Cold War makes a good case for his argument that Eisenhower in fact used Dulles, and that the secretary of state served “as the lightning rod, absorbing domestic criticism and warding off attacks from the right with his moralistic rhetoric.” In this manner Ike protected not only his popularity at the time, but his reputation for posterity. One remembers Dulles for brinksmanship and “massive retaliation,” Eisenhower as a man of peace who conjured up the “spirit of Camp David” with Khrushchev and warned against the military-industrial complexes. It testifies to Ike’s cleverness that he was able to use Dulles for his own purposes. It is, however, no credit to him that too often he gave Dulles free rein until things got out of hand.
Two especially traumatic incidents were Dien Bien Phu in 1954, when Dulles told the French that the United States would use atomic weapons against the communist-led Vietnamese rebels, and Suez in 1956 when the administration first winked at the Anglo-French invasion and then brutally slapped down its two closest allies. These two incidents, among others, reveal that Eisenhower knew how to exert authority when necessary, and that his instincts were on the side of restraint. But all too often his control over events was sporadic and his administrative methods slack. Whether Eisenhower was upholding the rule of law at Suez, as Donald Neff suggests in his entertaining journalistic account of the five-power crisis, Warriors at Suez, * or was merely furious because Britain, France, and Israel had struck Egypt without American permission, neither he nor Dulles knew how to take advantage of the opportunity to gain a political foothold in Nasser’s Egypt.
Why did he run for president? Because, as the diaries indicate, he was continually besieged to do so both by Republicans and Democrats, because he thought that it was his “duty,” because he feared, as he wrote in October 1951 after he decided that his heart really lay closer to the Republicans (he had never voted in his life), that “four years more of Democratic, uninterrupted, government in our country will put us so far on the road to socialism that there will be no return to a free enterprise,” and because it was an irresistible temptation. Despite all his protestations of reluctance, the diaries show a man who very much wanted to live in the White House, even though he seemed to have little sense of what he wanted to do there—other than “to unseat the New Deal-Fair Deal bureaucracy”—once he got there.
Unfortunately The Eisenhower Diaries reveal very little about the man and virtually nothing that is new. Eisenhower’s style from the 1940s on is stiff and self-conscious as though he assumed that one day his musings would be published. “The main issue is dictatorship versus a form of government only by the consent of the governed, observance of a bill of rights versus arbitrary power of a ruler or ruling group,” he notes typically in September 1947 in words that sound more like a commencement address than confidences to one’s diary. The diary is sporadic, with chunks of time not covered at all, such as the critical period between the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 and the surrender of Germany in May 1945. And the entire second term in the White House, when Ike was clearly tired after his stomach operation and bored with the problems of the economy, comprise only forty pages, or less than the space devoted to 1942 alone.
For an account of Ike’s war years one must turn to his own Crusade in Europe, for which he received more than $400,000 in tax-free royalties thanks to a special deal with the US government. But for a detailed account of the war in Europe, Russell Weigley’s huge Eisenhower’s Lieutenants is probably the most thorough we shall ever see. Although Weigley focuses more on the other generals than on Ike, the picture that emerges of him is consistent with that painted by others: a shrewd appraiser of character, a good organizer, a man of sound judgment and generous spirit. As commander of the Allied forces he was thorough and cautious, perhaps too cautious and plodding, as when he decided not to make a pointed thrust into Germany. Ike’s strategy of advance on a broad front was possible only because the Western Allies had such great resources in reserve, and because the Russians had largely decimated the Nazi armies. Because of these two advantages, the Allied high command, according to Weigley, “had resolved neither upon a doctrine of winning the war by way of the direct application of superior power, nor upon a doctrine of winning by means of superior mobility and facility in maneuver.”
In a sense the same criticism could be made of Eisenhower’s presidency: it was dull, safe, and unimaginative. It rejected daring feints and maneuvers, but fortunately it also avoided gambling when stakes were dangerously high. Even Dulles’s much-vaunted “brinksmanship” was mostly grandstanding, reserved for fist-shaking against far weaker powers, like North Korea and China, rather than against the Soviet Union. When the Red Army was involved, as when it crushed the Berlin uprising in 1953 and the Hungarian revolution in 1956, Ike prudently avoided provocation. He was intent on fighting communism, but at the periphery rather than at the center. Because, like many conservatives, he was unable to distinguish between communism and revolutionary nationalism, he assumed that Moscow controlled most revolutionary movements, and thus set his hand against them.
For this reason the more intriguing part of Eisenhower’s foreign policy is not the flirtation with intervention at Dien Bien Phu, the confusion over Suez, the farcical landing in Lebanon, or the embarrassment of the U-2. Rather it is the covert activities carried on during his administration by the CIA and other government agencies in what we today label the third world. This is the aspect of Ike one would never glimpse from the diaries, which contain not a single entry on such escapades as the CIA-orchestrated invasion of Guatemala in 1954 or the coup in 1953 that restored the Shah of Iran to his throne. Nor does Robert Ferrell, who edited the diaries, draw our attention to the fact that Ike makes no mention of these activities. Ferrell is content to let Eisenhower speak for himself and to keep silent when Ike prefers not to speak of embarrassing matters such as FDR’s cooperation with French pro-fascists like Admiral Jean Darlan at the time of the North Africa landings in 1942.
