Monday, July 23, 2012

Review: Eisenhower: The White House Years

From Eisenhower: The White House Years, by Jim Newton:

Open quote 
As word trickled through the crowd, Lloyd Berkner, America's official representative to the international committee hosting the conference, graciously acknowledged the work of the Soviet scientists. 'I wish to make an announcement,' he called out. 'I've just been informed by the New York Times that a Russian satellite is in orbit at an elevation of 900 kilometers. I wish to congratulate our Soviet colleagues on their achievement.'"

The above quote does not have anything to do with Eisenhower, but it does have something to do with Richardson, Texas. Lloyd Berkner is none other than the man for whom that high school in Richardson is named. Berkner the man is nearly forgotten today, but that high school bearing his name is a reminder of how important Sputnik and the Space Race were to all Americans in the late 1950s. It's almost impossible to imagine today just how important. That alone makes the Eisenhower presidency important, too.

After the jump, my review.

Grade: C+

There's a renewed interest in our 34th President. There are at least two new biographies in the last year. I picked this one because it was available in Kindle format from the Richardson Public Library. Thanks, RPL.

Maybe I should have picked the other. Newton's biography is deeply flawed. He valiantly tries to paint Eisenhower as a modern-day George Washington, a military hero who goes on to lead his nation gallantly and forcefully, contrary to the conventional picture of Eisenhower as a tongue-tied, disengaged grandfather and golfer, keeping the chair warm between the terms of feisty Harry Truman and dashing Jack Kennedy. The truth is, as always, somewhere in between.

The trouble is, not even the facts that Newton himself chooses to make his case do so. Instead, they cast Eisenhower, not as a visionary leader, but as a prisoner of his own past, unwilling or unable to get ahead of history. I'll highlight two examples.
In addressing enemies, Eisenhower was no less firm. Administration officials quietly informed India's government, then acting as an intermediary to China, that the United States was prepared to use nuclear weapons to bring the Korean War to an end. Although it is difficult to know how seriously Mao regarded that threat, Eisenhower believed it had rattled his adversary. Asked years later by Sherman Adams what had motivated China to negotiate a truce, Ike answered without hesitation. "Danger of an atomic war," he said. It did not end the war immediately. In late May 1953, the Chinese forces in Korea launched a final, withering assault.
It might be justified to forgive Eisenhower for misjudging Mao, but there's no excuse for Jim Newton. He's writing with a half century's hindsight and still fails to point out how dangerously wrong Eisenhower was. Saber rattling with the atomic bomb did not cow Mao. Just like it didn't stop Mao from coming into Korea in the first place or, later, in shelling Quemoy and Matsu.

By the way, contrast the simplicity and ignorance of Eisenhower's thinking with the depth of understanding displayed by Henry Kissinger in On China. But then Kissinger had devoted his life to diplomacy, focusing on China. Eisenhower in 1953 was just turning his attention to Asia.

Later in the decade, Eisenhower eventually realized how use of nuclear weapons had become inconceivable. He resisted a movement in the American government to adopt a policy of tactical use of nuclear weapons. Eisenhower might be rightly criticized for turning loose the CIA to fight covert wars that haunt us to this day (e.g., in Iran), but Eisenhower did not use the atomic bomb. Not in Korea. Not in French Indochina. Not in Hungary. Not in the Suez. That restraint, all by itself, is reason to praise Eisenhower's presidency. So, give Eisenhower his due on that score.
As the men rose from the table and ambled into an adjoining room for after-dinner drinks, Eisenhower took [Chief Justice Earl] Warren by the arm and nodded at the Southerners. "These are not bad people," Eisenhower said. "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." Warren was appalled.
Eisenhower is rightly praised for enforcing the Supreme Court decision striking down "separate by equal" public schools. But Eisenhower was a very reluctant warrior for civil rights. At best, you can say he was not a racist like Strom Thurmond, but neither was he in the lead in insisting America live up to its ideals like Earl Warren. It was Southern defiance of the federal government and the rule of law that forced Eisenhower's hand, not the immorality of segregation. But, in the end, he sent in the US Army to enforce a court order to desegregate schools in the face of official state defiance. So, give Eisenhower his due on that score, too. Just don't make too much of it.
By his own standards -- vision, integrity, courage, understanding, and rhetorical power, not to mention leaving a mark on his time -- Ike's early presidency qualified as great.
What is most frustrating about Newton's biography is that he can show flaws in Eisenhower, how he was very much a man of his times and not ahead of history, and on the same page fulsomely praise Eisenhower. Several times while reading, my head snapped sharply as I wondered, did Newton not read what he himself wrote just before? If Newton wants the reader to believe in Eisenhower's greatness, he should have just presented the facts, leaving the reader to draw his own conclusion about Eisenhower's greatness. He doesn't need Newton to tell him what to think.

Still, Eisenhower: The White House Years competently covers all the big national events of the 1950s. If you're younger than a certain age, or even if you're older and haven't refreshed your memory in a while, you could do worse than spend a few hours reading Jim Newton's biography. In the 1950s, our nation was torn by racism, McCarthyism, and other divisions as great as any in American politics today. Eisenhower may have wanted to avoid these issues rather than lead the country through them, but when he could avoid them no longer, he did the right thing. For that reason, and for his service to his country during his whole career, Eisenhower justifiably ranks high among American heroes.


"Just as the overthrow of Mossadegh [in Iran] had left a deep mark on one of those who witnessed it, the cleric then known as Ruhollah Mousavi Khomeini, so, too, did the coup against Arbenz [in Guatemala] burrow itself into the consciousness of one of its observers, a young Argentine named Ernesto Guevara."

"October 31 ... began with a frustrated Eisenhower searching for ways to halt the fighting in the Sinai. 'Let's call it a "Bomb for Peace,"' he exploded at an emergency session that morning. 'It's as simple as this: Let's send one of Curt LeMay's gang over the Middle East, carrying an atomic bomb. And let's warn everyone: We'll drop it if they all don't cut this nonsense out.' Aghast, aides let the remark pass in silence."

"'Our whole stack is in this play,' Eisenhower emphasized to his aides. In the event of a Soviet attack on Berlin, America's response would be simple: 'Hit the Russians as hard as we could.'"

"Quoted by a newspaper reporter as describing himself as 'the only real Republican in the family' and calling Ike 'a little bit socialistic,' [Eisenhower's brother] Edgar wrote to Ike to blame the reporter while reinforcing his point. 'I never have thought you were socialistic,' he explained, 'although I do think and have said so to you, that the Government is rapidly drifting into a socialistic state.'"

"'I don't know where I stand,' Eisenhower replied, 'but I think the best interests of the U.S. demand an answer in keep[ing] with past decisions.' That remark leaves Ike's ultimate view unclear but strongly suggests he would have been most comfortable with a ruling that preserved existing institutions -- and thus segregation."

"Eisenhower complained that the administration had championed civil rights but received too little credit from blacks. Negroes, Ike growled, 'just do not give a damn.'"

"At times, the administration's actions could seem inconsistent: Ike spoke passionately about the immorality of nations tampering in the affairs of others, only to authorize Kermit Roosevelt to topple Iran's prime minister; he summoned great eloquence on the common lot of all peoples and yet could be hamstrung in addressing inequality in his own country."

No comments: