How would you grade Eisenhower’s presidency?
- Very good
- Above average
- He was better than Reagan.
- A failed president who played golf most of the time.
- He was the last great Republican president.
- America needs more leaders like him.
- Better than Kennedy’s.
- Eisenhower? Who?
- A man of integrity who made more wise decisions than dumb.
Eisenhower provided a steady hand when the country most needed one during the height of the Cold War. He was the right man at the right time. A period of high tension required a leader who could exercise restraint as well as calculated, decisive action. Eisenhower kept the peace without giving in to the Soviet Union.
One of Eisenhower’s wisest decisions was not to commit American troops to Vietnam or get militarily involved there. But he created a political problem there that left his successors JFK and LBK little options to solve. After the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu, the French and Ho Chi Minh agreed to a partition of the country. Eisenhower rejected that arrangement and instead chose to create an anti-communist state of South Vietnam that was hugely unpopular with its own people. Eisenhower said that he would rather see a divided Vietnam than a united one with a Communist leadership. The political problem meant it was only a matter of time before the US-backed government of South Vietnam imploded and needed military assistance.
What Eisenhower failed to realize was that Ho Chi Minh’s brand of Communism was different than Mao Zedong’s. Ho’s platform centered more on Vietnamese nationalism and unity than an adherence to Marxist or Stalinist ideology like Mao’s. Vietnam had been invaded for a millennium by its neighbors, most notably China. America chose to lump all Communist countries in the same realm without exploiting their differences. Although Ho and the Vietnamese Communists depended on China for military assistance, deep down they disliked the Chinese.
Ho Chi Minh once said that he would rather sniff French shit than eat Chinese shit for the rest of his life.
Eisenhower could have exploited these differences between the Communist allies, but failed to do so. Instead he lumped them in the same category. He deserves credit for keeping America out of Vietnam, but he contributed to the problem later inherited by his successors.
Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez Canal crisis deserves high marks. He forced Britain, France, and Israel to withdraw their troops after they unilaterally attacked Egypt without going through the appropriate diplomatic channels. When Britain ignored his call of restraint, Ike threatened to cut off US financial support for Britain. His principled stand won the US much admiration from the Arab world.
Britain and France later complained that Eisenhower backstabbed them when they needed US support. Britain later returned the favor by refusing to help America militarily during the Vietnam War. But Eisenhower did the right thing because failure to exercise restraint would have driven the Arab world into the Soviet Union’s embrace, making it harder to contain communism.
Eisenhower stood firm in Berlin in 1958 when Nikita Khrushshev issued an ultimatum demanding that the Allies withdraw from the city within six months.
Ike deserves credit for defusing the Jinmen and Mazu crisis in the Taiwan Strait without military intervention. He used deception to fool Mao and keep the latter guessing whether he will use nuclear weapons in the event of a conflict.
The only military intervention Eisenhower took during his presidency was a three month intervention by US troops in Lebanon to support the government there.
Eisenhower hated war and knew what it was like to fight one. During his presidency, he refused to authorize increases in defense spending and unnecessary weapon programs. He later warned about the military industrial complex and its hold on American politics during his Farewell Address. Defense spending actually dropped 27% during Eisenhower’s presidency, while education spending rose. Staying out of conflicts and using force only as a very last resort certainly helped make it easier to reduce defense spending and balance the budget.
Eisenhower balanced the budget three times in his eight years of office. No one except Bill Clinton (who also balanced the budget three times) succeeded since then. Eisenhower’s budget cutting efforts was facilitated by a top income tax bracket of 92% in the 1950s. But his spending priorities made a big difference in balancing the budget. In contrast, Reagan oversaw an 18% increase in defense spending, while George W. Bush oversaw a whopping 70% increase.
Critics of reducing defense spending claim that doing so will harm the country’s national security. But Eisenhower oversaw defense cuts while keeping the military leaner and more effective. He cut spending for the Army and expensive bombers for the Air Force, and concentrated instead on missiles that can be deployed on land, and at sea abroad submarines and fleet vessels.
JFK’s charge during the 1960 election that Eisenhower’s policies resulted in a missile gap with the Soviet Union was completely false. America had a huge advantage over the Soviet Union by the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was precisely this advantage that Eisenhower maintained that allowed Kennedy to pressure the Soviet Union in backing down.
On civil rights, Eisenhower was not seen as a leader. He was ambivalent toward the issue. But he deserves credit for enforcing the Supreme Court ruling on desegregation. When Arkansas governor Orval Faubus, a racist and segregationist, caused a constitutional crisis by defying Brown vs. Board of Education, Eisenhower enforced the ruling by sending National Guard troops and the military to accompany the black students into the schools in Little Rock. To Eisenhower, the Supreme Court has spoken, and it was his moral responsibility to uphold the Constitution. Ike’s respect for the law laid down by America’s institutions stands out in comparison to the disregard shown by today’s politicians.
Implementation of the desegregation of America’s armed forces was slow under Truman. Eisenhower accelerated desegregation in the military and completed it.
There were two civil rights legislation passed under Eisenhower. Kennedy had no civil rights legislation passed. LBJ had to do it for him after he died.
Eisenhower was criticized for not acting swiftly enough against Joe McCarthy, the 1950s equivalent of Ted Cruz. But he did the right thing because to engage against McCarthy would give the senator the attention he wanted, and therefore legitimacy. It would degrade the presidency and make it a less effective institution. Instead Eisenhower worked behind the scenes to bring down McCarthy. Ike was the man most responsible for McCarthy’s downfall. His use of executive privilege to deny McCarthy access to White House conversations left the senator rambling without any evidence at the Army-Senate hearings, making McCarthy look like an annoying fool.
Finally Eisenhower created the Interstate Highway System.
If you ask me, JFK was the most overrated president of the 20th century. What did JFK accomplish in office? The Peace Corps were a publicity stunt. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster and helped cause the Cuban Missile Crisis. Although JFK deserves credit for his handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the crisis could have been avoided in the first place had he handled things better in his first year in office. The only thing the Cuban Missile Crisis accomplished was a huge military buildup by the Soviet Union that Reagan had to counteract with a debt-busting buildup of his own. And finally, the Berlin Wall went up during JFK’s presidency.
To say that he was one of the best presidents is a farce. Americans remember JFK only because he got assassinated. JFK had style, but no substance. He knew how to make speeches and inspiring rhetoric, much like a president can make speeches by following a teleprompter.
Eisenhower had substance and backed up what he said with action and a combination of restraint and firmness. As a result, America’s allies and opponents took him seriously. Although his presidency is not without flaws, what he did or did not do is seen today as wise and prudent.
What do you think of Eisenhower’s presidency? Do you think he was mediocre or average, or do you think he was one of the best of the 20th century?