We recently published Dr. John Willson’s essay on President Eisenhower. It reminded me of an essay I wrote in graduate school in April 1993. I was mostly interested in the Gilded Age at that point, but I became increasingly fascinated by 20th century political and intellectual history. In particular, I became somewhat obsessed with Hoover, Eisenhower, Goldwater, and Nixon.
As you’ll see in my paper, I was also very taken with the ideas of Eric Hoffer as well as James Hunter.
Thank the good Lord, I had outstanding mentors: Walter Nugent, Greg Dowd, Father Marvin O’Connell, Anne Butler, R. David Edmunds, Russ Hanson, and Bernard Sheehan. Words from them sustained me as I had the friendship and encouragement of seven angels.
Just the other day, I also came across a sobering diary entry from Barry Goldwater, January 1961.
Today marked the end of the Eisenhower administration and the advent of what Jack Kennedy calls the New Frontier. It may well be the end of the last chance to save our Republic, for it is apparent that under Dwight Eisenhower we did not erase the errors of the preceding years of drifting from the path of the Republic. I think back to 1953 and the inauguration of that year. A bright day with a new leader under whose leadership Americans looked forward to a renewal of the eternal truths of our Republic. I sit tonight eight years after and wonder what happened to that glorious opportunity and challenge. It cannot be said that we failed completely, but did not succeed in answering either to more than a small degree. Eisenhower did understand the fundamentals and he believed in them. He spoke of them with conviction but his legislative proposals did not, with few exceptions, convince Americans that those fundamentals are our best course.
This quote, along with the republishing of Dr. Willson’s essay made me dig for this almost-20 year old essay, written in the first year of my PhD program. I had to find a program to translate it from wordperfect for mac (from 1993!), so my apologies if there are strange typos in this.
The following essay isn’t that profound, but it did open a lot of doors for me. And, I still value it as a learning experience.
The political and cultural divisions between the left and the right increasingly permeate and taint the various aspects of American society and scholarship. As James Hunter notes, both the left and right attempt to construct historical myths through “selective interpretation ”for their respective goals and “future promises.”[FN1] The history profession has not, unfortunately, resisted the divisive political infighting.
Two recent arguments on Dwight D. Eisenhower and the 1950s demonstrate the in-fighting within the history profession. One historian, John Patrick Diggins, adopts an intrinsically political approach to history. Consequently, he arrives at a politically biased outcome. The other historian, Robert Griffith, leaves out–for the most part–his politics. His work, as one might expect, ends with a much closer approximation to “objective history” and the “truth.” Both consider Eisenhower’s approach to politics, his intelligence, and the period he symbolizes, the 1950s.
Before the 1980s, few Americans considered Dwight D. Eisenhower as an activist president. Both the left (including, in general, the American history profession) and the right tended to regard Eisenhower as a “do-nothing” president. The left saw this as negative; Eisenhower stressed personal relaxation over governance, and he sought consensus over solutions. His lax attitude left problems of the decade for the 1960’s generation to tackle. The mainstream right viewed his “laissez-faire” (non) approach as refreshing and the key to prosperity during his two terms.
In the early 1980s, new evidence surfaced and debunked both sets of Eisenhower myths. The new information revealed that Eisenhower intentionally portrayed himself as a detached, happy-go-lucky president. In actuality, he served his eight years in a serious and activist manner. Firmly in control, he delegated much of his executive power to his cabinet and staff, taking the credit for successes and avoiding blame for the failures. Contemptuous toward popular politics, Eisenhower hoped to avoid immediate public scrutiny of his actions and decisions.
Robert Griffith capitalizes on the new data in his insightful and scholarly article, “Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Corporate Commonwealth.”[FN2] Griffith transcends the present culture wars and ideological squabbles. He presents Eisenhower as a governor with a coherent vision (Griffith, 122).
Despite the new documentation, the Eisenhower-as-aloof myth remains in the works of serious and good scholars. John Patrick Diggins in his The Proud Decades: America in War and Peace, 1941-1960 depicts Eisenhower as the simpleton he pretended to be.[FN3] Diggins writes: “Eisenhower was a decent but simple man….who enjoyed bridge and golf more than the challenges of government and the exercise of presidential power” (Diggins, 128).
The contrast in the ways the two historians describe Eisenhower seems odd. How could the pictures of one president who served forty years ago diametrically oppose each other? The answer lies in the fundamental difference in the way the two historians practice history using these two sources. In simplistic terms, Griffith approaches his subject from within, and Diggins approaches his from without.
