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Eisenhower's Leadership Has Lessons for Today

By Charles H. PercyCharles H. Percy, former US Senator from Illinois, was co-host with Helen Hayes of the Kennedy Center's Ike Centennial gala. / October 16, 1990



THIRTY-FOUR years ago, during what many historians call his finest hour on the diplomatic stage, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asserted unflinching leadership against aggression in the Middle East. Then, as now, a nation in that region was wrongly invaded. The circumstances surrounding the French-British-Israeli invasion of Egypt in 1956 - namely Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's assertion of unilateral control over the Suez Canal - were, of course, vastly different than those leading to Iraq's recent unprovoked assault on Kuwait. It is too early to tell whether President George Bush's firm steps against Iraq will prove as successful as Ike's were (he was able, through the United Nations, to bring about a withdrawal within days). Yet the decisiveness of President Bush's actions in the Persian Gulf, the overwhelming international support for them, and his adept use of the United Nations recall many of the leadership qualities Eisenhower exhibited not just during the Suez Crisis but time and time again during his rich life.

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Recollections today of Ike's leadership are fitting, in that Oct. 14 marks the 100th anniversary of Eisenhower's birth. Eisenhower's life spanned the horse and buggy era to the space age, and his service to his country has come to symbolize America at its best. Known primarily as the victorious commander of the Allied Forces in World War II and as our nation's 34th president, Ike led America and the world through trying times. From the scourge of Nazism to the challenges of cold war nuclear politics, Eisenhower fought to forge a lasting peace.

During Ike's centennial year, 15 nations have joined the United States in paying tribute to the man who ``came from the very heart of America.'' Launched in March with a joint meeting of Congress, the centennial concluded on Oct. 14 with a series of events in Eisenhower's hometown of Abilene, Kansas; Gettysburg (where he spent most of his retirement); and at Washington's Kennedy Center (which, incidentally, was an Eisenhower creation).

Ike's legacy is not just the stuff of history. As indicated by his unyielding belief that exposure to the West would ultimately bring down tyranny in the East, his leadership is replete with lessons for today and tomorrow. When the Suez Crisis rocked the world in 1956, Ike called for and won a cease-fire and withdrawal of invading forces. He embargoed supplies, particularly oil, to the aggressors. He asserted his policy through the United Nations, not on his own. And he moved quickly, forestalling any Soviet attempt to capitalize on the conflict. All this during the closing days of an election campaign, considerations of which were refreshingly far from Ike's mind as he shaped America's response to the crisis. Throughout the world reaction to Ike's moves - standing up to the neo-colonial aggression of his closest allies - was as wide and deep as it was favorable.

As formidable as Ike's handling of the Suez Crisis was, it was by no means an isolated example of his leadership. Whether it was ending the Korean War, holding the lid on defense spending and exercising genuine, across the board fiscal restraint, or integrating the schools in Little Rock, Ike acted decisively, with purpose, and with a full grasp of the implications of his actions.

Eisenhower was not without his failings. But, as his successful leadership of the seven nation Allied Expeditionary Force in 1944-45 - a fundamentally political as well as military achievement - should have suggested, Eisenhower as president was far more astute than sometimes thought. As they have gained access to vast quantities of new records, historians and journalists have recognized in recent years that the accolades from those fortunate to work for or with Eisenhower were a good deal more than mere partisan trumpeting.

It is not simply nostalgia that prompts many to remember Ike. I, personally, don't hanker for the good old days. I do think, however, that Eisenhower's methods of governing - such as gathering around him advisers of diverse views who were not afraid, and were even encouraged, to disagree - offer useful guideposts as we approach the next century.

Ike's style wasn't flashy. Though he was sensitive to the power of the then-emerging television media, he was surely not governed by it. His style was quiet, deliberate, collaborative, and, as history has proved, fully informed. In a word, statesmanlike.

As he pursues his course in the Middle East, President Bush, in what may be his finest hour, today offers proof that being statesmanlike is not a thing of some long past ``old school.'' But perhaps that shouldn't surprise us too much. Ask President Bush which of his predecessors he admired and he'll tell you, as he did at a centennial luncheon, that he ``always liked Ike.'' Mr. President, you have a lot of company.