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Eisenhower’s Wisdom

I received my new issue of The New York Review of Books yesterday. The previous issue had come while we were away. In getting caught up on other fronts (including writing a series of posts on our time in North Carolina), I had failed to get far in that old issue. Fortunately, last night Joel mentioned that it contained an interesting article about Eisenhower, and this morning I read it first thing. I recommend it highly. (Alas, it’s behind the NYR paywall.) The article is a review by Thomas Powers of two recent books: Eisenhower: The White House Years, by Jim Newton, and Eisenhower in War and Peace, by Jean Edward Smith.

Whenever I think of Eisenhower, I recall the single most boring book I ever read, his memoirs. Looking him up in Amazon, I see that it must have been The White House Years: Mandate for Change, 1953-1956, from 1965, although I don’t recall that it only covered Eisenhower’s first term. What I remember is a frightfully thick paperback. And I remember learning about several events from my infancy and toddlerhood that I hadn’t read treatments of before, such as the end of the Korean War, the McCarthy hearings, and the Suez crisis. This wasn’t the place to learn the basics, which I would only make sense of years later. I don’t entirely remember what made the book so tedious. For that, I would need to have a new look.

In any case, back to the biographies and Powers’ review. Early on, Powers describes how Eisenhower acquired

a learned understanding, firmer than that of perhaps any other president, of the nature of the power wielded by nations—that thing, described by Thucydides, which explains why “the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” Eisenhower himself would never have described what he knew in language so plain, but it is what marks the mind of the man who emerges from two new biographies.

… The education of Dwight David Eisenhower began with books—the tales of Hannibal and Caesar he loved as a child, the deeper study under [General] Fox Conner—but more important was his experience of war, which came late.

Powers continues with an overview of Eisenhower’s World War II experience and its lessons, a survey of Eisenhower’s handling of assorted international crises, and a concluding passage that captures Eisenhower’s greatness:

Eisenhower’s special gift was not for practice of the traditional military arts but for sensing the inertia of war—why it is so difficult to back away from threats of force, once issued, and almost impossible after shooting starts.

Respect for the danger of this inertia, deep enough to make a difference, seems to come only from direct personal experience. Even President Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, who had lived long enough to know better, thought armies could apply useful pressure. “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about,” she said once, “if we can’t use it?”

Eisenhower was surrounded by people who believed roughly the same thing, but he had learned respect for modern war as an all-or-nothing game. During his eight years in the White House he never seemed to get the big things wrong, but in the decades that have followed horrible examples abound. For all their differences, American presidents since Eisenhower seem to share an abiding temptation—they can’t let peace alone. They wish to look bold; defiance makes them pugnacious; and the military leaders promise quick victories with little pain.

We may imagine Eisenhower’s response, if he had been sitting in the room when Kennedy’s advisers told him they planned to overthrow Fidel Castro’s government by invading Cuba with a thousand men, or when they told him later to send a few thousand American soldiers to stave off defeat in Vietnam—but not too many, and as “advisers” only. Would Eisenhower have told Lyndon Johnson, oh yes, certainly, send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to do what Kennedy’s few could not? Would he have encouraged Johnson to help the Air Force pick bombing targets in North Vietnam? Would he have advised George W. Bush that seizure of Kabul and dispersion of the Taliban into the mountains were victory enough in Afghanistan? Would he have backed the urging of Cheney and Rumsfeld to send an army to invade Iraq, but not too big an army? What would Eisenhower say now about Iran?

The successors of Robert Taft share the dead senator’s views on cutting federal spending and celebrating the Christian religion, as well as his sullen dislike of such measures as Social Security, but (save Ron Paul) they are full of appetite for threatening Iran with America’s superb military. Mitt Romney was briefly in his youth a member of the Boy Scouts, but his time in uniform ended there. He avoided the Vietnam War through student deferments and thirty months as a Mormon missionary in France. But Romney supports tough action to back up tough talk on Iran, and once suggested that continued Iranian defiance on nuclear matters would merit a sharp rap “in the nature of blockade or a bombardment or surgical strikes of one kind or another.”

Hearing this, Eisenhower might have asked himself: Where do you begin?

I am, of course, no fan of Mitt Romney. Eisenhower surely would have much to teach him. But I have no illusion that Obama (or Hillary Clinton) is much better. Indeed, Romney’s dishonest attacks on Obama’s foreign policy notwithstanding, the essentials of their war strategies are likely to differ little, whichever is elected. We search in vain for a new Eisenhower, a voice of wisdom and maturity who can change our direction.

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Categories: History, Politics, War
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