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Eisenhower: American Simpleton

2,004 words

Stephen E. Ambrose
Eisenhower: Soldier and President
New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990

Dwight D. Eisenhower is an all-American figure both Democrats and Republicans revere.. As a general, he oversaw the largest amphibious invasion in human history and successfully managed the Allied victory in the west. As a president, his term was marked by unprecedented prosperity and stability in America, and he kept us from World War III. As a man, he was renowned for his simplicity and high moral character.

His name continues to pop up in American political discourse. He’s often contrasted to the “radical” Right-wing Republicans of today and seen as a model centrist. Donald Trump and his supporters have also deployed Eisenhower to defend their attacks on the Deep State and the military-industrial complex.

Eisenhower certainly doesn’t elicit the outrage and criticism that Franklin D. Roosevelt or Richard Nixon draw—he’s much too uncontroversial to be hated.

Ike is, however, not blameless. He represents good-natured Middle America accepting America’s transformation into the Empire of Nothing. He was a conservative who was leery of social liberalism and resolutely opposed to communism. Yet, his actions fortified these forces and ultimately led to the undermining of the America he loved. Ike was a brilliant strategist, manager, and diplomat, but he had no real worldview. His positions changed with the times, and he often lashed out at those who were more prescient than he. In his final years, Eisenhower was repulsed by the America he saw before him, not realizing he helped create it.

Stephen Ambrose’s shortened, one-volume biography Eisenhower: Soldier and President (cobbled together from two, much longer volumes) captures the man who shaped much of our current world. Ambrose is best known for Band of Brothers and other works that glorify the U.S. effort in World War II. The late historian treats Eisenhower in a similarly admiring tone. Ambrose even positively writes of Eisenhower’s failures and shady deeds, not leaving the reader to figure out that it’s bad until the author reaches his conclusion. For instance, Ambrose writes of Ike’s role in restoring the Shah as if the president were planning a good-natured prank over cocktails. It’s not until the end of the section that Ambrose suggests he doesn’t think this coup was a good idea.

You can buy Greg Hood’s Waking Up From the American Dream here.

Ambrose depicts Eisenhower as the paragon of Cold War America—non-partisan, decent, obsessed with consensus, and committed to civic nationalism. His Ike is very much a standard American. He loves to golf, play bridge, and hang out with his millionaire friends he calls the “gang.” High culture and introspection were foreign concepts to Ike. As Ambrose proudly notes, Eisenhower didn’t care for political theory at all—just the management of things that “made them work.” This lack of a broader perspective or commitment to political principles would hamper him throughout his career. This deficiency was typical of the gentile American he represented.

When it came to World War II, he saw it as a battle for liberal values. “It is that no other war in history has so definitively lined up the forces of arbitrary oppression and dictatorship against those of human rights and individual liberty,” he wrote in 1942. He was incensed when he was labeled a “reactionary” for making a deal with the French Admiral Francois Darlan to safely land Allied troops in Vichy-controlled North Africa. He insisted he was “idealistic as hell” in response to those critics.

His misguided idealism was in full effect in the war’s aftermath. Eisenhower was resolutely committed to total denazification in Germany and looked upon the Soviets as trustworthy friends. He sacked his friend General George Patton for failure to commit to total denazification. Patton, a man with a serious worldview who thought deeply about the issues of his time, realized the Soviets were the real enemy after the war. He was astute enough to know that it was impossible to find people to run a functioning government in Germany without a few Nazis. To Ike, both of these ideas were outrageous. When Patton compared the Nazis to America’s political parties, the commanding general decided that was the final straw and fired his subordinate.

But a few years later, Eisenhower adopted Patton’s position and supported the remilitarization of Germany and disregarded denazification. There was a more important enemy to worry about than the defeated Nazis.

