Presidents of the USA
Before George Washington | John Adams | Thomas Jefferson | William Henry Harrison
The Life of Abraham Lincoln | Legacy of Abraham Lincoln | Death of Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis | Ulysses S Grant | William Howard Taft
Dwight D Eisenhower - Early Life | President Dwight D Eisenhower
John Fitzgerald Kennedy | John F Kennedy Administration | Assassination of John F Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson | Richard Milhous Nixon | Bushisms of George W Bush
I cannot conceive of any circumstance that could drag out of me permission to consider me for any political post from dog-catcher to Grand High Supreme King of the Universe
In American history, three men have emerged from the three most important conflicts in the nation's history to become the President of the United States of America. George Washington was elected by acclaim, and served as the first President after the Revolutionary War. Ulysses S Grant helped win the Civil War for the Union Side, and then helped with the Reconstruction of the Confederacy as President. The most recent example of a General becoming Commander-in-Chief was Dwight D Eisenhower, known as Ike, who became a hero after the Allied victory in World War II and then became interested in politics.
Party, Party, Party!
Whenever someone asked him to run for President, Eisenhower always insisted that he had no interest in running and was not attracted by politics. However, he did know something about his politics - he was a Republican, conservative domestically and an internationalist. Of course, at that time, the Republican party was largely isolationist in foreign policy, so Ike had a hard time agreeing with some of his Republican colleagues. The foremost isolationist was Senator Robert A Taft of Ohio, who was running for President at every opportunity he had. In the election of 1948, Taft and Governor Thomas Dewey of New York fought for the nomination, and Ike stayed out. He realised that it might be a blow to his prestige to get involved in a nasty fight over the nomination, and worse - he might lose. He didn't get involved, and took a few other jobs at the time, including one trivial post...what was it? Ah, yes - Supreme Commander of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
Interestingly, shortly after Ike returned from Europe having won the war (at a time when both parties wanted him on their team), Truman offered to give Ike the Democratic nomination for President in 1948, and serve as his running mate. Ike insisted that he was born a Republican and disagreed with the Democrats on too many issues, such as labour. Ike was avowedly pro-business and would be Republican. In 1952 Truman would again offer to get Ike the nomination, but he was again turned down.
Dewey ran against Harry Truman in 1948. Truman was wildly unpopular, so Ike assumed that Dewey, for whom he intended to vote, would be elected and would stand for re-election in 1952. This would mean that the Republican nomination wouldn't be open until 1956, and Eisenhower would be much too old to begin a political career. Oddly enough though, Truman beat Dewey, and Ike was thrust onto the political scene again. 'Ike Clubs' sprang up, and a grass-roots effort to get him to run for President began. Eisenhower tried not to concentrate on this, but he couldn't help but pay some attention to it. Overall, he did not want the isolationist faction of the Republican party to triumph in the election of 1952, because it was a foregone conclusion that the Republicans would win the Presidency in 1952. He was willing to back that great isolationist, Robert Taft, and withdraw himself from consideration in the race, if Taft agreed to support NATO. After meeting with Taft, Eisenhower decided that he didn't want the Senator to be President. Taft was a very divisive figure - in fact, Truman decided to run again only if Taft was nominated.
All the while, Eisenhower had maintained an air of duty. He said that if he felt a duty to serve as President and if there was a general consensus in the country that he should serve the high role, he would leave his NATO job and go to the White House. He met with several prominent Republicans who disliked Taft, including Senator Henry Cabot Lodge and Thomas Dewey, and said that he would allow himself to be 'drafted' into the role of President, but would not seek the nomination or victory in the election. It was his stern belief that the seeker was never as well-liked as the sought. Lodge decided to act on his behalf, and entered Ike in the primaries. Ike finally realised that he needed to run, or the nation would choose between ultra-conservative isolationist Taft and liberal internationalist Truman. He decided that he was going to run.
Eisenhower got a late start, but made up for it with an energetic campaign. He scored victories across the nations in primary elections, but the party machinery was in favour of Taft, whose nickname was 'Mr Republican'. In the end, with some help from California's Senator Richard Nixon1 with his state delegation, Eisenhower pulled off a victory at the convention and won the Republican nomination. Immediately, Ike decided to talk to Taft and try to reconcile with the 'old guard' ultra-conservative wing of the party. Eisenhower ended up forced to make efforts to appease Taft and the old guard throughout his Presidency to build a viable government.
