The 50th anniversary of the Suez Canal crisis and the Hungarian Revolution, which both came to a head in October 1956, should spark another look at the president who presided over these two fine messes.
Dwight D. Eisenhower’s reputation was rehabilitated in the 1980s by political scientist Fred Greenstein, author of “The Hidden-Hand Presidency,” and historian Stephen Ambrose, author of a two-volume biography. They punctured the myth that he was a brainless doofus who spent all his time playing golf. Behind his amiable persona, they revealed a shrewd politician and a hardworking manager.
Now one myth has replaced another, and we are left with a commonly accepted picture of Ike as a supremely successful president. A more nuanced assessment is called for.
Ironically, the two major black marks often cited against Eisenhower—the CIA’s overthrow of leftist leaders Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala—are undeserved. The Cold War was on, and Ike was justified in blocking rising communist influence in these two countries, even if critics now say he overreacted.
It is unfair to blame him, as some now do, for the 1979 revolution against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi in Iran. Eisenhower may have helped return the shah to power, but the Iranian ruler had a quarter of a century to win the allegiance of his people. That he failed should not be laid at Ike’s doorstep. Eisenhower was more responsible for events in Cuba: The U.S. cutoff of military aid to Cuban strongman Fulgencio Batista opened the door to Fidel Castro, a far more noxious dictator.
Eisenhower was even more culpable for the twin disasters of 1956.
He had run for office promising to “roll back” the Soviet empire. Radio Free Europe, funded by the CIA, encouraged Hungarians to rise up. Yet when they did, the U.S. did nothing to help them. There may have been little the U.S. could have done, but if so, Eisenhower shouldn’t have incited the rebellion.
At the same time, Eisenhower bungled the crisis that occurred after Egyptian strongman Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Israel, Britain and France launched a successful attack that might have overthrown this odious thug had not the U.S. exerted irresistible pressure to back off. Acting out of misguided anti-colonialist sentiment and personal pique at not being consulted in advance, Ike damaged American alliances (the U.S.-French relationship has never recovered) and strengthened Nasser, who went on to destabilize pro-Western governments across the Middle East.
For a retired Army general, Eisenhower pursued a remarkably misguided defense policy. Generations of liberals have celebrated his warning against the “military-industrial complex,” but they ignore how he reduced defense expenditures: by cutting the size and readiness of costly conventional forces while expanding the relatively cheap nuclear arsenal in the expectation that threats of “massive retaliation” would solve all our defense needs. It didn’t work out that way. The existence of U.S. nukes did nothing to avert the French defeat at Dien Bien Phuand the rise of a communist North Vietnam bent on conquering its southern neighbor.
Eisenhower was unfairly accused of presiding over bomber and missile “gaps” with the Soviet Union. What he really did was just as bad—he left the armed forces ill-prepared to fight non-nuclear wars, especially a counterinsurgency of the kind they would face inVietnam. His infatuation with atomic power also led him to set up the “atoms for peace” program to promote the use of nuclear energy across the world. “No other U.S. policy, no commercial initiative, no theft of technology has done more to accelerate and expand the global spread of nuclear bombs,” writes arms control expert Fred Ikle.
Don’t get me wrong. There was much to like about Ike. He ended the Korean War and avoided potential conflicts with China and the Soviet Union. He built interstate highways and balanced the budget. But he was no profile in courage when he refused to stand up to the demagogic Joseph McCarthy or to do much to enforce the Supreme Court’s Brown vs. Board of Education school integration decision. It was left to the Senate to end McCarthy’s reign of terror, and to President Lyndon B. Johnson to desegregate schools.
In the final analysis, Eisenhower was a status quo president who ratified the successful policies of his gifted predecessors—the New Deal and containment. Maybe that’s what the nation needed in the 1950s, but it’s no reason to celebrate him as a “near great” president (his ranking in a 2005 survey of scholars). And don’t get me started on his checkered record as a general.
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