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.
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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