Ike was also naive about communism. He saw the Soviets as friends and no threat immediately after the war. He thought those who warned about the Soviet menace—such as diplomat George Kennan—were insane and unnecessarily aggressive. But, as with Germany, his mind changed a few years, and he became an ardent Cold Warrior. He was remarkably late on this transformation.

He also hated the number one anti-communist of his era: Joe McCarthy. McCarthy is not quite an unblemished hero of the Right. He was a politician who exploited fears of communism for his own gain and focused too much on phantom threats rather than the real danger posed by the civil rights movement. Yet, for all his faults, McCarthy was on to something when he targeted the deep state for subversive activities. These powerful elites were certainly not advancing the interests of the American people—but he was a bit off by calling them communists. Most of them were liberals who would today be called globalists. McCarthy was a right-wing populist who challenged corrupt elites and for that reason he should be seen positively.

But Ike sure didn’t see the Wisconsin senator favorably. Out of all the problems he faced in his first term, the one figure that caused him the most distress was McCarthy. Ambrose depicts the senator as an evil force in America who dared question the experts and patriots serving in the military and the State Department. The hysteria over “McCarthyism” is ridiculous. Literal communists faced fewer repercussions then than people who post “It’s Okay to Be White” on their Facebook today. It’s an enduring liberal myth that needs to be put to bed.

McCarthy’s menacing reputation is kept alive by the revulsion Ike and other leaders felt toward him. Eisenhower wished for American government to be a collection of the best and the brightest working together over golf and cocktails. It didn’t matter if someone was a communist sympathizer or not—as long as he did the job, everything was fine. McCarthy upset the civil facade and was deemed a public menace. Eisenhower celebrated the populist’s downfall and was glad he could continue business as usual.

Ike’s obsession with just getting the allegedly best people with the job led him to make the worst Supreme Court appointment in history. One year into his presidency, he picked California Gov. Earl Warren to be the next chief justice of the Supreme Court. Warren famously imposed integration on the South through Brown v. Board of Education. Eisenhower was opposed to that decision and pleaded with Warren to not make policy via sweeping judicial fiat. Ike sympathized with Southerners who did not want blacks to attend their schools and live in their neighborhoods. In his consensus style, he organized a dinner between all sides in the Brown v. Board suit to reach a kind of compromise. At that dinner, he approached Warren and beseeched him to see the South’s side. “These are not bad people,” he said. “All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big black bucks.” (Ambrose bowdlerized the quote to remove “bucks”).

The plea obviously didn’t work, and the decision forced the administration to enforce school desegregation, a mission Eisenhower didn’t want. But Ike did not resist it. He infamously sent the 101st Airborne against Little Rock, Arkansas, for failing to accept black students. American soldiers pointing bayonets at Southern youngsters symbolizes Ike’s commitment to institutions and consensus. He made Southerners send their daughters to schools with big black bucks.

Even though he was leery of rapid desegregation, he pushed for a civil rights bill in his second term. The law was initially similar to what was passed under LBJ and would’ve stripped the South of its power to govern itself. However, it was watered down in Congress and was passed in its neutered form, much to Ike’s chagrin. The man who understood racial differences and supported white Southerners’ right to free association helped pave the way for further radicalization in the 1960s.

His appointment of Earl Warren caused much of the radicalism he deplored in the last decade of Ike’s life, but that didn’t dissuade the old general from liking the liberal jurist. Eisenhower saw Warren as one of the greatest American leaders of his day and even wanted him as his running mate in 1956. He would’ve wanted the man who subverted the America Ike loved to succeed him in the White House. Ike’s obsession with “competence” and “decency” deluded him into admiring heinous figures, much like contemporary white suburbanites view John McCain.

