This has been a pretty rough election season, and most people aren’t terribly fond of any of the candidates we have to choose from. Considering that we’ve been talking about the current election nonstop for over a year, I thought it would be refreshing to look to the past for a president that did things right: Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Eisenhower may not be a cultural icon like John F. Kennedy or an almost mythical figure like George Washington, but he deserves to be remembered as one of America’s most effective presidents.
Eisenhower was inaugurated in 1953 and presided over a time of intense racial division in America. One of the most controversial issues of the time was segregation in public schools. In the legendary case Brown v. Board of Education, the Supreme court ruled that school segregation inevitably resulted in inequality, and was therefore unconstitutional according to the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In 1957, Arkansas governor Orval E. Faubus, in direct violation of the Supreme Court ruling, refused to allow a group of black students to enter a previously all-white high school. An angry mob formed outside the school to prevent the students from getting inside. In response, Eisenhower placed the Arkansas National Guard under federal authority, and ordered them to escort the students inside the school. Eisenhower was reluctant to involve the federal government in local matters, but declared that “the law and the national interest demanded that the President take action.” Eisenhower recognized not only the justice of desegregating schools, but also his duty as President to defend the Supreme Court's ruling.
In his first State of the Union address, he stated: “I propose to use whatever authority exists in the office of the President to end segregation in the District of Columbia, including the Federal Government, and any segregation in the Armed Forces.” In matters beyond the federal government’s control, he expressed his desire “to make true and rapid progress in civil rights and equality of employment opportunity” with the cooperation of state and local authorities. Eisenhower also proposed civil rights legislation to congress, which resulted in the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1960, designed to protect the voting rights of minorities. While his critics argue he could have done more, the fact remains that Eisenhower did more to advance the cause of civil rights than the vast majority of presidents before or since.
As an experienced general and the Supreme Allied Commander during World War II, Eisenhower knew a thing or two about foreign policy. Knowing he would inherit the ongoing Korean War, he immediately moved to find a peaceful solution. One of Eisenhower’s campaign promises was to visit the troops in Korea, which he did prior to even being inaugurated. His visit convinced him that continuing the war would only result in needless casualties. An armistice was signed seven months into his first term, dividing Korea at the 38th parallel and all official combat operations. Many in Eisenhower’s party felt the terms were too lenient, but he realized that compromises had to be made in order to avoid further conflict, which had to the potential to escalate into nuclear war.
Though nuclear war was a major concern of Eisenhower’s, he was aware that nuclear weapons did have defensive value. The military threat of the Soviet Union required the United States to be ready for retaliation. However, Eisenhower was trying to balance the budget, and was unwilling to increase military spending. This led to his “New Look” policy, which involved decreasing military spending while using America’s nuclear stockpile as a deterrent against Soviet aggression. While Eisenhower’s repeated attempts to decrease tensions with the Soviet Union failed, his policies were successful in avoiding open war.One of Eisenhower’s most famous moments comes from the farewell address he gave in 1961, wherein he offered this warning: “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.” Eisenhower acknowledged that the Cold War required the existence of a permanent arms industry in the United States, but warned that its influence on politics could undermine democracy and civil liberties. Unfortunately, many subsequent leaders have not taken this warning to heart.
Eisenhower can claim to have changed the lives of everyday Americans far more than most presidents, thanks to the Interstate Highway System. During his time in Germany, Eisenhower had been impressed by the Autobahn, and convinced that America’s transportation system needed an update. While plans for an interstate highway system existed in America since 1944, real progress was not made until Eisenhower passed funding for it in 1956. At the time, he argued that the construction of the interstate was a national security necessity, to enable the speedy evacuation of large cities in the event of an attack. Thankfully, that never came to pass, but the highways have also proved useful in enabling fast transportation and long distance travel.
It’s undeniable that poverty was a problem in the 1950s, as it has been for all of American history. However, the poverty rate declined during Eisenhower’s administration, and unemployment remained low throughout. In fact, Eisenhower had the best rate of economic growth of any post-World War II president. That so many people look back on the 1950s with fondness, despite the serious problems of the day, is a testament to the prosperity of the era.
Eisenhower also faced tensions within his own party, partly thanks to Joseph McCarthy, the inflammatory anti-communist senator that spearheaded the Red Scare. Eisenhower shared McCarthy’s concerns over communism, but objected to his obsession with condemning public figures as communist agents. Eisenhower was reluctant to confront McCarthy, even removing an anti-McCarthy passage from one of his campaign speeches for fear of political backlash (a decision that proved to be one of his greatest regrets). At the time, the majority of Americans had a favorable opinion of McCarthy, and supported his anti-communist efforts.
However, when McCarthy set his sights on exposing supposed communists within the U.S. Army, Eisenhower finally decided to bring an end to the senator’s witch hunts. Eisenhower ordered his staff to begin digging up dirt on McCarthy, who turned his investigation on White House personnel. Eisenhower invoked executive privilege, preventing McCarthy from examining White House personnel on the basis on national security. Having stalled McCarthy’s momentum, Eisenhower ended the senator’s political career by urging Senate Republicans to issue a censure, formally condemning McCarthy’s conduct. Though a dedicated Republican, Eisenhower acted out of conscience rather than party loyalty. He preferred to be known as a moderate or “progressive conservative,” and often clashed with the more extreme elements of his party for his willingness to break from party orthodoxy.
Obviously, Eisenhower wasn’t a perfect president. However, that his critics primarily accuse him of not going far enough in his policies, rather than going in the wrong direction, says a great deal about his judgment. He presided over a very difficult time, having to deal with the Red Scare, nuclear proliferation, segregation, amidst many other problems. He may not be the most iconic or inspiring of leaders, but but Eisenhower’s ability to deal with these problems within the constraints of his authority shows him to be one of the most effective presidents in American history.