Fred I Greenstein. Presidents: A Reference History. Editor: Henry F Graff. 3rd edition. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2002.
Dwight David Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth president of the United States, was uniquely popular among post-World War II American presidents. As of 2002, only two other chief executives of that period, had been elected to and completed two terms in office. Apart from John F. Kennedy, who did not live to face the consequences of his policy of increasing military involvement in Vietnam, Eisenhower was the only postwar president who received more positive than negative ratings for his entire time in office.
In spite of Eisenhower’s impressive ability to maintain the support of the American people, for roughly the decade and a half after he left the White House most scholars and other writers on the presidency judged him to have been a lackluster leader. In 1962, for example, Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., asked seventy-five leading authorities on the American presidency to rank the chief executives in order of greatness. Eisenhower placed twenty-first, tied with Chester Arthur. The scholars’ views of Eisenhower and his leadership fundamentally echoed the 1950s partisan rhetoric of liberal Democrats, who viewed Eisenhower as bland, good-natured, and well intentioned, but politically inept and passive. He seemed to hold a minimalist view of the leadership responsibilities of the chief executive. His success in achieving the potentially valuable political resource of popular support was inescapable. But this support was judged to be based merely on the legacy of acclaim he inherited from his World War II leadership as supreme commander of the Allied forces in Europe, reinforced by the appeal of his broad grin and benign countenance to the politically inattentive bulk of the electorate.
By the mid-1970s, a reappraisal of Eisenhower and his leadership was well under way. Interest in reexamining Eisenhower’s presidency was spurred in part by the difficulties encountered by his successors and in part by retrospective assessments of the events that occurred while he was in office. Lyndon B. Johnson had felt obliged not to run again because his backing was so weak; Richard M. Nixon had resigned in the face of certain impeachment and conviction; Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter had been defeated at the polls. Eisenhower’s ability to serve two full terms while maintaining his popularity seemed to call for study and analysis. Moreover, his period in office now seemed to have been one of accomplishment rather than drift. By the summer of 1953 his administration had negotiated an armistice that ended the bloody, stalemated Korean War. Peace prevailed throughout the remainder of his presidency, in spite of major episodes that could have led to East-West military conflict. The divisive internal debate over whether the nation was endangered by Communist subversion from within had ended. Inflation rates were low, and, in general, the economy was performing well.
Other of Eisenhower’s actions appeared in retrospect to be highly questionable, perhaps most notably his covert use of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to help overthrow the nationalistic Mossadegh government in Iran in 1953 and the left-leaning Ar-benz government in Guatemala in 1954. But the very fact that Eisenhower had policies worthy of attention (whatever their merit), like the fact of his popularity, seemed by the 1970s to make it necessary to reconsider the notion that his presidency was simply a time of leaderless inaction.
Fortunately such reconsideration was by then possible. In the archives of the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, and in other repositories, enormous bodies of primary source records on Eisenhower and his conduct of the presidency began to be released, many of them in successive volumes of the Department of State’s invaluable documentary volumes entitled The Foreign Relations of the United States. These records constitute a window through which to view the unpublicized aspects of a president and presidency whose public and private sides were near antitheses. It is now possible to read private diary notes in which Eisenhower recorded his experiences and clarified his thinking and feelings, as well as similar records by some of his close associates, and it is possible for nonspecialists to explore such matters through a burgeoning scholarly literature on the Eisenhower years.
Eisenhower was a prolific and fluent writer of off-the-record correspondence, which provides important insights into his views and actions. His leadership also is well documented in records of his official and unofficial meetings, phone conversations, and even transcripts of his remarks in pre-press conference briefings on what information he did, and did not, choose to make public and what impressions he sought to create. From this evidence and the testimony of people who were closely associated with him, it has become clear that Eisenhower in fact was a presidential activist, but that his activism, which was grounded in a consciously articulated view of how to exercise leadership, took a distinctive and unconventional form.
The Eisenhower Approach to Leadership
Although Eisenhower resented claims that he was a weak leader, his very approach to leadership furthered this impression, at least on the part of those who had access only to the contemporary public record. The impression that he was a passive chief executive president who reigned rather than ruled was engendered both by his approach to organizing the presidency and by the tactics he used to resolve the built-in conflict between what Americans expect from their president in his dual capacity as head of state and principal national political leader.
As head of state, the American president is a symbol of unity. Like a constitutional monarch, he is expected to be an uncontroversial representative of the entire nation. As the nation’s chief political leader, however, he must engage in the intrinsically divisive prime-ministerial task of political problem solving. The seeming impossibility of resolving the tension between these contradictory expectations undoubtedly has contributed to the regularity with which Americans become disillusioned with the performance of their presidents.
Eisenhower resolved this contradiction by maintaining the public stance of an uncontroversial chief of state, while concealing or playing down his political leadership, especially those machinations that are essential to effective leadership but that foster animosities and lead the president to be viewed as “just another politician.” He carried out this leadership strategy through a number of tactics:
- In seeking to downplay the political side of his role, he frequently exercised political influence through intermediaries rather than directly or otherwise concealed his part in the cut and thrust of leadership.
- Similarly, he was studiously artful in employing language. His private communications to close associates are models of analytic clarity and contain informed, realistic accounts of his political strategies. But in press conferences he often was evasive or professed ignorance of matters that he felt were best not discussed, doing so in a homely, idiomatic way that enhanced public affection for and confidence in him. And in his public addresses, he worked with his speechwriters seeking to find language that was dignified yet, as he once put it, simple enough “to sound good to the fellow digging a ditch in Kansas.”
- Eisenhower also took pains never to criticize an adversary by name, lest he demean his own role and arouse underdog sympathies for the opponent. By refusing to (as he put it) “engage in personalities,” he also acted on the premise that impugning the motives of others engenders ill feeling that undermines the basic leadership task of welding political cooperation.
- Although he did not discuss personality publicly, much of his private reasoning and discourse involved sizing up what he called the “personal equation” of other political actors. He did this in order to use aides where they would be most effective and to anticipate how best to exercise influence. His preoccupation with personality analysis helped him to keep the political side of his leadership inconspicuous.
- He was a vocal proponent of generous delegation of authority, but he varied the magnitude of delegation according to his sense of his associates’ capacities and of the likelihood that their actions would be consistent with his desires. Thus, his much publicized commitment to delegation did not lead to abdicating presidential power to subordinates. Nevertheless, by emphasizing this commitment he was able to reward associates by giving them credit for popular administration politics and, more important in terms of protecting himself from controversy, to allow them to take the blame for unpopular administration policies.
For scholars, most of whom equated effective political leadership with the visible displays of political pulling and hauling of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman, the apolitical public persona that Eisenhower cultivated seemed evidence of his shortcomings as a chief executive. For most citizens, however, a president who seemed untarnished by politicking was worthy of approval—unless, of course, his remoteness from politics was associated with indications that the nation was being poorly managed. One reason why the public did not become discontented was that Eisenhower used his indirect leadership techniques to defuse potential sources of discontent, quietly resolving matters that, if left unsettled, would have made him vulnerable to criticism.
Just as Eisenhower worked hard at exercising political leadership inconspicuously, he expended much energy in maintaining public confidence in his performance as chief of state. Rather than resting on his prepresidential popularity with a broad spectrum of Americans (including many Democrats), he built on his acclaim as a wartime leader. A striking example of the importance he placed on winning public approval was his insistence on standing in an open car, beaming broadly, and waving to the cheering crowds when he was arriving at, or leaving, a public appearance. This was a bone-crunching physical ordeal for Eisenhower, who was the oldest man to have served in the White House at the time he left office. But he considered it essential to his leadership. More generally, he acted on the premise that in order to carry out his responsibilities with good effect he needed to win the widest possible support for his office and powers.