One of Eisenhower’s most lasting effects is transforming the GOP into a party that backed foreign policy internationalism. His opponent in the 1952 primary was the isolationist champion Robert Taft. Ike’s victory in ’52 and Taft’s death the following year ensured internationalism became the party dogma until the election of Donald Trump. Granted, there was more justification for internationalism when the Soviet Union menaced the world. However, Ike did more to end European colonialism than to challenge Soviet aggression. He forced the French to give up Indochina after doing the bare minimum to help their efforts against communist guerrillas. He sided with Egypt in the Suez Canal crisis, which gelded British and French power and eroded their sway over the Middle East and North Africa. At the same time of the Suez Canal crisis, Ike abandoned Hungary’s nationalist revolt against communist rule and allowed the Soviets to ruthlessly crush it.

Talk about priorities.

As with many of his decisions, he took a different stance on Egypt a few years later. He sent in troops to Lebanon to stop pan-Arab encroachment, something Britain and France did in the Suez crisis.

His opinions on Vietnam also shifted over the years. It is true he kept us out of Indochina during his presidency, and he knew we could never win a war in the Asian jungle. But in retirement he urged a hard line against the Vietnamese communists and supported LBJ’s escalation. He kept his doubts about the conflict to himself because he thought a true patriot must always support the president in war.

Eisenhower was disgusted by the changes he witnessed the 1960s. He hated the loose morals, the anti-authoritarianism, the popularity of postmodernist art and rock music, and the declining patriotism among youth. He bemoaned how American society had “a lack of concern for the ancient virtues of decency, respect for law and elders, and old-fashioned patriotism.” The new America he helped create was alien to him.

Sadly for Ike and his fellow Middle Americans, this was the country they now lived in. They may gripe about it and demand a return to traditional values, but they still care more about respectability and civil discourse. Even today, people like Ike refuse to see the major issues and consider a vote for Joe Biden. They truly believe we can restore “decency” and “unity” in America with a civil leader like Biden. But they’re not delusional enough to ignore the rapid transformation in America. They worry about rioters getting away with serious felonies, the shrill demands for white privilege checking, transgender indoctrination in schools, and efforts to abolish the police.

Yet, what bothers them more is Trump’s lack of civility—just like how McCarthy greatly upset Ike. They know their country is slipping away, and they can’t do anything about it. They will insist on bourgeois values and norms to the bitter end.

People like Ike are good citizens and well-meaning. They’re effective at executing actions and managing enterprises. But they can’t be trusted to lead.

They accepted our dispossession in exchange for a country club membership.

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  1. Vehmgericht
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    Is it not interesting that in supporting Nasser in the Suez Crisis, Eisenhower ran athwart Israel’s realpolitik manoeuvrings with Britain and France to have the Arab dictator removed?

    This, and, for example, the Yom Kippur war ceasefire imposed upon Israel by Kissenger, suggests that US-Israeli relations are far more complex and fraught than the simplistic narrative offered up by some voices in the dissident right.

    • Bookai
      Posted October 11, 2020 at 2:59 am | Permalink

      At the time both USSR and USA grudgingly respected their respective spheres of influence. Greek Civil War, Hungarian Revolution and Israeli-Arab wars are some of the examples of restrictive approach to crises from both sides. In Suez Crisis there was probably an additional desire to curtail the attempt of reclaiming any significant influence by Britain and France so the bi-polar system remained solidified. After all, it was one of the most stable international orders in history, where only 2 superpowers called the shots and kept their dominions/allies in check (more or less).

  2. Reb Kittredge
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    What’s to be down about these Americans who think like Ike? Will NOTHING dissuade them? I cannot forgive Ike for sending in troops to Little Rock. Carlton Putnam tried desperately to reach anyone in his administration over the Brown fiasco–to no avail. I wonder if Ike belongs on the short list of the worst presidents, along with Lincoln and LBJ …

    • Jud Jackson
      Posted October 10, 2020 at 1:51 am | Permalink

      No, I don’t think he belongs on the short list. Certainly Wilson, FDR and LBJ were far worse than Ike. Ike did 2 things as president that I really like. 1) Operation Wetback, and 2) the Farewell address where he warned about the Military Industrial Complex.

      • Reb Kittredge
        Posted October 10, 2020 at 5:27 am | Permalink

        Good points. Thanks.

