In the autumn of 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower was campaigning for a second term as president of the United States. I was "Sunday editor" of the Winston-Salem, North Carolina,
Journal, and a devout supporter of Eisenhower's Democratic opponent, Adlai E. Stevenson of Illinois. Momentarily abandoning journalistic impartiality, I raised a little money among my colleagues (the munificent sum of $150, as I recall) for the eloquent Stevenson. In those days, the Journal staff regarded itself as something of a family. In that spirit, Mrs. Bill Hoyt, the wife of the publisher, chided me gently about my small and no doubt improper effort.
"But Mrs. Hoyt, don't you realize," I replied in self-defense, "that Eisenhower has had a heart attack?"
Mrs. Hoyt drew herself up -- she was a lady who could draw her- self up impressively: "Young man," she said, "I would vote for Eisenhower if he were dead!"
She and hosts of other Americans might have done just that in 1956, because Eisenhower -- known familiarly to everyone as "Ike" -- was a popular incumbent revered as the victorious commander of Allied forces in the European theater during World War II and as a "man of peace" -- the indispensable leader who in four years in the White House had kept the Cold War with the Soviet Union from turning hot and atomic. Throughout his tenure (1953 to 1961), as it turned out, Eisenhower was one of the best-loved presidents of the century, with an average 64 percent Gallup poll approval rating over the eight years of his two terms.
Eisenhower was, observers agreed, a "father figure" to the American voters of the prosperous and relatively tranquil fifties, many of whom had served under him in the European theater and -- like good old Ike -- were amateur golfers, backyard cooks, and going bald. A vast majority apparently believed that Eisenhower alone had protected them from the Russian bear and produced the rising material prosperity that had followed depression and war.
Therefore, despite his health problems and my fund-raising, he defeated Stevenson a second time in 1956 and by an even greater margin than in 1952. Many poll-takers and politicians believe that Eisenhower could have been elected to a
third term in 1960, had he sought it-but he couldn't, because by then the Twenty-second Amendment to the Constitution limited all presidents to two terms. Thus, ironically, a highly popular Republican was the first president turned out of the White House by an amendment that originated in the Republican Eighty-second Congress as partisan, posthumous revenge against a hated Democrat, Franklin D.
Roosevelt, and his four terms.
In the eight years Dwight Eisenhower was constitutionally permitted to serve as president, the
public -- like Mrs. Hoyt -- did not seem to mind that he spent much of his time playing golf and bridge, that his closest friends were wealthy businessmen whose frequent largesse he happily accepted, and that his health was
suspect -- he suffered a heart attack during his first term, a small stroke, and a bout of ileitis in his second. In the fifties, liberals and many Democrats derided him as a "caretaker" president rather than a strong chief executive in the White House, a judgment he may have encouraged but that has been considerably moderated in recent years. Most voters obviously liked things Ike's way. Times were good, after all, and the national father figure surely would keep the Soviets at bay and the economy rolling.
A self-proclaimed nonpolitician, Eisenhower was strongly conservative in domestic affairs and a convinced internationalist in foreign
relations -- though a hard-line anti-Communist. Nevertheless, his administration preserved much of FDR's and Truman's New and Fair Deals, though the conservative Eisenhower was contemptuous of both. He believed, however, as he told his press secretary, James C. Hagerty, "This party of ours and our program will not appeal to the American people unless [they] believe that we have a liberal program. Our hidebound reactionaries won't get to first
base." Eisenhower's almost constant conflict in foreign policy with those "hidebound reactionaries" gave him and his
supporters the label "modem Republicans" and served to disguise the president's more palatable form of conservatism on domestic matters.
Eisenhower avoided direct personal involvement in the two great moral issues of 1950s America, school desegregation and
McCarthyism -- though in the latter case his admirers claim that his deliberately above-the-battle stance was an effective opposition tactic. Standing aloof in both cases, may have guarded and even extended his
popularity -- but at the expense of opportunities to provide moral leadership to a nation badly in need of it.
