Dwight D. Eisenhower was one of America’s greatest presidents. A half-century ago, as a teenager enamored with politics, I argued incessantly to the contrary with my father, a devout Republican.
It seems relevant this week. June 6 marks the 68th anniversary of D-Day, the greatest military expedition in modern history, led by Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower. There’s a magnificent new biography, “Eisenhower in War and Peace,” by the historian Jean Edward Smith. The presidential candidates, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, should study the 34th president.
Eisenhower, Smith writes, wasn’t a brilliant military strategist. He made miscalculations during World War II, and the British tried to take away his command.
The reasons he was perfectly suited for his task were his acute political sense and leadership qualities, born out of a sense of self-security. On the military side, as a young officer he had learned to deal with the ego of Douglas MacArthur; that was good training for directing the likes of Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery and General George Patton on the battlefields of Europe.
As the supreme allied commander -- a position he was given by Roosevelt and George C. Marshall over more senior officers -- he inspired his soldiers and the public as he defeated Nazi Germany.
His political antennae paved the way for him to become the first Republican president in two decades. Any naiveté -- the day he was nominated by the party he didn’t realize he could pick his running mate -- was dwarfed by his often underestimated instincts. (He picked Richard Nixon who became embroiled in controversy and gave the famous “Checkers” speech to salvage his place on the ticket; it was very effective, but Eisenhower thought he had been double-crossed, forever affecting his relations with Nixon, according to Smith.)
He ended the Korean War and presided over eight years of peace during the Cold War. Domestically, a fiscal conservative, Ike resisted the right wing of his party, which wanted to repeal New Deal programs such as Social Security. He authorized the construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, which connects the Great lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. He also created the U.S. Interstate Highway System, the largest public-works program in the country’s history that connects 47,000 miles of roads and transformed American life.
A blemish on the Eisenhower record is his slowness on the great struggle over civil rights. If a hugely popular president had been more forceful it might have been a less painful process. However, at the critical juncture when the governor of Arkansas tried to block the integration of the Little Rock schools, Ike sent in the 101st Airborne Division, a momentous decision.
Smith also refutes a myth that Eisenhower regretted the Supreme Court’s seminal 1954 Brown versus Board of Education decision on school integration, and his appointment of Earl Warren as chief justice. In 1956, as he weighed not running for re-election, the president thought Warren might be a possible replacement on the Republican ticket. Even so, Smith writes, it was unlikely Warren would step down as chief justice and Eisenhower was skeptical of his ability to make “crisp decisions.”
This year’s Republican candidate, Romney, should study how Eisenhower took on the right-wing elements in his party, not just the infamous Joe McCarthy, who the president shrewdly let hang himself, while his “hidden hand” provided some of the rope. (An Eisenhower regret was that during the 1952 campaign he deleted from a speech in Wisconsin a defense of Marshall, his commanding officer and mentor, out of deference to McCarthy who had tried to smear Marshall.)
He told conservative Republicans lobbying for more robust defense spending that it would necessitate higher taxes, that choices must be made. In his farewell address, the five-star Army general famously warned against the “unwarranted influence” of the military-industrial complex.
For Obama, who privately has ruminated about deference to the military, Ike could be a role model. On three occasions, Eisenhower overruled his joint chiefs of staff who wanted to use atomic bombs against North Korea, North Vietnam and China. He consistently followed a firm policy toward the Soviet Union without escalating into war, over the objections of some hawks in his party.
Obama’s always politically directed National Security Council might consider this: On the eve of his 1956 re-election, Eisenhower derailed the British, French and Israeli attempt to seize the Suez Canal.
And, for any would-be presidents, Eisenhower set a model of how to accept responsibility. On June 5, 1944, as he was about to send 160,000 allied troops to assault the beaches of Normandy, he wrote a memo in the event of failure: “Our landings have failed and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based on the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.”
Close to the end of his presidency, when the Soviets shot down a U.S. spy plane, he was urged to blame others and fire the director of the Central Intelligence Agency who had assured him the aircraft wasn’t vulnerable. He refused and publicly accepted responsibility. This, Smith writes, “may have been the finest hour of his Presidency.”
How many American politicians would do this today?
Fondly recalling the spirited political debates with my Dad, who died decades ago, I wouldn’t retreat on much. But he was right about Ike.
(Albert R. Hunt is Washington editor at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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