This week, a long-awaited memorial to President Dwight D. Eisenhower will be dedicated near the U.S. Capitol, after all sorts of arguments over its design. Less controversial, I suspect, will be the tributes offered up in Ike’s memory. He has recently been rising in the estimation of historians, ranking fifth in C-Span’s last Presidential Historians Survey in 2017. That’s the highest of any president since FDR.
To be sure, Ike’s reputation owes a lot to his rather impressive prepresidential military résumé as Supreme Allied Commander in the Western European theater of World War II and the architect of the D-Day Invasion at Normandy. But he’s been enjoying a burst of sunshine over his presidency as well. “We are in a polarized moment,” William I. Hitchcock, the author of The Age of Eisenhower: America and the World in the 1950s, told the New York Times in a report on the memorial. “We’re going to be in a polarized moment for a long time. But maybe there’s a place for an actual physical site where you can reflect about what life might be like in a nonpolarized world.”
More specifically, the savage trajectory of Ike’s own Republican Party under the current president’s stewardship has created some nostalgia for Eisenhower’s moderate ideology, often regarded as representing a lost alternative path for the GOP had the conservative movement not conquered all, as my colleague Jonathan Chait recently suggested:
For a period of time, the Republican Party seemed to be following the same course as right-of-center parties in other industrialized democracies today. Dwight Eisenhower accepted the contours and legitimacy of the New Deal while fighting many of the particulars. The conservative movement’s purpose was to oppose and reverse Eisenhower’s political vision for the Republican Party.
While there is no question that Ike’s steady bipartisanship and “progressive conservatism” place him miles away from Trump’s brand of Republicanism, the discontinuities between his politics and policies and those of the very nonprogressive conservatives who gradually took over the GOP after his presidency are easy to exaggerate. Yes, the early “movement conservatives” and their first champion Barry Goldwater disdained the Eisenhower administration as a “dime store New Deal.” But later and more successful conservatives (including Goldwater’s heir Ronald Reagan) made many of the same accommodations to political reality that Ike made, including wariness about taking on Social Security and Medicare.
Most importantly, though, Eisenhower consummated the aggressive anti-communist internationalism that soon became central to movement conservatism until Trump came along to bring back the paleoconservative America First unilateralism and isolationism rooted in opposition to the very war on Hitler that Ike won.
Historians have sometimes viewed Eisenhower as the nemesis to anti-communist witch-hunter Joseph McCarthy. In fact, Ike was an ally of McCarthy, so long as the demagogic Wisconsin senator was attacking Democrats, as Michael J. Birkner of Gettysburg College recalled:
In his memoirs, Ike noted that “everywhere [I traveled in the fall of 1952] I urged the need for uprooting Communism wherever it might be found in the United States.” Ike promised a new team in Washington that was up to the task of revamping the government and protecting our defense secrets.
Campaigning for the ticket on Eisenhower’s right were two prominent anticommunists: Wisconsin Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and California Senator (and Eisenhower’s running mate) Richard M. Nixon. McCarthy had won the hearts of conservative Republicans with his slashing attacks on “twenty years of treason,” and he continued through the campaign year to insist that only a Republican administration could possibly find and destroy the enemy within our ramparts.
Eisenhower and his militantly anti-communist Secretary of State John Foster Dulles never flagged in developing the Cold War strategy more often associated with later administrations. After the French colonial defeat in Indochina, the administration blew up the Geneva Accords that provided for free 1956 elections and a unified Vietnam, paving the way to the quagmire of the 1960s and 1970s. Ike was a staunch supporter of the U.S. war effort in Vietnam until his death in 1969. He was, moreover, a pioneer in covert counterrevolutionary operations; he approved CIA-sponsored coups (the agency was led by John Foster Dulles’s brother Allen) against popular left-wing governments in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954, and ordered the initial planning for what would become the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. And throughout the Eisenhower administration, the official strategic doctrine of the U.S. government toward communist aggression was “massive retaliation,” which speaks for its terrifying self.
