Archive for September, 2013

I Still Like Ike

September 2, 2013

General Eisenhower Behind the Wheel of a Jeep“I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.”
–Dwight D. Eisenhower

Our 34th president learned well from the many errors he made as commander in chief of America’s army in Africa and Europe, and then as Allied Supreme Commander, during World War II.

But he got all the big decisions right, both in war and later on in eight years in the White House. For instance:

The Shoah

Interviewing survivors at Ohrdruf prison camp

Interviewing survivors at Ohrdruf prison camp

He insisted on seeing for himself the Nazi death camps and the horrors inflicted at them. Then he called for a sizable delegation of people from Congress, along with many photographers and journalists, to witness the evidence of man’s inhumanity to man. He explained,

“I visited every nook and cranny of the camp because I felt it my duty to be in a position from then on to testify at first hand about these things in case there ever grew up at home the belief or assumption that the stories of Nazi brutality were just propaganda. Some members of the visiting party were unable to go through with the ordeal.

“I not only did so but as soon as I returned to [General George] Patton’s headquarters that evening I sent communications to both Washington and London, urging the two governments to send instantly to Germany a random group of newspaper editors and representative groups from the national legislatures. I felt that the evidence should be immediately placed before the American and British publics in a fashion that would leave no room for cynical doubt.”

Segregation and Civil Rights

The 101st Airborne at Little Rock Central High

The 101st Airborne at Little Rock Central High

Eisenhower, not Kennedy or Johnson, was the first president to take a principled stand for Civil Rights. He followed through against the Southern Democrats whose century of delay and obstruction had frustrated realization of those rights for black Americans.

Governor Orval Faubus of Arkansas refused to comply with Brown vs. Board of Education. In 1957 he sent out the state’s National Guard to prevent nine black kids from attending Little Rock Central High School. Rioting broke out and Faubus did nothing to stop it. So Ike sent in 1,000 paratroopers from the 101st Airborne, one of the units he had commanded on D-Day, to restore order and ensure that the” Little Rock Nine” could attend the public school.

Harry Truman had ordered the military desegregated, but two-thirds of the units were still segregated when Eisenhower came along. He finished the job and made sure to include all auxiliary facilities including many southern shipyards. Firebrand black congressman Adam Clayton Powell stated that Ike “had done more to restore the Negro to the status of first-class citizenship than any president since Abraham Lincoln.”

National Defense and Security

Ike was principally responsible for the formation of NATO, a military alliance that prevented wars rather than fight them. Some of his military advisers were fans of using nuclear weapons during the Cold War. One time he reprimanded them, in writing, with “You boys must be crazy.”

That move established the principle of deterrence, a no-first-strike rule that has held to the present day. He never tipped his hand to the Russian Communists and other evil empire-builders of his era, however. He avoided involving America in what he called “brushfire wars” while making enemies believe that he would have no compunction about engaging in another world conflict.

The Economy, and America’s Standing as World Leader

In the Oval Office

In the Oval Office

Eisenhower knew how to balance the demands of national security and the national economy. He stated “I patiently explain over and over again that American strength is a combination of economic, moral, and military force. If we demand too much in taxes in order to build planes and ships, we will tend to dry up the accumulations of capital that are necessary to provide jobs for the millions of new workers that we must absorb each year.”

When he came into office, he inherited a $6.5 billion deficit. Tax cuts, reductions in government expenditures, and abolition of price controls launched an economic rise that brought on surpluses by 1956. He left office with a surplus, and with the interstate highway system well underway and financed by a dedicated gasoline tax.

Eisenhower died in 1969. He was buried in an $80 Army coffin and wearing his standard field jacket. The only ornamentation consisted of his five stars, recognizing his rank as General of the Army. John J. Pershing also had that rank, as did George Washington, although Washington’s fifth star was awarded after his death.
Eisenhower’s predecessor “Give ‘em Hell Harry” once remarked with cynical realism that a statesman is a politician who has been dead for 10 or 15 years. It has taken much longer than that for history to show how great a statesman Dwight Eisenhower actually was.

Ike was so much more than a bland old retired soldier who liked to play golf. He was the perfect man for his time as leader of our nation, and, more importantly, he was one of the best presidents ever.

Though I was born in the Truman Administration, Dwight Eisenhower was the first president I knew. I was one of the many Boston kids who joined Big Brother Bob Emery in a toast to the president each day, raising our glasses of milk while “Hail to the Chief” played. I like Ike even more now than I did at the time, and nowadays I raise a glass of adult beverage in salute to him.

America sorely needs another president with Dwight Eisenhower’s character, values, experience, and perspective.