The White House Years
Doubleday: 452 pp., $29.95
I liked Ike. He was my idol as he was to millions who were schoolboys when the hero of World War II was elected U.S. president. I remember writing an essay when I was a freshman in high school expressing regret that I was too young to vote for him in 1952.
Of course, it did not hurt that I grew up in a Republican family immune to the charms and sophisticated rhetoric of Adlai Stevenson. So it came as a surprise to me that many of my teachers and friends thought Ike was a bumbling fool with a limited grasp of the English language
Times editor at large Jim Newton, perhaps best known for “Justice for All,” his 2006 biography of Chief Justice Earl Warren, has written a rather straightforward accounting of Eisenhower’s eight years as president that complements the book Fred Greenstein wrote more than 20 years ago, “The Hidden-Hand Presidency.” Time has passed, more records are available, and though Eisenhower had his faults — and Newton reports them — his historical reputation has continued to increase with every passing year.
Newton’s book is thorough and reasonable. That’s nice, but what makes it valuable now is the timing: We need this book and its insights to judge the vicious and counterproductive politics of these days. The United States was a different country then, a confident place, and we should be thinking hard about how and why things have made us so frightened now.
One example: Newton’s best chapter is the last. It is the story of Eisenhower’s farewell address, in which he astonished the country (70 million people watched on television) by warning of the danger of a permanent national security state dominated by a military-industrial complex. The words that counted are even more important today: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new to the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government.”
“It was a message of stunning prescience,” Newton writes. “Support services for American troops in Ike’s day were the province of the Pentagon; Eisenhower’s invasion force was fed, clothed and supplied with fuel by military men. In the Iraq wars, food, communications and even security for American troops and civilians were largely the province of contractors … Boeing, Blackwater, Halliburton.”
Newton does not spare Eisenhower for his faults. Particularly in the early years of his presidency, Ike — like all presidents from John F. Kennedy to Barack Obama — became foolishly enamored with the efficacy of covert action. It seemed to be war on the cheap, and he managed to overthrow at least two foreign governments, Iran and Guatemala.
Eisenhower’s great blind spot was civil rights. By today’s standards he would be considered a racist — even though he was willing to mobilize troops to integrate schools in Arkansas. He was enraged by the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision in Brown vs. Board of Education — that the practice of “separate but equal” was unconstitutional. But, without passion or empathy, the old soldier said the executive branch’s responsibility was to enforce the law and decisions of the Supreme Court. Had he spoken out against the decision in public — he did in private — this would be a different country today, and not a better one.
Newton did a clever thing in writing this book. In his own words, he explains how he was inclined to use the Congressional Record and such as his main sources but that his wife argued otherwise: “The book became, I hope,” Newton writes in his acknowledgments, “one centered not on the presidency so much as on the president.” He has succeeded in doing that. He weaves in substantial material on what the United States was about in the 1950s, which of course helps illuminate our own decade. I still like Ike. This is a book worth reading.
Reeves’ most recent books include “Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift-June 1948-May 1949" and “Portrait of Camelot: A Thousand Days in the Kennedy White House.” He is a senior lecturer at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.