Eisenhower in Perspective

By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence

The end of year break gave me a chance to catch up on reading, starting with “The Age of Eisenhower” a biography of the 34th president , Dwight Eisenhower, by William I. Hitchcock. Ike’s story is truly remarkable and Hitchcock tells it well. Yet, nothing in it is more meaningful that his farewell address. It encapsulated the wisdom that he drew from his times and is critical reading for our times as well.


Eisenhower had the burden of managing the myriad tasks of training men, moving them and their supplies across an ocean and then leading the military campaign to retake Europe from the Nazis. This experience gave him the perspective needed to evaluate every aspect of the problem before him. As witness to what he called “the horror and the lingering sadness of war,” Eisenhower had the wisdom needed to understand and implement a global strategy like no one before him and, sadly, no one since.


Much of the wisdom that he gained as Supreme Allied Commander, as the first Commander of NATO, and as Commander in Chief is laid out in his farewell address. Unfortunately, that speech is remembered primarily for a largely misunderstood warning about the military-industrial complex. The more important section of the speech follows that warning and then focuses on what “Ike” saw as the real danger.


In speaking of a “military-industrial complex,” many assumed that Eisenhower foresaw a conspiracy aimed at replacing our democratic institutions. That was not the case at all. A close reading of his farewell address puts his warning in the context of building a defense-industrial base to provide the material needed to defeat Germany and Japan:


“…We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions… In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”


Eisenhower fully understood that generals want substantial armies and defense companies want to sell weapons to those generals. He also knew that, for military officers, advancement in rank hinged on performance in combat. He worried that the availability of a large well supplied military force could lead to the promiscuous use of force.


Eisenhower believed that military force should be used as a last resort, and not as what he called the “miraculous solution” to every challenge. He never said “Vietnam” but reading this address now, I can’t help but think about what followed in subsequent decades:


"Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties… Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration… Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose.”


This farewell address reflected Eisenhower’s record in office. Upon taking office Eisenhower ended the Korean War, even though the situation on the ground was a stalemate. His biographers said he reasoned that this war was not worth the cost. President Harry Truman had ordered troops to Korea because he was concerned that the failure to act would embolden the Soviets and Chinese. Eisenhower understood that our NATO commitment to protect Western Europe from the Soviet threat would be eroded by a war of attrition in Asia. He reasoned, I believe correctly, that positioning U.S. troops in Europe would ensure U.S. credibility where it was most needed.


Eisenhower also blocked British-French-Israeli operations during the Suez crisis. In 1958, he did respond to a request for support from the President of Lebanon but he did so with a clear goal – to stabilize the country through an election. He withdrew U.S. forces once that goal was achieved. He had the foresight to see Indochina as the last throws of France’s failed colonial ambition. He refused a request from Charles De Gaulle to support the French efforts there. This record stands in sharp contrast to the acts of presidents who were sucked into Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.


Of course he also understood the dangers of a small military, which many believe tempted the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor. To achieve balance, Eisenhower sought to bolster a moderate military force with a network of global alliances, starting with NATO and then with Southeast Asia Treat Organization (SEATO). It was not the Democrats who created the post-war alliance system. Rather it was a fairly conservative Republican whose goal was to have allies shoulder the burden of war.


Eisenhower’s vision might have worked under Eisenhower but those who came after assumed that an Army geared to fight a mechanized war on the European plain could handle the mud and muck of Vietnam. Or that, once pacified, no army of outside experts could succeed in nation building amid the tribal anarchy that is Afghanistan.


Eisenhower’s average approval rating, according to the Gallop Organization, was better than 60 percent. Yet, he was despised by the elitist left and anti-communist right. The left mocked his lack of polish. The far-right John Birch Society argued that Eisenhower was a communist agent for his refusing to push through Germany and take on the Soviets. They even published a book alleging that Eisenhower maneuvered to give Berlin to the Russians. Eisenhower did refuse to take Berlin, but not because he wanted the Russians to have it. Rather, he did not view that objective as worth tens of thousands of dead American soldiers.


Eisenhower was not viewed as a notable president when he left office. Yet, seven decades later, I contend that he should be considered one of the greatest who held that office. His farewell address should be required reading for anyone else who assumes the office. Richard Holwill Wilson, Wyoming January 15, 2022

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