During and immediately after Eisenhower's presidency, his critics painted him as a great general but a bumbling politician. In later years, many came to understand that his political skills were more formidable than they seemed.
During his run for president in 1952, Eisenhower adopted the slogan "I Like Ike." The phrase not only had a nice ring to it, it was true. Americans overwhelmingly did like Ike. He was a personable, down-to-earth, honest man with an infectious grin. He had been a great athlete—a knee injury ruined his promising football career while he was still at West Point. As an older man, he seemed like a pretty ordinary guy: he played golf and bridge, watched television, and read Western novels.
Many presidents, of course, have found that popularity is a tremendous asset in the White House. It aids a president when he wants to pass legislation and makes his political enemies think twice before attacking him. Eisenhower was one of the most popular presidents of the twentieth century.
Eisenhower was the first professional soldier to become president since the famous Civil War general Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868. Like Grant, Ike had an undistinguished career early in life but became a national hero during a major war; Eisenhower's leadership of the successful D-Day invasion during World War II turned him into a national hero. He rode his popularity into the White House even though he had never run for any political office beforehand.
In fact, well into the early 1950s, most people didn't even know what party Eisenhower belonged to; as a military man, he had deliberately stayed out of politics. The Democrats were as eager to recruit him as the Republicans.
Before Eisenhower's election in 1952, the Republicans hadn't won a presidential election for nearly a quarter century, with Democrats Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman combining to win five straight national campaigns. When leaders of both parties first encouraged Eisenhower to run as Truman's presidency was nearing its end, Ike refused to commit himself. He figured it was better to be sought for office than to seek it. He only finally agreed to run for office as a Republican after letting the party's leaders plead with him for months on end.
But the road to the nomination was not smooth. The Republican Party was deeply divided between its isolationist conservatives, who felt that America should stay out of foreign affairs, and its internationalist moderates (like Eisenhower), who saw an essential role for America overseas. The leader of the conservatives was Robert Taft, a well-respected Ohio senator and the son of former President William Howard Taft.
Taft was known at the time as "Mr. Republican." He stood for what he saw as traditional American values and true-blue conservatism. He supported states' rights and opposed the idea that "we know better what is good for the world than the world does."23 Taft's isolationism worried Eisenhower, who felt the United States had to remain engaged in the world to counter the Soviets; the Americans' isolationism back in the 1930s, he believed, had only helped Nazi Germany to grow into a terrible threat to world peace and he couldn't abide such a thing happening again.
Both candidates came into the Republican Party Convention with strong support (in those days, the nomination was usually decided at the party convention rather than beforehand in primaries and caucuses). Eisenhower, the political novice, was crafty enough to outmaneuver Taft and take the nomination. He chose Richard Nixon, a conservative California congressman famous for his anticommunism, for his running mate.
In the general election, Ike ran against Democrat Adlai Stevenson, the governor of Illinois. Stevenson was a moderate liberal who came across as eloquent and thoughtful, but many also saw him as an overly intellectual "egghead" who couldn't relate well to ordinary people. (At a campaign rally, one of Stevenson's supporters once yelled out that he was certain to "get the vote of every thinking man" in America. "Thank you," Stevenson replied, "but I need a majority to win.") The main issue in the 1952 campaign was the Korean War, which had been launched by Democrat Harry Truman in 1950 and which had devolved into frustrating stalemate by 1952. Vowing vaguely that he would "go to Korea" to somehow end the war, Eisenhower won a decisive victory with 55% of the popular vote.
In his campaign, Eisenhower made use of modern advertising techniques and the power of television, something that would quickly become standard in politics but was brand new at the time. Len Hall, chairman of the Republican National Committee, stated, "Politics these days is like a business. You sell your candidate and your programs the way a business sells its products."
In 1956, despite having suffered a serious heart attack the year before, Eisenhower decided to run for reelection to a second term. Again, Stevenson was the Democratic candidate. The American people liked Ike more than ever and returned him to office with 58% of the popular vote. Not many Republicans, though, rode into office on the president's coattails, and Democrats retained the control over Congress that they had gained in 1954.
Many historians during and immediately after Eisenhower's term in office thought that he was an uninvolved president spent his time relaxing while relying on aides to do the hard work of actually running the government. Ike's golf outings—he played every Wednesday and Friday and vacationed at Augusta National—added to the impression. But the president had learned under the tremendous pressure of his military duties that time to relax was essential to good decision-making.
In later years, studying the papers of the Eisenhower administration, historians learned that Ike was a careful, thoughtful, and deliberate manager who was very much involved in every key decision of his government. He ran his administration in the hierarchical manner he'd learned in the military, delegating much, but reserving the most important decisions for himself.
During the Fifties, many thought that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles ran American foreign policy. Eisenhower was happy to give this impression—Dulles served as his front man, taking criticism when a policy was unpopular or unsuccessful. But Dulles was a loyal subordinate who only advised the president; Eisenhower always had the final say. Columnist Fletcher Knebel expressed a common view when he wrote of Eisenhower, "Half the people think this is a good Administration. The other half think it is terrible and are proud of Ike for not being mixed up in it."24 But the reality, we know now, was that Ike really was mixed up in his administration's key policies, both good and bad.
