Eisenhower Presidency: An Assessment
Eisenhower (1953-1961) should be listed as one of the great Presidents. For their own reasons academics prefer Truman and Kennedy whose administrations pale in comparison. Just in the popularity with the American People they are sharply in contrast. President Eisenhower’s approval rating was close to 70%. Truman’s approval rating dipped into the 20’s% at the end of this administration. Obama’s averaged less than 50%. Kennedy’s approval in his short tenure was quite high at around 70%. There were no wars during his administration. The Federal Budgets were generally balanced, something that doesn’t currently appear to be realizable. The economy grew 37% during his administration. Inflation was low as well. The country was tranquil at home and abroad.
Largely, upon veiled threat of use of tactical nuclear weapons he was able to end the Korean War. The threat was communicated to India who passed it along to the Communist Chinese. The Communist Chinese came to a negotiated agreement that split Korea at the 38th parallel. The agreement was against the wishes of the South Korean leader Rhee who wanted to continue the propagation of the war but was informed if he wanted to continue the war, it would be alone.
Eisenhower insisted on balanced budgets. He fought the conservative wing of the Republican Party against tax cuts that might imbalance the budget. He fought back against increases in the defense budget, as well. In fact he sharply lowered the President Truman’s defense budget by several billion against the opposition of the chiefs of the three branches of the military. He saw military expenditure as coming out the hard earned labor of the common people.
While war was threated several times, only ONE soldier died in combat under his eight year administration. He refused to become involved in South East Asia as the French wished he would. . Kennedy would make the mistake of becoming more involved in South East Asia by inserting American troops into Vietnam that eventually led to catastrophic failure. Truman initially drew down the military too much and failed to include Korean as within the American sphere of influence. This led to the aggression of North Korea in 1950. Of course with adept foreign policy he concluded the Korean War in 1953. He offered protocols to reduce the threat of nuclear war to the Soviets. Kennedy despite keeping a cool head brought USA to the brink of all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Khrushchev’s secret speech in 1956 and propaganda from Radio Free Europe led the Hungarians into thinking assistance in the event of an uprising was forthcoming by the West in 1956. But Eisenhower stood pat as the Soviets sent in tanks to crush the revolution in Hungary in 1956. This was a tacit confirmation of the Yalta pact in 1945 that divided Europe into spheres of influence. It would have taken another world war to revise it and this it would be nuclear. Eisenhower sagaciously eschewed conflict. Four decades later the empire fell on its own incompetence and inefficiency. Eisenhower was busy at the time in 1956 with the Suez Crisis in which France, the UK and Israel conspired to grab back the recently nationalized Suez Canal and secure the State of Israel. Eisenhower insisted they give up colonial aspirations. Nasir of Egypt was allowed to nationalize the canal and Britain and France stood down.
Kiang Kai Shek, leader of the Nationalist Chinese on Taiwan, tried to force a war over two tiny islands, Quemoy and Matsu, within firing distance of Communist China. China threatened to use military force to occupy it. Kiang Kai-Shek hoped to re-ignite the civil war again mainland China with America’s assistance. Eisenhower would have none of it.
Monetary inflation was kept to a moderate level. In contrast during Truman administration inflation ran up to 9% in 1951. Inflation is a product of too much money chasing too few goods. Federal Reserve’s generation of money supply is determinate as to levels of inflation. Any price increase on a particular product like the shortage of oil will not in itself cause general monetary inflation, since an increase in price in one product will likely cause a decrease in other prices. It takes something like the Central bank to effect monetary inflation. Eisenhower’s bank exercised prudence.
Eisenhower won’t get credit for this but large urban areas were quiet and free of upheavals seen in the Sixties. Even crime was historically low. Eisenhower won’t get credit for that either. However, the prescription of Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s, no matter how much it was justified, didn’t become the magic fix it was meant to be, as it appears from fifty years hindsight
Civil Rights legislation of the 1960’s raised expectations and resulted in race riots in many Cities, alienating Whites, who fled the cities and abandoned the African-Americans in segregated Ghettos. Today these inner cities remain pockets of poverty and crime. In Michigan where I live Detroit and Flint are prime examples. Both were huge centers for auto production and now are essentially devoid of any. Dozens of auto plants have been built in America in the last four decades, most by foreign manufacturers. None in the inner cities. Political solutions to racial issues are limited in their efficacy, when social elements play a large part of the problem.
