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Eisenhower in War and Peace

Jean Edward's Smith's new biography obliterates earlier arguments that Eisenhower’s was a dull, torpid presidency.

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Among the major accomplishments during Ike’s two terms:

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•Conceiving and building the Interstate Highway System, the nation’s largest public works project at $101 billion ($823 billion today) when it was proposed in 1955. Eisenhower’s interstates now cover 47,000 miles across America and, of course, are essential not just for mobility and travel but trade and commerce. Smith describes the highway network as “the mother of all stimulus programs” because Eisenhower pushed it through as the economy began to wilt during his first term.

•Displaying a steady diplomatic hand on numerous occasions, an attribute that allowed the former supreme commander of Allied Forces in Europe to avoid conflict during eight years as commander-in-chief.

Ike ended the Korean quagmire he inherited from Truman, avoided mutually assured destruction with the Soviets, and routinely ignored entreaties from his military advisers to send in troops or, worse, deploy nuclear weapons. As the French fell apart at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the president responded to suggestions by American strategists to consider air strikes and the atomic bomb with a swift rebuke. “You boys must be crazy,” he said. “We can’t use those awful things against Asians for the second time in less than ten years. My God.”

In similar fashion, he resolved international crises with China and over the Suez Canal by employing a poker face that leveraged the possibility of military engagement just enough to prod adversaries to choose diplomatic means.

•Making crucial appointments in the Supreme Court – most notably former California Gov. Earl Warren as Chief Justice – and lower-level federal courts that established not only the precedent of desegregation but carried it out in ruling after ruling. Also, Eisenhower left no doubt about the intention and integrity of Brown v. Board of Education when he sent in federal troops to break the resistance of Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus and preside over the safe integration of Central High School for the Little Rock Nine three years later. Smith writes: “Those who would criticize Eisenhower for not moving fast enough on civil rights should remember that it was his judicial nominees who made the revolution possible.”

•Reaching across the aisle. Eisenhower was a Republican, but he worked with a Democrat-led Congress through most of his eight years in the White House. House Speaker Sam Rayburn and his Texas protégé, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson, shared a mutual respect with Eisenhower and, hard as it is to imagine in 21st-century America, often engaged in a ritual known as bipartisanship. In many cases, Eisenhower bucked his own party. The Republican platform called for, among other things, killing FDR’s New Deal programs, reducing foreign aid, and cutting taxes. Ike ignored them all, pursuing a moderate, incremental strategy that paid later dividends and justified his approach.

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