Tuesday, June 7, 2016

"Eisenhower" by Jim Newton (2011)

Dwight D. Eisenhower is one of those presidents who gets a little bit lost in the shuffle. You know him much more intimately as the Supreme Allied Commander of the European Expeditionary Force during the Second World War (coolest title ever, by the way). His stint as Commander in Chief however, you have always been fuzzy about. You know he was the lone Republican sandwiched between FDR and Truman, and JFK and Johnson. You know that the decade he presided over is looked back upon as "the good old days" by nostalgic conservatives throughout the country, but other than that, you know very little. When you get bothered by your own ignorance for long enough, you can be sure you will eventually educate yourself with a good book.

President Eisenhower has been seen for decades as a distant, indecisive, almost lazy executive. It's how many saw him at the time. This is why the Kennedy presidency felt so refreshing, it was such a dramatic change from the Ike years when the White House was presided over by a stodgy and disappointing old soldier. Newton's book, subtitled "The White House Years," sheds light on the truth, which couldn't be further from the the myth of the detached and almost feckless Eisenhower the public saw (or thought they saw) in the 1950's.

Both of Ike's parents were born during the American Civil War (it's always good to be reminded how recently ago history happened). He was born in Texas. This was something Nico told you during a 4th grade school project recently and you corrected him saying that Ike was pretty famously from Iowa. It turns out you were wrong. Dwight D. Eisenhower was born right here in the good old Lone Star State (does that mean we can claim 3 presidents?). His family moved here just long enough to give birth to him and then got right back to the corn fields of Iowa. Drawn by the lure of a free education, Ike went against his mother's pacifist ideals and attended West Point. He graduated in 1915, the year they say the stars fell on because so many of the graduates went on to become generals.

Newton spends a significant chunk of his book on Ike's "White House Years" talking about the generals who influenced his development far before he entered the White House. At Fort Meade, his good friend George Patton taught him the importance and adaptability of the newest war-winning battlefield technology, the tank. The irreverent Patton also showed Ike that a soldier could be of the Army while never becoming subservient to it, a lesson Ike would need to remember as he fought back against his more bellicose presidential advisers years later. In Panama, General Connor enlightened him to the reality that allies could be even trickier to handle than enemies, and Connor insisted that Ike learn the realities of Clausewitz's assertion that war IS politics. Connor taught Ike to be a thoughtful and considerate warrior, one who valued wisdom over passion. Eisenhower served under General MacArthur both in the Philippines and in Washington DC when MacArthur served as Army Chief of Staff. From him Ike learned the dangers of megalomania and arrogance, and he saw how damaging vindictiveness and shameless self promotion can be to your character in the long run. MacArthur taught Ike what kind of general to not become. And from General George Marshall, Ike's war time teacher, he learned that it was the boring stuff that won wars on the strategic and diplomatic level. Marshall also taught him to be the opposite of MacArthur's example, to be moderate, humble, and cool headed in the face of potential fame.

After Eisenhower and a few million other folks won the greatest war ever fought, Ike was one of the most respected men in the world and seemed destined for greatness. He was beloved in Paris, Rome, London, and even Berlin (at least West Berlin). He succeeded his mentor George Marshall as Army Chief of Staff and then became head of NATO, wrote a popular memoir and gained reputation as a moderate leader. People back in the states had ideas that he might win the White House. Ike threw his hat into the Republican primary process late and went into the contested convention with far fewer delegates than the front runner, Senator Taft (the son of the former president and Chief Justice, the same Senator Taft from "When Books Went to War" who wanted to shut down program sending books to GI's in WWII). Ike reminded everyone that only a crossover candidate could hope to win in the general election, and Taft had no chance. Dwight Eisenhower emerged as the Republican candidate for president and handily defeated the academic and elitist Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson. Interestingly, the man famous for making war ran against the record of President Truman, who Ike claimed had recklessly caused the Korean War. Ike won every state outside of the south and even won Texas, Florida, Tennessee, and Virginia. He received 33.9 million more votes than any Republican ever had before.

Ike assembled a cabinet of extremely capable people. His gift for discerning the character of individuals served him well. Ike appointed the first presidential Chief of Staff, drawing from his war time experience that such a position could ease the burden of power and increase efficiency at the highest level of power. Elected as a centrist politician, he governed as one and often could be heard advocating for the "middle way" between his countrymen's more extreme political opinions. He surrounded himself with friends, but not "yes men." He found people he could trust and endowed them with great responsibility. He backed them up even when they made mistakes because he knew they were still capable of great things, and he needed them to do those things alongside him.

Compared with the momentous decades before and after his time in office, Ike's 1950's appear rather calm and almost boring, but this is an unfair assessment. Eisenhower made good on his campaign promise and ended the Korean War within six months of taking office. He quietly set political traps for his fellow Republican, Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist witch hunts were gaining negative press coverage and worldwide scorn. Ike watched proudly as McCarthy soon destroyed his own reputation and faded from the public eye. Much to the chagrin of his military advisers, the president refused to get bogged down in Vietnam as that French colony fought for independence. Ike fought back against the hawks in his administration and refused to launch a preemptive nuclear war against China when that communist nation rattled their saber. He brokered a peaceful resolution to a Middle Eastern war and settled a disputed control of the Suez Canal. Ike quietly kept the Cold War from becoming hot and managed revolutions and uprisings across the globe with a firm, if clandestine, hand.