The man of peace, moreover, fumbled in 1959 perhaps the best chance then or since for a comprehensive nuclear test ban
agreement with the Soviet Union or its successor state. And the policies of the strong anti-Communist who kept the Soviets at bay and the Cold War from heating up nevertheless planted the seeds of some future troubles, including the war in Vietnam. While in office, Eisenhower feared and resisted any such combat involvement in Asia ("I don't see any reason for American ground troops to be committed in Indochina," he told Hagerty during the "French war" in
1954). After his return to private life, however, he strongly backed the American war in Vietnam, because he thought a former president should support a current president and believed that if
U.S. armed forces ever were committed, it was necessary for them to be successful.
Eisenhower's great political strength as president was his dedication to middle-of-the-road policies, and his insistence that he was guided only by devotion to duty and a sense of the national interest. These claims were the more believable owing to patriotic
admiration for his role in World War II -- still, in the decade of the fifties, the most dramatic and formative experience of many Americans'
lives -- and by the fact that Eisenhower had spent most of his early life in the small and ill-financed prewar army, scarcely a career to be chosen by a politically ambitious man or by one whose goals were money and power.
Dwight David Eisenhower was born in Denison, Texas, on October 14, 1890, but his father moved the family to Abilene, Kansas, a year later. There Ike, as he was already called, had a late-nineteenth-century, Tom Sawyer-like
upbringing -- save for the absence of the river and of Huck Finn.
One of six brothers, Dwight was raised in a white frame house on South East Fourth Street, absorbing the simple and
unquestioned values taught by his surroundings and by his parents -- honesty, self-reliance, hard work, ambition, and fear of God. His father, a creamery worker, read the Bible aloud to his family, and both parents preached "getting ahead." Introspection and reflection however, were not particularly appreciated on South East Fourth nor in Abilene; and there was little racial and political diversity in a town in which virtually everyone was white, Republican, Christian, and of European descent.
"Little Ike" -- brother Edgar Eisenhower was known as "Big Ike" --
competed and sometimes fought with his brothers and other boys, excelled in sports, and displayed a ferocious
temper -- which, later in life, the army officer and president controlled but never banished. He received decent grades in school, discovered an early interest in military history, and displayed leadership qualities in
organizing athletic and other outdoor events -- becoming as a youngster what he remained for life, an able cook on camping trips.
In 1910, he formed a friendship with Everett "Swede" Hazlitt -- who became a lifelong
correspondent -- an Abilene contemporary who was planning to take the 1911 service academy exam, hoping to be accepted at Annapolis. Little Ike took the service exam, too, and scored well enough to qualify for appointment to the military academy at West Point.
There, after his entrance in 1911, Dwight Eisenhower was part of another disciplined and narrow community, where questions about its values were not encouraged or even tolerated. His course of study was basically engineering, and the approved classroom method was learning and reciting by rote. None of this was
intellectually or socially broadening, but his Class of 1915 (sometimes called "the class the stars fell on") was outstanding, numbering among its 164 members sixty-four young men who would become
generals -- and two, Omar Bradley and Eisenhower, who would earn four stars.
He performed well enough in class, gathered quite a few demerits for disciplinary offenses, and, as a yearling (which is what West Point calls sophomores) showed signs that he was about to become a star running back on the football team. A knee injury cut short his gridiron career, whereupon he became such a keen student of the game that he was asked to coach the junior varsity. A turn as a cheerleader gave him valuable experience in public appearances.
Graduation into the peacetime army, however, did not offer much to an ambitious young man. Eisenhower
missed combat in World War I, but in its final stages, having done well in all his
assignments, attained the temporary rank of lieutenant colonel. From there, for two decades, it was mostly downhill: back to major in 1920, to captain in 1922, up to major again in 1924, and then a twelve-year wait before he was returned in 1936 to his 1918
rank -- and then mostly because all members of the Class of '15 were promoted.
Copyright © 2003 Tom Wicker