Dwight Eisenhower appears to be having a moment. A popular president who was nevertheless looked down on by the media and the smart set in his time, Ike has grown in historical reputation and is now seen as one of our greatest presidents. Similarly, the 1950s have come down in popular perception as a dull time, but they were a time of peace, prosperity, and American success—and a period in which America made significant social progress.
For these reasons—and perhaps also because recent presidents may have made Americans nostalgic for some bygone aspects of midcentury politics—there are at least three new books on Ike that bear examination. In a short biography, Louis Galambos, an editor of Eisenhower's papers, discusses how Eisenhower went from a humble childhood in Abilene, Kansas, to leading the Allied forces in World War II and then to the presidency. James Simon takes a narrower approach, examining Eisenhower's relationship with chief justice and former California governor Earl Warren in the context of the civil rights stirrings of the 1950s. And William Hitchcock looks at the 1950s overall as exemplified and shaped by Eisenhower and his presidency.
For readers looking for an overview of Eisenhower's life and career, the Galambos book is a fine choice. Eisenhower the young man appeared to have very few prospects for greatness. He stumbled into West Point and didn't do particularly well while there. He accumulated many demerits, a significant number of them for the misdemeanor of smoking cigarettes, a lifelong habit that would contribute to the health problems he faced during his presidency. In the Army as a career officer, his forward progress was stalled for a long time, in part because his (correct) analysis that the United States needed to evolve beyond infantry and into mechanized tank warfare annoyed the Army brass. His friend George Patton, who was in the cavalry, was given more latitude to make similar arguments.
The tutelage of General Fox Conner rescued Eisenhower. Conner recognized something special in Ike and helped him get his career on track. The general gave the younger officer something like a course in grand strategy: Conner taught Ike about leadership and introduced him to books that helped broaden his horizons and his historic vision. He also had him read Clausewitz multiple times; later, as president, Eisenhower would impress national security staffers by quoting Clausewitz from memory.
Even with Conner's help, though, Ike's elevation to the top position in the U.S. Army in World War II was no surefire thing. As Galambos shows, Eisenhower had to learn a thing or two about bureaucratic infighting and outmaneuvering rivals—skills that would serve him well in managing the complex and far-flung war effort.
Ike's hard-earned political savvy would also serve him well as president.
Overall, the Eisenhower presidency was successful—and judged so both at the time and from today's vantage. Ike served two full terms as the U.S. economy hummed and the country artfully ended one war and then avoided new military entanglements. He also shone in relation to his successors over the next two decades. Following Eisenhower, no president managed to serve two full terms until Ronald Reagan.
Of course, he had his share of difficulties. Looking back he used to say that his biggest mistake was "putting that dumb son of a bitch" Earl Warren on the Supreme Court, and as chief justice no less. The title of Simon's Eisenhower vs. Warren suggests that the book focuses on the opposition and rivalry of the two men, but that is somewhat misleading; it is almost a dual biography. The direct confrontations between them were relatively few. They did, however, take different views of how to pursue the issue of integration. According to Simon, Warren never forgave Eisenhower for not putting the full weight of the presidency behind Warren's groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education decision. Even with Eisenhower's more measured approach to things, the truth is the rivalry was much overblown, especially when compared to some of those within presidential administrations. With Eisenhower and Warren, their core differences hinged on their views of the Constitution and federal power and did not arise from specific personal animosities.
Ike's organizational genius and steady leadership defined the decade of the 1950s. This is the theme of Hitchcock's big book, The Age of Eisenhower—a look at the Eisenhower presidency in the context both of domestic politics and America's dominant role on the world stage. The latter is treated at greater length: From Sputnik to Castro to the Suez crisis to the shooting down by the Soviets of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers, Hitchcock's impressive tour of international developments shows Eisenhower not as passive or merely responsive—and certainly not as the simpleton that so many of his contemporaries in the press and in the public took him to be—but as hands-on, engaged, and strategically minded during those critical Cold War years. Hitchcock draws on considerable recent scholarship that backs up this revisionist understanding of Ike.
Like Eisenhower, President George W. Bush, for whom I worked, understood how he was underestimated—and sometimes used it to his advantage. Bush also used to say he didn't worry about the historical record because they're still writing books about the first George W.—Washington, that is. Bush was right: It's hard to tell in the moment what a president's legacy and enduring reputation will be. The passage of time has made it possible to see Eisenhower more clearly—and these three books help show why he belongs in the pantheon of great American presidents.