Does anyone else remember the Western Hemisphere's only functioning socialist paradise? In that bygone land, the top income-tax bracket for millionaires was 90 percent. Thanks to a heavily—and proudly—unionized workforce, collective bargaining resolved most labor-management disputes. To stave off recession, the government instituted the largest public-works program in Country X's history, from which its now largely unwitting citizens still benefit today.
Although Country X did possess a sizable nuclear deterrent, the trade-off was a reduction in spending on conventional military capabilities. "Our most valuable, our most costly asset is our young men. Let's don't use them any more than we have to," was the typically commonsensical explanation given by paradise's wildly popular leader for his reluctance to commit Country X to adventurist foreign wars. Despite an excruciating level of world tension at the time, not a single member of Country X's armed forces died in battle on his watch.
Those happy days were yours and mine. True, it would be going much too far to call Dwight D. Eisenhower the architect of the United States in the 1950s. From the GI bill's vital role in creating the midcentury middle class to our powerhouse postwar economy, the catbird seat America then occupied wasn't Ike's doing. Well, except in the sense that winning World War II made it all possible, and he'd been the guy who said "OK, we'll go" on D-Day.
But Eisenhower the president was more than paradise's caretaker. At the very least, he's the man who made it all seem normal. That's some achievement when you think of the astounding metamorphoses in American life, self-perception, and role on the world stage that his reign enshrined.
Besides being the most underestimated president of the 20th century, Eisenhower deserves to be every Democrat's favorite Republican White House occupant this side of Abraham Lincoln. The reasons range from creating an Interstate highway system that's rightly named for him and deciding to perpetuate the New Deal, to his crucial decision to enforce Brown v. Board of Education in the teeth of Southern resistance. No militant on civil rights, Ike nonetheless ordered the 101st Airborne to Little Rock in the crunch to remind everybody that even unpopular Supreme Court decisions had better be respected. If not for that resolve, desegregation might have ended before it began.
The record elsewhere isn't all rosy. If Eisenhower kept the military on a short leash, he let the feeling-its-oats CIA run amok. The U.S.-engineered 1953 coup that put the Shah of Iran in power is one sin whose consequences we're still living with, and the scars from our similar operation in Guatemala took a long time to heal (if they have). Nor should we forget that the Bay of Pigs was dreamed up during his tenure, though whether he'd have ever green-lit a plan so patently stupid is debatable. Our whole sorry Cold War pattern of sub rosa interventions and propped-up dictatorships in the Third World was largely created on Ike's watch. While he's seldom thought of as a villain, Latin Americans—among others—would have every right to call him just that.
Yet to U.S. liberals at the time, he was merely an ineffectual, smiling bumbler: "The Great Golfer," as Gore Vidal called him. Later generations have simply forgotten him, which is a willful lacuna on the now-radicalized GOP's part (the last thing its neo-Bolsheviki want to celebrate is the bland Kerensky who succeeded) but otherwise just symptomatic of his low entertainment value. Unlike JFK or FDR, he was resolutely unexciting, and never mind that being the boring center of the volcanic 1950s was his political genius. It would be nice if Jean Edward Smith's fine new biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace, were to provoke a reassessment in both camps.
Smith doesn't claim any profound insights into his subject's private motives or character. "Dwight Eisenhower remains an enigma," he tells us right up front—and to swipe a joke from my wife, the book's subtitle isn't An Enigma Solved. But he does the next best thing by turning Ike's methodology as both general and president into a study in shrewdness and guile that refutes popular perceptions of him as a genial (he wasn't) but shallow (definitely not) political amateur. After two terms as Ike's mistrusted vice president, Richard Nixon—no mean judge of wiliness, particularly when directed against him—wrote that Eisenhower was "a far more complex and devious man than most people realized," adding the classic Nixon qualifier (Ike was still alive at the time) that he meant "complex and devious" in "the best sense of these words."
The book's major strength is that Smith is the first Eisenhower biographer I've read who seems equally at home assessing Ike's military career—which occupied almost 40 years of his life, after all—and its political capstone in the White House. That's why he can discern continuities between the two that other writers have slighted or simply not recognized: mainly, a mile-wide streak of patient, concealed calculation. The myth that Eisenhower was plucked from obscurity by Chief of Staff George C. Marshall for high command after Pearl Harbor is only true insofar as he was unknown to the public. He'd been a cagy Army careerist ever since West Point, cultivating higher-ups in a position to finagle plum assignments for him and making himself indispensable to both John J. Pershing (his World War I predecessor) and Douglas MacArthur (his World War II Pacific doppelgänger). No wonder George S. Patton's nickname for him was "Divine Destiny."
To his credit, Smith is unchauvinistic enough to accept the often withering assessments by Ike's British colleagues of his failings as a battle strategist. His insistence on attacking on a broad front in late 1944 instead of concentrating for a decisive blow probably did prolong the European war by several months. Yet at the higher level of managing a fractious coalition—from playing umpire to rival prima-donna generals to conciliating his civilian bosses—he was superbly deft and unflappable, MacArthur's opposite in every way. For all his deference to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and 10 Downing Street alike, he was capable of making bold decisions on his own hook to the point of effrontery, above all in accepting Charles de Gaulle, despite FDR's contrary wishes, as France's provisional ruler after D-Day—a policy he could justify on the grounds of military necessity, since otherwise administering France's liberated zones would have led to chaos.
All this didn't exactly leave him unequipped for the Oval Office. Along with what seems to have been a genuine horror of atomic war—never a remote prospect at the Cold War's height—he had the military standing and self-confidence to reject, among other follies, the Pentagon's bright proposal to use tactical nukes to bail out the French at Dien Bien Phu (and worried that Oval Office successors without his background might not be as steadfast). Overall, the hallmark of his presidency was a serene—and indeed, to his detractors, maddening—refusal to panic in a Washington brimming with hysterias, from Joe McCarthy's witch hunts to his own Secretary of State John Foster Dulles's fire-and-brimstone Cold War pronunciamentos. Although Eisenhower despised McCarthy, he opted once in the White House to stay out of "a pissing contest with that skunk," betting it wouldn't be nearly as effective as McCarthy's own Senate colleagues turning against him—which is, of course, just how things played out. But only after McCarthy had rampaged for several years, suggesting a fairly chilling if tactically sound acceptance on Eisenhower's part of collateral damage.
His essential coldness comes out in a use of the zealots around him memorably summarized by journalist Murray Kempton: "Keep Nixon and Dulles around for marching through minefields." So long as they and others were keeping the GOP's Old Guard appeased with alarmist saber-rattling, Ike had no need to sling that sort of talk around himself—or more important, act on it, something he had no intention of doing. And with his right flank covered by proxy, he was serenely unconcerned by whether either Nixon's or Dulles's audiences—or, for that matter, Nixon (not likely) and Dulles (very probably) themselves—were fooled into thinking they had any influence on his actual policies.
Eisenhower's combination of public dullness and imperturbable private cunning led Princeton politics professor Fred Greenstein to call his book on Ike The Hidden-Hand Presidency, a phrase Smith borrows with thanks. And it's almost enough to make you wonder if the White House's current occupant—Mr. "Leading From Behind," you remember—has studied his midcentury predecessor more closely than he lets on, because Barack Obama's aversion to drama and unflustered readiness to play the waiting game while everybody else vents are closer to Eisenhower's style than to any more recent model. As dissimilar as they are otherwise, they may not be that far apart in temperament, the coldness included. The difference is that Obama has yet to match Ike in skill.