Starting with Harry Truman, we’ve come to the presidents who were alive in my lifetime. And yet, I don’t remember Harry Truman, who had been retired over 13 years by the time I was born. I do have very vague memories of Dwight Eisenhower, aka “Ike,” from when I was a very small child. Mostly, it came from archival footage shown during Nixon’s term.
Mind you, I’m too young to have gotten what all the fuss about Nixon was at the time. Looking back on him is going to make for an interesting blog post.
For Eisenhower, I read Michael Korda’s Ike: An American Hero. Korda, a British ex-pat living in New Jersey, actually met many of the players in the drama that was World War II’s European Theater. For an Englishman, Korda does show a certain contempt for a large number of British generals and admirals, most notably Bernard “Monty” Montgomery. Mind you, he is equally hard on Douglas MacArthur and, while admiring of him, George Patton. But Korda’s somewhat fawning biography demonstrates something I said early on about earlier presidents. Many of those who occupied the Oval Office had already peaked before reaching the White House. John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe all were guaranteed prominent places in history before their terms in office, but were not spectacular presidents themselves. William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, and Ulysses Grant were revered generals whose political careers were lackluster at best, even after winning the highest office in the land. (Harrison, in fact, is most famous for dying in office, as Taylor did. However, Taylor is better known as a general in the Mexican War.) Calvin Coolidge accomplished more as governor of Massachusetts. Hoover was a brilliant engineer and humanitarian, but a lousy president. George H. W. Bush did more as a diplomat, spy master, and vice president before finishing up Ronald Reagan’s paperwork in the late 80’s and early 90’s.
Ike often gets lumped in with this group. There was an image of him in office, one that he did not exactly discourage, of being a caretaker president, that he spent most of his time playing golf and watching TV (the first president to do so regularly) with wife Mamie. But Ike, in spite of recurring heart trouble, was a shrewd president, quietly working behind the scenes to accomplish his agenda. What frequently emerges when one looks more closely at Ike is how prescient the man was. He knew Germany would be divided after World War II and that Stalin would be uncooperative. He also foresaw the need for NATO so that Europe would not be left again at the mercy of a hungry Napoleon, most likely from a vengeful Germany. He also bewildered some by not reacting to the hysteria of the 1950’s. He refused to engage Joseph McCarthy, seeing him as a drunk who would (and did) eventually self-destruct. (Rather spectacularly to the point where archive footage of him in Good Night and Good Luck was criticized for poor casting in the role of Senator McCarthy.) Ike also did not believe in the missile gap, knowing full well that the Soviets did not have nearly the missiles they claimed or even the missiles the United States had.
Ike was a moderate and a very calm man, though fits of temper on his part were legendary. It may surprise you to learn that the man who commanded the troops of three major powers in World War II and balanced the egos of Patton, Monty, and DeGaulle, came from a pacifist Mennonite background. Eisenhower grew up in Abilene, Kansas, a quiet Midwestern farm town. Although he was a career military officer, he actually has quite a bit in common with his more liberal predecessor, Harry Truman. Both were from small Midwestern towns, had a solid work ethic, and were brilliant at their chosen fields: Eisenhower in the military and Truman in politics. So from 1945, with the death of the wealthy FDR, to 1961, when Joseph Kennedy’s son Jack assumed the presidency, America was governed by common men from the Middle America. They were not towering intellects (or egotists) like Theodore Roosevelt or Woodrow Wilson. (In fact, both men had contempt for Wilson, but then so did a lot of people in charge of fighting World War II.) Both men despised playing games, though could when called upon. And Eisenhower, despite being a modest man skilled at negotiating with kings, dictators, presidents, and field marshals, was ambitious as hell.
What probably saved Ike from the arrogance that plagued colleagues like Patton and MacArthur was that Ike 1.) came from a poor background (Both MacArthur and Patton were wealthy), and he was an administrative officer through most of his career. But he was very forward thinking. After World War I, when traditional cavalry was still thought to be the norm for warfare (despite evidence to the contrary in France), Ike and Patton took a tank apart and reassembled it, developing theories on how to use them in combat. This sort of experimentation would win the war in Europe and even prompt Rommel to openly wish he was an Allied general. (“I could win this war in 14 days,” Rommel said after Normandy.)
Perhaps Ike’s greatest accomplishment is keeping the Cold War from becoming hot. He resisted calls to use atomic bombs against China and, years before Nixon finally did so, recommended normalizing relations with the People’s Republic of China. Today, China is seen as a wealthy, if ambitious, hub of capitalism, but in Ike’s day, the nominally communist nation counted Josef Stalin and Nikita Kruschev as its patrons. As Ike extricated America from the Korean War, he warned of getting involved in another Asian hot spot, Vietnam. The French were losing badly and making many of the mistakes that would send America home with its collective tail between its legs in 1975. Kennedy realized this, but died before he could reverse course. Johnson and Nixon plunged ahead with this misadventure.
It’s doubtful Eisenhower could get elected today. Witness the downfall of David Petraeus, a brilliant officer who could do well in either major party. Today, Ike’s relationship with Kay Summersby, his driver and secretary during his command of the Allied Forces, would be fodder for 24-hour news channels and wreck his career before he could even mop up in North Africa. Plus Ike’s personality was very low-key. He lost his temper privately, exerting considerable control in public situations where Monty and MacArthur would have ranted and where Patton did shoot his mouth off. The media doesn’t respect level-headed, thoughtful leaders, demanding larger-than-life personalities that they can build up and tear down quickly. There’s a reason Ike is identified with a simpler time.