Ike's View of the '90s
Eisenhower was very good about prioritizing things. Most people who are successful are good at that. He did what we all should do (but don't). He dealt with the most important things first.
What, then, would he think was most important about the United States in the 1990s? You already know the answer: the end of the Cold War. I think he would be stunned by what happened when Communism collapsed in East Europe and when the Soviet Union actually fell apart, disintegrated, disappeared! Who could have anticipated that? He would make us talk about this for a long time.
The central feature of Ike's diplomacy was the policy of containment. By resisting the expansion of Communism, and by resisting our temptation to try to bring the struggle to a military conclusion (Claire Booth Luce among others got impatient), Eisenhower thought we would win the Cold War, eventually. He thought it would take a long, long time.
He was right. We did win. And it brought to a conclusion the most stunningly successful foreign policy of the 20th century. By any country. It achieved complete victory without a war. I challenge you to come up with a more successful national foreign policy.
Think of it in the context of the interwar years and World War II. How successful was the British foreign policy of the interwar period? Not that successful. How successful was the German policy of expansion? We know the results. The Soviet policy of rapprochement with fascist Germany? We know the results of that. Japan? Italy? France? Who has done anything more successful than this in the present century?
It has long been popular in academic circles, especially in diplomatic history, to say that the United States lacks the patience and elite leadership it needs to be effective in framing and implementing foreign policy. But the success of containment indicates that this is not the case. We were patient. We did have effective bipartisan leadership. We won! And Ike would want to talk about that for about three or four hours.
He of course thought it would take much, much longer--maybe another century. So he would be surprised--pleasantly surprised, to see what has happened in the 1980s and 1990s in world politics.
He would be equally surprised and dreadfully unhappy about the budget deficit we've built up since the 1950s. Remember: he balanced the budget three times in his two administrations. He balanced the budget. None of our presidents has matched that record since 1961 and none of them is likely to do so for a long, long time.
Well at this point, you might be thinking, "Why would that be the second thing Ike would comment on?" Because he saw the policy of containment and the policy of budgetary restraint as closely linked. In order to wait out the Communist powers successfully, he thought we had to build our economic strength and work with our trading partners to keep a viable international market system going. That was essential.
NAFTA would make him very happy. He promoted
free trade. He would
be curious about the fact that President Clinton supported NAFTA,
because in the 1950s, free trade had become more of a Republican
than a Democratic policy. But he would be terribly happy to learn
that McDonald's is putting up those arches all over Eastern as
well as Western Europe, in Moscow as well as Lyon, once the
eating capital of France. He'd be happy to see that sort of
enterprise throughout the world.
But like a dog with a flea, he would keep returning to the budget deficit and the manner in which it restricted U.S. options in both domestic and foreign policy. Some of you may not know this, but Eisenhower had a temper. He had that great Eisenhower smile (Milton had the same smile). But he could blow up. He would blow up, I believe, when he learned that most of our current budget deficit stems from the 1980s under a Republican president, Ronald Reagan. How could he have done that? Ike would ask. He would be almost as shocked as he was about our sudden victory in the Cold War.
Even if we explained to him that there is a good chance that Reagan's military buildup accelerated the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ike wouldn't be convinced that it was a good thing. He contended rather fiercely that you couldn't buy absolute national security because it would bankrupt you. And you would never have absolute security anyway. It would be like trying to buy insurance against all eventualities. You wouldn't have any money left to pay for food. You needed patience, he would say, and restraint in the exercise of power. You would have achieved the same goal--without making our generation and future generations pay such a high price.
What would Eisenhower say about the state of our economy once we had been able to get him to stop talking about the budget deficit, and once he had gotten his temper under control? I think he would be pleased to see that many American companies had recovered from the intense global competition that set in during the 1960s. He would want to know what had happened to companies like General Motors and just about all of the U.S. tire manufacturers. We'd have to fill him in. We'd have to tell him about the painful years of the 1970s, when international competition, inflation, and the decline in American productivity increases left our economy limping along.
I think he would want to know a great deal about where the American economy was today, and he would basically be pleased. He would say "Wow!" when he saw where the Dow Jones Average is today, up around 6,000. When he left office it was around 634.
And he would press us very hard for information about deregulation, privatization (a word that wasn't even in the dictionary in the 1950s), and the continuing efforts to rein in the federal government. He spent eight years trying to do that in the 1950s. One of his particular targets was farm subsidies. They were created during the New Deal of the 1930s when agriculture was depressed. But even after the Green Revolution of the 1940s, the subsidies were still with us. He fought to reduce them and had to settle for a tie, which as the late football coach Bear Bryant said is like kissing your sister.
Eisenhower was the first of our postWorld War II presidents to encounter the Iron Law of Subsidies. What is the Iron Law? Like all good laws and most religions it has three parts:
2) The resistance to change will vary in direct proportion to the pressure exerted by those seeking to reduce any subsidy.
3) All subsidized interests, including historians, will frame their opposition to change in terms of the public interest.
Now when Ike looked at America in the 1950s,
he decided that what
the country needed was less public power and more private power.