Griffith, in his revisionist history of Eisenhower, looks at Eisenhower only as Eisenhower. He ignores any semblance of a presentist or politically-based approach. He pieces together the former president’s history, ideas, and actions and finds a charismatic and intelligent individual. Eisenhower, raised in turn-of-the-century Kansas, absorbed many of the ideas percolating though his home state–most important, progressive Republicanism. This Republican vision of the early twentieth-century sought consensus through diminution of class conflict, virtual representation, rule by experts, and a whiggish economic program. Government served, in this philosophy, as a mediator of extremes. From the military–in peacetime, World War II, and in NATO–Eisenhower gained a sense of duty and honor, organizational skills, and a distrust of popular democracy (Griffith, 88).
Eisenhower distrusted Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He believed Roosevelt had advanced too far toward creating an ever-expanding statist machine. As president, Eisenhower sought to temper, but not lessen, the government’s role in the economy. He strove to make government a tool of all people and not, as he saw it, just of the organized special interests. According to Griffith, each of these elements in Eisenhower’s background and maturation played an essential role in shaping the his political strategies and aims. Eisenhower desired an ideologically balanced and neutral government in the social arena and slow but steady growth aided by government in the economic one. Griffith labels Eisenhower’s consensus-oriented philosophy the “corporate commonwealth.”
Griffith, by searching for the real Eisenhower, avoids blatant politics. He, much to the benefit of his argument, simply examines the available evidence. While Griffith undoubtedly holds unconscious biases, he acts to avoid the overt ones. His more objective approaches increases the effectiveness of his argument. In the long run, looking for truth or a “better” truth—as hard as it may be to achieve—will provide clearer answers to society’s questions and problems. This should not imply that history should be value free. But, historians should derive values and opinions at the end of research, not at the beginning. Political bias narrows the scope of questions asked and answers found. Ideologically dominated and pursued questions can only end in fallacious conclusions.
Diggins, in contrast, takes a more presentist and political approach to history. Rather than looking at Eisenhower’s program and finding an ideologically coherent philosophy, he places the president in the context of how he could have “progressed” the United States toward a more liberal, interventionist state. Diggins, obviously opposed to the direction Eisenhower took, even titles his chapter on Eisenhower The Politics of Inertia.” Eisenhower “could do no wrong,” Diggins arrogantly writes, “because he seldom tried to do anything at all” (Diggins, 128).
To find one of many examples, the reader need only look to his arguments on health care. “[A]fter seven years in office,” Diggins states, Eisenhower did, “acknowledge the government’s responsibility for the nation’s heath and physical welfare” (Diggins, 135). Of what responsibility is Diggins speaking? Diggins implies that the government should and will eventually provide health care. Perhaps government could and/or should provide good health care, but one should not consider it an absolute. Eisenhower obviously felt government’s should play a minimal role in the health care field.
Tellingly, Diggins quotes John Dewey at the beginning of his book. In typical “Progressive” age fashion Dewey believed that social systems endlessly evolved toward an undefined social good. The essence lay in the means rather than the ends. Dewey argued that humans could change and manipulate nature itself.[FN4]
Eisenhower held a different vision of government than does Diggins or Dewey. Eisenhower believed, as Griffith states, that government should play a cooperative role in business. Eisenhower did not dismantle the welfare state; he brought “balance” to it. Eisenhower, rather than rolling back the safety net functions of government, tamed the growth of the New Deal/Fair Deal state. For Eisenhower, real societal progress and industrial dynamism occurred in the private sector through voluntary action. Without countervailing forces the state would inhibit private development and people’s free choices. Ideas, imposed from the top down, Eric Hoffer argued, would create a repressive and static atmosphere. Eisenhower played the role of moderator between government and business, Griffith notes. Eisenhower considered the private sector–as well as the growing welfare state–too unwieldy. He used the government to contain the private sector’s excesses. Eisenhower practiced conservatism in its truest sense. He attempted to conserve–with only slight modifications in its efficacy–the welfare state without greatly hindering the private sector. He wanted stability (Griffith, 122).
By using the progressive form of history, Diggins ignores most of Eisenhower’s accomplishments. Eisenhower, with a few blatant exceptions, maintained a tight fiscal and monetary policy. These actions ensured a slow but steady economic growth and a rise in real wages. He also worked to diminish the influence of Joseph McCarthy, expanded social security, decreased the military’s budget, ended the war in Korea, prevented war in the Middle East and China, built the interstate highway system, St. Lawrence Seaway, and numerous dams, and even passed (albeit reluctantly) two civil rights bills which allowed more effective litigation in cases of racial discrimination. One can reasonably assess Eisenhower’s reign as the most peaceful and prosperous eight years in this century. One may not agree with Eisenhower’s program, but that should not imply Eisenhower was a “do nothing president.”