1957 the Soviets launched Sputnik to the shock of America. The tiny satellite broadcast a radio signal that could be picked up around the world. Due to budgetary constraints launching satellites were not high on priority, the Atlas missile was designed for delivering nuclear warheads intercontinentally. After being shown up by the Soviets, the space program began in earnest. Kennedy would spend billions on a trip to the moon. Something Eisenhower found largely quixotic, wanting to emphasize the military, scientific and technical aspects.
In 1959 two weeks before a Paris summit to discuss restraints on nuclear weapon, the Soviets shot down a U-2 spy plane. The Eisenhower administration not aware of the details assumed that both the pilot and planet had crashed and were destroyed. When the Soviets first reported the incident, the Eisenhower administration lied, saying it was weather plane that strayed off course due to a malfunction. A U-2 plane was hastily repainted with NASA colors and sent out to the media. The Soviets latter revealed that not only had the plane been retrieved, the pilot was alive as well. Eisenhower was caught in a lie and the peace conference was cancelled. Relations with the Soviets worsened.
U-2 spy flights did establish the state of the Soviets nuclear weapon competence. They lacked the Air Force and submarine capabilities that USA had, which was well know and had only a few ICBM’s. The USA had some 650 B-52’s, some 300 Polaris missiles deliverable by nuclear submarine plus many more ICBM’s than the Soviets.
Kenney was informed, once nominated for the Democrat Presidency, in 1960 that United States had a massive advantage in ICBM, plane and submarine nuclear capability over Soviet Union. Kennedy continued to lie about the putative missile gap in his campaign to gain voters.
Eisenhower is criticized for not addressing the civil rights issues. Yet, the first civil rights laws in some 80 years were passed in 1957. These were largely gutted by Senate Democrats specifically Lyndon B. Johnson, so they didn’t have the impact of latter Civil Rights legislation. The Dixiecrats held a strangle hold on the advancement of Civil Rights legislation since the Reconstruction ended in the 1870’s. So, Black voter suppression and Jim Crow segregation laws went unchallenged in the South. Something I experienced, as a child in the 1950’s in Missouri when I saw a White’s only drinking fountain and didn’t realize it referred to race.
Eisenhower in addition sent in Federal Troops to enforce school integration in Little Rock, AR in 1957, segregation ordered by the Supreme Court. Admittedly, Eisenhower had little sensitivity to Civil Rights; however his Attorney General Herbert Brownell had much input into these issues and including the nature of judicial picks. Neither Truman nor Kennedy worked actively for Civil Rights in terms of legislation. In fact Kennedy voted against Eisenhower’s Civil Rights act of 1957. No Civil Rights legislation was passed under their administrations. Driven by events Kennedy became more sympathetic to Civil Rights issues later in his short tenure.
Eisenhower’s Supreme Court picks of Warren and Brennan were the forefront of judicial activism. The first ruling of the Warren Court was Brown vs. School Board of 1954 that struck down separate but equal school systems. The Warren Court went on to remove school prayer, insist on the recitation of Miranda Rights to the arrested and representation being appointed, when none was available, for the accused and the Court increased the standard for search and seizure among other things. Eisenhower seems to get no credit for his revolution in the Court.
Eisenhower has been criticized for secret machinations by the Dulles’ CIA in Iraq, Guatemala, and elsewhere but these underhanded measures where in lieu of a more upfront aggression that could have led to war. Fear of Soviet takeover played a part in both those coup d’états.
As for Truman, highly regarded by academics, he left the country with high inflation and what appeared to be a war without exit and an approval rating in the 20s percentile, lowest approval rating for Presidents since WWII. Truman also had to be forced to accept legislation that engineered labor peace: the Taft Hartley act, passed over his veto. Prior to this labor unrest was allowed to wreak havoc on the economy.
In balance Truman’s Marshall Plan the provided aid to war torn Western Europe was historic and did much to restore Western Europe to peace and prosperity. A combined military command was created under his administration, NATO; Eisenhower was appointed to lead NATO at this time incidentally in 1951-1952. Truman got much criticism for the failure to support Chaing Kai-Shek Nationalists that led to the rise of Communist China and Mao Tse Tung: a symptom of America’s historic idealistic foreign policy, revisited several times with much failure. Examples being Wilson’s Fourteen Points at the conclusion of WWI, Iran 1979 and Iraq in 2003, foreign policy that failed to face historical realities and the complexities of culture, religion and politics, only wanting to create a world made safe for Democracy.
Controversially Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb (something Eisenhower opposed but arguably was NOT in the decision loop) against civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki: an act of war that continues to be controversial in its horrific barbarity.