Earlier this fall, the second volume of Stephen Ambrose's biography of Dwight Eisenhower was published. Most of the reviewers praised not only the book but Ike himself -- enlisting one by one in the Great Eisenhower Reappraisal Movement. This, they said, was a good book about a great president. They are, at best, half right.
Whatever the virtues of "Eisenhower -- The President," one of them has to be that it says as much about us and our times as it does about Ike and his. Only in the era of Ronald Reagan could a president who hardly cared about either civil rights or civil liberties be promoted to five-star greatness. The '50s are back. Take cover!
If anything, Ambrose makes a compelling case for the old assessment of Eisenhower. He was a mediocre president, lacking either imagination or skepticism. He totally bought the domino theory propounded by his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, and was as caught up in the anti-communist hysteria of his day as your basic Legionnaire.
All that, though, is almost nothing compared with Eisenhower's record on civil rights and civil liberties. Although he personally despised Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his methods, he said almost nothing critical about him publicly -- and even then his statements were so elliptical he would have been better off keeping his mouth shut. Ike could stand tall as a soldier, but when it came to the bullying McCarthy, he had no backbone at all.
Similarly, President Eisenhower was a great disappointment when it came to civil rights. He just didn't have it in him to support the Supreme Court's school desegregation decision, maybe because he was, at heart, unsympathetic to it. Before naming Earl Warren to the court, he told him to go easy on the South: "All they are concerned about is to see that their sweet little girls are not required to sit in school alongside some big, overgrown Negroes." If this is greatness, then George Wallace had it in abundance.
A president who showed no leadership at all on the two great domestic issues of his time -- McCarthyism and school desegregation -- and who, furthermore, planted the seeds of the Vietnam War by encouraging the South Vietnamese to repudiate a Geneva agreement (it called for free elections), hardly merits having his face on Mount Rushmore. Yet there, or its approximation, is where Ambrose and others would place him.
This is the 1950s all over again. President Reagan may have a picture of Calvin Coolidge on his desk, but it is Eisenhower he most resembles. He has Ike's charm, his "buoyant optimism" (Ike's self-characterization) and his winning personality. Like Ike, he wants to do good -- disarmament, for instance -- but hasn't the foggiest notion of how to begin, and he prefers the bold, if fanciful, to the tedious and prosaic. Ike had his "Open Skies" plan; Reagan has his "Star Wars." The world had -- and has -- its arms race.
There's more. Ike had the CIA topple the leftist government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzman in Guatemala, establishing a repressive military dictatorship that lasts to this day. Reagan will have to make do with the smaller Nicaragua, but he too will show some small Latin American country whose hemisphere this is.
But it is mostly in the areas of civil rights, civil liberties and poverty that we are as a nation reliving the 1950s. Civil rights are being played down, and, if anything, hostility toward blacks is palpable. As for the poor, they are once again off the screen. Nobody much cares about them -- very much like the 1950s -- and even those who do, such as the Roman Catholic bishops, are denounced as "socialists" by the presidential padre, Jerry Falwell. It was only after Ike left the White House that millions of Americans were found to be living in misery -- and the war on poverty was launched.
History is too ornery to repeat itself precisely. Having discovered poverty in the 1960s, we can't ignore it entirely now. The same holds for civil rights. But to the extent possible, we have plunged back into the 1950s, rediscovering and embracing that decade's values. That, and certainly not his record, accounts for the reappraisal of Eisenhower and the move to bestow greatness on him. Ike is regarded the same today as he was in the 1950s. And, alas, so are we.