Republicans Should Like Ike

tags: Dwight D. Eisenhower, Republican Party, GOP, Tea Party, Keith W. Olson



5-13-13

Keith W. Olson is professor of history at the University of Maryland. He is currently researching Dwight Eisenhower's relationship with civil rights.


Official White House portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower.

As Republican leaders continue to try to redefine their party identity they would do well to review the legacy of Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower, arguably, the most successful president since World War II. As president he faced crises and challenges both foreign and domestic, different from those of today but equal in magnitude, as well as the need to maintain national leadership.

During the 1950s the containment of the nuclear-armed Soviet Union dominated all other concerns. From the Truman administration, Eisenhower also inherited a limited war in Korea. A year later he faced a French request for military aid to save their colonial empire in Southeast Asia. Also in 1954 -- and again in 1958 -- he confronted tense relations with the People's Republic of China over territorial claims and policies in the Formosa Strait.

In October 1956 three of the nation's closest allies -- the United Kingdom, France, and Israel -- invaded Egypt without informing Eisenhower. The war soon involved threats from the Soviet Union. Simultaneously, the Soviets invaded Hungary to crush the Hungarian Revolution, which had overthrown the communist government in that country. A year after the Suez crisis the Soviets launched the world's first human-made satellite, called Sputnik, to orbit the earth. While not a military threat, Sputnik sparked serious public discussion about America's ability to compete with the Soviets.

To all of these crises Eisenhower sought non-military resolutions.

In Korea he completed a negotiated settlement, a policy the Truman administration had started. Eisenhower likewise successfully negotiated with the People's Republic of China and aggressively pressured Britain and France into withdrawing from the Suez.

Eisenhower's political, and economic achievements reflected stability, continuity, and moderation. As president he favored an increase in the minimum wage and extended unemployment benefits to an additional four million workers. In 1956 he broadened Social Security to include new categories of occupations and thereby added 10.5 million wage earners, including public school teachers.

Two initiatives illustrated Eisenhower's commitment to infrastructure. The first was the St. Lawrence Seaway Act, which provided construction of locks that linked the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean. In 1956 Congress enacted his proposed Federal Aid Highway Act, the largest public works project in American history. He wanted the project to finance itself through a federal tax on gas and oil with states contributing ten percent of construction cost in their states. In 1958 the National Defense Education Act provided the first major aid to higher education since 1862. Under Eisenhower the budget of the National Science Foundation more than doubled.

For Eisenhower the economy, especially the federal budget, directly related to military strength and domestic prosperity. He inherited a budget deficit of approximately $10 billion. By 1956 he balanced the first of his balanced budgets. Steadfastly he maintained high federal income tax to uphold economic health. For incomes over $400,000, the federal income tax was 91 percent (albeit with deductions). Eisenhower also systematically reduced the military budget in actual dollars as well as in percentage of the total budget through his New Look policy.

The congressional elections of 1954, 1956, and 1958 returned Democratic majorities to both houses of Congress. His 1956 re-election meant that he faced Democratic control of Congress for the last six years of his presidency.

In his farewell address Eisenhower wanted "to share a few final thoughts with you my countrymen." After this beginning, he immediately reported that "Our people expect their president and the Congress to find essential agreement on issues of great moment, the wise resolution of which will better shape the future of the nation." He referred to this relationship as "mutually interdependent" and continued that "In this final relations, the Congress and the administration have, on most vital issues, cooperated well, to serve the national good rather than mere partisanship, and so have assured that the business of the nation should go forward." He concluded that "my official relationship with the Congress end[s] in a feeling, on my part, of gratitude that we have been able to do so much together."

The American voters responded enthusiastically to Eisenhower's leadership. In 1952 he won election by more than 6.5 million votes. Four years later he won reelection by more than 9.5 million votes. Another measure of evaluation was approval rating. Harry Truman left office with a rating of 23 percent, the lowest of any post-World War II president (until George W. Bush, that is). In Eisenhower's last year 61 percent approved of Americans approved of his performance. His eight-year average approval was 65 percent. The trust American had in their government to do what was right all or most of the time constituted yet another category of evaluation. In 1960 the trust in government reached 70 percent.

The more scholars have researched about Eisenhower and his administration the higher their assessments. Consistently in polls he now merits eighth, ninth, or tenth rank among all presidents. In 1996, for example, The Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. poll of historians placed Eisenhower tenth. The Siena College Institute found that "experts" listed him in the top ten in its 1994, 2002, and 2010 surveys. C-SPAN’s 2009 analysis by "sixty-five historians and professional observers of the presidency" placed Eisenhower eighth.

With hindsight, of course, not all of Eisenhower's decisions, actions, and policies win applause -- but the total record is overwhelmingly favorable. In terms of legislation, international relations, and economics he left solid achievements. Voters overwhelmingly supported his presidency and scholars admire his record. During his presidency Eisenhower’s achievements and his public image contributed to high public trust in government, belief in the role of government, and ability to form bipartisan coalitions to advance the national interest. Eisenhower’s record is one Republican leaders should celebrate, not ignore.


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