I Like Ike

Dwight Eisenhower, or Ike as he was affectionately known, was a popular President, having an approval rating of 64 percent over his eight years in office.  Not bad.

This is not a Republican or Democrat blog, it’s simply about a man who happened to be a Republican who today would have a tough choice on what party to join.

Ike is in the news because of the debate over the corporate income tax rate reduction last year.  Compared to when Ike was President, the existing corporate tax rate was low, now it is lower and significantly lower than when during the Ike years.  The economy was quite healthy in the 1950’s as well, and unless I missed something, the U.S. was not a socialist country in the 1950’s.  Even Joe McCarthy would agree with that.

When Ike ran for re-election, this was the 1956 Republican Platform:

  • Provide federal assistance to low-income communities
  • Protect Social Security
  • Provide asylum for refugees
  • Extend minimum wage
  • Improve unemployment benefit system so it covers more people
  • Strengthen labor laws so workers can more easily join a union
  • Assure equal pay for equal work regardless of sex

I like that platform.

Ike was probably more moderate than liberal. In recent years, many moderate Republicans have been forced to the curb or even have switched parties as the Republican Party has been aligned with more conservative interests.  Republicans of the past like Bob Dole or Howard Baker, who often worked with Democrats to find common ground, are relics of a distant time. Eisenhower is a very interesting study as a Republican because he often didn’t behave like one, but then Southern Democrats didn’t often act like Democrats either.

When Ike left office in 1961, the differences between him and JFK were striking, and that symbolized for many the changing of the times and the direction of the country.  The relations between Kennedy the candidate and Ike the President were cordial but cold, especially as Kennedy went after Nixon and the Eisenhower administration as political fodder.  While the campaign might had it’s many moments of discord, the transition period was more respectful and “Presidential”, but Eisenhower set the tone for the professional manner in the hand-off of power.

Ike, the career military officer, was not the typical political animal, he came to politics late in life, but he adapted and swam in the political jet-stream that everyone else did, and re-markedly maintained his very favorable appeal.  This man saved us from Nazis.  Rather ironic in 2019.

Most of us have our view of the 1950’s.  I think of the decade as prosperous, the American Dream was alive and well, and the economy was booming and we were still a manufacturing and heavy industry behemoth.

Rock ‘n’ roll was in its infancy, television was creating new stars like Milton Berle, Lucy & Desi, and Sid Caesar.  Sports was beginning to consume America and the highway system was making it easy to see the USA in your Chevrolet.  Automobiles grew large tail fins, pink flamingos populated front yards, and bomb shelters occupied many back yards.

McCarthyism had created a Communist scare while Cold War tensions led to an arms race with the Soviet Union.  Politicians then would never have considered taking campaign contributions from Russian agents. Again, rather ironic in 2019.  America and China were fighting a de facto war in Korea and we would never have consider praising the North Korean leader.  Again, ironic in 2019.

Race relations in the 1950’s was undergoing change but segregation was still the status quo.  Brown v. the Topeka Board of Education would begin to slowly change the country but Jim Crow was alive and well, and meaningful civil rights legislation was still a decade away.  The Civil Rights Act of 1957 was more symbolic than substantive.

Life for most Americans was looking up but many Americans because of race, ethnicity, religion, gender and economic status, were disenfranchised from the American Dream. Poverty, in rural American and inner cities would not be center stage for another decade.

Eisenhower came to the Presidency with a middle-of-the-road political stance, even though he had to navigate some stalwart political compromises within his own party. Ascending to the Presidency, he replaced 20 years of Democratic Presidents. He called himself a “liberal Republican” even though he was known for not liking labels.

The Eisenhower Administration focused on foreign matters and he certainly had the background and clout to do so.  Even though fierce anti-communist John Foster Dulles was his secretary of state, Eisenhower would easily take the lead in his administration’s foreign policy.  Stalin died not long after Eisenhower became President, and soon Nikita Khrushchev took control of leadership in the Kremlin.

In an editorial piece he distributed to newspapers in 1953, Eisenhower included his thoughts on the heavy cost of armaments and war, and the resources it cost society.  He called it a “theft from those who hunger and are not fed, who are cold and are not clothed.”

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.
It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.
The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.
It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.
It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.
We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat.
We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.”

April 16, 1953 “Chance for Peace” speech

After a career in military service, Eisenhower was concerned about the economic cost on the nation and how the threat of war in Europe and elsewhere kept the emphasis on military build-up. He did not support a permanent war economy, and he took notice of the vast number of retired generals and admirals who were affiliated with defense contractors.

As President, he sought to reduce the size of the armed forces while emphasizing our nuclear capability as a deterrent to large-scale conflicts.  Eisenhower preferred to also depend on the United Nations and NATO for helping keep the peace abroad.  As we know, Eisenhower’s parting reminder to us all when he left office was the proliferation of the Military Industrial Complex.

On the home front, Eisenhower nominated Earl Warren as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, a decision that would have profound impact on Court decisions going forward.  Eisenhower’s role in civil rights is not necessarily one of action, rather reaction.  Privately, he had issues with the Court’s ruling, and their rationale, but indicated that his job was to enforce it, which he did by sending the Army to Little Rock, Arkansas.

Segregation and McCarthyism are the two issues that historians tend to rank Eisenhower lower in leadership.  Eisenhower seemed to have no use for McCarthy, but navigated the Party swamp to avoid direct criticism of McCarthy during the 1952 election.  McCarthy’s criticisms of the Army and some Eisenhower appointments stung the President but he staunchly refused to “talk personalities” as he said when asked about his reluctance to go after McCarthy.  Even in his diary he confided his displeasure with McCarthy but was convinced that ignoring him was best.  Imagine if Twitter had been available then.

Eisenhower presided over a changing world in the 1950’s.  The Korean War would soon end, but tensions between China and the U.S. would not.  He used his steady, pragmatic guidance to deal with the rising instability of the Middle East and the involvement of England, France, the Soviet Union and the U.S. in those conflicts.  War between Egypt and Israel over the Suez Canal was a precursor to the future.  The Soviet Union and the U.S. repeatedly clashed over events in Hungary and Germany, and later over the testing of nuclear weapons and a downed American U2 spy plane. The Soviets also successfully launched the first space flight, which did spur Eisenhower to create NASA.  At the end of his administration, Eisenhower saw Castro lead a rebellion to take over the government of Cuba, just 90 miles from our shoreline.  Eisenhower approved of the CIA helping to topple governments in Iran and Guatemala, something that would grow more prevalent in upcoming administrations.

At home, while times were relatively tranquil, the country’s decade of prosperity hit a few economic bumps and went through several mild recessions, including leading up to the 1960 election year.  Eisenhower had survived those downturns, McCarthyism, Democratic controlled Congresses, the challenges of civil right court cases and enforcement actions in Little Rock, and several heart attacks.

The opinion of many is that the 1950’s were boring. Consult your history book.

Ike was a good man, he genuinely wanted every American to prosper, and he took the high road in dealing with conflicts.  He was still a man of his time, with old world thinking at times and underestimated the power of the bully pulpit to actively lead on key issues.  And then, he could be ahead of his time and understand the how the foibles of man can impact the world, and not for the better.

Ike, with his fatherly values, and world-worn experience, would be a good match for the problems of today.  Besides, he defeated the Nazis once, he could do it again.

Dwight D. Eisenhower by Tom Wicker, published in 2002, was very helpful in some of the background information.

 


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