How Do Historians Evaluate the Administration of Dwight Eisenhower?

History Q & A

Mr. Greenstein is a professor of politics at Princeton.

Dwight David Eisenhower is the least well understood of the modern presidents: enormously popular with the American public from his time as supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II through his death in 1969, but long held by analysts of American politics to have been a non-performing president.

A poll of specialists on the presidency conducted the year after Eisenhower stepped down relegated him to the rank of nineteenth-century nonentities like Chester Arthur. Within two decades, however, a transformation of Eisenhower's reputation had begun in the scholarly literature. As the inner records of his presidency came into the public domain, an Eisenhower emerged who was far removed from the image he cast as figurehead president -- giving the lie to the 1950s joke that it would be terrible if Eisenhower died and Vice President Nixon became president, but infinitely worse if Sherman Adams (Ike's stony-faced chief of staff) died and Eisenhower became president.

How interesting to discover, in the declassified record, that Eisenhower really was president -- a skilled political operator with an interesting and complex personality who engaged in the kinds of politicking that many believed he left to subordinates. But he politicked in a nonstandard manner, with an indirect approach that preserved his popularity by leaving it to his subordinates to carry out his administration's most controversial policies.


Eisenhower's oblique style would be hard for modern presidents to emulate. Behind-the-scenes leadership works better for a deeply trusted national figure who earned the nation's confidence in a non-political role than for a leader whose public support depends on day-to-day results. It does not serve less conservative presidents with more ambitious domestic aims. It also is less likely to succeed in the goldfish bowl of contemporary Washington. Still, Eisenhower's practice of down-playing the divisive side of presidential leadership and accentuating the president's ecumenical responsibilities can be politically rewarding even today, if appropriately adapted.


No other chief executive entered the White House with the organizational experience of the commander of the Normandy invasion, and none has put comparable effort into making his White House work: For example, Eisenhower's process for national security policy planning. Eisenhower initiated a procedure in which the top planners of each of the agencies represented in the National Security Council met regularly to flush out policy disagreements, which were spelled out in option papers, sometimes in parallel columns, and debated and resolved at the NSC's weekly meetings. Eisenhower himself made decisions in the presence of small groups of aides in the Oval Office, not in NSC meetings.


When it comes to use of the bully pulpit, Eisenhower is a negative role model. His pre-existing public support made it unnecessary for him to sell himself, his hidden-hand leadership style reduced his interest in public persuasion, and, to top it off, he was an earnest, but uninspiring, speaker. Eisenhower's shortcomings as a public communicator proved costly in the tempest of allegations that his administration had allowed a"missile gap" to develop favoring the Soviet Union. Eisenhower's lack of success in refuting that charge brought Kennedy into the White House pledging to remedy a non-existent deficiency and pressing on with a massive increase in the nation's nuclear arsenal.


Unlike the many leaders primarily concerned with maneuver, Eisenhower was most attentive to policy. As a veteran strategist, Eisenhower's response to an emerging problem was to reach for a governing principle. Of the eleven presidents from FDR to Clinton, only Nixon compares to Eisenhower in the extent to which his leadership was informed by explicitly defined policies. By the end of his first year as president, Eisenhower and his national security team had framed what came to be known as the"New Look" -- a national security strategy that relied on deterrence rather than conventional forces to hold the line against international communism while maintaining a thriving economy.

Eisenhower's preoccupation with policy was strikingly displayed in the internal debate over whether to employ American military power in Indochina in the 1954 Dien Bien Phu crisis. At the first NSC meeting after it became known that the French forces at that garrison had been besieged by the Vietnamese communists, Eisenhower opened the discussion with an incisive act of policy analysis:"This war in Indochina would absorb our troops by the divisions!" In the months that followed, he drew on the rationale of the New Look to insist that it would be foolish to squander the nation's resources on a peripheral conflict, when its real adversaries were China and the Soviet Union, a rationale clearly not followed by his immediate successors.


Eisenhower also had formidable intellectual strengths. He had a gift for lucid written expression markedly at variance with the famously jumbled syntax of his press conferences, a capacity to cut to the core of problems, and an ability to arrive at persuasive assessments of complicated problems. Eisenhower was less articulate than a number of his aides, but in the end he was the one who resolved contentious issues, not just because he was president but also because his aides respected him for his sound judgment.


Eisenhower had a temper that could burst forth like a summer thunderstorm, but that subsided just as rapidly. He also had a quality that has come to be called"emotional intelligence," the ability to turn one's feelings to constructive purposes and prevent them from impeding the performance of one's responsibilities. In this strength he contrasts with such emotionally flawed presidents as Richard Nixon, whose suspicion and anger led him to take actions that doomed his presidency, and, of course, Bill Clinton, with his famous lack of self-control.

Eisenhower's capacity for dispassionate leadership derived in part from his sound emotional makeup, but it also was a result of his pre-presidential experience. Having made his mark before becoming president, Eisenhower had no need to prove himself in the White House -- an equanimity illustrated in a memory recalled by his brother Milton, who was president of Penn State University during the first term of the Eisenhower presidency. In 1955, Ike was the Penn State commencement speaker. To Milton's distress, storm clouds began to brew on the morning of the outdoor ceremony. When Milton asked his brother for advice, Ike's reply was,"Milton, I haven't worried about the weather since June 6, 1944."

Courtesey of TomPaine.com

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