Feigning sleep

Dwight Eisenhower

Eisenhower: A Life, Paul Johnson, Penguin

The image in popular media of some politicians can be very different from their real personas. Dwight (Ike) Eisenhower is one such.  The popular image of his presidency during the 1950s is that he played golf while America slept. (Actually, America did anything but, increasing in affluence, and creating the modern society we are familiar with today, with the rise of highways, motels, fast food chains, sprawling suburbs, the electrification of the kitchen and laundry, television…)

Popular historian Paul Johnson has made a series of short biographies of famous figures in recent years (in contrast to his sprawling books on Christianity, modernity, US history and art history), and turns his attention here to Eisenhower.  Johnson opposes the image of the rambling grandfather, and argues that Ike’s military history (as commander of a million troops) alone should suggest that Eisenhower was a shrewd figure. Johnson points out, as does Garry Wills, that Eisenhower, unlike many military figures, constantly played down Cold War tensions, and can be thanked for the relative stability of the fifties. One forgets that it is Eisenhower who not only coined the phrase “military-industrial complex”, but also criticised it. In contrast to Kennedy, who is normally lauded as a progressive force after the slumber of Eisenhower, but who, as Wills suggests, tried to trump Nixon in hawkish language, and ramped up the Cold War rhetoric, paying for it at the Bay of Pigs and during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Ike, says Wills, spoke quietly and carried a big stick.

As for Eisenhower’s famously ambiguous wording in press conferences, Johnson suggests this was the deliberate strategy of a masterful general. It suited Eisenhower to cultivate the image of someone asleep at the wheel, while he quietly and astutely steered the course. The downside of this is that he assumed “steady-as-she-goes” would fix all America’s problems. Particularly when it came to civil rights, he simply did not understand that a drastic change of course was needed, and it was his successors who were rudely awoken to the necessity of that change.


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