On the domestic front, Ike is now often lionized for his civil-rights record, particularly as the GOP has steadily drifted away from its ancient commitment to racial justice. He did, to his credit, propose and sign in 1957 the first civil-rights legislation since Reconstruction, though it was very limited in scope and effect. More dramatically, in that same year he sent federal troops into Little Rock to enforce the court-ordered desegregation of public schools.
But as Adam Serwer explained in 2014, Ike’s civil-rights reputation has been exaggerated, though it compared favorably to that of Democrats who were afraid to alienate their then-powerful southern white-supremacist wing:
Eisenhower opposed discrimination but seemed to sympathize far more with the white southerners whose lives would be disrupted by the end of Jim Crow than blacks dwelling under its boot heel. He was an incrementalist skeptical of federal power who often repeated the ideological belief that laws could not shape culture, despite pursuing laws that would extend — albeit modestly compared to Johnson-era efforts — federal authority to protect Americans’ civil rights. Eisenhower would say, “You cannot change people’s hearts merely by laws …”
Before the Brown [v. Board of Education] decision was reached, Eisenhower invited [Chief Justice Earl] Warren to dinner at the White House. Eisenhower, Warren would later recall, told him that white southerners “are not bad people. All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big overgrown Negroes.”
Eisenhower’s share of the Black vote did rise from a tepid 24 percent in 1952 (when he had a lot of white-segregationist support) to 39 percent in 1956, but while that seems very high now, his more conservative vice-president Richard Nixon won 32 percent in 1960 against the man now regarded as a civil-rights icon, John F. Kennedy.
Beyond civil rights, the Eisenhower administration was indeed moderate and constructive, but hardly progressive in domestic policy. His major accomplishment was the initiation of the interstate highway system. But his favorite adviser was, by most accounts, Secretary of the Treasury George Humphrey, a former steel magnate who was a fanatical advocate for fiscal discipline. It was no accident that the Eisenhower administration experienced two economic recessions.
As for his leadership of the Republican Party, Ike’s reputed ideological centrism was limited. He was infuriated in 1960 when Nixon (his designated successor) agreed to a series of platform demands made by New York’s genuinely liberal Governor Nelson Rockefeller. And he never went public with misgivings about Goldwater’s 1964 takeover of the GOP, loyally supporting the nominee. Indeed, his appearance at the 1964 Republican convention is most remembered for this utterance, which wouldn’t be out of place in a speech by the current president:
My friends, we are Republicans. If there is any finer word in the entire field of partisan politics, I have not yet heard it. So let us particularly scorn the divisive efforts of those outside our family, including sensation-seeking columnists and commentators, because, my friends, I assure you that these are people who couldn’t care less about the good of our party.
The one undisputed Eisenhower legacy that Republicans rightly cherish was his own electoral record: He broke a 20-year GOP losing streak in presidential elections with a popular-vote landslide in 1952, winning 55 percent of the vote and carrying Democratic bastions Florida, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. He then improved on it in 1956, winning 57 percent of the vote and adding Louisiana to his column. His average job-approval rating from Gallup over eight years was 65 percent, the highest since the pollster began measuring under FDR.
But this popularity was personal, and probably owed a lot to the hero’s war record. His party definitely did not benefit. Republicans lost both Houses of Congress during Ike’s first midterm election in 1954 (not recovering the Senate until 1980 or the House until 1994), and during the course of his presidency, the GOP lost more net state legislative seats than has either party since Hoover.
Yes, Ike was a great soldier, a fine diplomat, an outstanding presidential candidate, and a very good president if you like balancing budgets and crushing the democratic aspirations of smaller, weaker countries. Compared to Trump, his protégé Nixon, or several other successors, his honesty was impressive, though he did embarrass the country by getting caught lying about surveillance flights over the USSR. And his famous warning about the military-industrial complex in his farewell address remains prescient and sometimes urgent, though it may have been motivated by pique about JFK’s criticism of an imaginary “missile gap” with the USSR during the just-completed 1960 campaign.
But Dwight D. Eisenhower was a conventional conservative in some aspects of domestic policy, and one of the architects of conservative foreign and defense policy. Liberals shouldn’t burn much incense at his newly unveiled shrine.