Should We Really Still Like Ike? Interview with Stephen Schlesinger

David Austin Walsh is the editor of the History News Network.

Dwight D. Eisenhower's presidential reputation has been on the uptick for the past several years. His presidency has been traditionally eclipsed by the glamor and tragedy of the Kennedy administration in popular memory, but academics have been more kind: a 1999 C-SPAN poll of historians ranked Ike eighth of all the presidents. And his place in public imagination may be growing: In a 2005 Gallup poll, Ike cracked the top ten amongst the general public for greatest president in history, and most recently in a 2012 Harris poll was named the fifth-greatest president since World War II (he was only beat by Reagan, FDR, JFK, and Clinton).

Ross Douthat, an op-ed writer for the New York Times, devoted a column last Sunday to Eisenhower's successes as president. He attributed Ike's modest performance in popular and scholarly rankings to the fact that the Eisenhower administration eschewed crowd-pleasing "greatness" in favor of consistency and competence.

He did not create unaffordable entitlement programs, embrace implausible economic theories, or hand on unsustainable deficits to his successors. He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinksmanship that his feckless sucessor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw America into an Iraq-style intervention. He did not risk his presidency with third-rate burglaries or sexual adventurism. He was decisive when necessary, but his successes -- prosperity, peace, steady progress on civil rights -- were just as often the fruit of strategic caution and masterly inaction.

Douthat's column inspired both nostalgia in the comments section ("Looking back to the Eisenhower and Truman eras from today's vantage point, it appears that they were perhaps the last two adult presidents") and criticism in letters-to-the-editor. Ronald P. Seyb, a professor of government at Skidmore College, felt that Douthat fundamentally misunderstood Eisenhower's greatness—that it was Eisenhower's moderation, what he himself referred to as "conservative when it comes to money and liberal when it comes to human beings," that was the essence of his greatness. Others pointed to the Interstate Highway System and NASA as some of his great achievements. But the Times printed one critical letter which castigated Ike:

Ross Douthat makes the point that President Eisenhower “was not a man for grand projects, bold crusades or world-historical gambles.” Rather, “his greatness was manifested in the crises he defused and the mistakes he did not make.”

This assertion would surprise at least two countries, if not more. Eisenhower’s major initiative from the onset of his administration was to “roll back Communism.” To accomplish that goal, he authorized the overthrow of two democratically elected governments, in Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954.

The Iranian coup reinstated the shah, who was subsequently deposed by Iranian fundamentalists who today pose a perilous nuclear challenge in the Middle East. The regime change in Guatemala led to a civil war that killed over 200,000 people and set back the cause of democracy in Central America for decades.

“Masterly inaction,” Mr. Douthat claims. Some mastery, some inaction!

The letter was written by Stephen Schlesinger, who co-wrote Bitter Fruit, the Story of the U.S. Coup in Guatemala with Stephen Kinzer in 1982. He is the son of historian Arthur Schlesinger and has had a long and varied career as a writer. He was the editor and publisher of the New Democrat magazine, spent four years as a staff writer for Time magazine, was a speechwriter and advisor to New York governor Mario Cuomo, worked for the United Nations at Habitat, and in addition to Bitter Fruit is the author of The New Reformers and the Harry S. Truman Award-winning Act of Creation: The Founding of the United Nations. He was also the coeditor of his father's Journals: 1952-2000. I spoke with Mr. Schlesinger over the telephone about his letter to the New York Times and President Eisenhower's foreign policy.


What compelled you to respond to Ross Douthat's column?

I responded to Douthat because his column irritated me. I felt that he gave Eisenhower too easy of a pass in terms of how Ike dealt with foreign policy. He argued that Eisenhower was one of these presidents who was basically passive, and that was indeed his strength—that he let things happen but he controlled them and defused crises, but never initiated any grand crusades.

I totally disagree with him.

If you look at Eisenhower's 1952 campaign, he campaigned on the platform that his administration would roll back communism around the world, and this was one of those grand theorems that he supposedly never endorsed, but that was very much the way that he approached foreign affairs. From the moment he got into office, he indeed practiced that very doctrine of trying to roll back communism ,and unfortunately for the two countries I named in my letter, Iran and Guatemala, he decided that communists were at work in both governments, and therefore, those governments deserved to be deposed. In their place, the U.S. would put some kind of pro-American general or dictator, and that's exactly what actually happened.

Was there an actual communist threat in Guatemala and Iran?

