'Eisenhower: The White House Years': a most accomplished president
Jim Newton's new biography, "Eisenhower: The White House Years," shows what an effective president Dwight D. Eisenhower really was.
Special to The Seattle Times
"Eisenhower: The White House Years"
by Jim Newton
Doubleday, 468 pp., $29.95
Even as Republican presidential candidates tussle to claim the legacy of Ronald Reagan — their Sept. 7 debate took place at his presidential library, in the year of his 100th birthday — seemingly all but forgotten in the discussion is Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, arguably our nation's best president since the end of World War II.
As this captivating, informed narrative by Los Angeles Times editor-at-large Jim Newton amply shows it's time finally to rid Eisenhower of his reputation as a doddering, disengaged, reactive leader who, while almost accidentally keeping the world safe from nuclear conflagration and crippling deficits, was really just holding the seat for the more talented, virile generation that his successor, John F. Kennedy, would represent.
For starters, six months after taking office, Ike helped, through negotiations underscored by America's nuclear threat, secure an armistice in the Korean War, a seemingly intractable conflict that had taken as many as 125,000 American casualties.
Two months later, in September 1953, Eisenhower appointed then-California Gov. Earl Warren chief justice of the Supreme Court, a position Warren used to deftly coax his fellow jurists into upholding school desegregation in their 1954 landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision; in 1957, Eisenhower would back up their decision, if reluctantly, by dispatching U.S. Army troops to protect black students entering Little Rock Central High School.
Adopting what he called "the Middle Way," Eisenhower managed to hold down government spending while retaining such New Deal elements as unemployment benefits and aid to children living in poverty, while pushing through the nation's largest public-works project ever: the creation of 41,000 miles of interstate highway, linking most of America's major cities.
If Eisenhower did not confront Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose anti-communist Senate hearings had created a national climate of paranoia, he quietly isolated McCarthy from his colleagues and encouraged the televising of McCarthy's Senate hearings, which Eisenhower knew would show McCarthy for the bully he was.
Eisenhower's singular accomplishment, though, was in his delicate handling of nuclear weapons, whose prohibition was far from preordained at the beginning of his first term. Newton points to several instances — among them, the Korean War, the bombing by China of the disputed islands of Quemoy and Matsu — in which Ike's advisers strenuously advocated the use of tactical nuclear weapons, even as Eisenhower backed them down.
In fact, Newton opens his book with a 1958 National Security Council meeting at which several of Eisenhower's advisers, among them his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, favored a wholesale change in nuclear policy, from threatening massive retaliation to using tactical nuclear weapons in smaller fights. Seeing the folly of the argument, Eisenhower held fast against their use.
As admiring of Eisenhower as it is, Newton's book is not a valentine. For instance, it shows Ike to be almost cavalier in his toppling, through the CIA, of regimes in Iran and Guatemala, interventions that have sown distrust — and nuclear menace in Iran's case — of the United States in those countries and their neighborhoods. Newton doesn't hold Eisenhower fully accountable for those actions, or for Ike's elevation of Richard Nixon to the national stage.
Still, it's important to be reminded that the world owes its existence, in no small part, to the wise, evenhanded president we sometimes forget.
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