The Real Reason Conservatives Should Like Ike

Eisenhower was a shrewd and complicated man whose capabilities shone just as brilliantly on the domestic scene as they did abroad.


With all the angst over the design for a National Memorial to President Dwight Eisenhower, there's been a boomlet of interest in Eisenhower's presidency.

To the extent that his administration is admired, and not merely remembered, Eisenhower is credited for a successfully prudent foreign policy.

[Read: Eisenhower Family Wants Ike Memorial Scrapped]

As Ross Douthat writes:

He ended a stalemated conflict in Korea, kept America out of war in Southeast Asia, and avoided the kind of nuclear brinkmanship that his feckless successor stumbled into. He did not allow a series of Middle Eastern crises to draw American into an Iraq-style intervention.

And, similarly, George F. Will:

After Eisenhower quickly liquidated a stalemated war in Korea, no American died in combat during his presidency. Twice, concerning the French besieged at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam and during the Formosa Strait crisis, he resisted—a president with less military confidence might not have—his most senior advisers advocating the use of nuclear weapons.

[Washington Whispers: Ike's Lessons for Obama]

This is all to the good. And yet I think it's important not to damn Eisenhower with overpraise, if you will. Ike was not a noninterventionist on hard principle. He was doubtful about American involvement in Indochina—but not dead-set against it. In the late historian David Halberstam's telling, Ike's resistance to war in southeast Asia owed in no small part to the counsel of Gen. Matthew Ridgway. After the fall of Dien Bien Phu, Halberstam writes that Secretary of State John Foster Dulles "still talked of going in, and there were even letters from Eisenhower to the British suggesting that common cause be made. The British, more realistic about their resources, wanted no part of it."

Speaking of the British, there was, of course, Ike's undermining of Prime Minister Anthony Eden during the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which the United States opposed the British-French-Israeli military response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal.

According to the late Christopher Hitchens, Ike's refusal to back the Anglo-French alliance in Suez was born at least in part from resentment over the failure of the British to support the CIA's, ahem, intervention in Guatemala. Said Eisenhower, "The British expect us to give them a free ride and side with them on Cyprus. And yet they won't even support us on Guatemala! Let's give them a lesson."

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Far from trying to drag down Eisenhower at precisely the moment his memory is being dragged up in a positive light, I make these observations to suggest that Ike was a shrewd and complicated man whose capabilities shone just as brilliantly on the domestic scene as they did abroad.

In 1983, in a characteristic neoconservative misreading, Irving Kristol lumped Eisenhower in with Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford as presidents who "did nothing to rejuvenate or even strengthen their party, or to alter the drift of politics." Come again? The president who sent federal troops into the South to enforce racial integration didn't "alter the drift of politics"?

Garry Wills, who wrote approvingly of Eisenhower long before it was fashionable to do so on either the left or right, identified what it was that intellectuals like Kristol saw lacking in Eisenhower. In The Kennedy Imprisonment: A Meditation on Power, Wills quoted presidential historian Richard Neustadt to that effect that Eisenhower's "love was not for power but for duty." He did not enjoy exercising power for power's sake. This grim sense of obligation was supposedly a bug, not a feature, of the Eisenhower temperament!

From the movement conservative's perspective, such a temperament led to Eisenhower's accommodation of the Roosevelt Settlement. To borrow Kristol's phraseology again, Ike failed to attempt to "alter the drift" of the federal government's march toward statism.

But where the ideologue sees a two-dimensional world with endpoints marked "Freedom" and "Slavery," Ike saw the world in three dimensions. Just as his innate sense of realism and caution led him avoid unnecessary war, Ike's fundamental lack of zeal helped him see that an ideological war on the New Deal would lead to, yes, quagmire—something very like what we're experiencing today. Therefore, he employed his vice president, Richard Nixon, to run interference with the likes of Joseph McCarthy, and he quietly and unflashily went about the business of maintaing a course of peace, stability, and incremental racial progress.

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