Eisenhower’s tactics for reconciling the political with the chief-of-state aspects of the presidency were complemented by his systematic attention to organizing his presidential leadership. He increased the size of the White House staff, introducing a staff position that was controversial in the 1950s but had become traditional by the 1970s—that of the White House chief of staff. This was the position he assigned to the acerbic former New Hampshire governor Sherman Adams, labeling Adams The Assistant to the President, in contrast to other assistants whose titles lacked the initial article. He also was the first president to employ professional legislative liaison personnel, and he introduced the position of assistant to the president for national security affairs, now popularly known as the president’s national security adviser.
Eisenhower’s organizational leadership was also marked by his extensive reliance on the cabinet and the National Security Council as forums within which he and his aides debated policy. Both bodies normally met weekly. In the case of the cabinet he instituted a planning staff that was responsible for ensuring that items worthy of serious discussion were on the agenda for discussion. He instituted an even more structured forum for foreign affairs discussion in the form of an expanded National Security Council (NSC), with which he also met regularly. An elaborate committee structure ensured that alternative foreign policy options were clearly explicated for council debate, and that once policies were set, plans for implementing them were made.
At the time many political observers took Eisenhower’s seeming departure from the far more informal operating procedures of Roosevelt and Truman as further evidence that he had turned leadership over to a bureaucracy. We now know that Eisenhower’s formal committee meetings were supplemented by his extensive informal consultations with a wide range of figures in and out of the government. Further, his cabinet and NSC meetings were as much a means of consolidating his associates around his policies as they were forums for decisive policy discussions. He himself set policy, often in unofficial meetings in the Oval Office before or after cabinet and NSC sessions. The archival record released in the 1970s makes this clear, but when he was in office many of his policies were commonly thought to have been made by committees, or by Sherman Adams, or by Eisenhower’s sternly anti-Communist secretary of state, John Foster Dulles.
Antecedents of Eisenhower’s Leadership
Eisenhower’s approach to leadership was shaped by his military career, much of which had been closely tied to participation in civil government and public affairs for the three decades before he became president. Born in Denison, Texas, on 14 October 1890 and raised in rural Kansas, Eisenhower attended the United States Military Academy in order to get a free education. He was more interested in athletics than studies, graduating sixty-first in a class of 164. He was awakened intellectually and became a keen student of military strategy somewhat belatedly, between 1922 and 1924, when he served in the Panama Canal Zone under the gifted and inspirational General Fox Connor.
Through Connor’s intervention Eisenhower was chosen to attend the elite Command and General Staff School at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After graduating first in a class of 275, he promptly was selected by the War Department for special opportunities. These included a stint in France writing a guidebook to World War I battlefields, attendance at the Army War College, and, in 1929, assignment as deputy to the assistant secretary of war.
In 1933 Eisenhower became the principal aide to the intensely politicized army chief of staff, General Douglas MacArthur. From 1935 to 1940 he accompanied MacArthur to the Philippines, where they advised the Philippine president and legislature on defense policy, returning to the United States the year before America entered World War II. Just a few days after Pearl Harbor, his meteoric ascent to national and international prominence began. Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall assigned him to the planning division of the War Department in December 1941. By June 1942 he had so impressed not only Marshall but also Roosevelt and Churchill that he was dispatched to England to head American troops in Europe. In November of that year he commanded the American invasion of North Africa, and by late 1943 he had been advanced to supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe. After leading the Allied invasion of Western Europe and achieving victory in the spring of 1945, he returned home to a hero’s welcome.
As supreme commander Eisenhower demonstrated a remarkable capacity both to rally the troops in his command and to bring together larger numbers of civilian and military leaders with widely diverse personalities. This made him a logical prospect for public office. By the end of the war, Gallup polls showed that voters in both parties thought he would make a good president. Immediately after the war ended, President Truman offered to support him for the presidency. In 1948 there was a move by liberal Democrats (squelched by Eisenhower) to draft him for the Democratic presidential nomination.
During the war and in his postwar service—first as chief of staff, next as president of Columbia University (but on leave much of the time to help lead the newly formed Department of Defense), and then as first military commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—Eisenhower exhibited the same dualism that was to mark his approach to presidential leadership. The tasks he had to perform made it necessary for him to be closely involved in national and international political maneuvers, but he succeeded in defining them in neutral terms, stressing that all of his actions were based on his official responsibility to serve the wartime and postwar alliances he led and the American national interest. He displayed his buoyant personality in rallying the public, but his private propensity continued to be to act on the basis of cool logic and carefully calculated strategic planning. In short, he did not directly transfer his methods of military leadership to the presidency, but the former provided the template for much of the latter, and neither was politically innocent.
From NATO to the Presidency
Throughout 1951 and the first months of 1952, Eisenhower’s base of operations was France and his principal task was establishing working relations among the NATO powers. During this period the press had regular accounts of the campaign to draft him for the presidential nomination. Meanwhile, he was persistently visited by moderate and liberal inter-nationalist politicians and businessmen who urged him to run for president, some of them Democrats but the bulk Republicans.
There is good reason to believe that he could have been elected as a candidate of either party, although the conservative economic views he publicly expressed in 1949 and 1950, when he was not on active military duty, clearly implied what he did not make explicit until early in 1952—that he had been a lifelong Republican in his sympathies. The politicians who were most persistent and influential in pressing Eisenhower to become a candidate were moderates in domestic policy and internationalists in foreign policy. They, like other Republicans, were acutely aware that Democrats had controlled the White House for five terms and that President Truman’s unpopularity made it possible to reverse that state of affairs. The Republicans who sought to draft Eisenhower recognized also that the overwhelming favorite among the small-town and rural Republican political leaders who could be expected to dominate the 1952 presidential nominating convention would be a dour, conservative, and distinctly uncharismatic symbol of Republican orthodoxy, Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio. They were certain that Taft would not win in their own constituencies and probably would not win nationally.
Privately, Eisenhower’s domestic policy views were even more conservative than Taft’s. Having seen inflation cut deeply into postwar defense budgets, he was a convinced fiscal conservative. He also was skeptical about many welfare policies, but electoral realism led him to insist that his party make clear its commitment to preserve and even incrementally expand the basic New Deal welfare reforms.
Eisenhower’s reflections in his private diary make it clear that he did not want to become a candidate and would not have become one simply out of disagreement with Taft’s domestic policy positions. But he was deeply concerned that Taft, if elected, would undermine the internationalist foreign and national security policies he had devoted himself to shaping. Early in 1952, Eisenhower cast the die, allowing Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts to enter him in the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary.
This made him a tacit candidate, but as long as he held his NATO office he refused to campaign or make campaign statements. He won the New Hampshire primary, producing clear evidence of his vote-getting power. Then he beat Minnesota’s incumbent governor, Harold Stassen, as a write-in candidate in that state’s primary. Thereafter he and Taft both won primaries, but the majority of the delegates were selected by party machinery, and a near majority of them were committed to Taft.