Less regulation and more reliance on market forces. At the time,
only conservatives talked about fewer state-owned enterprises and
less regulation. We'd have to tell him, and he'd be surprised
about this, that in the 1970s deregulation brought conservatives
and liberals together in support of a new policy. It came from
both the left and the right. Today, wonder of wonders, President
Clinton actually has a somewhat better record on deregulation
than President Bush had. Ike would want to know how that had
He might want to reflect on that for a long time. But I think that he would conclude that his approach was finally winning out. By 1996, the Middle Way, in that sense, had been adopted by both political parties.
When we got down to the fine points of U.S. foreign policy, he'd want to know: were we working closely with our allies? And who were they? Ike was always very mindful of preserving our alliances. Were we providing the kind of leadership, he would want to know, needed to deal with the problems we were encountering and will inevitably continue to encounter?
We have overwhelming power today. Ike would want to know how well we were exercising it. Were we still showing patience and restraint? Did our allies trust us to show patience, restraint, and a fixed purpose in the years ahead? I think that the more Ike learned about American foreign policy in the 1990s, the more he would worry about what we were doing. Should we be the world's policeperson?
But we wouldn't want to let him just stop on that point, so we'd probably take a break, have a drink, and maybe even watch some television. When we did that Eisenhower would probably pop up in his chair and start to talk about civil rights. The role of African Americans on television has changed incredibly. You remember the situations he faced in the 1950s, and some of you know something about Ike's experiences in the military with African Americans and with Asian Americans.
Well, I can tell you that he would be stunned by the change that had taken place in the United States since the 1950s. Remembering Little Rock, and the confrontation with federal authority, he would be fascinated by the transformation that has taken place. If we were meeting here in Baltimore, he would be fascinated by the fact that the city has an African American mayor. That would be stunning to someone from the 1950s. I think it would take some time to explain the situation and to give him a better feel for what had changed and what had not changed. But from his perspective, comparing what had happened between 1890 and 1960 with what has happened in race relations between 1961 and the present day, the salient feature would be the positive aspects of change. Great pain, great change, but basically a positive slope.
Because the civil rights movement was well under way in the 1950s, Eisenhower would find that transformation much easier to understand than he would the changes that have taken place in gender relations. In that regard, Ike was a traditionalist with no particular awareness that there might be a problem, let alone a solution. We would have to tell him that he couldn't use this word or that word (girls). That the men don't normally retire to another room for their cigars and power talk, leaving the "little women" to play cards and gossip. Political correctness would baffle Ike (as it does many of us today), who might find press conferences today even more awkward than he sometimes found them in the 1950s. So many things to avoid. Surely a different world.
I don't think all of this would bother him. Although some of the more extreme advocates of correctness would perturb him. I think he would just smile about it and drift on to another subject.
That subject might well be the current political situation. Here he would feel more comfortable. He would be very critical of the manner in which the Republicans had allowed themselves to get boxed in on the Social Security/Medicare/Medicaid issue. He recognized in the 1950s how important our Social Security system was to Americans. Instead of attacking it, he extended it. And he said that any party that tried to get rid of it would never be heard of again in American politics. He said that to his brother, Ed.
He wouldn't have any trouble understanding how it had happened. He had plenty of trouble himself with the right side of the Republican Party. That was why he wanted to follow a Middle Way. One of his great regrets was that he was unable to leave the party stronger than it was by the end of the 1950s. He wanted to recruit a new cadre of young Republican leaders, and he would be happy to have seen that happen in recent years. Republican governors would please him. But the leadership of the party would distress him, and he would recognize that neither Dole nor the Republican Party has inspired support from a country that is still basically conservative on national issues today.
As we talked to Ike about Bill Clinton, we would have to tell the general about the American final defeat in Vietnam in the 1970s. I don't think he would be particularly surprised about that. Ike had taken a position against the colonial powers. He'd told them to leave their empires gracefully. He had lived through the buildup in Vietnam, and he remembered all too well what had happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu. But he would grimace, and maybe say something about Clinton's service to his country during that war. If he was surprised by anything, it would be that after Vietnam, the other "dominoes" did not fall.
But Ike would, I think, just classify Clinton as another politician, a person with a liberal ideology but an even stronger desire to remain in office. Politicians were people who were more comfortable dealing with interest groups than Ike was. Politicians were people who took a shortrun view of most situations. Ike always tried to take a longrun view of both foreign and domestic policy. Above all, politicians were people who were quicker than Eisenhower was to offer new subsidies to new groups by shifting authority from individuals to government, and from local or state government to the federal government.
That's what Ike opposed, and I think he would have sent Bob Dole his best wishes.
And as we finished this briefing, drinks, and discussion--as Ike was walking away--he would perhaps turn to us and say, "And whatever did happen to Richard Nixon, and to that vice president of his?"
We'd have to tell him.
Louis Galambos is co-editor of The Eisenhower Papers, an ongoing project at Johns Hopkins University that began in 1963. His talk celebrated the recent publication of Volumes XIV-XVII, The Presidency: The Middle Way.
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