THE AGE OF EISENHOWER: America and the World of the 1950s. By William I. Hitchcock. Simon and Schuster. 672 pages. $35.
Dwight David Eisenhower, World War II Supreme Allied Commander, Army Chief of Staff, NATO Supreme Commander, an affable, self-assured symbol of growing American power around the world, was elected president of the United States in 1952 in a Republican landslide. Often portrayed as disdaining politics and having ridden to office on a wave of personal popularity, Eisenhower was, in fact, intensely partisan, according to historian William I. Hitchcock. In his first campaign, he didn’t hesitate to slam both Harry Truman and Franklin D. Roosevelt while he, though a moderate, shrewdly wooed the right wing of his party.
He learned from his long military career how to maneuver around difficult personalities, when to stand and fight and when to hide behind a placid, opaque veneer and the irresistible smile for which he was so famous. A product of his western upbringing, Eisenhower was suspicious of too much government largesse and believed that “God and gumption” formed the basis of American success.
Much of what Eisenhower did as president, however, was driven by the belief that the political philosophy and might of the USSR were the greatest threats the free world faced, and it was a primary goal of the United States to keep a close rein on them. When necessary, the U.S. should take control of those parts of the globe most vulnerable to Russian influence.
Perhaps only those who lived through the age of Eisenhower can remember the stark terror that words like “iron curtain,” “atomic bomb,” “air raid shelter,” “domino theory” and, most powerfully, “communism” inspired in members of both political parties and most of the general population. The 1950s may have been years of prosperity, patriotism and even innocence, but they also were poisoned by real fear.
While Eisenhower faced numerous challenges — Korea, Iran, Suez, Hungary, Indonesia, Formosa (later Taiwan), the U2 surveillance flights, Cuba, Vietnam and even, to a degree, race relations — his major domestic focus was communism. He was ferociously intent on keeping the cold war cold. He had seen up close what the other kind of war looked like. During his eight years as president, America “threaded its way through watchfulness and determination, through narrow and dangerous waters, between appeasement and global war,” Eisenhower said.
While that balancing act may have kept the lid on many hot spots, it also set the scene for tragic sequel. His actions in relation to Cuba and Vietnam essentially led John Kennedy into the blunders of the Bay of Pigs and the escalation of forces in South Vietnam, according to Hitchcock. The tale in the book of a propped-up Ngo Dinh Diem creating a “brutal police state standing watch over a restive and seething people” is particularly stomach churning.
Despite missteps, which Hitchcock blames in part on Eisenhower’s over-dependence on an increasingly powerful CIA, the author contends that modern historians are, in the main, correct when they reject past views that Eisenhower was sleepy and ineffective and assert instead that he was one of the five best presidents in American history, behind Washington, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and FDR.
Hitchcock claims that Eisenhower brought a close to an unpopular war in Korea, pressured Britain and France to halt their “ill conceived” invasion of Suez and, in response to the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, initiated a program of space technology and rocketry that ensured U.S. primacy in that area through the end of the century.
At home, Hitchcock points out, the GDP increased by an amazing 60 percent during Eisenhower’s administration, and the president balanced budgets while building infrastructure and increasing defense spending.
As a man who had dedicated almost his entire life to public service, and despite falling short on some issues such as Jim Crow and U2 spying on Russia, Eisenhower never lost his “moral authority,” Hitchcock writes.
Reading “The Age of Eisenhower” can sometimes be an eerie experience. Nearly every crisis that arose during those eight years, and how it was met, laid the seeds for the conflicts of the future. To understand the period of Eisenhower is to have a much firmer grasp on what the U.S. faces today, both internally and geopolitically. For that reason alone Hitchcock has produced a very important book.
Splendidly written and exhaustively researched, “The Age of Eisenhower” provides a definitive interpretation of an often under-examined decade and often misunderstood presidency.