My dad was a lifelong Democrat. As a child of the Great Depression, he was very loyal to the party of FDR. His only exception was Dwight David Eisenhower. Like most World War II vets, my dad liked Ike, voting for him in 1952 and 1956.
Although I am a student of history, I never knew much about him. In high school and college we never quite got through the curriculum to study the Eisenhower years. As I grew older, I just accepted the conventional wisdom that he presided over the post war recovery that included returning GIs, babies booming, suburbs being built, and the rise of the corporate man. It was a paradise for white people. Not so much for everybody else.
I was wrong about Ike. Having just read Eisenhower In War And Peace by Jean Edward Smith, I have a whole new appreciation for the man.
He commanded the largest multinational force ever assembled, mounted an unprecedented cross-channel invasion of Europe and mastered logistical problems on a scale never encountered. He coordinated the war effort with egoists like FDR, Churchill, De Gaulle, George Marshall, Bernard Montgomery, and George Patton. Most agree that no one else had the patience, temperament and political skills to get this pantheon of alphas to work together. He commanded as a leader. He did not dodge difficult decisions or pass the buck. When D-Day, June 6, 1944, came around and bad weather threatened, it was Ike, and Ike alone, who said it was a go.
Other than FDR, Eisenhower was the most successful president of the 20th century. He ended a three-year stalemated war in Korea with honor. He resisted calls for a preventive war against Russia and China, and faced down Khrushchev over Berlin. He believed the country should avoid war unless national survival were at stake. He stayed out of Vietnam. He made Britain, France, and Israel stand down from seizing the Suez Canal.
Domestically, he tamed inflation, slashed defense spending, balanced the federal budget, warned of the military-industrial complex, and worked with moderate Democrats better than with conservative Republicans. He wanted to be president of all the people.
His Supreme Court appointees, Earl Warren and William Brennan, began a social justice campaign that was the foundation of profound change for the better. He began the process of having the American Bar Association vet federal judges. In what he later said was his hardest decision, he sent federal troops to Little Rock to enforce the District Court’s desegregation order.
He was a progressive conservative. Of course he was a man of his age. We are all of our time and place. He shared the biases and prejudices of his time, but he was not biased or prejudiced as to his honor, veracity and decency. He was committed to the principles of a democracy. He was masterful at reading and understanding what the American people at the time wanted. At no point in his eight years as president did his favorability fall below 64 percent. Year after year he was voted the most respected man in America.
On April 2, 1989, Eisenhower was buried in a modest ceremony, attended by his family. One of the greatest generals in history was buried in a government-issue, $80 pine coffin, wearing his famous Ike jacket with no medals or decorations other than his insignia of rank.
Whatever has happened to our country?