The Republican Eisenhower succeeded the Democrat Harry Truman, and for all their differences they ended up scoring the same in my assessments. Truman’s peace/prosperity/liberty marks are 13/18/17 (=48). Eisenhower’s are 16/20/12 (=48). Both were very good presidents, and in Ike’s case, he was the last good Republican president. (Ford and Reagan were average; the Elder Bush and Nixon were poor; and the Younger Bush a complete failure.)
Some insist that Eisenhower was lazy and out of touch, but he was actually the most realistic president of the 20th-21st centuries (aside from perhaps Harding). He cultivated a vacationing and golf-playing image while working shrewdly behind the scenes for mostly excellent policies. If not for his mixed record on civil rights, he would rank as excellent on whole.
1. Peace (Foreign Policy)
Right out of the gate he set the standard for what foreign intervention should look like in the post WWII era. He realized the price of winning the Korean War wasn’t worth it and so he ended it, saving many lives on both sides of a strategically worthless conflict.
Unlike Truman before him and the Cold War presidents after him, Eisenhower never overstated the Soviet threat. As a military man, he knew what the others did not: that the basis of military power is a thriving economy, which the Soviets never had. In place of war, he used foreign aid and CIA covert action to prevent other nations from becoming communist, sometimes admittedly more than he should have.
It was Eisenhower’s military background that kept him so commendably restrained. On six occasions, he rejected the unanimous opinion of his advisors to go to war: over the Korean armistice negotiations in 1953; Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam in 1954; the Quemoy and Matsu islands in the Strait of Formosa in 1955; the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1956; the Israeli, British, and French attack on Egypt in 1956 (though here he came the closest; see below); Berlin in 1959; and the downing of the U-2 spy plane in Soviet airspace in 1960. This needs massive underscoring, because presidents, absurdly, seldom get credit for avoiding wars. Eisenhower boasted that under his administration, not a single soldier had been lost, and for a military man that’s doubly impressive. Eisenhower was known for saying, “I hate war as only a soldier who has lived it can.”
The only exception to his policy of restraint was Lebanon in 1958. At the request of Lebanon’s Christian president, Camille Chamoun, he sent forces to put down a Muslim rebellion. This wasn’t necessarily a bad move, but it was a strange one for someone like Eisenhower, and he probably only did it to prove a point against his interventionist critics — and so that he could actually use the Eisenhower Doctrine that he formulated a year before in ’57. The doctrine stated that the U.S. would provide military aid in the Middle-East to those who requested it, and seems to have been Ike’s appeasement of sorts for his siding with the President of Egypt in the Suez crisis.
The Suez Crisis
In siding with Egypt against Israel in ’56, Ike knew he was jeopardizing his chances for a second term. But he believed the U.S. should honor its obligation (under the Tripartite Agreement of 1950) to guarantee existing borders between Israel and the Arab countries, regardless of which side that worked against. He even considered using U.S. forces to stop the Israelis if they didn’t halt their advance. That all sounds commendable in theory, but siding with President Gamal Abdel Nasser wasn’t a good move.
Israel, Britain, and France wanted to remove Nasser and take back western control of the Suez Canal which Britain had recently lost. Nasser was foul even aside from his nationalizing of the canal. He had been sending jihadist raids into Israel for two years (since ’54), and those guerilla fighters almost always targeted civilians. Now, with the U.S. supporting Nasser (along with the Soviets and the UN), Israel, Britain, and France had to back down. The consequence of this was that Nasserites throughout the Middle-East felt emboldened to try collapsing pro-western governments and establish a Pan-Arab state. Pro-Nasser Iraqi forces murdered the royal family in Iraq, for example. And when Lebanon’s president asked Eisenhower for help in 1958, it was on this very pretext: Chamoun claimed that he needed American help against a pro-Nasser Syrian invasion. In reality, Chamoun was dealing with Muslim street mobs.
Suez, therefore, is the small blight on Ike’s otherwise superb peace record.
2. Prosperity (Domestic Policy)
Eisenhower presided over one of the most prosperous decades in the 20th century, and some economists say the most prosperous of all. He is one of only four presidents in the 20th-21st centuries (the others being Harding, Coolidge, and Clinton) who reduced federal spending as a portion of GDP. He slashed the national debt down from 100% of GDP in 1953 to 60% of GDP in 1960. There was the Recession of 1958, but Ike did nothing to cause that, and he took the right measures to make the recession short-lived.
