Saturday, February 5, 2011

What Eisenhower Thinks

Version 0.6

How What Eisenhower Thinks by Allan Taylor Makes President Eisenhower Look Like a Failure

This book was actually published in 1953 and somehow found its way into the public library of Kasawaski-shi in Japan. It's an interesting collection of excerpts of Eisenhower's speeches and writings. The editing was mostly done after Ike had declined the 1948 Republican nomination and before he decided to run for President in the election of 1952. It seems pretty clear that the editor was a supporter hoping to encourage him to run.

I don't know whether or not this book contributed anything to Ike's change of heart, but it did change my feelings about Ike. On the one hand, it gave me more appreciation for his understanding of the problems that America was facing at the time and in the future. However, at the same time it made me feel that he was a failure as president, whereas before I was pretty much neutral about his presidency.

Before reading this book, I regarded President Eisenhower's greatest mistake as the interstate highway system. This was a really crucial decision and policy that helped make America dependent on private automobiles instead of mass transit. I've always felt that the decision was made primarily for short-sided reasons of military exigencies. Mass transit is militarily vulnerable and positionally useless. The facilities of mass transit are sitting ducks and just can't delivery troops to arbitrary destinations where the generals want to attack or need to defend. I'd like to see the exact statistics, but I've often felt the interstate highways were the #1 deep cause of America's harmful dependence on foreign oil.

I felt that Ike's greatest positive legacy was actually the defense of individual rights by the Supreme Court. However Ike himself regarded his two progressive appointments to the supreme court as his greatest presidential mistakes. Kind of hard to give him credit in that situation, even if the results were good. Yes, there were some important events in such areas as civil rights for blacks, but Ike was NOT leading the way, but basically just passively going along for the ride.

However, from reading this book, I felt that President Eisenhower deserves more criticism for knowing better and failing to do anything about the problems he understood. There are many examples in the book, but I'm just going to pick on two that struck me as especially interesting and significant.

One was his advocacy of universal military service. Obviously he did not succeed in leading the country to the adoption of such a policy. I actually agree with the basic idea, though without restricting it to military service. His focus was purely on military preparedness, but I'd prefer including options for various other forms of public service. My own preference would be a weighting system where the least pleasant forms would also be the shortest. For example, one year of military service versus two years of medical support or foreign aid work versus three years of teaching. Yes, I could have missed it, but I've never seen any evidence that he even managed to start a dialog on the topic.

Another area that rather surprised me was Eisenhower's advocacy of a stronger United Nations and inspections-based nuclear disarmament. Again, it seems pretty clear that he failed to move the country in those directions. Some of his comments about America working compatibly with the United Nations now seem downright laughable considering our obstructionist history there.

Considering the era, it's hard to blame him for the anti-communist stuff. However, that part certainly looks kind of laughable now. However, even in that area his understanding of the importance of non-military economic development as the foundation for real national strength makes his leadership look misguided.

In conclusion, if I were a presidential historian being asked for my ranking, President Eisenhower would drop several places because of this book. Remember that this was a contemporary work, not colored by later revisionism and fishing for the best things to remember.