Top positive review
One person found this helpful
Likable Ike, keeper of the peace
on March 21, 2017
Once labeled a “do-nothing” president, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reputation as our 34th president has risen dramatically in recent years. Historians rank him seventh on the short list of presidential greatness. Journalist Tom Wicker would not agree, however. Judging by his book, he thinks highly of Eisenhower the man and Eisenhower the five-star general, but not so much of Eisenhower the president. In Wicker’s account, President Eisenhower comes up short in his handling of red-baiting Joe McCarthy, in his failure to use the “bully pulpit” to promote civil rights matters, in American involvement in Iranian and Guatemalan politics, and in authorizing U-2 spy missions over the Soviet Union at a time when talks of a test ban treaty with Khrushchev were upcoming. The downing of a U-2 spy plane scuttled the talks.
Wicker makes a good case, but in light of the judgement of historians his arguments amount to a question of perception: is the glass half full or half empty? I enjoyed Wicker’s book, particularly his personal account of a week spent with Eisenhower in 1962, but he didn’t change my opinion. Did Eisenhower make mistakes? Absolutely. What president hasn’t? At 140 pages, Wicker’s book is short but covers well the important world and domestic issues of Eisenhower’s time in office. If you’re looking for a concise and generally fair-minded treatment of the Eisenhower years, you won’t be disappointed. My one gripe is I do wish the publisher had included a table of contents.
Eisenhower was elected president because the people trusted and liked him. His campaign slogan still has a nice ring to it—“I Like Ike.” What he did do particularly well was stay the course after the upheaval years of the Great Depression and World War II. The Cold War with the Soviet Union touched American fears, certainly, but with the much-revered and much-trusted former general in the White House there was hope for a lasting peace. Eisenhower confirmed that hope by bringing a negotiated settlement to the Korean War and by opening a dialogue with the Soviet Union. While most American’s didn’t realize it at the time, he kept American ground troops out of Vietnam at a time when the French were losing their hold on Southeast Asia. Ike knew—the jungles of Vietnam were no place for American soldiers to be fighting. Indeed, Eisenhower kept the nation out of war, which is saying much.
In 1957, when the Soviets launched Sputnik, Eisenhower authorized the creation of NASA, to beat the Soviet Union in the race to the moon. At the same time, he anticipated the vigorous attempts at nuclear disarmament that would follow his presidency, in part through the Atoms for Peace initiative, which promoted nuclear power for peaceful purposes while amplifying the need for the nonproliferation of nuclear weapons. On the domestic front, Eisenhower reduced the federal deficit, in part by slashing the massive military spending. The savings he achieved enabled him to launch the interstate highway system, which authorized $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of interstate highways.
Regarding Senator Joseph McCarthy, Wicker believes Eisenhower didn’t do nearly enough to stop him. Perhaps. What Ike did do was wait him out, believing the despicable bully would go too far and destroy all credibility—which is what happened. While Wicker gives credit for Eisenhower’s appointment of Earl Warren to the Supreme Court, he believes the president could have used the “bully pulpit" of the presidency to advance the civil rights of African Americans. I think he’s right. Eisenhower was decidedly lukewarm, but he did show presidential leadership by sending federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957, to protect nine African American children who were integrating a school there. Also, on Eisenhower’s watch, the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960 were passed in Congress. Wicker is correct about the coups in Iran and Guatemala that were sanctioned by the U.S., one a Pyrrhic victory in Iran, the other intended to topple an elected, legitimate government in Guatemala. Neither action was necessary to “stop Communism,” and both led to unforeseen upheavals that at the very least called U.S. foreign policy into question. While Wicker says Ike cannot be held totally responsible for what ultimately happened, “he did start the nation down the slippery slope.”
Eisenhower felt unfulfilled when he left office, due to the downing of the U-2 spy plane that put a stop to negotiating a possible arms agreement with Russia. After that “he saw nothing worthwhile left for him to do . . . until the end of his presidency.” Nonetheless, Ike left office as well-liked as ever. Had he run for a third term, Wicker believes he would have won easily.
Wicker’s final analysis: “Dwight D. Eisenhower was a good man, at times a great man, and it seems unnecessary to try to make him out a great president, too. . . . Americans will be fortunate if they can accord their future presidents trust and belief equal to the millions who expressed it so often in the fifties, in the simple eloquent phrase: ‘I Like Ike.’”