Monday, April 4, 2016

Book Review: The American President - Part VI Dwight Eisenhower

When thinking about Dwight Eisenhower's two terms, Leuchtenburg writes, "for many Americans, Eisenhower's presidency invokes recollections of the 50s as a golden age of tranquility. In fact, though, the decade bracketing Eisenhower and his successor was the most terrifying the country has ever experienced. In March 1955, Eisenhower chilled many of his countrymen and foreign allies by stating that the United States might employ nuclear weapons, 'as you use a bullet or anything else'.... Anguish over the prospect of nuclear annihilation plagued the nation." And this Cold War environment, "vested greater authority in the White House than ever before....The prerogatives invested to the chief executive were awesome. He alone had his finger on the button. Only he could decide whether to expunge millions of lives."

Eisenhower oversaw the end of the Korean War, and Leuchtenburg gives him strong marks for resisting the advice of his more militant advisers to continue the war or - minimally - to at least threaten the Chinese with nuclear weapons if they did not leave North Korea.  Vietnam, however, was another story.  Leuchtenburg writes, "Revisionist historians have called Eisenhower's refusal to go to war in Vietnam in 1954 his 'finest hour', for the president rejected the council of Admiral [Arthur] Radford, who on three occasions (and two more on Quemoy and Matsu) advocated war, including resorting to atomic weapons. But it was Ike who had appointed Radford and who retained him. Furthermore, even after Dien Bien Phu had capitulated, Eisenhower approved a recommendation by the Joint Chiefs to respond to any Chinese intervention by 'employing atomic weapons…against…military targets in China…and…Communist-held offshore islands.' Only Chinese restraint and a change of government in France saved [Eisenhower] from folly. More important, the pledge to Saigon that [Eisenhower's] successors believed, unwisely, they must honor came from Eisenhower, and [therefore, according to Leuchtenburg] to him should be assigned a large share of the blame for the disaster that ensued, though he found no shortage of willing allies."

Leuchtenburg also takes Ike to task for overseeing the explosion in the tentacles of the CIA. CIA-backed coups in Iran and Guatemala are just two of the more famous examples.  According to Leuchtenburg, Eisenhower, "found the agency useful for carrying out a number of cloak and dagger missions-  from an attempt to train Tibetans to attack Chinese and an effort to depose the government in Indonesia, both of which failed miserably, to install a pro-western regime in Laos, which succeeded. He authorized the CIA to intrude surreptitiously in Japanese affairs by doling out millions to the political party he favored and by digging up dirt on its rival. Indulged by Eisenhower, the CIA became a runaway locomotive. Apparently without the knowledge or consent either of the president or Congress, it conspired to murder the head of the state of the Congo and recruited Mafia mobsters to kill Fidel Castro in Cuba."

Eisenhower fares no better in Leuchtenburg's analysis of McCarthyism. Eisenhower was largely quiet publicly on McCarthy until the Wisconsin senator was self-imploding [although Leuchtenburg does grant that Ike often worked behind the scenes to undermine McCarthy].  Still, Leuchtenburg criticizes Eisenhower's attempts to, "rationalize his inactivity by claiming that if he ignored McCarthy, he would neutralize him. [Ike's] inactivity, though, had the opposite effect. Some construed his silence as indicating approval of the senator's methods. More frequently, it was seen as a sign that McCarthy had so much power that he intimidated even the wartime commander, who was afraid to cross him. The president's abstention did nothing to diminish McCarthy's capacity to grab headlines, and during Eisenhower's first year in the White House, the senator's public support markedly increased."

Indeed, Leuchtenburg believes Eisenhower's performance during the McCarthy era was abysmal. He writes, "Numbers of writers have asserted that McCarthy's downfall in 1954, after the Senate rebuked him, resulted from Eisenhower's shrewd decision to avoid a confrontation with the senator giving him enough rope to hang himself and by maneuvering behind the scenes against him, but hardly a scintilla of evidence supports that contention....Eisenhower did more to sustain the great fear than to quell it. At no point did he express even mild regret for what had befallen the victims of McCarthyism or for the federal Inquisition."

In no area, though, does Eisenhower come under more scorn from Leuchtenburg than civil rights.  To Ike, Leuchtenberg writes, civil rights, "was a movement for which he had little empathy. In his many years in army posts in the South, he had been altogether comfortable with the mores of white supremacy; he enjoyed telling 'darky' stories; and he dragged his heels on integration of the armed forces. Though he favored equality of opportunity, he told one of his chief advisers that did not mean, 'that a Negro should court my daughter'."

Leuchtenberg cites a little-reported meeting Eisenhower had with Chief Justice Earl Warren before the Brown v. Board of Education verdict came down.  Ike invited Warren to a 'stag' dinner, Leuchtenburg writes, "so that the attorney for the segregationists, John W. Davis, could bring pressure on him. At the affair, Eisenhower told Warren: 'These [segregationists] are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some overgrown Negroes."

When the decision on Brown came down, Eisenhower thought it, "a terrible intrusion by the federal government." In some narrow instances [desegregating public swimming pools in Washington DC, for example], Eisenhower did move in support of civil rights. Leuchtenburg notes that, "Beyond these parameters, though, Eisenhower would not step....Given Eisenhower's implicit consent, white supremacists in southern states felt at liberty, even emboldened, to stonewall the U,S, Supreme Court." And Leuchtenburg places at Eisenhower's feet the responsibility for the violence that ensued as blacks sought to claim their rights.  Leuchtenberg concludes,"The president of the United States let it happen."

So, what is Eisenhower's legacy? As Leuchtenberg notes, since leaving the presidency, "Eisenhower has risen steadily in esteem. After witnessing the excesses and the misadventures of the 1960s and 1970s, scholars developed a new appreciation for his distrust of big government. In the wake of the Vietnam war disaster, the 1950s decade especially commended itself. The Eisenhower years came to be conceived of as the felicitous time before the country imploded in the 60s."

But Leuchtenberg has a different take, writing that Eisenhower, "made little mark on the office of the presidency or on the course of history.... Eisenhower's place in history rests not on what he did but on what he did not do.... He did not continue the pointless war in Korea; he did not blunder by sending troops to support the French at Dien Bien Phu; he did not back the British- French-Israeli action in the Suez; he did not intervene in Hungary; he did not panic after Sputnik. But it also must be said that he did not confront Joe McCarthy; he did not rally the country behind the Supreme Court's Brown decision; and he did not speak out against racial violence."

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