One old guard Republican that Eisenhower had to deal with was the now infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, who had accused General George Marshall of being un-American. Eisenhower still admired Marshall from the days they worked together, and occasionally attempted to defend his old boss.
Countdown to E-Day
So just like that, Eisenhower was the Republican nominee for President of the United States. He campaigned vigorously, all across the nation. In fact, he campaigned so enthusiastically that the Democratic nominee, Adlai Stevenson, couldn't make an issue of the age of the General. The crowds that met him wherever he went were similarly enthusiastic, with their now famous 'I Like Ike' buttons and bumper-stickers and the hero worship that must inevitably come with supporting a Five-Star General. Two specific events occurred during the campaign that are well-known.
Nixon had been a pretty good running-mate. He was campaigning vigourously and was slowly becoming more friendly with Eisenhower. In the middle of the campaign, a story broke alleging that Nixon had a secret slush fund. Most of Ike's advisors told him to dump Nixon, but Eisenhower kept a cool head and waited to see what happened. Nixon ended up broadcasting an emotional vindication of his actions and challenging the Democratic nominees to make their finances public - which angered Ike because he would be the only candidate who had not opened up his finances for the people, and he would have to. Eisenhower really didn't want to have to do that, and held a grudge against Nixon for a while. When he next saw Nixon, though, he put his arm around his running-mate and said, 'You're my boy'.
Later, Ike happened to be campaigning in Wisconsin, the home state of Senator McCarthy. He told his staff to write up something defending General Marshall so that he could insert it in his speech in McCarthy's back yard. This was thought to be too inflammatory, and eventually the idea was killed, but it got leaked to the press, which made a big fuss over the issue. During one of his speeches in Wisconsin, Ike toned down his anti-McCarthy rhetoric and dialled up the anti-Communist part. At the end, McCarthy, who had been present, shook hands with Ike, thus adding to the scandal.
As election day neared, Eisenhower enjoyed a good lead in the polls. Eisenhower was cautious, though, remembering how Thomas Dewey's defeat by Truman had been a complete surprise in 1948. He helped seal up his victory by announcing that he would go to Korea if elected President to try to figure out a way to end the war. He ended up winning the election in a landslide, taking 442 out of 531 electoral votes and winning the popular vote by more than six million votes. He took the oath of office on 20 January, 1953 and became the 34th President of the United States of America.
Eisenhower was better prepared than most for the job that lay ahead of him. He was used to staying up very late, waking up very early, making important decisions and using his advisors. Though he preferred to be modest, he knew that he was one of the few Presidents who was qualified and prepared for the job when he entered it.
He set up a strong cabinet, with no personal friends...just experienced, intelligent people who he thought would do their jobs well. Many of his appointees were corporate executives - such as Charles Wilson, president of General Motors as Secretary of Defense, and George Humphrey, president of the Mark A Hanna Company2 as Secretary of the Treasury. He wisely put a Taft supporter and a Democrat in his cabinet.
Eisenhower selected as Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, a right-wing Republican ex-Senator who was superlatively uninteresting3. Dulles had been a leader in foreign policy in the Republican party for years, but since they had been shut out of power, this job was his first chance to use that experience. Contemporary observers claimed that it was Dulles who dominated the foreign policy of the Eisenhower administration. Sherman Adams, Chief of Staff to Ike, claimed that the President gave Dulles a free hand and a wide responsibility in foreign affairs. Later historians have argued that far from taking a back-seat, Eisenhower 'used' Dulles as a spokesman and a lightning rod to defuse attacks in Congress away from himself.
He had a good first term altogether, and because of continuing prosperity, Ike was re-elected to the White House for a second term in 1956. He again faced Adlai Stevenson, and crushed him by an even wider margin. However, during the 1954 mid-terms, the 1956 elections and the 1958 mid-terms, the Democrats won seats to control both houses of Congress, making Ike's job even harder.
Golf and Rest
Ike liked golf. He is said to have spent as many as 150 days a year on the golf course. He had the concentration for the game and the temper for it too. He may have even looked good in the silly clothes. However, that isn't to say he was any good at the game. Golf provided an outlet for his temper and his skills at cursing. Once, when he hit a bad shot, he accidentally threw his club at a fellow golfer's shin and almost fractured it. One day in 1955, he was interrupted four times during a golf game, which bothered him to no end. That night, he endured a massive heart attack, causing the stock market to lose 14 billion dollars. His other hobby was painting. As far as historians can piece together, his paintings, though terrible, never hurt the stock market.