Eisenhower turned the tide when he returned to the United States, resigned his commission, and commenced an increasingly persuasive last-minute campaign just before and during the convention. Taft’s majority depended on the votes of delegations from southern states, in which the Ohio senator’s supporters were being challenged by Eisenhower supporters, who claimed that they had been improperly barred from delegate-selection caucuses. When procedural votes designed to bar the seating of Taft’s contested southern delegates succeeded, the convention shifted in Eisenhower’s direction. He was nominated by a slim majority on the first ballot, but his victory left Taft supporters embittered.
Eisenhower’s campaign strategy and his handling of the period between his election and nomination reflect his preoccupation with consolidating his own forces and reaching out to broaden his strength. He immediately sought to bring his party together, most dramatically by signing a statement of Republican principles that Taft had drafted. His choice of Richard Nixon as the vice presidential nominee also was agreeable to the Taft forces. Nixon, because of the part he played in identifying the New Deal lawyer and foreign service officer Alger Hiss as an alleged Communist agent, personified the right-wing premise that the Democrats had been “soft on Communism.”
Eisenhower threw himself into campaigning, traveling more than 50,000 miles by rail and air. The campaign was not without problems. He angered moderate supporters when he gave the appearance of having been conciliatory in Wisconsin to Senator Joseph McCarthy. At one point it became necessary for his running mate, Richard Nixon, to refute the accusation that as a senator he had unethically accepted financial support from a group of California businessmen. In spite of the campaign snags, Eisenhower’s powerful public appeal was evident. Unlike his opponent, Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, he did not speak over the heads of his audience. When, late in the campaign, he promised to “go to Korea” if elected, implying that his military expertise would enable him to end the war, political observers correctly judged his victory to be a foregone conclusion. He garnered 55 percent of the popular vote (34 million to 27.3 million) and defeated Stevenson by a 442-to-89 electoral vote margin. He brought into office with him the first Republican Congress since 1947 and the only Republican-controlled Congress until 1995.
Even before the returns were in, Eisenhower exhibited the knowledge of government he had acquired over the years and his predilection for organizing his leadership systematically. On election eve he persuaded a Detroit banker, Joseph Dodge, to become his first director of the key planning organ of the presidency, the Bureau of the Budget. During the time between election and inauguration, it was Dodge’s task to act as an observer from within the bureau while Truman’s final budget was being prepared and to identify ways it could be cut to Republican dimensions. Eisenhower simultaneously announced the appointments of cabinet members and White House aides, including the aides who were to fill the new staff positions he had devised, such as a White House chief of staff, a presidential national security assistant, and a head of congressional liaison. A little-noted appointment to an unpaid but important position—a body for proposing the reorganization of government agencies—went to his brother and closest confidant, Milton Eisenhower, whose Washington experience had begun in the Coolidge administration.
Several of the announcements of cabinet appointments were delayed and made from his residence between 29 November and 5 December, when (for security reasons) Eisenhower secretly made his inspection trip to Korea. The procession of appointees leaving his home during this period provided his cover story—that he was at his home selecting appointees. Eisenhower arranged for the people he had selected for his cabinet to be flown to Wake Island in the mid-Pacific. Returning to the United States from Korea by ship, he met with this group, beginning his efforts to encourage solidarity and a common sense of purpose among his principal associates.
A Republican Presidency Takes Hold: 1953-1955
In January 1953, when Eisenhower took office, not a single Republican member of the Eighty-third Congress had ever served with a Republican president. To Eisenhower it was as important to build solid links to Capitol Hill as to create a spirit of cooperation among his cabinet and staff. In particular, he cultivated Taft, who was an effective and loyal, if sometimes contentious, administration supporter, serving as Senate majority leader until shortly before his death in the summer of 1953.
The channels from president to Congress had to be numerous in the Eighty-third Congress and the three Democratic-controlled Congresses that followed. The close balance between the parties and the divisions within them made it necessary for bipartisan coalitions to be shaped to advance Eisenhower’s legislative goals. His conservative economic policies received the backing of Taft Republicans and southern Democrats. In seeking to introduce moderate welfare reforms, he relied on the more liberal, mostly eastern members of his own party and on northern Democrats. His internationalist foreign policy programs—for example, extension of the reciprocal trade program and appropriation of foreign aid funds—drew support from the internationalist Republicans, who had been at the forefront in seeking his nomination, but they received more backing from Democrats than from members of their own party.
After Taft’s death, Eisenhower developed a working relationship, but one that was less than reliable, with the next Senate Republican leader, the bellicose and politically inept William Knowland. Eisenhower worked officially with Knowland, but following his regular practice of carefully supplementing formal with informal organization, he found a variety of allies who unofficially made up for Know-land’s shortcomings. Because bipartisanship was necessary to pass legislation but was controversial to supporters of each party, Eisenhower often met without public announcement in the residential quarters of the White House with the two pragmatic southerners who led the congressional Democrats, Senator Lyndon Johnson and Congressman Sam Rayburn, both of Texas.
Two of Eisenhower’s initial policy efforts were in the area of national security. One was the short-run effort to bring the lingering Korean conflict to a close and the other the long-run aim of reconfiguring the nation’s general national security posture. Ending the fighting in Korea was by no means simple. The truce talks had long been stalled, and the Chinese Communists and North Koreans were so well entrenched that even if pushing them back had been militarily and politically feasible, it would have been too costly in lives and money to contemplate. Hiding his hand from the American people and the Western allies, who would have undermined his actions by public protest, he leaked through channels friendly to the Chinese the message that he was prepared to use extreme measures (by implication, nuclear strikes) if a truce were not concluded. Since talks promptly resumed and a settlement was reached by July, Eisenhower felt his implied threat had worked; others have speculated that the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in March may have set the process of accommodation in motion.
Eisenhower’s more long-range efforts were to implement Joseph Dodge’s efforts to reduce Truman’s requests for the fiscal year beginning in June 1953 by $7.2 billion in expected expenditures. The major source of reduction was military spending. The strategy underlying Eisenhower’s cut in defense spending came to be known as his administration’s “New Look” defense policy. In contrast to the defense intellectuals who dominated strategic planning in the final years of the Truman administration, Eisenhower insisted that national security costs be systematically weighed against their economic effects on the nation. (For this reason, he made his secretary of the treasury and his budget director members of the National Security Council.) Overspending, Eisenhower maintained, was not an effective way of ensuring the nation’s defense capacity. Rather, it was an unproductive waste and a self-defeating stimulus to inflation. But how could the government reduce its expenditures and maintain its commitment to contain Communism? (Much less, in the rhetoric Dulles used but never acted upon, rolling it back.) The answer was provided in the ominous-sounding phrase “massive retaliation.” The United States would not commit itself to meet Communist expansion at every point where it occurred but rather would respond on its own terms, if necessary with “massive retaliatory power.” An attack in an area where American and allied forces could not effectively be used might be responded to elsewhere. And the military could make up for its decreased military manpower by employing low-yield tactical nuclear weapons if necessary or, in dire circumstances, by striking the Soviet heart-land.
As a strategist—in the game of bridge as well as in military and political affairs—Eisenhower was aware of the dangers of bluffing. The nuclear component of the New Look was meant to be a deterrent to the adversary, not a response that would readily have been made. Eisenhower’s congenital proclivity to play his cards close to his vest makes it impossible to say whether under any circumstance short of a total war he would in fact have used nuclear weapons if circumstances seemed to make that advantageous. His private communications, however, show that he was profoundly aware of the devastating consequences a nuclear war would bring, and he always left tactical ambiguities in those of his statements which implied the possibility of using nuclear weapons.
Typically the hard-line anti-Communist pronouncements of the Eisenhower presidency were made by Secretary of State Dulles, sometimes using phrases Eisenhower himself had drafted. Eisenhower concentrated on playing the contrasting role of peacemaker and seeker of East-West rapprochement. In December 1953 he received accolades for one such effort—a speech at the United Nations proposing that the nuclear powers make available raw materials for research on peaceful applications of atomic energy (“Atoms for Peace”). At still another level, fully concealed from public visibility, Eisenhower and his foreign policy associates periodically employed the CIA in covert Cold War operations, including another 1953 action, the overthrow of Mohammed Mossadegh’s government in Iran, and the overthrow of the left-leaning government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954.
In December 1953, Eisenhower called a three-day White House conclave of Republican congressmen, at which he set forth and won agreement to a carefully worked out domestic program that the administration was to submit to the second session of the Eighty-third Congress. His first year had been one of consolidation, adjustment to power, and response to immediately pressing problems. But his second year in office, leading up to the midterm election, was slated as a time for policy making and the building of a Republican record.
By the midterm elections, Eisenhower, whose active campaigning appears to have held down the normal seat loss of an incumbent party in an off-year election, was in fact able to point to such legislative accomplishments as extension of the coverage of Social Security to a number of categories of citizens who did not have retirement benefits and authorization of construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway. He could also take credit for the Atoms for Peace proposal and the Korean settlement. But the year was punctuated by major activities that had not been on his agenda in December 1953, including the matters of Senator Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and the Indochina crisis of 1954.
McCarthy, a political nonentity until 1950, had become almost instantaneously visible in February of that year, when he made the unfounded charge that he had a list of Communists who were presently on the State Department payroll, busily subverting the nation. In that period of preoccupation with internal subversion and with such international events as the Communist victory in China, the very extravagance of his rhetoric—made more newsworthy because President Truman was goaded into replying to him—earned the Wisconsin Republican substantial media attention. On this McCarthy built a grassroots following and became recognized within the Republican party as a figure who, if deeply irresponsible, was nevertheless a political asset.
McCarthy had felt free to allege that the Truman administration was permeated with Communists, oblivious to the negative effects of his unsubstantiated charges on the morale of the executive branch and the perception of the United States by other nations. But what would he do once his own party was in power? Eisenhower sought, with some initial success, to check McCarthy’s freewheeling assaults on the loyalty of public servants—for example, by enlisting Taft to certify that McCarthy’s claim that career foreign service officer Charles Bohlen was unsuited to be ambassador to the Soviet Union was groundless. Eisenhower also acted to remedy what he himself thought were failures in the government’s procedures for screening employees, instituting a program that by extending the reasons for which civil servants could be discharged as security risks took its own toll on morale in the executive branch.
In short order, it became clear that McCarthy was not going to cease his assaults on the loyalty of federal employees and, by implication, on Eisenhower’s stewardship of the government. There were widespread demands that Eisenhower reply to McCarthy, some of them from his close supporters. Eisenhower’s view was that public mention of a demagogic politician by the president simply enhanced that politician’s support. Instead, Eisenhower periodically criticized the kinds of tactics McCarthy employed, leaving it to the press to infer that he was alluding to the Wisconsin senator. Then, in the spring of 1954, when McCarthy overreached himself and allowed his aides to seek favors for a former staff member who had been inducted into the army, the Eisenhower administration orchestrated an oblique campaign against him.
Acting on the premise that presidential efforts to purge a legislator would backfire, Eisenhower worked behind the scenes to encourage the Senate itself to conduct hearings on McCarthy’s actions. Carried live on television, the Army-McCarthy hearings contributed to McCarthy’s decline in public support and his subsequent formal condemnation by the Senate. His colleagues began to ostracize him, and he soon became politically impotent. Because Eisenhower’s contribution to McCarthy’s demise was largely indirect and behind the scenes, his seeming inaction with respect to McCarthy helped reinforce the contemporary impression of Eisenhower’s political passivity.
In 1954, Eisenhower circumvented a probable foreign affairs debacle through actions that did not become known in their full dimensions until the 1980s, when the relevant classified documents became available for analysis. In the first months of that year a debate raged within the Eisenhower administration about whether to use American military force to prevent the defeat of the French forces that were at war with the indigenous Communists in Indochina. By January 1954 the Communists had trapped the cream of the French defenders at an isolated military outpost in the hamlet of Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower feared that a Communist victory would lead to Communist triumphs in neighboring countries, which would succumb, as he put it, like a row of falling dominoes.
He recognized, nevertheless, that there were profound reasons why it would be perilous to use American military force in such an inhospitable environment, a course of action that was favored by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Arthur Radford, and by Vice President Nixon. In extensive meetings with his associates and members of Congress, Eisenhower established strict preconditions for intervention, including formation of a multinational coalition and a grant of immediate independence to the French colonies. When the preconditions could not be met, he concluded that direct American involvement in the Indochinese conflict would not be politically feasible. Rather than fight, he supported the partition of Vietnam into a Communist North and a non-Communist South Vietnam and provided foreign aid to the latter. He also fostered formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), designed to limit the expansion of Communist North Vietnam and China.
The year 1954 also saw Eisenhower win a major legislative struggle to prevent ratification of a constitutional amendment proposed by Senator John Bricker of Ohio that was designed to limit the president’s powers in making international agreements. Success required great political skill, since Bricker had won over sixty-two senators as cosponsors—more than the necessary two-thirds of the Senate votes required for approval. Eisenhower’s strategy was to refuse to acknowledge that his basic desires differed from Bricker’s but to object persistently to any wording of the amendment that did not simply make the empty statement that no treaty could violate the Constitution. By converting the issue to one of semantics, he gave sponsors of the amendment a face-saving way to change their votes and cooperate with the extensive lobbying campaign his liaison staff conducted.
From Midterm to Second Term: 1955-1956
The Democratic-controlled Eighty-fourth Congress had barely convened in January 1955 when Eisenhower requested and, after sharp debate, received overwhelming support for a resolution according him power to employ military force in the strait between the Communist-controlled mainland of China and the Nationalist Chinese refuge on Formosa (now Taiwan), one hundred miles from the mainland. When the Nationalists were defeated on the mainland in 1949 and retreated to Formosa, they also maintained control of a number of small islands virtually within sight of the mainland. Late in 1954 the Communists had begun to shell the offshore islands in a seeming prelude to taking possession of them and eventually of Formosa.
Eisenhower viewed a Nationalist-held Formosa as essential to maintaining non-Communist governments on the Pacific “island barrier” running from Japan through the Philippines to Indonesia. In his view the offshore islands were militarily dispensable but politically important for maintaining the morale of the Nationalists, who hoped someday to use them to return to the mainland. The Nationalists had powerful support in the Republican party, including the zealous backing of Senate Republican leader Know-land. Know-land and the Nationalists urged American protection of the offshore islands. Congressional liberals and the British, on the other hand, urged that these vulnerable flyspecks be abandoned.
Eisenhower made certain that the “Formosa Resolution” that authorized him to use American military force to defend Formosa and areas necessary to its defense was vague with respect to those islands. It approved the defense of Formosa, but then added cryptically that the president also was authorized to use American force to defend “such related positions … now in friendly hands … required or appropriate in assuring the defense of Formosa.” The offshore islands crisis subsided in April 1955, when the Chinese Communists announced at the Bandung, Indonesia, conference of African and Asian nations that as evidence of their commitment to peace they would not seek to gain control of islands in the Formosa Strait by military means.
