By Richard Hurley
Ike really isn’t underrated these days. He’s actually riding pretty high with historians and amongst the general public.
Given what we have in office today, the idea of a man with a political resumé like Ike’s is, in retrospect, very appealing. Ike successfully led the Western Allies through the 2nd half of WWII – while incidentally directing the most complex military operation in human history. Good administrative skills, then, that gave Ike sweeping credibility coming into office. When Ike talked about military appropriations, people listened. Defense spending was intelligently directed from the top down, not drummed up from below – congressional district by congressional district – as was often the case after Ike.
Ike’s farewell address did more than just warn about the “military-industrial complex.” He also included a passionate plea for fiscal responsibility in government, a plea that should be tattooed on the forehead of every incoming member of Congress, but which seems to have been forgotten – especially by his own party, which likes to put wars on the national credit card and hand out unfunded tax cuts as party favors.
Given the sky-high marginal tax rates that prevailed during his tenure, Ike will never appeal to the doctrinaire economic cultists we are so generously supplied with today. He didn’t see the world through brittle theory. He was a results guy who didn’t get fussed about ideology. He saw a huge debt left over from WWII, and he made sure the people most able to help pay it off did so. Oddly enough, there were a lot of Republicans in those days who were okay with that –who saw it as a patriotic duty to kick in if they had good incomes. Imagine such foolishness!
Of course, Ike is still resented by ideologues who will never forgive him for not trying to blow up the New Deal – who see him as a willing colluder with that arch-traitor to his class, Franklin Roosevelt. And there were actually wing-nuts who denounced Ike as a communist stooge (take a bow, John Birchers!) because… well… I’m sure they had some reason.
Worst of all, in the view of the ideologically pure, Ike shared Abraham Lincoln’s simple, sane, and practical view of the role of government:
The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do for themselves, in their separate and individual capacities.
Indeed, Ike was so far steeped in this liberal heresy that he thought the federal government should take the lead in building an interstate highway system! Now there’s applied Marxism if I ever saw it! But somehow, people of the 50s were more relaxed about that sort of thing. Coming through a war and a depression, a lot of them were results people, too, and saw that having a first-rate highway system made obvious commercial and military sense. (I know, there’s no accounting for such deviant liberal notions, but those were different times. You had to be there.)
As far as foreign policy went, Ike got us out of the war in Korea and kept us out of the war in Indochina – both major accomplishments. He did constant, yeoman-like work trying to contain Communism, but he did so smartly. As the former head of NATO’s armed forces, he valued the strength to be found in alliance. (He also knew when to apply a discreet boot to the rear of some of those allies, as in the Suez Canal fiasco that France and Britain cooked up.)
Domestically, Ike was a gradualist in civil rights, but he was there when it counted. When a white mob threatened to attack black school children in the wake of Brown vs Board, Ike sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock. Ike also appointed the first black man to a cabinet-level office. He was, in sum, a bona fide son of the party of Lincoln – one of the last, given the “Southern Strategy” that Dick Nixon, Kevin Phillips, and Lee Atwater were about to cook up in the years to come.
So yeah, Ike was one of the best Presidents of my lifetime, and as an historian, I’d put him comfortably toward the top of the all-time list. The doctrinaire purists will never like him, but people who value patriotism, intelligently applied, will read his Farewell Address and hear the voice of a great American whom many of us still miss.