Eisenhower: The White House Years by Jim Newton

Newly discovered and declassified documents make for a surprising and revealing portrait of the president we thought we knew.”

I’ll admit I didn’t know much about President Eisenhower other than when he was in office for most of the 1950’s, America prospered. Every other biography of Ike concentrated on his skill as a General during World War II. I’m not into military history; I wanted to know more about his time as president. Eisenhower: The White House Years by Jim Newton (Amazon) was just what I was looking for.

“America’s thirty-fourth president was belittled by his critics as the babysitter-in-chief. This new look reveals how wrong they were. Dwight Eisenhower was bequeathed the atomic bomb and refused to use it. He ground down Joseph McCarthy and McCarthyism until both became, as he said, “McCarthywasm.” He stimulated the economy to lift it from recession, built an interstate highway system, turned an $8 billion deficit in 1953 into a $500 million surplus in 1960. (Ike was the last President until Bill Clinton to leave his country in the black.)”

The President Eisenhower of popular imagination is a benign figure, armed with a puttera winning smile, and little else. The Eisenhower of veteran journalist Jim Newton’s rendering is shrewd, sentimental, and tempestuous. He mourned the death of his first son and doted on his grandchildren but could, one aide recalled, “peel the varnish off a desk” with his temper. Mocked asshallow and inarticulate, he was in fact a meticulous manager. Admired as a general, he was a champion of peace. In Korea and Vietnam, in Quemoy and Berlin, his generals urged him to wage nuclear war. Time and again he considered the idea and rejected it. And it was Eisenhower who appointed the liberal justices Earl Warren and William Brennan and who then called in the military to enforce desegregation in the schools.”

This is not a full-fledged biography of Eisenhower. However, Newton does cover Ike’s early life to including the roots of his family, boyhood, and rise up through the ranks of the Army are covered. That information is certainly not as in-depth in coverage as many other biographies, but it’s enough to get a basic feeling for who Eisenhower was as a man before he was thrust into the presidency.

Most of the biographies of Eisenhower I’ve read concentrated on WWII and didn’t pay much attention to his two-term presidency. Going in, my knowledge of Ike’s presidency consisted of a few things: he’s the one that authorized the interstate highway program as cold war defense system (interstates meant cities could be evacuated more quickly in the event of an atomic or nuclear attack). I also had read quite a bit about the civil rights battle at Little Rock, the United States U2 spy plane being shot down, the planning of the Bay of Pigs invasion that I’d read much about when reading about his successor, John F. Kennedy. I knew that Eisenhower loved to golf, and that he’d had a heart attack while in office and that Camp David was named for his grandson. That’s more than I know about some presidents, but not enough to satisfy my curiousity.

For those of us not living when Eisenhower was president, it’s always seemed like he breezed through his two-term presidency without any major cold war struggles, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. There’s also a myth that Eisenhower did nothing about Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist witch hunt. Also untrue. It is true that Eisenhower lacked credentials in the civil rights battle, but did finally step up to start desegregating the southern schools after Brown vs. Board of Education was passed into law.

What I learned from this book was that Eisenhower always looked for a compromise that satisfied both sides of the issue. He was a Republican who could work with Democrats, something we don’t often see today. The story of his campaign to capture the presidency is an excellent study. Eisenhower was an extremely popular president and was so even after he left office. I learned a lot from this book and highly recommend it if you want to know more about Ike the President, but as stated, this is not a complete biography. For more of Eisenhower’s military history, try Stephen Ambrose’s Eisenhower: Soldier and President (Amazon).

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