To see what Ike was doing behind the scenes one turns to Stephen Ambrose’s revealing and engagingly written Ike’s Spies, a book with the qualities of an adventure story. Ambrose’s intention is more to inform and entertain than to accuse, but the story he tells is one of some very low deeds done in the name of high moral principles. He leaves no doubt about the arrogance and clumsiness of CIA chief Allen Dulles and certain of his agents, such as Kermit Roosevelt, the man who reinstalled the Pahlavi dynasty in Iran.
In Eisenhower Declassified Blanche Cook tells a similar story, though from a much darker perspective. Indeed, of all the current books on Eisenhower, hers is both the most ambitious and the most exasperating. Cook’s study is ambitious in that she attempts to reinterpret the Eisenhower presidency as a study in counterrevolution. In her view it was a concerted effort to “destabilize communism worldwide, eradicate New Deal ‘socialism’ domestically, and globalize American business and American values.” Ike’s success, she charges, “cannot be measured except in terms of repression and reaction.”
Eisenhower in her view was a secret spook who, though intent on avoiding nuclear war and superpower confrontation, was willing to sanction virtually any undercover deed to make the world safe for capitalism and American influence. She recounts some of the dark deeds, focusing at great length on the US-engineered 1954 overthrow of the leftist Arbenz government in Guatemala, to demonstrate Ike’s “determination to pursue political warfare, psychological warfare, and economic warfare everywhere and at all times.”
While Cook’s indignation never lags, her ardor and her odd sense of proportion give a lopsided quality to her study. Ike doesn’t even become president until nearly halfway through the book, and once he enters the White House virtually everything she deems of significance in his administration seems to focus on Guatemala and the CIA’s overthrow of the Arbenz regime. While the chapters on the American-sponsored invasion are quite interesting, they are not integrated into the text, and seem to belong to a different book from the rambling and perfunctory five chapters that precede them.
Although some of the chapters are provocative essays, they do not together form a cohesive book on Eisenhower either as president or as counter-revolutionary. Indeed Cook is often so absorbed in describing the complexities of Guatemalan politics or the American corporate capitalists who sought US intervention that she seems to forget Eisenhower completely. There is much good material here, but it is dissipated by a lack of organization and by a tone that too often becomes shrill. The index is also hopelessly inadequate for a serious historical work. Her book is not so much about Eisenhower as it is about the political economy of the American empire. This is a story Cook tells with passion and conviction. The pity is that she tries to make it revolve around Ike, who is really peripheral to the larger topic that interests her.
Even Cook, while attacking Eisenhower for overthrowing governments on three continents in the name of anti-communism and for being a “captive hero” manipulated by greedy capitalists, nonetheless considers him a decent man who “went to the very brink of peace.” What her study, along with those of Ambrose and Divine, makes clear is that there were at least two opposed sides of Eisenhower: the reflexive anticommunist intent on repressing radical change in the third world, and the enlightened conservative who sought to contain the arms race. It is useful to be reminded of the former even as, in this age of Ikophilia, we celebrate the latter.
Ike’s record, particularly on domestic policy, was far from inspiring. His refusal to condemn McCarthy or to support publicly the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Topeka school desegregation decision aided witch-hunters and segregationists. He nearly got us into a war with China over Chiang Kai-shek’s claims to two tiny offshore islands, and he fumbled a possible chance to negotiate a German settlement after Stalin’s death. Though he believed, as he wrote in his diary in 1954, that “the Republican party must be known as a progressive organization or it is sunk,” he did little to help reform it and thereby prevent its later domination by right-wing radicals. He sought to balance the budget at the expense of the Pentagon, but also of the poor, and as Blanche Cook rightly reminds us, he did not hesitate to support dictatorial regimes, or even overthrow reformist ones, in the name of anticommunism. Even at the time, his winning geniality made him a hard target for criticism, and today apparently even a harder one.
The nostalgia for Eisenhower is taking place only because we choose to remember the aspects we like and repress the rest. None of these books tells us anything really new about Ike, other perhaps than the fact that—his reputation for verbal incoherence notwithstanding—he was an excellent writer and a clear thinker. We knew that he was honorable, and also that he distrusted generals and arms contractors. If these now seem transcendent virtues it is because the memory of his successors is so fresh. Today historians and journalists are in the process of recreating Ike, no less than Thomas Dewey and the Republican Eastern establishment created him in the late 1940s when they were preparing to run him for the presidency. Walter Lippmann’s view at the time may be worth recalling. “He is not a real figure in our public life,” Lippmann wrote in 1948, “but a kind of dream boy embodying all the unsatisfied wishes of all the people who are discontented with things as they are.” They are now discontented for different reasons.
What Eisenhower did possess, and what makes him so appealing to the current revisionists, were decent instincts and a critical intelligence in the service of essentially humane values. He was usually able to lead and control his subordinates, and he seems to have abhorred the garrison state. It is not surprising that these qualities should be valued more highly now that they are in such short supply.
September 24, 1981