Of Presidents and Their Legacies

Posted: January 30, 2013 in Uncategorized
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It is a season of presidential biographies for me. I’m not reading them in chronological order. As a matter of fact they are lining up in the opposite order. First there was Kennedy. I’ve just finished Ike. And now I’ve cracked the cover of a new FDR. But speaking of Ike …

Evan Thomas has written a laudable book on president Eisenhower, one based on direct interviews as well as secondary print sources, and its title is Ike’s Bluff (Little, Brown and Co, 2012) You discover why it was so named as you read.

Ike was swept into office following his triumph as the supreme allied commander in the second world war. If you might characterize his leadership style the word restraint comes to mind. He had just experienced the horrors of war and those impressions left him full of resolve – to avoid war if at all possible. He was neither lured into large or small conflicts. And yet it was precisely his willingness to engage in the most horrific option, nuclear war, that may have insured the peace with the rise of the cold war. In a time when the United States had the only viable nuclear armament program that was a position that could be taken. It would change, as he and others would discover, with the proliferation of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems. Mutual suicide would be the result and war, nuclear war, would become the new enemy. But until that time Ike never tipped his cards – to anyone – as to whether he would use the extreme option. It is possible that only he could lead with such a bluff, never tipping his cards or divulging that he would never do so. It was Ike’s bluff. In the same way that only Nixon could go to China, so only Ike could fend off the Soviets – who knew his prowess from their own recent experience. He almost acted as his own secretary of defense.

Simultaneously he discouraged small brush fire war involvements. Go the distance, use massive force if you must. But don’t get mired in intractable no-exit wars. As a result neither small nor large conflicts became the way for his military advisers – some of whom were wanting to do both.  The presidents who immediately followed him – JFK and LBJ – did not escape the pressure Ike resisted and fell instead into the pit of Vietnam.

In public, Ike communicated a calm, controlled, grandfatherly security that was right for the time. His health was terrible and a life-long struggle. And he played more golf than one can imagine. It was a different time and leaders governed differently.

You could say that his second term ended with a whimper and perhaps it did. Certainly he ran out of strength and and lost the determination to contain the “military-industrial” complex that was a wicked stew. As one very close to the Pentagon, arms industry and congress he knew how the dance went. He had always challenged military excess and unnecessary weaponry. He knew how his peers inflated risks and asked for more than was necessary. And he directly challenged, in terms of nuclear capability, how much is enough. How many times do you need to obliterate your enemy, to shake the rubble one more time? But he grew weary like we all do. A new wave of leadership was on the way with the charismatic John Kennedy.

Future presidents consulted with Ike after he left office, especially about his specialty – war and peace. One of those bittersweet moments was when JFK came to Ike after the botched Bay of Pigs, an episode masterminded and pushed by the CIA. Jack Kennedy confessed that he had screwed it up royally. What could he have done differently? Ike asked him one question: Did you have all the players – military, intelligence, political – in the same room at the same time and ask them the right questions in front of one another, or instead speak with them privately, one-on-one? Of course, the answer was apparent. Kennedy had been duped by the CIA absent other input. But that’s all Eisenhower said. He did so because he knew the system so well and was duly suspicious.

That’s what made him a very good president at exactly that time. Each epoch of history requires leadership with its own courage and wisdom. Leaders often fail in rising to that occasion. But Ike did his best and we were probably better for it.

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Comments
  1. J says:

    Sounds like a terrific biography of a less-romanticized President. Thanks!

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