Newly discovered and declassified documents make for a surprising and revealing portrait of the president we thought we knew. Belittled by his critics as the babysitter-in-chief, Eisenhower ground down Joseph McCarthy, stimulated the economy to lift it from recession, and turned an $8 billion deficit in 1953 into a $500 million surplus in 1960. The President Eisenhower of popular imagination is a benign figure, armed with a putter, a winning smile, and little else. The Eisenhower of veteran journalist Jim Newton's rendering is shrewd, sentimental, and tempestuous. Admired as a general, he was a champion of peace. In Korea and Vietnam, in Quemoy and Berlin, his generals urged him to wage nuclear war. Time and again he considered the idea and rejected it. And it was Eisenhower who appointed the liberal justices Earl Warren and William Brennan and who then called in the military to enforce desegregation in the schools.--From publisher description.
Newton’s book is more comprehensive than Thomas’s; it does not have the narrow focus on Ike’s nuclear strategy that the Thomas book has. Thus we learn more about Ike’s early life, his relationships with his wife and his brothers, his somewhat ambiguous position on civil rights, his appointments to the Supreme Court and subsequent dealings with the Court, and his illnesses during the presidency, all of which Newton covers admirably.
In particular, Newton recounts Eisenhower’s stand on civil rights thoroughly and sympathetically. When, in 1957, Governor Orville Faubus of Arkansas defied the Court’s order to desegregate Little Rock’s schools by using the National Guard to keep blacks out of high school in Little Rock, Ike was incensed. While he privately disagreed with the Court's desegregation decision, he believed it was his responsibility to enforce the law and decisions of the Supreme Court. Not trusting the Arkansas Guard, he first nationalized them and then ordered them to return to their armories. Next, he sent in the redoubtable 101st Airborne Division to carry out the Federal court order and protect the black students.
[Faubus responded by shutting down Little Rock high schools for the 1958-1959 school year. Incredibly, this elevated him to the Gallup Poll’s 1958 list of “Ten Men in the World Most Admired by Americans.”]
Newton’s analysis of Eisenhower’s famous valedictory speech in January, 1961, in which he coined the term “military-industrial complex,” is fair-minded and enlightening. Ike decried the expansion of the complex, but he realized that growth was necessary to cope with the exigencies of the Cold War. Eisenhower deplored not so much the existence of the complex as its necessity. [You can read the full-text of this speech online, here.]
Newton maintains that Ike was powerful and effective in such a quiet, low-key way that recognition of his brilliance eluded many. But his leadership qualities are such that those who are now involved in politics would do well to take a closer look.
Discussion: I did not detect serious differences of opinion between the two writers, although Newton gives more credence to the conveyance through India of a threat to use nuclear weapons to end the Korean War than Thomas does.
Newton emphasizes Eisenhower’s natural inclination and consistent policy to seek a middle ground in domestic controversies. He also applauds Eisenhower's legacy of peace and prosperity in spite of continuous and serious challenges. Like other authors, he argues that Eisenhower's penchant for golf and cards did not diminish his ability to attend to his presidential duties.
Newton does not totally neglect Ike’s flaws, such as his somewhat mixed record on civil rights. Also, he attributes Ike’s long silence regarding the outrages of McCarthyism as a deliberate strategy, believing that McCarthy would fall from his own excesses. In this Ike was correct, but the process took a longer time than many critics would have preferred.
Moreover, while Ike avoided large-scale conflicts, he delighted in covert action such as the CIA sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala. Although sometimes successful in the short term, some of these adventures had long-term adverse effects. For example, he tolerated the planning of a small-scale invasion of Cuba, which ultimately morphed into the Bay of Pigs disaster. And the U.S. is still suffering from the blowback of the CIA-backed overthrow in Iran in 1953.
As befalls many historians, an admiration for the subject of study leads to an accentuation of strong points and a diminution of failings. This book is not a hagiography, but Newton does manage a subtle skewing, in Ike’s favor, both in what he omits, and how he interprets that which he includes.
Evaluation: I found this book absorbing and entertaining. Since I already know something of Ike’s history, I slightly preferred the more succinct and focused “Ike’s Bluff” to this more comprehensive biography. Both books provide a very positive take on Eisenhower. Like any histories, they are best read in conjunction with other treatments from across the interpretive spectrum.