Newton describes Ike on page 160 as "A profoundly conservative man, dedicated to the conviction that government served society best by safeguarding the individualism of the governed and allowing maximum liberty within those limits." Nevertheless, he became famous for supporting Civil Rights in the American South. It was a matter of principle for him. it was less an opposition to the idea of segregation that lead him to order the 101st Airborne Division to forcibly integrate a school in Little Rock Arkansas, it was more his understanding that a governor who actively defied the federal government was tacitly approving the idea of nullification. And this absolutely could not be allowed. (Besides which, Ike was not one to lose a fight, even when he didn't seek it in the first place.) Eisenhower appointed some legendary Justices to the Supreme Court, including Earl Warren. In 1956, inspired by the extraordinary highway system he had seen in Germany, Eisenhower decided to build the same kind of thing in his own country. It would become the largest public works project in U.S. history and would create the modern America. The international highway system, paid for with a new gas and oil tax, allowed the burgeoning middle classes to commute from the heart of the cities where they worked to a new and idyllic suburban lifestyle. (Ike signed the bill into law while in Walter Reed hospital having a checkup and recovering from a heart attack.)

Again and again, the man who crushed Hitler's Nazi Germany maneuvered his nation to live at peace with another intractable totalitarian regime, the Soviet Union. As a true soldier, peace was always his goal. Aiming to ease the tension between the world's first two super powers, Ike proposed that the two nations open their airspace to one another. In his plan, opposing reconnaissance planes could confirm and observe all nuclear testing and significant military capabilities. Khrushchev rejected the idea out of hand. However quixotic it might have been, it proved that Ike was a statesman, not a politician. He recognized that peace with the USSR was paramount to the continuation of Western civilization but he refused to be strong-armed into outlying military skirmishes that did not warrant the full might of American military response. The consummate poker player, Ike upped the ante. He moved to keep smaller, tactical nuclear weapons from becoming viable battlefield options, keeping nukes in the arsenal of the president alone. This ensured that any larger hot war would lead to total annihilation which, Ike realized, ensured that such a war would never happen. The Russians weren't crazy, after all.

Ike was a subtle strategist, who never lost sight of the larger picture. He was unafraid to order profoundly significant clandestine operations when he saw his nation's security or values threatened, but he knew that America's public face should not always reflect what it was doing in the background. As one of the most experienced and successful military commanders of his auspicious generation, he understood that if your enemy sees you coming, they can mount an effective defense. Great generals know that you should never fight fair, not if you want to win the larger war.

Despite the international and domestic upheavals coloring his time in office, Ike insisted on being an example for a peaceful lifestyle. He felt that the media's addiction to spectacle and crisis, their fear mongering love of scandal and catastrophe, infringed on every American's God-given right to domestic tranquility. He was deliberately seen golfing and taking his family on vacation. Ike was a man who relaxed by cooking good meals, playing card games, and painting, a trick he learned from none other than Winston Churchill. President Eisenhower wanted other Americans to live a safe and happy lifestyle secure in the comfort promised in the preamble of the US Constitution and provided by the blood of soldiers he had commanded in battle. If the 1950's seemed boring, that is because Ike wanted them to seem so.

Dwight Eisenhower was the first president to have access to nuclear weapons and not use them. This was not because the opportunity never arose. Indeed, Ike had to push back against his advisers who urged him to use these weapons at every turn. Ike refused to use nuclear weapons because he refused to set the precedent that they were usable at all. It is quite possible that Ike's restraint with nukes is why all other succeeding presidents didn't use them either. He was the quintessential warrior and the most famous general of the 20th century but when he became Commander in Chief he strove for peace and fought back against those who pushed for war.

Maybe the boring old man who was president during the 1950's is responsible for ensuring that the rest of the 20th century was allowed to happen at all. If so, then one of America's greatest warriors' greatest legacy is a lasting peace and the preservation of civilization as we know it.

As you finished this book, you found yourself smiling and repeating the president's most famous campaign slogan. "Yeah," you found yourself saying. "Me too... I like Ike."

On to the next book!

P.S. It is instructive to remember that one of the things that set Ike apart from his Vice President, Richard Nixon, was that Ike surrounded himself with friends. He cultivated a group of people with whom he found he could enjoy life, people who could bring him back down to Earth. After returning from a momentous trip to Europe, President Eisenhower walked in unannounced on a game of bridge being played by some of his closest friends and they didn't bat an eyelash. Failing to stand up in the presence of the most powerful man in the world, one of Ike's lifelong pals asked him, "Where have you been?" Laughing and basking in the familiar camaraderie of friendship, Ike simply pulled up a chair to observe the card game and said, "Well, let's see how the professionals do it." Nixon, on the other hand, had very few close friends, if any. He was an inherently untrustworthy person and therefore he trusted no one. Nixon was driven by ambition alone, and that, of course would be his great downfall. It is clear that Nixon learned a great deal of the craft of statesmanship at the knee of President Eisenhower. It is a damn shame that he did not learn more of how to be a better man. It should have been easy for Nixon, he served just a hair's breadth from one of the greatest.

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