There have been 43 American citizens who have served as president. For historians, academics, and pundits of all political stripes, this select group of political leaders is an endless source of writing material. Unfortunately, the interpretation, reinterpretation, and occasional misinterpretation of presidential histories are growing concerns. We’re often learning today that some of what we read and learned about America’s political leaders in the past wasn’t, well, all that learned to begin with.
But hope springs eternal. Consider some recent evaluations of George Washington (Richard Brookhiser’s “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington”), John Adams (David McCullough’s “John Adams”), Thomas Jefferson (Joseph J. Ellis’s “American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson”), and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Conrad Black’s “Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom”). To their credit, these authors have either shed new light on their subject matter, or created a stunning reversal of previously held assumptions about a particular president. That’s great news, as it helps us escape the ideological tsunami and properly analyze commanders in chief according to ability and leadership qualities.
The latest book to add to this impressive list is Philip Terzian’s Architects of Power: Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and the American Century. Terzian is the literary editor of The Weekly Standard, and was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in Commentary in 1991 while writing for the Providence Journal-Bulletin. Terzian has produced a scintillating analysis of two political polar opposites, FDR and Dwight D. Eisenhower, and proved both men played critical roles in transforming America into a global superpower. (Full disclosure: I know Terzian, and he has edited my contributions to the Standard.)
On the surface, finding common ground between FDR and Eisenhower would be a daunting task for any writer, even one as talented as Terzian. FDR was “not a notably reflective man, and what self-analysis he may have undertaken in his lifetime he kept to himself.” He was unique in that he was a Democrat “in a predominantly Republican clan,” and “was not a hero-worshipper by instinct and tended to be jealous of contemporaries.” Meanwhile, Eisenhower was a military man who “did not come from a family with a military tradition.” He was a “superior student, with a considerable competitive streak, and a voracious reader.” And as Terzian points out, “just as no one anticipated Franklin Roosevelt’s future in his youth, nobody would have recognized in the young Dwight Eisenhower the historic figure he would become.”
So what was the common thread between these two presidents? Terzian explains: “[B]oth recognized that the course of their lives coincided with their country’s coming-of-age, and both were propelled by a singular ambition to overcome adversity, to excel, and to command. Both succeeded in disguising this ambition, and the cold calculation of professional and personal advantage, behind affable exteriors and oblique personalities.”
This makes sense. FDR understood the importance of political power, and how a strong American economy could aid him in achieving this goal. At the same time, he also realized “principle coincided with power.” Once the British, French, and Dutch empires had expired by the end of World War II, and Nazi Germany had been defeated and “reduced to subordinate status,” there would be “a vacuum to be filled by a bureaucratic empire, sewn together by treaties but administered from Washington.” While the progressive politician disliked the concept of empire, the opportunity to make the United States one was something he couldn’t pass up.
Eisenhower was a powerful Army general when FDR was president, and the creation of an “American Century” obviously appealed to him, too. As president, he spoke of the need for spiritual leadership, or “a power and authority grounded in respect as much as deference.” He supported American policy abandoning its isolationist history, preferring a shift to American exceptionalism. Eisenhower wanted to prove that his country’s political and economic models would greatly benefit the postwar world. And like FDR, he didn’t care for the United Nations – Terzian breaks down this long-standing myth with gusto, showing that each man viewed the UN “as an instrument of American power.”
Long story short, “Architects of Power” is going to rewrite the history books in a dramatic fashion. The old tall tales of FDR as a socialist New Dealer who wanted to tear apart the American fabric, and Eisenhower as a simple-minded army general who barely understood politics, have come to an end. Thanks to Terzian, these men now share a common goal most Americans will admire: the desire to make their country the greatest power the world has ever seen.
Michael Taube is a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. He can be reached at email@example.com.