Squeezed in between the National Air and Space Museum and the Department of Education building on Independence Avenue, the recently-opened Dwight D. Eisenhower Memorial attempts to place the thirty-fourth president in the same category of national leadership as Washington, Lincoln, and others deemed worthy of monuments in the nation’s capitol. Indeed, the pink limestone of the Eisenhower memorial faintly echoes the red granite of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s own memorial. But where the FDR memorial sits serenely on the Tidal Basin alongside shrines to Thomas Jefferson and Martin Luther King, Jr., the Eisenhower memorial jockeys for space in the crowded urban landscape just to the south of the National Mall.
As the memorial itself makes abundantly clear, Eisenhower earned his own place in American history as much through his service as supreme Allied commander Europe during World War II as his subsequent presidency. Ike was indeed FDR’s most important military commander during the war – though probably not his most indispensable one, an honor that likely goes to Gen. George Marshall – shepherding the single largest and most critical military operation of the war through to its successful completion. Judged on his presidency alone, however, it’s not at all clear that Eisenhower deserves a place in the august company of Lincoln and Roosevelt.
That’s not at all to say Eisenhower was a bad or ineffectual president; far from it. But contrary to the Eisenhower nostalgia that’s periodically surfaced over the decades, his presidency simply cannot be considered great or worthy of commemoration in its own right. Many of the domestic achievements he presided over were indeed substantive and substantial, ranging from the advent of the Interstate Highway System and the expansion of Social Security to the creation of NASA and a willingness to exercise federal authority to enforce civil rights laws. However, Eisenhower must share credit with Congressional Democrats for many of these accomplishments, and in any event they appear limited in comparison to those of both his immediate predecessors and successors.
Eisenhower’s foreign policy often receives higher marks and greater contemporary attention, but his overseas record does not do him as much credit as his latter-day boosters imagine. As the historian David Greenberg and others have noted, Eisenhower’s foreign policy relied far too much on covert action and the threat of nuclear war to be truly sustainable or successful. It ultimately proved far too flawed and brittle, leaving Ike’s successor a plethora of intractable foreign policy problems that ran from a revolutionary Cuba and a divided Berlin to an escalating nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union and steadily increasing American military commitment in Vietnam.
Indeed, it’s Eisenhower’s record on Vietnam that’s responsible for much of his inflated foreign policy reputation today. His ultimate refusal to intervene on behalf of the beleaguered French garrison at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 has come to be seen as a salutary example of the sort of leadership that would have steered America clear of intervention in Southeast Asia altogether. But as the historian Fredrik Logevell argues, Eisenhower’s refusal to rescue the French from their desperate military position in Vietnam had less to do with Ike’s own instinctive caution or a personal reluctance to intervene in Southeast Asia than the British government’s lack of enthusiasm for the venture.
So what explains the persistence of Eisenhower nostalgia? His flawed, though above average presidency can’t justify the recurrent attempts to elevate him to the pantheon of great American political leaders – an impulse now consecrated in bronze and stone. Part of the answer lies in the fact that Eisenhower has come to stand in for a path not taken in American politics, one that carried with it the possibility of a sane and responsible national political party on the center-right. As the actually existing Republican Party drifted further and further to the extreme right with each election, it became tempting to imagine what our national politics might look like if the Republican Party had embraced Ike’s moderate political philosophy rather than repudiated it.
Unlike the rabid right-wing ideologues of his own day, Eisenhower accepted social and economic responsibilities the federal government shouldered during the New Deal and World War II. “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs,” he wrote in a now-famous 1954 letter to his brother Edgar, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history. There is a tiny splinter group, of course, that believes you can do these things… Their number is negligible and they are stupid.” Eisenhower called this political program “Modern Republicanism,” in effect a form of conservatism that sought to preserve and even strengthen recent reforms rather than dismantle or abolish them.
