“For inspiration and guidance, I often look towards America’s great military leaders. Some of the best observations on war and diplomacy come from the president who was also one of our most decorated generals, Dwight Eisenhower.”
“Unlike Eisenhower and earlier generations, we often don’t think before we act. I think many in Washington do things in our foreign policy to accomplish short-term goals but that ultimately hurt our national interests.”
“We have trouble telling friend from foe in Afghanistan. Syria is a thousand-fold more chaotic. Even our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, warns that it is becoming increasingly difficult to tell friend from foe in Syria. Would Eisenhower, who believed small wars could lead to big wars, buy into such nonsense?”
“President Eisenhower said: ‘I have one yardstick by which I test every major problem — and that yardstick is: Is it good for America?’”
“We must be more prudent in our foreign policy. Eisenhower was right to observe that little wars can often lead to big wars.”
— Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), in a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Convention, July 22, 2013
It is important to learn the lessons of history. But what if the history you know is not really the history that happened?
We wondered about this as we read Sen. Rand Paul’s speech this week to the Veterans of Foreign Wars. As shown in the quotes above, Paul repeatedly referenced Dwight D. Eisenhower, the 34th president, as a model for Paul’s argument for a foreign policy that drastically cuts foreign aid and minimalizes overseas entanglements.
Interestingly, President Obama apparently views his fellow golf-loving predecessor as a model, too, especially for his “hidden hand” approach to governing.
We have previously examined Paul’s misstatements on foreign aid, which he repeated in this speech. And while his claim in the speech that in Benghazi, Libya, the late Ambassador Christopher Stevens “pleaded for more security before the attacks and the secretary of state ignored his pleas” is certainly worthy of Pinocchios, both The Fact Checker and PolitiFact have dealt with similar claims in the past.
So let’s examine Paul’s suggestion that Eisenhower is a reflection of his foreign policy views.
Eisenhower, who was president from 1953 to 1961, was of course no stranger to military conflict. He served as supreme Allied commander for the invasion of Normandy during World War II.
As a military man, Eisenhower had no particular political leanings, but he ultimately declared himself as a Republican before the 1952 election. His main rival — up until the GOP convention — was Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, known as “Mr. Republican.” Taft, in fact, in many ways would appear to be more of a model for Paul. Taft was a strict non-interventionist who opposed any involvement in World War II until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a skeptic of NATO and opposed sending U.S. soldiers to conflicts in Asia.
Some historians believe Eisenhower was motivated to become a Republican partly to thwart Taft’s foreign policy views from dominating the GOP; certainly Republicans who disliked Taft’s foreign policy views worked hard for Eisenhower. A sympathetic review of Taft’s foreign policy, “The Republican Road Not Taken,” by Colgate University Professor Michael T. Hayes, argues that “Eisenhower embraced and continued these internationalist Democratic policies [of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman] during his two terms in office.”
Hayes goes on to argue:
[Taft’s] critique of internationalism deserved to be taken seriously and was vindicated subsequently on many points. Taft criticized the Roosevelt/Truman approach to postwar international organization, correctly pointing to features of the United Nations that would prevent its serving as a real force for peace and equality under the law. He also challenged the Truman administration’s assessment of the Soviet military threat against western Europe, a threat that now appears to have been overstated consciously and deliberately to secure congressional support for the Marshall Plan, universal military training and an expanded air force. ...Taft was prescient in warning that even well-meaning internationalism would necessarily degenerate over time into a form of imperialism that would breed resentment against the United States around the globe, eventually endangering U.S. national security.
Meanwhile, as president, Eisenhower went in a different direction. He is famous for promoting robust use of covert actions by the Central Intelligence Agency, such as helping to overthrow the governments of Iran and Guatemala. As the Miller Center of the University of Virginia puts it in its useful history of U.S. presidents:
He relied frequently on covert action to avoid having to take public responsibility for controversial interventions. He believed that the CIA, created in 1947, was an effective instrument to counter Communist expansion and to assist friendly governments. CIA tactics were sometimes unsavory, as they included bribes, subversion, and even assassination. But Eisenhower authorized those actions, even as he maintained plausible deniability, that is, carefully concealing all evidence of U.S. involvement so that he could deny any responsibility for what had happened.
Eisenhower also largely bankrolled the French war in Vietnam against rebel leader Ho Chi Minh; when that effort failed, he engaged in nation-building and helped establish South Vietnam. As the Miller Center dryly notes: “Eisenhower considered the creation of South Vietnam a significant Cold War success, yet his decision to commit U.S. prestige and power in South Vietnam created long-term dangers that his successors would have to confront.”
Okay, but what about foreign aid? Here again, Rand has it totally backwards.
In a study of Eisenhower’s foreign aid policies, American University Professor Jordan Tama wrote: “Foreign aid was central to Eisenhower’s grand strategy, and he considered it to be a top presidential priority.”
As Tama documents, Eisenhower, while a fiscal conservative who sought to cut overall government spending, battled Congress repeatedly to boost foreign aid because he believed it was less expensive in the long run. Initially, Eisenhower focused on military and budgetary support for other nations, but in his second term, he pushed for large increases in economic development aid.
“Eisenhower believed that the United States could get more bang for its buck in the effort to contain communism by helping to boost the capacity of other countries than by using the money for any other purpose,” Tama wrote.
Eisenhower continued to push for increased foreign aid, even during the 1958 recession, in part by reminding Americans that foreign aid actually created jobs in the United States because most of the money was spent on U.S. goods and services.
He also announced what became known as the “Eisenhower Doctrine,” which the State Department describes thusly: “A country could request American economic assistance and/or aid from U.S. military forces if it was being threatened by armed aggression from another state.” This policy was formed in direct response to turmoil in the Middle East — where Paul wants U.S. involvement cut to a minimum — and Eisenhower sent troops to Lebanon in response to a request from that country’s president.
We asked Tama what Eisenhower would think of Paul’s foreign policy views, and here’s how he responded:
Eisenhower would disagree vehemently with Paul on foreign aid. As president, Eisenhower often told members of Congress that if budget cuts needed to be made, cuts in any other category of spending would be wiser than cuts to foreign aid. Eisenhower favored substantial aid both to allies and to nonaligned countries in the Cold War. He would see aid to Pakistan and Egypt as a way to bolster America’s standing in those countries and make it more likely that they would side with the United States on important issues in the future.
Eisenhower also would probably support aiding the Syrian rebels. As president, he ordered covert actions in support of the overthrow of unfriendly governments in Iran and Guatemala, provided military aid to the French in Vietnam, and deployed peacekeeping troops to Lebanon to bolster a pro-Western government. He would want to avoid deploying U.S. troops on the ground in Syria, but would probably support covert or military aid to the rebels to help them defeat a government that he would consider to be a strategic adversary of the United States.
Moira Bagley, Paul’s communications director, said in response: “There are droves of biographers of Eisenhower, with hundreds of opinions as to how Eisenhower might respond to current events. Eisenhower presided over eight years of the Cold War without involving the U.S. in a major conflict; Sen. Paul admires much of Eisenhower’s realist approach to foreign policy.”
The Pinocchio Test
Paul needs to find a new model for “inspiration and guidance.” We suggest he consult a biography of Taft.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker