So even though my editor, the great Phyllis Grann, was persuaded that Ike would stand up to hard scrutiny, I had my doubts. It was with that ambivalence that, in early 2007, I arrived in Abilene, Kansas, home of the Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum, unsure where immersion in Eisenhower’s presidential legacy would lead.
There, in Ike’s hometown, surrounded by his voluminous papers, I came around. For what those papers capture is a blend of military acumen, diplomatic subtlety and presidential leadership rivaled in American history only by George Washington.
John Eisenhower, Ike’s perceptive son, crisply described his father to me one morning in 2010. “My dad,” he said, “was not a social reformer. He was a commander-in-chief.” Indeed, he was. Shrewd and patient, moderate and confident, Ike guided America through some of the most treacherous moments of the Cold War. He was urged to take advantage of America’s military advantage in those early years – to finish the Korean War with nuclear weapons, to repel Chinese aggression against Taiwan, to repulse the Soviets in Berlin, to rescue the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Eisenhower was not complacent--he authorized the overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran and Arbenz in Guatemala and welcomed the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg--but nor was he reckless or unhinged.
Eisenhower was a terrific poker player, and he played his cards carefully, mindful of the stakes: After ending the Korean War early in his presidency, Eisenhower jousted with the Soviets and Chinese in conflicts across the globe. During those many confrontations across more than seven years, just one American died in combat. That respite brought profound rewards. Eisenhower believed that time favored America in the Cold War, that the West would prevail by virtue of its values. He adamantly rejected Joe McCarthy’s hysterical assault on American civil liberties and helped bring an end to McCarthyism (“McCarthywasm,” as Ike joked).
Ike’s leadership is thoroughly vindicated by time. His willingness to appoint and defer to capable subordinates allowed his civil rights record (highlighted by the appointments of Warren and Justice William Brennan, passage of the 1957 Civil Rights Act and the intervention in Little Rock) to exceed his instincts; his determination to build created the highway system and the St. Lawrence Seaway; his warning of the “military industrial complex” only grows more meaningful with experience. And his fixed pursuit of an unyielding and yet restrained response to communism not only lit the way for victory in the Cold War but also suggests a course for today’s leaders confronted with the challenges of terrorism.
It is a legacy of principled moderation and commitment to progress--one worthy of appreciation at a time when those virtues are in perilously short supply.