But Ike himself bears significant responsibility for the fact that his own political ideas failed to take hold within his own party. While president, Eisenhower neglected to establish any real political constituency within the Republican Party for his brand of moderate conservatism. When doctrinaire conservatives seized control of the party in 1964 and nominated Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona for president – an ideologue who blasted Eisenhower’s policies as a “dime store New Deal” – Ike put up weak and ineffectual resistance. Nor did Eisenhower provide steady support for moderate alternatives like Governor William Scranton of Pennsylvania, whom Ike had encouraged to enter the race and stymie Goldwater’s bid for the nomination but then refused to publicly back.
In the end, Eisenhower couldn’t be bothered to mount even a perfunctory defense of his own self-proclaimed political principles. Still, it’s hard to imagine that the country wouldn’t have been better off had Ike managed to make Modern Republicanism a going political concern. Perhaps he simply lacked the political acumen necessary to redefine the outlook of an entire party, or perhaps he simply lacked the necessary personal motivation to do so. Either way, the prospects for a sane center-right politics in the United States grew steadily bleak and never recovered.
Ike’s lack of concern with the fate of moderate conservatism stands in stark contrast with his persistent support for American military involvement in Vietnam. As President Lyndon Johnson waded deeper into the conflict from 1965 onward, Eisenhower constantly advised in favor escalation and against withdrawal both in private and in public. He stated that he “had no patience with the people who want to pull out of Vietnam at once,” and counseled that winning the war – not sending astronauts to the Moon or building the Great Society at home – should be the nation’s top priority. By 1968, Eisenhower was promising to launch a speaking tour against any presidential candidate who proposed pulling U.S. troops out of Vietnam.
It’s hard to square Ike the hard-core Vietnam hawk with the quasi-peacenik President Eisenhower that’s trotted out by contemporary progressives whenever there’s a debate over the defense budget. Two speeches Eisenhower delivered as president provide a rationale for painting him as a dove: the “Chance for Peace” speech of April 1953 and Eisenhower’s farewell address in January 1961. The former was given in response to the death of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin the previous month, and remains renowned for Eisenhower’s assertion that every piece of military hardware produced constitutes, “in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
But the text of the speech itself makes clear that Eisenhower considered high levels of defense spending a necessity, not a choice. Soviet policy under Stalin made it so, he contended: the United States and its allies were reacting to a Stalin’s drive to seek security for the Soviet Union at the expense of envy other nation in the world. Indeed, Ike predicated his call for diplomacy on a change in Soviet behavior under its post-Stalin leadership. If defense spending represented a theft from pressing domestic needs, Eisenhower thought it patently justified in the geopolitical context he and the nation faced.
That’s also true of Eisenhower’s most famous presidential peroration, the 1961 farewell address in which he introduced the now-commonplace notion of the military-industrial complex. After his D-Day orders to Allied troops, it’s perhaps Eisenhower’s most well-known public statement. But it’s apparent from the inscription of that address carved into the limestone of Ike’s own memorial that he believed the creation and a maintenance of this new “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” to be absolutely vital. The United States, Eisenhower made plain, had been “compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions.” Both he and the nation as a whole recognized “the imperative need for this development.”
What’s more, Eisenhower’s concerns about the military-industrial complex were part of a broader line of argument that included a warning “that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.” Scientific research had become too complex and too costly, he argued, only able to be effectively organized and properly funded by the federal government. These two examples fit into the broader theme of Ike’s address, “the need to maintain balance” in public policy. Taken in its entirety, Eisenhower’s farewell address reads less like a jeremiad against the evils inherent in the military-industrial complex and more like a relatively concise expression of Ike’s own personal political philosophy.
While Eisenhower’s presidential reputation continues to suffer from inflation and exaggeration, it’s still hard not to feel a modicum of nostalgia when visiting his memorial in the America of 2020. Ike may not have put up much of a fight for his moderate conservative politics when the going got tough, but there’s no denying that the country as a whole would probably have been much better off if he had. Though there’s much to criticize about Eisenhower’s policies at home and abroad, but he deserves greatest censure for his failure to leave behind a lasting political legacy beyond the national prominence of Richard Nixon.
As for the memorial itself, it fits snugly and unobtrusively in a previously empty patch of land across the street from the National Air and Space Museum. Its metallic tapestry of the Normandy coastline glistens at sunset, reminding passersby of Eisenhower’s true legacy.