He didn’t want to roll back FDR’s New Deal program, as he (rightly) thought that would be political suicide for Republicans. There was much pernicious in the New Deal, but he took the more reasonable approach of managing welfare rather than trying to upend it. Once bad laws are passed, they are very hard to repeal. (A majority of both houses of Congress must vote to rescind a law; then, a minority of Senators can filibuster a repeal, or a president can veto the repeal, requiring a two-thirds override.) But also, even Republicans had by now long accepted parts of the New Deal, notably Social Security, the regulation of business practices, and the right of labor to organize — and these I take as positives anyway. The New Deal wasn’t wholly bad, though a lot of it was.
Thanks to rigorous fiscal policies, Eisenhower presided over two whole terms of prosperity and an economy with negligible inflation — something no 20th or 21st century president can boast for an eight year stretch.
Ike’s liberty record is a mixed bag. Like Truman he supported the rights of African Americans, but unlike Truman he wanted slow progress, for fear of provoking riots and lynchings. To his credit he ended segregation in Washington DC, and made sure that Truman’s directives to desegregate the military would be maintained, especially in the navy.
On the bad side, he refused to support the important Supreme Court ruling, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education (1954), which said (in a slam dunk 9-0 opinion) that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. He even went so far as to invite Chief Justice Earl Warren to a White House dinner before the justices made their ruling, in order to sway Warren to his point of view. So not only was Eisenhower wrong on a critical justice issue, he failed to respect the separation of powers. It got worse. In 1956, the University of Alabama admitted a black student, which caused rioting and the suspension of the student (allegedly for her own safety). Throughout the riots, Ike refused to send in federal troops, and the school remained segregated for another seven years. The following year, however, he reversed his policy and sent federal troops to stop similar riots an Arkansas high school. But in retaliation, Governor Faubus closed all Arkansas public high schools for the 1958 year. If Eisenhower had publicly supported the Court’s decision to begin with, he may not have had to use federal troops, which in turn provoked the school closings.
Making the whole thing harder to assess is that Eisenhower appointed Earl Warren to the Supreme Court to begin with, and is therefore largely responsible for Warren, who wrote the landmark opinion of Brown with which he disagreed. For that matter, he appointed three other excellent justices during his two terms, and the “Warren Court” would become legendary for requiring states to safeguard the same rights that the federal government had to guarantee under the Bill of Rights. (The Warren Court incorporated the Bill of Rights under the due process and equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.)
Communist witch hunts
Also unlike Truman, Eisenhower never denounced Senator Joe McCarthy’s witch hunt for communists, as he should have, and even worse he actually fired people to appease the senator. Ike knew McCarthy was a fool but felt that he needed his support, since McCarthy controlled a lot of votes in the Senate.
Eisenhower gets a good report card:
Peace. I dock him 2 points for supporting Nasser in the Suez Crisis, and another 2 for some needless CIA covert action abroad, but other than that, he was excellent, and proof that it is possible for America to be militarily restrained in the post WWII era.
Prosperity. A pretty-much perfect record. He was progressive in all the right places, but also an unyielding budget hawk.
Liberty. Eisenhower’s desegregation policies in the nation’s capital and the military must be weighed against his refusal to support desegregation in schools and universities. He is however largely responsible for those decisions he disagreed with, having appointed the chief justice who argued most strongly for the right cause. His other appointees to the Supreme Court also made landmark rulings for Bill of Rights guarantees on the state level. He didn’t stand up to McCarthy’s witch hunts as he should have. Weighing all of this, I give Ike a liberty score of 12.
Peace — 16/20
Prosperity — 20/20
Liberty — 12/20
TOTAL SCORE = 48/60 = Very Good
Eisenhower deserves far more credit for civil rights than he gets. He passed the first two civil rights acts since reconstruction. The reason that they weren’t stronger was due to Lyndon Johnson watering them down. Eisenhower was also the first president to use the military to protect civil rights since Grant, and he desegregated the federal government. He did more for civil rights than any president since Grant, except for LBJ, and Johnson’s 180 on civil rights was most likely due to the political consideration that he needed black votes in the north to be reelected. Eisenhower didn’t want to start civil rights with the school systems because he thought it would create the most pushback, which he was right about. It only made sense that Eisenhower wouldn’t want riots and other violence to break out.
As far as McCarthy goes, Eisenhower dealt with him very deftly. Had Eisenhower gotten down in the dirt with McCarthy, like Truman did, it would have given McCarthyism even more oxygen. He gave McCarthy enough rope to hang himself. It is also ignored by historians, however, that there were communist traitors in the government and the country. They cry for Alger Hiss, the Rosenberg’s and other traitors, but these people were committing treason against the United States by aiding the Soviet Union and other enemies.