About a year ago I was chatting with a friend when we got on the subject of the Cold War era. I suggested that it wouldn’t be such a bad thing if we returned to some of the style and substance of President Dwight Eisenhower. Her response was worse than disagreement; it was dismissiveness. She literally rolled her eyes in derision. Though I didn’t like it, I understood. My friend grew up in the 1950s and came of age in the 1960s. She is of the generation for whom Eisenhower is an adjective–Eisenhower Era, Eisenhower Years, Eisenhower Conformity. You get the idea.
Some will probably never overcome such notions, but in recent years there has been a renaissance in the Eisenhower literature rehabilitating the reputation of the 34th president. The sharpest historians acknowledge his mistakes while recognizing the extraordinary pressures Eisenhower faced, and give him credit where it is due. Far from being the placid period caricatured in our popular culture, the Fifties and early Sixties were an extraordinarily complicated time both home and abroad. The Cold War, Third World independence movements, rehabilitation of the still recovering Europe and Japan, rapid scientific & technological change, and the Civil Rights movement right here in America were creating fear, hope, and cynicism in equal measure. What I was trying to explain to my friend was that Eisenhower was part of what we now call the Cold War Consensus. Briefly put, this is the notion that all of the presidents from 1945-1990, regardless of their party, shared common goals, insights, and assumptions about the world we were living in. Eisenhower fit neatly into this consensus. On the world stage, he was an internationalist trying to work within the frameworks of the UN, NATO, SEATO, and other coalitions. On the home front, he believed in tinkering with, not dismantling, the remnants of the New Deal that Americans had come to accept and rely upon. I would suggest that if he came back today he would be upset with the shabbiness of our discourse, not least that which is coming from within his own party. It is revealing–and tragic, on so many levels–that he is not held in higher esteem today within the Party of Lincoln. Just don’t blame him for it.
This Thursday and Friday, March 7th and 8th, there is going to be a conference reexamining the Eisenhower presidency at Hunter College’s Public Policy Institute. (The Institute is based in the Upper East Side townhouse once owned by Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt.) Yours truly is especially excited about the public program on Thursday evening. Scheduled to appear are David Eisenhower, Evan Thomas (Ike’s Bluff), Jean Edward Smith (Eisenhower in War and Peace), Philip Zelikow, and others. Jim Newton (Eisenhower: The White House Years) will be the moderator. Tickets for Ike Reconsidered: Lessons from the Eisenhower Legacy for the 21st Century are free, but rsvp is required. It will be worth braving the rain for this one.