In Good Hands
America and the world under Eisenhower and Dulles.
Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By ALVIN S. FELZENBERG
The Truth Is Our Weapon
Not long ago, at an academic institution named for the man who succeeded Dwight D. Eisenhower as president, a student paid me a visit. He wanted to know why it was that, of all the men who served in the nation's highest office in the past 70 years, Eisenhower received the least mention among students, scholars, and political pundits.
I told him that, because Ike ran the country with a steady hand in an era that John F. Kennedy termed a "hard and bitter peace," and comported himself in a manner devoid of theatrics, his presidency, unlike his service as Supreme Commander of Operation Overlord during World War II, did not readily lend itself to dramatization. I recalled that when I proposed writing my undergraduate thesis on Eisenhower, I encountered difficulty finding someone willing to supervise it. "Eisenhower was so boring," one professor said. "Why don't you write about Truman or Johnson? Then we might have something going."
I struggled to remind her that she had missed the point. For of all the postwar presidents up to that time (Harry Truman to Richard Nixon), Ike stood out in one crucial respect: He calmed, even soothed, a nation that had had enough excitement inflicted upon it by presumably more "interesting" partisan scrappers (Truman, Douglas MacArthur, and Joseph McCarthy among them). He had also stayed clear of the kind of divisive foreign adventure that, while I was writing, would destroy Lyndon Johnson's presidency. It would take another decade for historians, able to ramble through Ike's papers, to be reminded just how hard that was to do and how he managed to do it.
Of all the presidents who served after Franklin Roosevelt and before Ronald Reagan, Truman and Eisenhower may have been the only two who sought the office not as a means of "proving" something. And Truman had the office thrust upon him. Ike, contrary to all those myths about a "draft," sought the job in order to do something. He wanted nothing less than to put into place the wherewithal that would enable the United States to prevail in what appeared to be a decades-long struggle against a determined, ideologically driven enemy known to exhibit a certain ruthlessness. If any of this sounds remarkably contemporary, keep on reading.
My student departed before I thought to remind him that there is one camp on the political spectrum that has taken Ike in--some might say even hijacked him. That is the Loony Left. Ike's picture became the logo for Why We Fight, Eugene Jarecki's filmed political diatribe that passes itself off as a "documentary." It begins with Eisenhower's warning, in his farewell address, of the dangers of the "military-industrial" complex, and before long, proclaims most American military engagements in parts of the world as efforts to justify massive expenditures on advanced weaponry. (Oh yes, it also mentions oil.)
That the left would present Ike as an unheeded prophet would startle liberals of his era. In Good Morning, Vietnam, Robin Williams captured the prevailing Hollywood view of America's first golfer when he mimicked Ike and likened him to Elmer Fudd. "What would happen if Eisenhower died and Nixon became president?" ran one 1950s joke. "What would happen if Dulles died and Eisenhower became president?" went the rejoinder.
Readers of The Truth Is Our Weapon will encounter on its pages neither the "do-nothing" Eisenhower that academics of yesteryear invented nor the gifted statesman/politician contemporary historians now see, nor Jarecki's scorned prophet, but (hold on to your armchairs) a man who, through his rhetoric, provoked the Soviet Union and American allies, making war more rather than less likely.
Parting company with both the jokesters who saw Ike as putty in the hands of a scheming Dulles, and the revisionists who had Ike manipulating Dulles and others with a "hidden hand," Chris Tudda sees the president and his secretary of state as equal partners. Though he might protest that he does not fully share the churlish opinion of Harold Macmillan, that Ike was "very naive and inexperienced" and Dulles was "ignorant and stupid," he sets up his arguments in ways that would have readers not that familiar with this duo draw no other conclusion.