The Papers of
Books: Papers reveal
America in the 1950s. In many current accounts, it is
depicted as the age of "father knows best." This America was a
place of crew cuts and conformity, where consumption was king and
respect for authority ruled.
Certain enduring images serve to bolster this perception. On television, a wise and benevolent Robert Young brought justice and mercy to family foibles like some sort of pipe-smoking, cardigan-sweatered sage.
In the White House, American hero Dwight David Eisenhower seemed to play much the same role, often staying above partisan squabbles to dispense timely reminders to the nation on the value of freedom, democracy and balanced budgets. In his eight years in the White House, he was able to preside over three balanced budgets (something no other president has done since), despite the fact the House and Senate in those years were controlled by the party of the opposition.
It was almost as if Ike and Robert Young were reading different lines from the same script, a formula of masculine prerogative tempered by kindly benevolence. In retrospect, perhaps, no simple tag line can sum up an era. The age of father knows best was also a time of McCarthyism and nuclear hysteria, forced integration, beatnik coffeehouses and a hundred other dislocating forces beginning to pull at the fabric of the nation.
But the image of Ike as a calm and thoughtful steadying force upon the American body politic may not be altogether illusory. This month's publication by the Johns Hopkins University Press of four annotated volumes of The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower tends to reinforce this image of the 34th president as a father who frequently did know best.
Titled The Presidency: The Middle Way, the volumes cover the first Eisenhower administration (1953-57) as part of a continuing series sponsored by the Eisenhower World Affairs Institute, the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission. The set includes volumes 14 through 17 of what is expected to be a 21-volume edition of Eisenhower's Papers, culled from more than 5 million pages now housed in the Eisenhower Presidential Library in his hometown of Abilene, Kansas.
Publication of the Eisenhower Papers began in 1964, while the ex-president was still living, and is not expected to finish until the year 2001. Co-editors Daun van Ee and Louis Galambos have been working on the project since the early 1970s. Both say the years of effort have been well spent.
"Almost all historians rank Eisenhower among our top 10 presidents," said Galambos, a professor in the Department of History. "In foreign relations he was a strong and effective leader during some incredibly dangerous situations. He saw that pursuing a containment policy [against the Soviets] was absolutely essential, and he was able to pursue that with a very long-range view of things."
The Eisenhower who emerges from the hundreds of letters, memos, diary entries and other sources is consistent in his determination to retain the ability to fight any war, but adamant in his resolve to put off fighting until all other avenues had been utterly exhausted. In November of 1956, he wrote to Time magazine publisher Henry Luce about a meeting the president had earlier in the day with Luce's wife Clare, the U.S. ambassador to Italy. The ambassador had met with the president to urge him to "challenge Russia openly, with force of arms."
While sharing Mrs. Luce's concern and frustration with superpower relations--the 1950s were in fact a rather bellicose period in this regard--Eisenhower emphasizes the practical need for restraint: "While I have no doubt that as of this moment we are in as good a relative position of power as we ever will be ... such a war must be a decision in extremis and not one to adopt as long as there remains the faintest possibility of reaching a solution by some other method," he wrote.
These other methods, wrote Ike, "depend upon patience, steadiness, firmness and time." He underlined "time" to emphasize the foundation of his foreign policy and the belief that, sooner or later, the Russian people would tire of the Communist system and cast it off. Forty years later, Eisenhower has been proven correct.
"I think these volumes illustrate just how adept a leader Eisenhower really was," said van Ee, who serves as a lecturer in history in addition to his full-time editorial duties. "He was a much more hands-on president than people have traditionally given him credit for."
In domestic and foreign policy alike, Eisenhower resisted both the more liberal elements of Roosevelt's New Deal and the stridently conservative rumblings of the McCarthyite wing of his own party. He opted instead for a brand of pragmatic conservativism he liked to refer to as "The Middle Way."
A lifelong military man suddenly thrust into the political arena, Eisenhower had a keen sense of the uses and limitations of power. Political power, per se, appears to have held relatively little interest for him. But leadership was a lifelong passion.
"But obviously in the hurly burly of a military campaign--or a political effort--loyal, effective subordinates are mandatory," wrote Ike in a letter dated Dec. 10, 1953. "To tie them to the leader with unbreakable bonds one rule must always be obeyed-- Take full responsibility, promptly, for everything that remotely resembles failure--give extravagant and public praise to all subordinates for every success."
In an earlier letter to British foreign secretary (and later prime minister) Sir Anthony Eden, he related a definition of leadership he learned in the military: "Put a piece of cooked spaghetti on a platter. Take hold of one end and try to push it in a straight line across the plate. You get only a snarled up and knotty looking thing that resembles nothing on earth. Take hold of the other end and gently lead the piece of spaghetti across the plate. Simple!"
"Eisenhower's leadership was crucial in avoiding situations that could have easily gotten out of hand," van Ee said. "In 1954, during the first Vietnam crisis [when the French colonial forces were defeated at Dien Bien Phu], there were a lot of people who wanted to go to war. Nuclear strikes were proposed. But Eisenhower resisted all these efforts. He was determined to halt the spread of Communism, but refused to involve the U.S. in a losing effort, or one that would have colonialist overtones and alienate the emerging nations."
In fact, one of the predominant themes to emerge from the volumes is the underlying tension in Eisenhower's foreign policy objectives. On the one hand, the containment of Communism necessitated an absolute unbreachable solidarity between the United States and allies such as Great Britain and France. At the same time, Eisenhower believed fervently that those two countries needed to divest themselves of their colonies in Africa, Asia and the Pacific. Colonialism, he correctly felt, was a thing of the past.
"Since France was crucial to the European Defense Community and to all other conceivable programs for European defense, Eisenhower could not afford to alienate either France or Great Britain by setting an overtly anti-colonial course," van Ee said. "Instead, he chose quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy."
To what degree that diplomacy was successful is a matter that historians will no doubt debate for some time to come. But to Galambos, at least, the record on Eisenhower's foreign policy achievements is clear: "I think he was very restrained about exercising American power, and our friends and enemies both tended to find him somewhat disconcerting. The French and the British were trying to preserve their empires against a whole era of major nationalist and socialist revolutions. Eisenhower wouldn't fight those wars on their behalf. He was married to the idea of restraint in the exercise of power. Those times were frequently very hot, but Eisenhower knew how to keep his cool."
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