In meetings and in his written communications, Eisenhower was clear, forceful, and to the point. But his press conferences were often confusing, convoluted, and rambling. In part this was a ploy; he liked to stay purposely vague in order to confuse not only reporters but also enemies like the Soviets, who analyzed his every word. When press secretary James Hagerty worried what the president might say at a press conference about the very delicate Formosa Straits crisis, Eisenhower told him, "Don't worry, Jim, if that question comes up, I'll just confuse them."25
Eisenhower's political strategy was shaped by having to work with the Democrats, who controlled both houses of Congress for all but the first two years of his eight years in office. If he was going to get anything done, he had to negotiate with the opposition. He was successful in doing so—80% of the bills he sent to Congress passed. "Every measure we deem essential to the progress and welfare of America normally requires Democratic support," was his answer to a critic who pushed him to be more partisan.26 He worked closely with House Speaker Sam Rayburn and Senate leader Lyndon Johnson, both Southern Democrats who backed him on defense spending, a balanced budget, and international affairs.
There were times when Eisenhower's tendency to keep his distance from controversy may have been a mistake. One of the key issues facing the nation during the 1952 campaign and the early years of Eisenhower's presidency was Senator Joseph McCarthy's near-fanatical campaign to root out the Communists who had supposedly infiltrated America's government and society. McCarthy had begun hunting Communists in government and public life in 1950. While he was genuinely concerned about the threat of internal Communist subversion (which, we now know, was wildly overblown; Communists were never more than a tiny, beleaguered minority within the United States), McCarthy found that the publicity his crusade generated gave a tremendous boost to his political career. By 1952 he was flinging accusations around indiscriminately, wildly alleging Communist infiltration of all sectors of American society.
Among those McCarthy came to target was General George C. Marshall, who had been the United States' highest-ranking military officer as Army Chief of Staff during World War II. Later, as President Harry Truman's Secretary of State, Marshall had devised a plan to rebuild Europe. He was perhaps the country's best-respected figure in military and international affairs. He had also, however, tried to reconcile the Nationalist and Communist forces in China, and when the Communists won the civil war there in 1949, Marshall was one of those accused of "losing" China. McCarthy, making a typically wild leap in logic, concluded that Marshall was somehow acting to help the Communists, all as part of "a conspiracy so immense and an infamy so black as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man."27
This was, in short, crazy. It also personally offended Eisenhower. Geroge Marshall was one of Eisenhower's closest friends and the man responsible for his rise in the military. But alleging Communist infiltration of the Democratic Truman administration was a winning political strategy for Republicans in 1952—it was one reason Ike chose Richard Nixon, a fierce anti-Communist, as his running mate—and Eisenhower decided to swallow his pride and shake hands with McCarthy. McCarthy continued his reckless denunciations for two more years and Eisenhower never took any firm stand against him. "I will not get into the gutter with that guy," he said, comparing a fight with McCarthy with a "pissing contest with a skunk."28
McCarthyism put a chill on honest political debate for much of the decade and ruined the careers of hundreds of Americans. It made a mockery of traditional American values of due process and equal justice. Eisenhower was not a red-baiter himself, but his failure to stand up to the Senator from Wisconsin was a missed opportunity to turn the nation away from a damaging course. Ike's refusal to risk his own political capital to fight against the reckless behavior of the most fanatical members of his own part was, in retrospect, a clear black mark on his presidency.
The second issue where Eisenhower's overly cautious political style seemed a drawback was civil rights. The president understood that African Americans were increasingly dissatisfied during the 1950s, but he did not appreciate the depth of their impatience with Jim Crow. He spent more time playing golf with white Southern businessmen than investigating the grievances of blacks.
In a telling incident while he was serving as president of Columbia University in the late 1940s, Eisenhower learned of plans to award an honorary degree to Ralph Bunche, the distinguished African American diplomat. Ike did not object to the award, but he thought that the other guests would be uncomfortable if Bunche and his wife joined them for the dinner that would follow the ceremony. The idea of sitting at a table beside a black person was foreign to Eisenhower.
Eisenhower's blindness to racial intolerance led him to seek compromise and delay when bold action was called for. When the Supreme Court issued its landmark ruling Brown v. Board, outlawing school desegregation, Eisenhower failed to publicly endorse the decision. In fact, in private, he thought the ruling was a mistake and wished the Court had upheld the "separate but equal" doctrine of segregation. He felt that if the government forced racial integration, it would harden the hearts and minds of Southern whites and actually hurt the prospects of blacks.
He made no efforts to enforce the ruling until 1957, when Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas called out the state's National Guard soldiers to prevent black students from attending Central High School in Little Rock. Eisenhower lectured Faubus, but took no immediate action. The governor defied him. Television stations around the world broadcast images of angry mobs of white people taunting the nine black children who attempted to enter the school. Finally, at the request of the mayor of Little Rock, Eisenhower sent federal troops to bring the situation under control and allow the school to be integrated.
Supporters of Ike's civil rights record point out that during the same month as the Little Rock crisis, Eisenhower signed into law the first civil rights bill since Radical Reconstruction, a mild piece of legislation aimed at guaranteeing blacks the right to vote. But amendments added in Congress made the new law almost impossible to enforce. Meaningful federal action on civil rights would not occur until the 1950s, when Ike was no longer president. Eisenhower's failure to take decisive action and to provide moral leadership on issues of race and racism did not serve the country well.