Please consider this brief biographical essay in aid of our discussion of modern Republicanism. Perhaps this will jar my thinking into the twentieth century. Originally published as an entry in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia earlier this year.

Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1890-1969.

Immensely successful and popular as Supreme Allied Commander during the Second World War, General Dwight Eisenhower vaulted onto the political stage after his homecoming and won a landslide victory in 1952 to become the thirty-fourth president of the United States (1953-1961). Affectionately called “Ike” by millions of Americans, Eisenhower secured an even more lopsided victory in his 1956 bid for reelection. President Eisenhower presided over a period of robust growth and “happy days” at home, and he steered American foreign policy through a series of global crises in an increasingly perilous bipolar postwar world. His statecraft cemented the strategy of “containment” as the fixed American response to the threat of Soviet expansion during the Cold War world.

Although he cast himself as a Republican committed to less government and more local control, Eisenhower drew sharp criticism from conservatives before, during and after his presidency. His low marks emanated from what detractors called his acceptance of “New Dealism,” his cozy relationship with big business, and a “deficient understanding of Communism.” Eisenhower supported two massive national public works projects, the Interstate Highway System and the St. Lawrence Seaway Act, both of which poured billions of federal dollars into internal improvements designed to promote commerce. For many conservatives, the Eisenhower circle was blindly committed to a market-based economy and society. They were gratuitously materialistic and far too willing to sacrifice tradition on the altar of capitalism. He also appointed arguably the most liberal Chief Justice in the history of the United States Supreme Court, Earl Warren (although he later called it a “damn fool mistake”). In 1957, he boldly and unequivocally asserted federal supremacy over state rights when he dispatched the 101st Airborne to Little Rock, Arkansas to enforce a federal court order desegregating Central High School. Eisenhower also ran afoul of the staunch anticommunist-wing of the Republican Party.

Mindful of conservative anxiety in 1952, candidate Eisenhower chose celebrated anticommunist Richard Nixon as his running mate to offset his close-mouthed but palpable revulsion to Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower loathed the Communist-hunting senator from Wisconsin. After McCarthy’s dramatic fall from grace, the President wryly observed that “McCarthyism is now McCarthy-wasm.” More importantly, Eisenhower selected John Foster Dulles for secretary of state, who famously condemned Harry Truman’s policy of containment as soft in the face of Soviet intentions. Dulles proposed an aggressive policy of “liberating captive nations” from the Communist bloc. However, even as Dulles set about forging mutual defense pacts in hot spots all over the world and pursuing “brinksmanship” in Soviet-American relations, Eisenhower rejected the combative mentality prevalent among anticommunists on the American right.

On the other hand, the former general was no pacifist. He did not hesitate to employ an atomic threat against North Korea to speed peace talks in 1953, nor was he fooled by the manifestly disingenuous Soviet offer of “peaceful coexistence.” The Eisenhower administration engineered an enormous missile buildup and announced the policy of massive nuclear retaliation in response to the expanding Soviet arsenal of horrific weapons. Eisenhower introduced the “domino theory” as a scenario for understanding the threat in Southeast Asia (1954). He bemoaned the Soviet crackdown in Hungary (1956); he announced his intention to aid any nation in the Middle East threatened by Communism (Eisenhower Doctrine—1959); and he instituted an embargo against Cuba—a newly minted Soviet client state just seventy miles off the US coastline (1961). Notwithstanding, conservatives complained that little difference existed between the Eisenhower foreign policy and that of his predecessor. The President played tough defense with the Soviets when confronted, his critics asserted, but he stopped well short of actively contesting Communist domination in Eastern Europe or working toward regime change in Moscow. In short, for reasons of pragmatism and economy, Eisenhower clearly favored containment over conflict. (Likewise, on the domestic front, Eisenhower preferred to contain the costs of the New Deal as opposed to dismantling it.)

Eisenhower was openly religious, composing and reciting a prayer before his first inaugural, opening cabinet meetings with prayer and establishing the interdenominational White House Prayer Breakfast. Honest and good-natured, he loved western novels, television and movies. He played golf, fished, hunted, played bridge and painted landscapes of mediocre quality. Many sneered at the folksiness of Ike. Compared to the cerebral Adlai Stevenson, whom Eisenhower twice defeated for the oval office, contemporaneous commentators on the left found the President simple and intellectually limited. Eisenhower’s disjointed public speaking style and his purported detachment from the details of office under-girded the assumption that he was dull and uninterested. However, historical reconsiderations of Eisenhower and his presidency over the past four decades have consistently demonstrated his firm hand in events and enhanced his reputation. One scholar called the Eisenhower years the Hidden-Hand Presidency. Within the iconic, benevolent, national grandfather (regardless of how genuine that image was), subsequent historians asserted, beat the heart of a great and competent manager, who moved quickly and resolutely behind the scenes to effect policy.

Addendum: I have been criticized for omiting a discussion of Eisenhower's famous warning against the "military-industrial complex." I wrote this several years, and, frankly, I had no idea how hot a topic that caution would be in 2006. I agree with the criticism.