The phrase 'Eisenhower Luck' developed after Ike ordered the D-Day invasion and the weather suddenly cleared up. Occasionally, remarkable things would happen in his favour, but not so much on the golf course. In fact, Eisenhower has a tree named after him at Augusta National because he always hit it. Probably frustrated with his poor scores, he had a putting green installed on the White House South Lawn. It was infested with squirrels4. When his successor to the White House, John Kennedy, moved in, he complained that Ike left spike marks from his golf shoes all over the floor of the Oval Office.
Eisenhower said that the happiest moment of his life was in 1968 when, aged 77 years old, he hit his only hole-in-one shot on a golf course.
In Maryland, there was a camp that was a vacation home for the President. FDR5 had nicknamed it Shangri-La. However, Ike's wife didn't like it, and insisted it be modernised. It was, and when the Eisenhowers returned to the camp, the President named it after his grandson - it was called Camp David.
The massive heart attack that Ike suffered after a poor golf game was just the first of several health problems that would plague him. In fact, he never really felt good, but was good at disguising it for the public. He actually had six heart attacks over the course of his life, and some during his Presidency - Vice President Nixon took over whenever Eisenhower was too ill to run the country. Eisenhower had been a heavy smoker all his life, until he gave up cold turkey after having been told to cut down. He reasoned that it was better not to smoke at all than to have to limit yourself.
One particularly scary time was when Ike suffered a stroke in 1957, which rendered him unable to speak at times. It was discovered when the President went to bed, then got up and was unable to speak to his wife, Mamie, in coherent words. For weeks afterwards, he was often unable to express himself to his satisfaction.
Most people who lived in America during the 1950s recall the vast inequalities and tensions between the majority white population and minorities. Remembered one observer:
During the fifties, we were locked into segregated public facilities - schools, restaurants, hotels, even parks and swimming pools. 'Brown vs Board of Education' gave the promise of integration of public schools. But the courts didn't address segregation in other public facilities. Blacks weren't even allowed to use the same drinking fountains as whites.
Right to vote? Forget it. It was the era of having to answer questions to qualify to register and vote. And the questions asked blacks and other minorities were intended to disqualify them. There were also poll taxes in many places.
Eisenhower and the Republicans liked things just the way they were. They did absolutely nothing to improve the lives or protect the civil rights of our minority population. Hispanics were treated very badly in Texas and the southwest, African Americans throughout the south.
Ike didn't want to antagonise the southerners and force them to integrate all at once, so he let things happen slowly. He did not want to provoke riots and other drastic measures to combat integration - and in that respect, he succeeded. Eisenhower failed to speak out about the landmark 'Brown vs Board of Education' case, though he did help enforce it by bringing in the military to protect the 'Little Rock Nine' in Arkansas. He also reluctantly helped in the complete integration of the armed forces.
Foreign Policy and the Arms Race
In spite of Leave it to Beaver and later programs portraying the 1950s as a gentler, safer era, you should think about the reality of living with monthly 'duck and cover' drills at school, family escape plans and ads in the newspapers for fallout shelters. My generation was the first one to grow up with the threat of planetary annihilation hanging over our heads. While Ike played golf, the Soviets locked up Eastern Europe, the cold war became very nasty indeed and the arms race was off and running.
Eisenhower was intent on getting a balanced budget, and decided that the best place to cut expenditures was in the military. Of course, this bothered some Republicans who wanted a 'Fortress America' and a strong military, but Ike insisted that the military strength and safety of the nation were two different things. Eisenhower did not see the point in an arms race, when money could be spent on schools and hospitals across the country6. In one famous speech, he said:
Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
In that spirit, Eisenhower worked hard to create an armistice to end the Korean War, finally succeeding in July, 1953. Throughout a number of crises, Ike refused to start a war or allow Americans to die, and once said:
The United States never lost a soldier or a foot of ground in my administration. We kept the peace. People asked how it happened - by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that.
When, eventually, Eisenhower was ready to face the challenge of the arms race, by suggesting an unsupervised comprehensive test-ban, the U-2 incident intervened. Ironically, the flight that Gary Powers was on had been one that Eisenhower had instinctively called off, but his technical advisors had insisted the flight was necessary. Plans to meet with Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev fell through. The failure to stop the arms race was not entirely his fault, after all, he tried to reach out to the Soviets with such programs as 'Atoms for Peace', 'Open Skies' and other optimistically-titled plans, only to see them killed by the Soviets. When he left office in 1961, the tensions and dangers and the costs of the Cold War were higher than they had ever been. In his own eyes, Eisenhower saw his greatest failure in foreign affairs to have been the failure to achieve world peace.