Well, there were communists in both countries, but they were a minority. What was at work in both countries was nationalism. Guatemala had been under the control of a dictator up until 1944 for practically its entire history. In 1944, they had a revolution and established a democracy; Jacobo Árbenz was the second president, elected in 1950. Árbenz believed that the extremes of wealth were too acute, with 1 percent of the population controlling almost 90 percent of the land, and that Guatemala would never have a healthy middle class with such lopsided land distribution. So, he came up with an agrarian reform act that would take land away from the huge landowners—namely the United Fruit Company. This would be land that they never used anyway—it was considered fallow—and it would be given to deserving farmers who would then use it for productive purposes. This was all done perfectly legally—it was passed by the legislature. But because United Fruit's land was being taken away, they complained to the Eisenhower administration that communists were taking over Guatemala. Well, there was indeed a  communist party in the Guatemalan legislature, but it was the smallest party!  It was indeed part of the coalition that supported Árbenz, but Árbenz wasn't a communist—he was basically a social democrat, somewhat analogous to someone like Willy Brandt. But in the CIA's propaganda war, Árbenz was called a communist—of course, this was all triggered by United Fruit's concerns. When Eisenhower came into office, he treated the Guatamalan situation as one of incipient Marxist revolution, which therefore justified intervention.

Like in Guatemala—actually proceeding the coup in Guatemala by a year—there was nationalism afoot in Iran. Iran also had a democratically elected government, which produced a prime minister named Muhammad Mossadeq. Mossadeq, pressed by the legislature and the population, decided to nationalize the oil industry, which had historically been controlled by the British under a very unfair contract, where the British got most of the profit and Iran got very little. Mossadeq, once he took the oil industry over, was able to use the revenues for the benefit of his own population, which, like in Guatemala, was also very impoverished. This was considered by the British to be an act of communist takeover, because they regarded their control over Iranian oil as paramount. They recruited the Americans to help them reverse this process, and the Americans and the British jointly produced this coup in Iran which ousted Mossadeq and reinstalled the shah, who became in essence the dictator of Iran. His unfortunate rule ended with his having to flee the country because the Iranian people rebelled against him and brought in Ayatollah Khomeini, and that was the end of the possibility of any democracy in Iran.

In both cases, nationalism was in play, not communism. And in both cases, incidentally, the CIA had previously approached Harry Truman and tried to convince him to undertake the coups, and he refused to approve because he said that both countries were under democratic rule and that both Árbenz and Mossadeq had legitimate reasons to do what they were doing. And, in any case, he felt that covert coups went against American values and constitutional beliefs. But once Eisenhower came in, infected by ideological zealotry against communism, he reversed Truman's policy and approved both coups.

Was it just anti-communism, or were there other factors?

Well, I was trying to make it clear that the real reason for the coups was to overthrow governments that threatened, in Guatemala, the interests of a major American corporation, and in Iran it was to defend Anglo-American oil interests that were potentially going to be nationalized. There were economic interests that preceded—in fact, if you put the Cold War aside, economic interests were the dominant reason in both cases why the U.S. acted.

Right, but what I was driving at was why Truman—well, actually, it's interesting that the Bay of Pigs, which you didn't mention in your letter—

Well, I was going to mention it, but since it happened under Kennedy it was a harder reference to make in a letter to the editor, even though it was initiated under Eisenhower.

Right. But, in the Guatemala case, at least, weren't the Dulles brothers—

Yes, Allen Dulles and his brother John Foster—Allen was the head of the CIA, John Foster was the head of the State Department—had both worked as lawyers for United Fruit in the past, and so they had direct ties to the company. Ann Whitman, who was Eisenhower's personal secretary in the White House, had also been a longtime employee of United Fruit. So there were a lot of ties between the administration and the banana corporation, which obviously influenced the way Eisenhower looked at the Guatemala situation.

So, coming full circle back to Douthat, how do you rate Eisenhower as a president?

Well, I do give him credit for a couple of things. He consolidated the New Deal's reforms—in other words, he made them respectable for a Republican administration; he didn't try to reverse them. And  he did institute the construction of the massive highway transportation system in this country—the Interstate—which was quite an achievement.

But, putting those aside, I think on the foreign policy side, he was a disaster.

Overthrowing democratically elected governments has serious consequences. We're still seeing the consequences in Iran—we have a bitter enemy now in power there who may be seeking nuclear weapons, and that's going to threaten our entire position in the Middle East. In Guatemala, we precipitated a civil war which killed 200,000 people and set back democracy for decades in Central America. So, I mean, yes, there were some achievements on the Eisenhower ledger as far as foreign policy is concerned—he didn't get us directly involved in  Vietnam  after the French lost at Dien Bien Phu, and he did take seriously the idea of bringing nuclear weapons under some sort of international control, but if you're talking the most consequential foreign policy decisions of his presidency, you have to talk about Guatemala and Iran.

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