      • Lord Shang
        Posted October 10, 2020 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        He also opposed the “special relationship” with Zionism.

      • Palerider1861
        Posted October 17, 2020 at 7:03 am | Permalink

        Funny isn’t it? When Ike sent in the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, he WAS the Military-Industrial/Complex!

  3. James O'Meara
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I haven’t read the book, but regarding Warren… does Ambrose give any reason to think Ike was wrong to appoint him? Warren was a loyal Republican, was the only man elected governor of California for three consecutive terms, ran as Dewey’s VP against FDR and ran against Ike for the Republican nomination. On top of it all, as CA Attorney General he supported and implemented the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. His appointment to the court would seem a no-brainer (in the good sense). Of course, he turned into a liberal hack, but that seems to always happen to anyone “conservative” that gets on the court. It’s a problem with the system, not Ike’s mistake: consider Justices Roberts and Cavanaugh as recent examples of this phenom.

    • Lord Shang
      Posted October 10, 2020 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

      Has Kavanaugh been horrible? I don’t follow the court that closely, but I thought the great disappointment has been Gorsuch.

  4. James O'Meara
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    “He hated … rock music.” Janis Joplin is quoted as bitching about how she was going to be on the cover of Time or Newsweek and then that bastard Ike had to die and ruin her chance at fame.

  5. James O'Meara
    Posted October 9, 2020 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    Gary Wills maintained that Ike’s famous word salads were not proof of stupidity but a clever way to not answer questions.

    For some reason, Ike seems to have had, or inspired a lot a great lines.

    When the John Birch Society claimed Ike as a “conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” Russell Kirk mockingly retorted, “Ike’s not a Communist, he’s a golfer.”

    Leonard Bernstein titled a piece “Arias and Barcaroles” because he claimed Ike at a concert (White House?) said to him that he didn’t like modern music, but “I like that last piece you played. It’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.”

    On his failure to rein in the CIA: “I have left a legacy of ashes.” Hence the title of Timothy Weiner’s history of the CIA.

    And, my personal favorite, from Ike himself:”Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is. ”

    No one until Trump has been such a gift to the language.

  6. Jud Jackson
    Posted October 10, 2020 at 1:56 am | Permalink

    Interesting article Mr. Hampton.

    A couple of weeks ago I read an article either on Counter-Currents or The Occidental Observer where one of the commenters referred to Eisenhower as a War Criminal. The commenter didn’t say what the War Crime was. I would be interested to hear what you think about that comment. I know he advised Truman (as did McArthur) not to drop the A Bombs on Japan. I really admire and respect that advice.

    • Franklin Ryckaert
      Posted October 10, 2020 at 5:32 am | Permalink

      Eisenhower’s warcrime was starving 1,5 million German prisoners of war in open air concentration camps along the Rhine. As prisoners of war they were entitled to a human treatment, therefore he called them “disarmed enemy combatants” and deprived them of such treatment. See this video:

      • pecosbill
        Posted October 10, 2020 at 9:51 am | Permalink

        Yes, and there’s operation keelhaul.

        Millions of rivers of tears for nuking Japan, but yawns for the fire bombing of Dresden, and other German cities. Ike permitted American planes to take part in the Dresden raids that Churchill instigated and later blamed on Bomber Harris when the full horror came to light.

        Ike was of two sides, one was his better nature and the other a vindictive one as this article hints.

        His grandfatherly side is what people remember if they remember him at all as president. At best he was probably mediocre as a general officer. We’ll never know how he would have done against a fresh Wehrmacht not the worn and depleted one on the western front which managed to stall allied advances.

        He showed his mean side when he sent the military to Little Rock on shaky legal grounds. He knew Warren’s illegal court made law would cause countless suffering on the southerners, but his desire to punish and humiliate people won over like it did with Dresden and the treatment of German POWs, civilians, women and children. Ike was a despicable human being.