Shortly after the Chinese action at Bandung, the Soviet Union took a step toward decreasing Cold War tensions, declaring that it was prepared to withdraw from its postwar occupation of Austria and to join the West in signing a peace treaty with that nation. Eisenhower and Dulles, who had resisted calls for a summit meeting, concluded that circumstances now permitted one, for it could be portrayed as a response to Soviet accommodation and might, without excessive danger of raising false expectations, test the Soviet willingness to advance further toward East-West agreement.
The ensuing meeting in Geneva between 18 an 23 July 1955 provided Eisenhower with an opportunity to make a widely acclaimed proposal that was even more dramatic than the Atoms for Peace speech. He called for the United States and the Soviet Union to exchange blueprints of their military establishments and for inspection flights by each nation over the other to eliminate the fear of surprise attack. His speech received widespread accolades in the press, and the conference ended with journalists writing of the promising “Spirit of Geneva.” Nikita Khrushchev, whose demeanor at the conference made it clear that he was now top man in the post-Stalin “collective leadership” of the Soviet Union, broadly hinted in conversation with Eisenhower that he considered the proposal no more than a means of spying on the Soviet Union. Apart from being a propaganda coup for the United States, the “open skies” proposal anticipated the later practice, which both nations later came to take for granted, of mutual aerial surveillance by orbiting satellites. Eisenhower was well aware of the potential usefulness of surveillance; in fact, at the time he was setting in motion a highly classified program of overflying the Soviet Union with high-attitude U-2 reconnaissance planes, a program that was to have unhappy consequences in his second term.
Between the Geneva conference and the October foreign ministers’ conference at which it became certain that there would be no Soviet acceptance of his program, Eisenhower suffered a major heart attack. He was stricken on 24 September 1955, in Denver, Colorado. Fortunately no international crises or immediate domestic issues required immediate presidential attention. The first session of the Eighty-fourth Congress had adjourned, having enacted a three-year extension of tariff-cutting powers that Eisenhower requested, but not much else of his legislative program.
Eisenhower was soon able to make himself understood and within weeks was conducting rudimentary public business from his bed, using Sherman Adams as his intermediary. He encouraged the cabinet and National Security Council to hold regular meetings. These sessions were presided over by Vice President Nixon, who took pains to make clear that he was serving as a mere stand-in during Eisenhower’s absence, but the meetings did serve as a symbol that the government was continuing to function. Meanwhile, the list of Eisenhower’s bedside visitors gradually increased, and he even held brief meetings with visiting foreign leaders.
Nevertheless, national and international affairs were bound to be in a state of uncertainty during a period when the president of the United States was hospitalized and the extent of his illness was uncertain. Republican party leaders were distressed with the prospect that their one surefire winning candidate for 1956 might not be fit to run. Individual party members who were prominent enough to seek the nomination—most conspicuously, Knowland—began to jockey for position. Paradoxically, and in spite of the fears of the bulk of Republicans that Eisenhower would not be able to run again, his heart attack had the effect of making him feel obliged to seek a second term.
Just as Eisenhower had originally hoped not to have to cap his military career by serving as president, he had throughout his first term considered it likely that he would serve only a single term. The fall of 1955 was the period when he could have helped enhance the stature of whoever seemed most appropriate as his successor or could have sent out signals that would encourage a field of Republican competitors to emerge. During this period, as he gradually increased his governmental activities, he had to await a medical judgment on his own health, which could not be made until early February. By the time his heart specialist reported him fit for a second term, no other Republican was available who seemed likely to win in 1956, and it was manifest that much of what he hoped to attain as president remained unaccomplished. He announced that he was willing to run again.
Although anticipation of the fall election led to a partisan impasse on many of the issues before the second session of the Eighty-fourth Congress, three administration measures of consequence passed. Each initiated the kind of change that, unlike welfare-state policies, Eisenhower unambiguously favored—investment in natural resources and improvements in the nation’s material base. In agricultural policy, the farm subsidy program was adjusted to include a “soil bank,” whereby farmers, rather than being paid for growing foods that later would be stored as surplus, were given incentives to take unprofitable land out of cultivation in order to conserve and improve its topsoil. A multiyear program to improve national parks was also approved. Finally, the largest public works bill in American history was passed, creating the interstate highway program, which was to transform the country by constructing a network of limited-access, high-speed roads.
Eisenhower again ran with Nixon as the vice presidential candidate. He had attempted to persuade Nixon to step down, arguing unconvincingly that Nixon’s career would be helped by serving as secretary of defense rather than seeming to be second man to the president. Unprepared to split the party by dropping Nixon, he did not achieve his aim of substituting a candidate who might be a better vote getter and more to his liking as the 1960 Republican candidate. The Democrats renominated Stevenson, pairing him with the popular Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee as vice presidential candidate. Eisenhower won handily (35.5 million votes to 26 million), increasing his share of the popular vote from 55 percent to almost 58 percent, in what clearly was a personal, not a party, victory. For the first time since early in the nineteenth century, a president was elected without control of Congress by his party.
During the final weeks of the presidential campaign two of the major foreign policy crises of Eisenhower’s presidency erupted. The first was the Hungarian uprising. Since Stalin’s death in 1953, there had been a series of protests of varying degrees of intensity against Soviet control in Eastern European nations. On 22 October 1956, inspired by concessions won by Polish insurgents, Hungarian students and workers began engaging in protests, seeking to broaden the base of the government and to have Soviet troops removed from their nation. After Soviet forces fired on protesters, a revolt broke out. Fighting with primitive weapons, Hungarian rebels called on the United States to help. As in other instances of Eastern European unrest, Eisenhower was unwilling to act on his administration’s rhetorical stance that the Soviet Union should not just be contained but be pushed back. He lodged diplomatic protests, offered food and medical aid, and fostered immigration by Hungarians who escaped to the West before the Soviet Union crushed the rebellion on 4 November. But he would not risk general war or fight a limited war in an area in which the Soviet Union had the advantage and which was not vital to American security.
The other crisis, one that blunted the capacity of the West to brand the Soviet Union as a distinctly aggressive nation, resulted from the coordinated attacks on Egypt by two nations directly allied with the United States—France and Great Britain. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had acted to nationalize the Suez Canal in the summer of 1956. Long controlled by the British, the waterway was viewed by the British and French leaders as necessary for their nations’ economic survival. The two Western nations provided Israel with the military aid to make an ostensible retaliatory attack on Egypt, which had been the base for commando raids on Israel. On 31 October, on the pretext of protecting the canal, the British and French bombed Egypt and dropped paratroopers in Egypt, and Israeli troops entered the Sinai.
By 1956, Eisenhower was far from enthusiastic about the Nasser regime. The previous year he had been disposed to support Egypt’s request for American aid for a major irrigation project—the Aswan High Dam—but Nasser’s policies then took an anti-Western tack. Nasser purchased large supplies of arms from the Eastern bloc, recognized Communist China, and berated the West. As a consequence, the United States withheld support for the Aswan Dam, an action that immediately preceded Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez Canal.
In spite of his aversion to Nasser, Eisenhower was convinced that open military action against Egypt on a patently hypocritical pretext would infuriate Arab and other Third World nations and would not even accomplish its immediate geopolitical purposes of securing the canal and keeping oil flowing to the West. Rather than allow the Soviet Union to take credit for condemning the Anglo-French-Israeli action, the United States introduced a cease-fire resolution in the United Nations. As a result, the United States ironically found itself voting with the Soviet Union on the same side of a resolution directed against a military intervention by its own allies at the very time it was attempting to muster world condemnation of Soviet action in Hungary. One unintended consequence of the Suez episode that would undermine Eisenhower’s long-term goals was British withdrawal from an international role in the Middle East.
