Mention the '50s these days and the popular image is of the Fonz, Elvis, the Silent Generation and a benign president who presided over national affairs like a laid-back grandfather.
Another current idea is that Ronald Reagan will take us back to those days. But the '50s were a time of the Korean War, Joe McCarthy's Communist witch hunt, racial turmoil in Little Rock and Montgomery and Sherman Adams. Even Reagan might hesitate to take such a leap in time. a
Yesterday, a small group of scholars at the 95th annual meeting of the American Histrocial Association gathered in a cramped, stuffy room in the Sheraton Washington hotel and reflected on Dwight David Eisnehower, the '50s and the military career that produced the 34th president.
The speakers agreed that Eisenhower was a more activist president than he is popularly viewed. But Allen Weinstein, history professor at Smith College, called the Reagan-Eisenhower comparison "inevitable but unfair."
In his role as commentator, he said the nostalgia for Eisenhower has grown recently because the late president is seen as more human now. "He loved and suffered from loving," said Weinstein. But, the historian added, Eisenhower suffered from a "terminal case of indecision" in the alleged romance with Kay Summersby.
Princeton historian Fred I. Greenstein contended that Eisenhower came to the presidency in 1952 with a greater knowledge of government and bureaucracy than he is usually given credit for having, and he got the know-how from a military career rich with command situations and insubordinate relationships with soliders like Pershing, MacArthur, Marshall and Fox Conner.
"He met Gen. Fox Conner in the Canal Zone in 1922," said Greenstein," and the older man had him reading the humanities and Clauswitz. So you come across later letters Eisenhower wrote and out of the blue he discusses Rousseau's 'Discourses.' He wasn't the empty-headed guy Herblock depicted."
However, Robert Griffith, history professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amerhst, argued that Eisenhower had no original thought, that his elections were assured by his close relations with businessmen and that he was a steadfast believer in a privately controlled economy.
Eisenhower, according to Griffith, accepted Lenin's idea that there would be clashes between developed capitalist nations and underdeveloped countries. But he didn't think the confrontations were inevitable, said the scholar. Rather, Eisenhower thought nations did not take on long-term economic goals because pressure groups kep putting priority on short-term, selfish aims for themselves.
"He had contempt for politics and politicians," said Griffith, "and he distrusted popular democracy and the masses. He thought popular opinion was uninformed and transitory."
The four-day meeting, attended by more 4,000 persons, ended yesterday.