Diggins and Griffith also disagree about Eisenhower’s intelligence. Diggins also believes Eisenhower “symbolized the triumph of anti-intellectualism in politics,” and refers to Eisenhower as “banal,” empty, and unoriginal (Diggins, 126, 129, 153). Again, Diggins’s view denotes a short-sightedness and obvious intolerance on his part–a view that Griffith directly attacks. Eisenhower, rather than constantly contemplating the future and every possible course of action taken by the members of history, took decisive action. Despite his cryptic language, he took “ideas seriously” and acted in a responsible and rational manner. One might as easily substitute what Diggins calls “anti-intellectual” with integrity, principled, or holding convictions. Like many conservatives–intellectuals and activists–Eisenhower relied on tradition, experience, and the solid judgment that had guided him well in Normandy, Brussels, and New York.
The left and the right also fight over the history of the decade Eisenhower has come to symbolize—the 1950s. Lying between the socially turbulent, economically depressed, and war-torn 1930s and 1940s and the socially turbulent and war-torn 1960s, the 1950s appear as a Godsend to many Americans—usually those of the more conservative bent. America not only prospered economically, the conservatives and neoconservatives argue, it reigned dominant over the free world and held the supposedly expansive Soviets at bay. Those on the left, however, remember the 1950s not as a time of prosperity, but as one of cultural conformity and social regress. White males increasingly dominated professional jobs and earned ever higher wages. But, they prospered, the argument on the left runs, at the expense of women and minorities. Women took no refuge in their position of “domestic slavery,” and African-Americans progressed more slowly than they could have with a continuation of the New Deal/Fair Deal social policies.
Reflecting the cultural war and its attempts to gain symbols from the past, the two historians view the 1950s differently. Griffith realizes the era was a fragile one—especially considering foreign policy. Eisenhower, always the pragmatic and visionary, walked a finely balanced line. But, Griffith admits that despite the good balance, the 1950’s consensus covered over too many important fissures to prevent the explosive following decade.
Diggins comes to the same conclusion, but states his feelings in a different tone. He finds the people of the fifties crass and materialistic, unable to understand Adlai Stevenson’s “urbanity and wit” and “eloquence and intellect” (Diggins, 127). He marvels at average individual’s attempt to better him/herself economically: “More complacent than compassionate, the fifties generation pursued private interests and pleasure and remained almost indifferent to public responsibility” (Diggins, 136). Diggins, again blinded by his unquestioning belief that government should actively promote economic and social progress, fails to note the economic growth, jobs creation, and the vast number of new technologies developed in the 1950s. In Eisenhower’s eyes, his system promoting both private interest and public responsibility created the stability necessary for such growth. Diggins disagrees and implies that people acting in their own interest ignored or, worse, harmed the public. Statistics on the rise or fall of charity or private/church social work during the 1950s might provide interesting answers to Diggins’s stance. Statistics on wealth and resource distribution and poverty would also help answer Diggins’s points.
Diggins calls Americans in the 1950s superficial. He states that “mindless audiences” watched quiz shows (which ironically challenge the mind) and involved themselves in spiritual “shallowness.” This prompts an immediate question: How does one define “shallow” when discussing an individual’s spirituality? Spirituality by definition serves a highly personal and subjective function. Diggins surely cannot know what the average person felt or how religion affected her/him. Perhaps the deaths in World War II, the advent of the atomic bomb, the rise of supposedly monolithic atheistic communism, the fall of China, and Stalin’s reign of terror all suggest why religion and spirituality grew. New forms and massive means for death suddenly confronted people all over the world. It may also help explain why Americans turned inward lives and trusted an unpretentious and established hero as president.
Aside from the politics inherent in Diggins and nearly absent in Griffith, professional factors may also account for the differences between the two historians. Strong incentives act to push each in their respective directions. Griffith, making a significant revisionist argument, needs to make Eisenhower an interesting individual. It serves his argument to destroy the Eisenhower myth. Diggins, however, wrapped in his “progressive,” Deweyite history desires to show that Eisenhower failed to lead the United States further down the “inevitable” path toward a better welfare state and social justice. Diggins finds Eisenhower’s accomplishments boring compared to the seemingly daring exploits of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.
In the end, Griffith provides the reader with a better understanding of Eisenhower. In today’s overwhelmingly postmodern and polarizing culture, Griffith’s fundamental approach is refreshing. By practicing traditional history–digging in the archives, avoiding blatant politics and the culture wars, and using inductive reasoning—Griffith truly “progresses” our understanding of Eisenhower and the 1950s.
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1. Idea taken from James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: BasicBooks, 1991), 55.
2. Robert Griffith, “Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Corporate Commonwealth,” American Historical Review 87 (1982): 87-122.
3. John Patrick Diggins, The Proud Decades: American in War and Peace, 1941-1960 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1988).
4. Walter T. K. Nugent, From Centennial to World War: American Society, 1876-1917 (New York: Macmillan, 1985), 128.