The 1956 election victory, as resounding as it was, left Eisenhower with major international problems. Relations with the Soviet Union were less satisfactory than they had been a year earlier and the Western alliance needed mending. His problems in the initial period of his second term, moreover, were not only in foreign policy.
Eisenhower as a Lame-Duck President: 1957-1958
Eisenhower was the first president who was constitutionally limited to two terms under the Twenty-second Amendment. Thus, he took office as an official lame duck. Conventional wisdom is that other leaders will take such an official less seriously, on the assumption they can wait him out rather than reach accommodations with him in order to bring about policy outcomes. Resolving to turn his status as a president who could not run again to his purposes, Eisenhower made it clear that precisely because he did not have to think about reelection, he would feel free to take politically unpopular or unconventional actions.
He began the first session of the Eighty-fifth Congress with an unconventional action, one that, like much that occurs in politics, had unanticipated effects. The budget he was presenting to Congress had been shaped in the latter part of 1956, when he was unable to concentrate single-mindedly on making certain that proposed expenditures were kept to a minimum. Wanting to make clear that budgets of the magnitude of his 1957 recommendation for the 1958 fiscal year should not be viewed as a precedent and evidently also interested in cutting back from his present requests, he took the unprecedented step of having his treasury secretary, George Humphrey, release a statement stressing the importance of holding down spending on the same day the budget went to Congress.
Humphrey’s statement was carefully worded so that it did not contradict Eisenhower by criticizing the present budget request, but in the final minutes of the press conference that followed his statement, Humphrey made headlines by using the colorful phrase “a depression that will curl your hair” to refer to the likely consequence of continued large budgets. The press and, more provocatively, Democrats smarting from the recent election defeat took Humphrey’s statement to be a revolt against Eisenhower’s message of the same day. In subsequent months Humphrey’s statement was frequently mentioned by budget-cutting congressmen, who in particular attacked the foreign-aid and overseas-information programs that were central to Eisenhower’s program but politically vulnerable. Most of the proposed cuts were restored, but only after special messages to Congress on Eisenhower’s part.
While no debacle, Eisenhower’s foray into unconventional lame-duck politics led to the kind of polemics and political gamesmanship he deplored and was not an effective maneuver. Indeed, Eisenhower’s recollection in his memoirs was that the first session of the Eighty-fifth Congress was the low point of his presidency in executive-legislative relations. The session did, he granted, yield one major enactment—the first national civil rights law since Reconstruction.
Eisenhower held the traditional conservative view that changes in deeply held beliefs and traditions cannot be legislated, but rather must evolve from education and changing social conditions. In 1954, when the Supreme Court reversed its 1896 decision allowing racially segregated schools, Eisenhower was quick to point out that since school segregation had been legal for the past half century, it was understandable that southern whites would initially resist the Court’s new reading of the Constitution. He consistently refused to express an opinion about the desegregation decision, arguing that it was improper for a president to enter the judicial domain and pronounce on Court actions. Undoubtedly he also was influenced by his personal background and political base. A number of his prewar army duty stations had been in the South, and some of his strongest supporters were white southerners.
During his first term he had kept his 1952 campaign commitment to take those actions on behalf of civil rights that were clearly within his administrative power as chief executive. These included enforcing desegregation in the District of Columbia and in federal shipyards in the South. The steps taken in desegregating the shipyards typify the kind of nonconfrontational resolution of heated issues that Eisenhower favored. No announcement was made that desegregation was taking place. Instead, teams of maintenance workers were brought in on weekends, when the yards were closed, and instructed to paint out the signs designating race on rest rooms, drinking fountains, and eating places. The employees were quietly encouraged to use any facilities they chose, and the supervisory personnel were instructed not to interfere. Desegregation occurred without conflict. Only after the fact was it made public that Eisenhower had acted on his campaign promise.
A new bill designed to proceed in one of the less deeply emotional, but nevertheless important, areas of racial discrimination—voting rights—was drafted by the Justice Department early in Eisenhower’s second term. Eisenhower’s reasoning in proceeding in the area of voting was that if southern blacks had the vote, their power at the polls would enable them win other rights. The law that eventually emerged from Congress—the Civil Rights Act of 1957—did not have effective enforcement provisions. Its major accomplishment was the creation of the federal Civil Rights Commission, which through its regular reports focused attention on rights abuses, as well as the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice.
School desegregation was a far more explosive issue in the 1950s than voting rights. Many southern white parents were determined at all costs, including use of violence, to ensure that their children were not “mixed” with black children in the schools. Southern political leaders were prepared to back them up. One such leader, Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas, initiated the kind of direct federal-state confrontation over a racial issue that Eisenhower had been striving to avoid.
In compliance with the Supreme Court ruling that desegregation of schools should proceed with “deliberate speed,” the city of Little Rock had instituted a program in which desegregation would begin at the high school level in September 1957 and in later years work down to lower grades. Faubus employed the National Guard to bar black students from entering Little Rock’s Central High School, ostensibly to prevent civil disorder. Eisenhower requested Faubus to meet with him and thought he had won Faubus’ agreement not to interfere with desegregation. Faubus then withdrew the National Guard and stood aside while a massive mob of anti-integrationists descended on Little Rock, ready to do violence to any black students who entered the high school.
Faced with a blatant disruption of the constitutional order, Eisenhower acted decisively by calling the Arkansas National Guard into federal service so that Faubus could no longer command it and by sending regular army troops into Little Rock to disperse the mob and maintain the peace while black students proceeded to attend the high school. The episode was forced on Eisenhower, but when it became necessary for him to take action, he did so effectively, using a military contingent so large that there was no danger of resistance. He explained to associates that he had substituted federal troops for the National Guard in order not to pit Arkansan against Arkansan.
Eisenhower turned to Congress for foreign policy support early in the Eighty-fifth Congress, as well as for backing on his budget and civil rights proposals. In the aftermath of Suez, Egypt became increasingly tied to the Soviet Union, and the Soviet influence in the area increased more broadly. In addition the Middle East was marked by continuing rivalries between the Arab states and exacerbated Arab-Israeli tensions. Eisenhower met in January 1957 with leading congressmen of both parties to discuss the Near Eastern power vacuum and the danger that the Soviet Union might succeed in establishing itself in that strategically vital area. He requested that Congress pass a resolution, similar to the Formosa Resolution, authorizing a United States commitment of troops to the area if any of the governments requested assistance. It was an indication of the decline in Eisenhower’s influence with Congress that the resolution was more hotly debated and approved by a smaller margin than the Formosa Resolution had been.
The most dramatic and politically consequential challenge to Eisenhower’s leadership in 1957 was not the budget, civil rights, Little Rock, or the passage by Congress of the Eisenhower Doctrine, as the resolution on the Middle East came to be called. Rather it was an ostensibly scientific event—the launching by the Soviet Union on 4 October of Sputnik, the first space satellite. By making it obvious that the Soviet Union had achieved the capacity to produce rockets of sufficient power to propel an object into outer space, Sputnik had obvious implications about the respective military strengths of the two superpowers.
In the months before the Sputnik launching, the Soviet Union claimed to have rockets capable of propelling intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) to the United States. The Soviet success in putting a satellite in orbit (and soon after a much larger one) was not matched by the United States until January 1958.
