As the Supreme Allied Commander in Western Europe during World War II, General Dwight D. Eisenhower led the forces that fought a desperate struggle against the Axis powers. His planning and management of the pivotal D-Day invasion of Normandy spelled the beginning of the end for Nazi Germany. Following the war, Eisenhower went on to become chief of staff of the US Army and, after a short spell as President of Columbia University, commander of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces in Europe during the early days of the Cold War.
His wartime experiences made Eisenhower a national hero and a formidable candidate for the presidency, even though he mostly kept his actual political views a carefully guarded secret while serving in the military. Both Democrats and Republicans tried to woo him to run for president; when he finally did throw his hat into the ring in 1952, he did so as a moderate Republican. And he won his election easily. When he arrived in the White House in January 1953, he brought to the job the most formidable knowledge of international affairs of any president in American history. He needed it. The country was already mired in a stalemated war in Korea and seemed on the verge of a much more cataclysmic nuclear confrontation with the Soviet Union itself. Both sides were armed to the teeth with the most destructive weapons in the history of mankind, and many feared that war between the superpowers was all but inevitable and that it might literally destroy the world.
A man who had spent much of his life concerned with war, Eisenhower led a country that wanted peace. Strong but cautious, he maneuvered through the perils of one of the most dangerous periods of the Cold War. He managed a series of significant crises, including serious confrontations with the Soviets and a war in the Middle East. He repeatedly rejected advice to militarize the nation or to take rash actions that might have led to nuclear war. He did make his share of mistakes; CIA-orchestrated coups against elected governments in Iran and Guatemala, for example, are now widely viewed as black marks in American history. But for the most part, Ike's military background and vast experience on the world stage served him well as he steered the country along the path of peace.
You've probably seen old pictures of movie theater audiences decked out in colored glasses to see a 3-D movie—the films were all the rage in the Fifties. And you might need something like 3-D glasses fully appreciate this odd decade; to view the Eisenhower years in three dimensions, you need to look from a number of different perspectives.
Everywhere you turn, the Fifties are marked by paradoxes. They were a time of peace and a time of fear; a time of prosperity and a time of unease; a time of conformity and a time of rebellion; a time of renewed religion and a time of widespread materialism.
The Fifties gained a reputation for being a placid time. Citizens moved to the suburbs, spun Hula Hoops, watched inane television shows, and lived lives of smug oblivion. "Rarely in American history has the craving for tranquility and moderation commanded more general public support," said a public opinion analyst of the time.4 Oh, really? Then why did sociologist Paul Goodman called it an "extraordinarily senseless and unnatural" period? Writer Norman Mailer went further, saying it was "one of the worst decades in the history of man."5
During the Fifties, Americans were rightly anxious about the threat of the Soviet Union and fearful of the dangers of nuclear war. They were told that Communists might be infiltrating their own country. The world was changing in ways they didn't understand. Anxiety shared space in the national consciousness with complacency. Americans swallowed tranquilizers and crowded both psychiatrists' offices and church pews searching for relief.
Living in paradoxical times, Eisenhower was himself a bit of a paradox. He was a generally amiable man but had a violent temper. He was a general obsessed with peace. He ended the war in Korea but took the first steps toward an even more disastrous war in Vietnam. He worried about an atomic holocaust but built up the country's nuclear arsenal to gargantuan size. He was a fiscal conservative but pushed through the biggest government-funded highway construction program of all time. He surrounded himself with businessmen but warned of the influence of the military-industrial complex.
Eisenhower was already 64 years old when he became president, and his roots were in a time far different than the 1950s. The last president born in the nineteenth century, Ike came into the world on 14 October 1890 in Denison, Texas, but grew up in Abilene, Kansas. His values were shaped in the Midwest during the early years of the twentieth century. His roots in the 1890s connected him to the old-fashioned values of the American heartland, but his background hampered him when it came to confronting some of the complex issues of the 1950s, particularly the problem of racial discrimination.
Many contemporaries considered Eisenhower out of touch. He was a poor public speaker and sometimes seemed confused. He pursued golf with a passion, spent hours playing cards, and loved reading novels about the Old West. His tenure was "a sort of political vacuum in the White House," one journalist commented. It was "the bland leading the bland," others said of the Eisenhower era.6
But "I Like Ike" was his campaign slogan, and the people did like him. They appreciated his steadiness and his moderation. They liked the fact that he underplayed crises, refused to stir up fear, never lost a single US soldier in combat, and kept the economy humming. He was immensely popular before, during, and after his time in office.
Historians, who initially had little regard for Eisenhower, later came around to a more positive assessment. He employed a "hidden hand" as president, keeping out of the limelight but remaining engaged in every decision.7 He kept his head when many about him were losing theirs. He took the job very seriously and worked hard to steer a middle course that, in the end, gave the nation a decade of peace and prosperity.
On 1 November 1952, the United States set off the world's first thermonuclear explosion. It exploded with a force 500 times as great as the atom bomb that had destroyed Hiroshima at the end of World War II. Less than a year later, the Soviets exploded their own H-bomb. Both sides had long-range bombers, and both were developing missiles that would be able to rain down from the heavens upon the major cities of their enemies. No previous president had been forced to operate in a world where a bad decision could literally destroy human civilization.
President Eisenhower understood the threat, and he was determined to prevent war. This meant spending on the military, but not spending so much that he bankrupted the country. It meant standing up to the Russians, who claimed to be bent on world domination, but not overplaying his hand. It meant dealing with a world that was seeing the end of colonialism.
Eisenhower made many mistakes at home and abroad and he left problems that would vex future presidents, including his immediate successors John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson. Still, he titled the memoir of his presidential years Waging Peace, and that's just what he did. He worked hard to keep the peace and succeeded in avoiding cataclysmic war. What was most significant about the Eisenhower years is what he prevented. "Many terrible things that could have happened, didn't," wrote biographer William Ewald.8
The greatest tribute to Eisenhower's leadership is that we're here to talk about it. If things had gone wrong in those years, the result could have been a world destroyed.