A lengthy, well-documented argument that “the era from the end of the Second World War up to the presidency of John F. Kennedy deserves to be known as the Age of Eisenhower.”
Throughout his presidency (1953-1961), most commentators considered Dwight Eisenhower “a lightweight, an amateur, an orthodox pro-business do-nothing president, a lazy leader who, despite all his grinning, was often callous and distant, more interested in golf than governing.” In the decades since, his reputation has risen spectacularly, and this measured, mostly admiring biography by Hitchcock (History/Univ. of Virginia; The Bitter Road to Freedom: A New History of the Liberation of Europe, 2008) does not rock the boat. In his campaign promises, Eisenhower expressed the importance of ending the Korean War, battling communism, and balancing the budget. He accomplished all three, but the details are often unsettling. He considered using atomic weapons to break the Korean stalemate. Luckily, Stalin died in the spring of 1953, and his successors felt the war was a distraction. Eisenhower despised Joseph McCarthy, but once the senator self-destructed, the administration embraced his red-hunting agenda. The last Republican to give balancing the budget priority, Eisenhower succeeded three times and barely missed five times. Modestly opposed to discrimination, he enforced desegregation in the District of Columbia and armed forces. However, unnerved by Southern outrage when the Supreme Court ended school segregation, he confined himself to platitudes on law and order and discouraged Attorney General Herbert Brownell from enforcing it. Hitchcock praises Eisenhower for avoiding nuclear war when many colleagues yearned to get on with it, but he criticizes his enthusiasm for covert operations which, even when successful, proved calamitous. An internationalist who expanded many of Franklin Roosevelt’s social programs, he never won over traditional conservatives in the party. “Modern Republicanism” peaked with Eisenhower, marked time with Nixon and Ford, crashed with Reagan, and never recovered.
Despite plenty of warts, Hitchcock’s Eisenhower was a hardworking, skillful president. Jean Edward Smith’s Eisenhower in War and Peace (2012) remains the best modern biography, but Hitchcock’s is a worthy competitor.