By then, Lyndon Johnson had initiated hearings examining the entire question of American versus Soviet military strength. For the remainder of Eisenhower’s time in office, a “missile gap” was alleged to exist by major forces within the Democratic party, led by Johnson, Senator Stuart Symington of Missouri, and the man who was to win the 1960 Democratic presidential nomination, Senator John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts.
The missile-gap controversy continued through the 1960 presidential campaign and contributed to the strategic point of view that led the Kennedy administration to engage in a massive escalation of missile production between 1961 and 1963. In fact, Eisenhower and a handful of his closest associates were well aware that the Soviet Union had virtually no ICBM production under way. Their information came from the highly declassified aerial photographs of the Soviet Union obtained on high-altitude U-2 plane flights that the Soviet leaders privately protested but did not refer to in public, lest they acknowledge an area in which they were vulnerable to the United States.
Eisenhower sought to reassure Americans and their allies that although the Soviet Union might for the moment have greater capacity to produce long-range rockets, in toto the West was well defended, since it could retaliate against a Soviet attack with bombers and with intermediate-range ballistic missiles based in allied nations. Resisting crash increases in spending for missile development programs, Eisenhower took a number of other steps to enhance and highlight the American commitment to retain sufficient military strength to deter a Soviet attack.
In the immediate aftermath of Sputnik, Eisenhower set up a presidential science advisory council and installed a full-time science adviser in the White House. In the 1958 legislative session he proposed, and succeeded in having enacted, the National Defense Education Act, which made available college scholarships for students specializing in the sciences, mathematics, and foreign languages. He also used the new atmosphere of national emergency to achieve legislative changes in the organization of the Defense Department that he had been seeking since he was army chief of staff. These changes increased the influence of the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff over the individual military services and ostensibly reduced the capacity of the military services to vie with one another for appropriations and duplicate one another’s programs.
The American space program was visibly under way by the 1958 midterm election. In addition, two Cold War episodes that, if they had been differently handled, might have caused voter disaffection had been resolved or had subsided. On 15 July, acting consistently with the Middle East resolution, Eisenhower dispatched a force of United States Marines to Lebanon at the request of its president, Camille Chamoun. The Western-oriented Lebanese government seemed to be threatened by the aftereffects of a proNasser coup in Iraq. By 25 October the situation had fully stabilized and American troops were withdrawn. Meanwhile, in August, on the other side of the world, mainland China resumed shelling the anti-Communist forces on the offshore islands. Armed with superior aircraft weaponry by the United States and provided with a technology for supplying the islands, the besieged Nationalists held. By October, shelling from the mainland was reduced to an alternate-day ritual that permitted supply of the islands. The conflict eventually vanished from the headlines.
Although the Eisenhower administration seemed by election time to have allayed the foreign policy concerns of most members of the general public (though not of its Democratic critics), the 1958 off-year voting saw a major Democratic surge in congressional strength. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats’ strength increased to 282-154, their greatest margin since 1938. In the Senate the increase from 49 to 64 brought the Democrats to their highest level since 1940. Thus, Eisenhower was fated to spend his final two years with a Congress in which a strong bloc of liberal Democrats would be pressing for social legislation that he found unacceptably liberal and for a more costly military commitment than he was prepared to countenance.
The Democratic gains appear mainly to have had economic causes. Late in 1957 the economy slipped into a major recession. By the middle of 1958 the recession was over, but the experience of a significant economic downturn reinforced the long-standing tendency of voters to associate the Republican party with economic hard times. An undoubted further contribution to the 1958 Republican losses and the election of the liberal Eighty-sixth Congress was the controversy in the months immediately before the election that led to the resignation of the chief White House staff aide, Sherman Adams. When he was governor of New Hampshire, Adams and his family had formed a friendship with the family of the New England textile manufacturer Bernard Goldfine. Early in 1958, congressional investigations of federal regulatory commissions revealed that Adams had telephoned the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to inquire about cases then pending that had a bearing on whether Goldfine’s company was labeling its products in a manner consistent with federal regulations. Further, it came out that Adams had received gifts from Goldfine—a vicuna coat, free use of a hotel suite in Boston, and a Persian rug.
Adams explained that the gifts were part of a pattern of gift giving between his family and Goldfine’s, a result of their long friendship. He had intended his phone calls to the FTC as no more than a normal White House service request for information, he maintained, although he now recognized that he had been indiscreet. Eisenhower promptly announced that having acknowledged his error, Adams was to return to his duties as a valued White House aide. No sooner had Eisenhower taken this step than further hearings showed Goldfine to be an entrepreneur who habitually made gifts to public officials and declared them as business expenses. The gifts to Adams took on a new and more questionable meaning.
The recession-beleaguered Republican candidates for reelection were uniform in urging Adams to resign. Eisenhower also was quickly made aware by many of his closest supporters in the Republican party that Adams had become a liability. Evidently this became Eisenhower’s own view. Nevertheless, having put himself behind Adams, he did not fire him; rather, he tried indirection, commissioning Vice President Nixon to have an “objective” conversation with Adams that was heavily stacked with arguments for resignation.
Adams declared that he would follow any orders he received from the president, but that he would not resign on his own in the face of unfair charges. Rather than personally order Adams to resign, Eisenhower commissioned Meade Alcorn, the Republican national chairman, to inform him that he was damaging the party’s electoral chances and that Eisenhower knew this to be the case but refused personally to fire Adams. With so blunt a message Adams resigned, but so late that questions about the propriety of his performance were grist for the midterm campaign.
“The New Eisenhower”: 1959-1961
In January 1959, Eisenhower seemed to be entering his final two years in office as the lamest of lame ducks. The number of congressmen who were ideologically uncongenial to his policies had substantially increased. He had lost the services of Adams. In addition, Secretary of State Dulles was terminally ill with cancer. As it turned out, the period from 1959 to the end of his presidency came be viewed in the press and by many politicians as the period of “the new Eisenhower.” Eisenhower was portrayed as a hitherto politically aloof president who had belatedly begun to employ the resources of his office in the political area with a vigor reminiscent of the combative styles of Roosevelt and Truman.
Eisenhower had, of course, not previously eschewed politics. He had been practicing a delicate approach of bargaining privately with congressional leaders, personally and through his personal emissaries, in order to weld legislative majorities in three closely divided Congresses. But during the period of the Eighty-sixth Congress he increasingly found it to his advantage to speak out boldly against and veto legislation that was plainly in conflict with his conception of good public policy.
Ironically, though he was less able to get policy results from the new Congress, his adversarial relationship with a major bloc in it made him seem more like an activist president. Eisenhower furthered this impression by taking highly visible steps to create a political climate that might foster an accommodation with the Soviet Union, though he took the first such step as a result of an error in communication. In the spring of 1959, he was privately urged by British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan to take part with the allied leaders and Soviet Premier Khrushchev in a summit conference on such points of contention as whether West Berlin was to remain under Western control. Meanwhile, Khrushchev, who also favored a summit, proposed publicly that he and Eisenhower exchange personal visits to each other’s countries. Eisenhower’s general view was that unless summit conferences and personal diplomacy by national leaders followed Soviet concessions or could otherwise be seen as likely to bring about change, they would create complacency in the West and provide the Soviet Union with propaganda forums.