One important legacy that Eisenhower left was in putting American military advisors in Vietnam. This American group would be strengthened and the conflict would escalate under his successor and under his successor's successor, leading to the Vietnam War and the death of thousands of American sons.
McCarthyism and McCarthywasm
Eisenhower believed that all Senator Joseph McCarthy wanted was headlines and to cause fear with his investigations into 'un-American' activities. He wanted to see McCarthy eliminated from public life. However, Eisenhower would not publicly stand up to him, so McCarthy was able to do much damage to civil liberties, the army, the Republican party, individuals and the executive branch. Eisenhower's only significant contribution to stopping the man can be seen in his obstruction of McCarthy's wishes to obtain documents and personnel relating to the Executive.
Ike figured that if he left the Senator alone, and didn't give him any attention, he would go away. He didn't want to cooperate with him, but didn't want to fight with him...he didn't even want to mention him by name in public. He just wanted him and many of the old guard Republicans to go away. The President wasn't fundamentally opposed to McCarthy's belief that there were communists in the government - it was his methods that he refused to condone. Ike's handling of McCarthy did him no good but much harm. As McCarthy burned himself out, Ike's only consolation was the speed at which, as he described it, McCarthyism became 'McCarthywasm'.
Ike knew that balancing the budget was inextricably linked to a prosperous economy, and he cut the defence budget that Truman had hiked up to record levels. He didn't believe that spending that much money was necessary for the defence of the nation, so it all worked out for him. The 1950s ended up being a fairly prosperous time, overall. Unemployment was low, as was inflation, new homes were being built across the nation, and even with the constant Cold War fear, people were generally enjoying a better quality of life than before. Not a bad set of achievements for a poor boy from Kansas.
Controversy and Politics
If Ike was closer to the Democratic party by being an internationalist, he actually also had a domestic agenda that reeked of Democratic influence. He expanded Social Security - a pet issue of Democrats and a key part of Franklin Roosevelt's 'New Deal', which Ike said he hated. He also spent money - quite a bit of money - on creating the interstate highway system, now used by Americans for everything from commuting to family trips to DisneyWorld.
Ike needed to be a moderate, to some extent. At that time, many more Americans were Democrats than Republicans, and the old guard's constituency was a minority in the country. He was not going to adhere strictly to the Republican party's platform - that meant he didn't want to cut taxes or raise defence spending if that meant an unbalanced budget, just as he didn't want to rebuke the Yalta agreement if it meant bad reaction from America's allies and didn't want to combat communism if it meant war. Sometimes it seemed like he had more opposition in the Republican than Democratic party.
Eisenhower wanted to avoid controversial issues for the sake of his Presidency's popularity and political power. Perhaps he was channelling Washington, who believed that the country needed someone who was 'above politics'. Perhaps he didn't want to let his principles interfere with his political priorities. If you would have asked him, he would have said that he delayed his decision making on some issues to keep his options open in the future.
Outta the Oval
In the Presidential election of 1960, Vice President Nixon ran against a Massachusetts Senator named John F Kennedy. Though he couldn't find a serious candidate he really liked in the Republican primaries, Eisenhower naturally preferred Nixon to Kennedy, but he didn't do much to campaign for the Republican ticket. In the end, Kennedy beat Nixon - Ike wasn't too happy about this, but what could he do? Kennedy was inaugurated on 20 January, 1961 and Ike left the White House. He helped advise JFK on some foreign matters. When Kennedy was assassinated, Ike became one of Lyndon Johnson's7 principal advisors and urged him to commit the nation to the Vietnam War.
As a former Five-Star General, he was technically an officer in the US army until he died, and upon his leaving politics, Ike's service was reactivated. He wrote his memoirs, wrote some articles for periodicals and puttered around in his garden at his home in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. His grandson David ended up marrying Richard Nixon's daughter, Julie Nixon, and he was naturally very happy to see that. When his old VP made a comeback, Ike supported Nixon in his bid for the Presidency in 1968. After some medical complications, Ike died peacefully on 28 March, 1969 at the ripe old age of 78.