        I try to remember that American Generals don’t fight wars, they lose them. A rule of thumb I always had from my experience with the US Military is any rank above a full colonel has checked his brains on the alter of gaining another star.

        A good read about pentagon mental constipation is a book by Colonel Boyd, who said the real purpose of the pentagon is to funnel money by the millions to contractors. I keep that thought in mind when I read about the Navy building huge Ford class behemoth carriers; fat super fast missile targets.

        More here on Ike:

      • Lord Shang
        Posted October 10, 2020 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

        Plus those German POWs were members of OUR race (and Eisenhower’s own ethnicity!) who fought nobly against Asiatic Judeo-Bolshevism, and who NEVER mistreated American POWs (((Hollywood propaganda notwithstanding))).

        See James Bacque, OTHER LOSSES.

        Ike was a TYPICAL mid-century, Middle American conservative; ie, someone I’d see as one of *my* people, in basic psychology as well as general race/ethnicity, but totally inadequate to understanding the deeper meanings of the world historical events swirling about him, and in which he played such a prominent part.

        There were many Brits like him, too. Basically good people (though it’s hard to forgive the mistreatment of the German POWs, in Ike’s specific case), but persons whose “conservatism” was shallow, more concerned with external behavioral markers and worrying about things like “institutional norms” and “procedural justice” and “state stability”, than with getting at the fundaments of history, justice, and their own people’s ultimate wellbeing and mere survival.

        This is what white nationalism really, imo, is all about – getting back to the roots of who we are, and what must be done to preserve us. What, after all, is a conservative trying to conserve, if not, first and foremost, the genetic existence of his people? Western Civ is simply the phenotypal expression of our Europoid genotype. Without the race, the civilization dies (either literally, or via transmogrification into something alien). Yet even today – very late in the decline of the West and the US – how few are those who grasp this!

      • Jud Jackson
        Posted October 10, 2020 at 11:31 pm | Permalink

        Thank you Franklin. I think I read about this once but I forgot about it. 6 million is a number much easier to remember

    • Lars Emillson
      Posted October 10, 2020 at 10:35 am | Permalink
  7. Ian Smith
    Posted October 10, 2020 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    I have a soft spot for Ike due to Operation Wetback.

  8. MBlanc46
    Posted October 11, 2020 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    This is a good analysis of Ike. I was 6–14 during his presidency, and every president since seems like something of an imposter. He was certainly the right man for the presidency during the 1950s. Most of his political instincts were right for the time. After the Depression and the World War the nation and the world needed stability, and that appears to have been his number one goal. Picking Warren for the Court was part of his deal for getting the nomination. So was the Nixon pick. Picking Nixon was short-term good politics, but he should have avoided it because he simply didn’t like Nixon. I think that our assessment of his presidency would be higher if the America over which he presided had continued past the 1960s. His Midwestern progressive attitude was the dominant attitude of white America. If the Kennedy—Johnson disaster not been visited upon us, we’d still be living in the America.

  9. Les
    Posted October 11, 2020 at 2:47 pm | Permalink

    Do the Americans who believe in “decency” and “unity” and who backed Eisenhower know that he was cheating on his wife during World War 2 and having an affair with an English woman who was his chaffeur ?

    • Corey
      Posted October 12, 2020 at 7:55 am | Permalink

      A man of power having a mistress is supposed to be some great moral failing? It’s just the way of things, always has been. No need for sanctimony.

      • Les
        Posted October 12, 2020 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

        Many politicians have been blackmailed because of illicit affairs. My attitude has nothing to do with sanctimony it is disgust and revulsion at the phoney image of public figures.

  10. JojoWilhelm
    Posted October 11, 2020 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    Eisenhower was a sadistic, anti-German POS. Read ‘Target Patton’ for more. I saw recently that he was actually a Swedish tribesman.

  11. some dude
    Posted October 13, 2020 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    What did Ike think about the JQ?

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