Eisenhower instructed Under Secretary of State Robert Murphy to pass a message of qualified acceptance to the Soviet leader Frol Kozlov, who was then completing an official visit to the United States. In so doing, he meant to stipulate that if there were previous Soviet concessions, he would be open to a summit and an exchange of visits. His qualifications were lost in the transmission, and he discovered to his chagrin that he had conveyed an invitation that was not contingent on some initial act by Khrushchev, such as the withdrawal of the Soviet threat to West Berlin.
Making a tactical virtue of what had inadvertently become a necessity, Eisenhower told reporters that only his personal prestige was at risk in a meeting with Khrushchev and that the stakes were too great for him not to attempt an unorthodox approach to seeking a better understanding with the Soviet leadership. Before Khrushchev’s ten-day tour of the United States in September 1959, Eisenhower visited Chancellor Konrad Adenauer of Germany and President Charles de Gaulle of France to stress that he would not make concessions to the Soviet leader without full consultation with them.
Khrushchev’s lively ability to command press attention through his American trip persuaded Eisenhower that his own visit to the Soviet Union would at minimum have Cold War propaganda value, advertising to the world that his nation was deeply intent on settling East-West tensions. Even though foreign ministers’ conferences were regularly stalemated, he also concluded that some progress in negotiation might be possible at another great-power summit meeting, since his private discussions with Khrushchev had led to a statement that the Soviet Union would not initiate unilateral action affecting West Berlin.
In the winter of 1959-1960, Eisenhower made two international goodwill trips, greeting foreign leaders and publics with a vigor that belied his age. In December 1959 he employed the new technology of the jet plane to visit eleven European, Asian, and North African countries on a nineteen-day trip, replete with enthusiastically cheering crowds as he traveled in motorcades, and earnestly spoke of his nation’s desire for peace. His party flew to Rome and then visited the capitals of Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Iran, Greece, Tunisia, France, Spain, and Morocco.
Events in the Caribbean helped ensure that the other goodwill trip Eisenhower was able to take before the spring summit conference would be in Latin America. The Cuban government of Fidel Castro had seemed to be fundamentally nationalistic when it overthrew that nation’s military dictatorship in January 1959, but the Eisenhower administration soon became persuaded that the Castro government was Communist-controlled and would provide the Soviet Union with a base for exercising influence in the western hemisphere. While seeking to destabilize Castro’s government (for example, by barring sugar imports from Cuba and training Cuban émigrés for guerrilla war on the island), Eisenhower also worked to strengthen American ties to other Latin American countries. Choosing the four southernmost countries in the hemisphere for his next trip, in February 1960 he visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, coordinating these visits with announcements of increases in aid to Latin America. On these trips he also had overwhelming receptions.
Now Eisenhower, rather than Khrushchev, was making international headlines. He hoped his trips would contribute to an international climate in which the Soviet leaders would be more likely to agree to realistic steps to reduce international tensions, both at the summit conference that now had been scheduled and during his follow-up trip to the Soviet Union. Long-pending negotiations between American and Soviet diplomatic representatives and scientists had led to numerous proposals and counterproposals for arms control and nuclear test bans, and it was possible that in a changed international climate, firm agreements might be reached on these matters.
On 1 May 1960, two weeks before the summit meeting of the Western and Soviet leaders in Paris, the fateful U-2 episode occurred. Anticipating disarmament negotiations, Eisenhower had ordered a final surveillance flight over an area of the Soviet Union that he considered to have been inadequately examined for possible nuclear and missile sites. When the U-2 failed to return, a cover story was released that a plane on a meteorological expedition was lost and might have strayed over Soviet air space. Eisenhower had been authorizing overflights on the premise that if at any time the Soviet Union developed the capacity to shoot down a high-altitude “spy plane,” the vehicle, including not only its film but also the pilot, would be destroyed, making proof of surveillance impossible.
As it turned out, the Soviet Union recovered the plane, film, and pilot, Francis Gary Powers, who admitted to his mission. The Soviet announcement was not made until after Eisenhower had personally denied that such flights occurred. Eisenhower immediately reversed himself and acknowledged that flights had taken place for five years under his direction and that they were necessary to provide the West with reliable information about Soviet military capabilities and intentions.
Under these unpropitious circumstances, Eisenhower traveled to Paris on 15 May to meet with the Soviet premier. He appropriately titled the chapter in his memoirs on the Paris meeting “The Summit That Never Was.” Bringing with him the wreckage of the U-2 plane, Khrushchev insisted that Eisenhower apologize and punish those responsible for its flight—a responsibility Eisenhower already had personally assumed. The demand was couched in terms that left no room for Eisenhower to proceed and effectively terminated his presidential peace-making efforts, including his projected visit to the Soviet Union, although he did make a goodwill trip to Asia.
By early in 1960, Vice President Nixon had Succeeded in building up enough delegate support to ensure him the Republican nomination. Running to succeed a still extraordinarily popular president with whom he had been closely associated, Nixon was a more promising bet for election than Senator John F. Kennedy, the Democratic candidate. Although Nixon was better known and Kennedy’s Catholicism cost him votes, the Massachusetts senator won in one of the closest elections in American history.
Eisenhower was deeply disappointed by the Republican defeat and the resulting likelihood that many of the policies to which he was committed would be reversed. He turned to preparing the Kennedy administration for its accession to power, personally briefing Kennedy and his associates on two occasions and ordering that all government agencies cooperate with Kennedy’s appointees in easing the transition to the new administration.
Aftermath and Retrospect
A few months after Eisenhower left office, Congress restored to him the lifetime rank of General of the Army. His military service, which had begun at West Point in 1911 and continued until he resigned to run for office in 1952, resumed. As had been the case before 1952, Eisenhower assumed the nonpolitical status of a member of the military, although he now felt free to take a moderately active part in the Republican party and speak out for Republican domestic programs.
Behind the nonpolitical facade, he maintained the same private preoccupation with the detailed working of public affairs that had marked his pre-presidential career. Private diary entries show that Eisenhower was displeased with the statecraft of both Kennedy and Johnson. Nevertheless, he held it to be his responsibility to support them in public on matters affecting national security. Thus, he made a point of being photographed with Kennedy after his successor’s efforts to launch an invasion of Cuba failed, and he met unofficially with Johnson, advising him at length on the conduct of the Vietnam conflict. By the time of Nixon’s nomination in 1968, Eisenhower was bedridden after multiple heart attacks. He nevertheless broadcast a message to the Republican convention from his hospital bed and advised the Nixon administration until a few weeks before his death on 28 March 1969.
In retrospect, many of Eisenhower’s accomplishments seem to have been what from a latter-day perspective might be described as constructively negative. They were outcomes that did not occur, but that might have ensued were it not for his efforts to resolve conflicts and prevent potential catastrophes. The conflict in Korea was ended; further fighting in Indochina was avoided; McCarthy was defused; inflation rates were held down; the Western alliance held fast; and in spite of many circumstances that might have provoked war, the seven-and-a-half years after the Korean settlement saw no American troops in combat.
Eisenhower’s dual policy of limiting the expansion of the welfare state and of curbing costly, potentially provocative military escalation was reversed by his successors. The Kennedy administration greatly expanded missile production. (In later years, opponents of an American weapons buildup often cited Eisenhower’s warning in his farewell address against the influence of the “military-industrial complex.”) And the Johnson administration expanded welfare programs massively. By the final decades of the twentieth century, however, there was renewed interest in curbing domestic expenditures and limiting weaponry. And there was a new fascination with the statecraft of a president who had succeeded in keeping the support of Americans for two full terms. Thus, the Eisenhower presidency seems both to have had important consequences during his time in office and to provide lessons for future presidencies.