Part Two in this superior series follows Ike through his political career, its ups and downs. Both parties tried to recruit him as a presidential candidate before the chose the Republican offer. He had "won" the war in Europe, had a great, all-encompassing grin, and was an avuncular figure unlike bombastic aspirants like MacArthur. He won but his predecessor had no respect for him because of Ike's lack of political experience. "Poor Ike. He comes from the Army and thinks all he has to do is sit down and tell people what to do and it will get done." He wasn't that unsophisticated though.
Ike ruled over the rosy 1950s, a dreamer's holiday in which the middle class prospered, moved to the suburbs, women were happily raising baby boomers at home, we all had a common enemy, and jobs were plentiful.
In Korea, a two-year war was continuing and 50,000 Americans were to die. In Washington, Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin, having heard a loud marching band, ran out and got in front of it, looking for communist spies under every bed. And many future consequences of the overall complacency weren't yet apparent. White flight to the countryside depleted the cities' tax bases and left a vacuum filled by refugees from Europe and the oppressive South. The growth of the population would lead to urban sprawl and engulf the leafy suburbs. The liberation of women and minorities flooded the market with new labor and wages stagnated.
Eisenhower ended the war in Korea, settling for Truman's "containment" doctrine rather than the more aggressive "rollback" policy favored by some. And he dealt with Senator McCarthy effectively. McCarthy had accused the entire United States Army of being "soft on communism" and had made allegations against Ike's mentor and dear friend, General George C. Marshall. Instead of opposing McCarthy publicly, as Truman had done, Ike issued an executive order banning anyone on his staff or in the military from testifying before McCarthy's committee. In a sense, it removed the fuel from an ongoing fire and McCarthy jumped the shark.
Ike had always been aware of the actual cost of warfare -- not just the blood but the treasure as well. He regarded every expensive weapons system as a theft from those who were badly in need of economic help, of food and shelter and other necessities. He mused about how many bushels of what a modern bomber cost, and in the end, one of his last warnings, was against what he called "the military/industrial complex", a warning that was promptly forgotten. Still, he emphasized the development of bigger and better bombs, so that mutual destruction was assured. And he did it because bombs were actually cheap.
During the war, he'd become very much aware of how valuable intelligence was, and how it could be acquired from the enemy. He was fond of this business of secret enterprises overseas and he empowered the Central Intelligence Agency, which could then do pretty much whatever it wanted without direct and dangerous military confrontations. All of it sub rosa. Many didn't approve of the way the legitimately elected government of Iran was managing its oil, so the CIA simply deposed him and put the business-friendly Shah of Iran back on the throne. Again, no one could foresee the consequences. The secrecy didn't always work. An illegal U-2 spy plane was brought down over the USSR leading to Eisenhower's humiliation at a summit with Khrushchev. The CIA, ultimately responsible, lied outrageously about the incident. (The pilot must have suffered oxygen failure and the plane automatically flew over Soviet territory.) Ike handled it clumsily, at first denying it was true then, after the Russians produced indisputable evidence, claiming he didn't know about it, then admitting that he did. It was an important summit for both leaders and it went down in flames.
There was a slight problem in the South too -- desegregation, ordered in 1954 by the Supreme Court. In Arkansas, Governor Faubus Faubus sent the guard home, leaving only the local police in charge. Eisenhower was forced to send in the elite 101st Airborne Division to restore order and ensure the entry of the students. Ike himself was lukewarm about the idea but, like a good soldier, followed the order laid down by the Supreme Court. It all seems so distant and far away now, an almost forgotten part of our history, but it was a sensation at home and abroad at the time. Said one white resident, "I think they'll get into the school but I don't know how long they'll live after they get in."
Another contretemps occurred in 1957. Russia, whom we regarded as technologically primitive, launched the first earth satellite called "Sputnik." Another humiliation, leading to the space race. If they could send up a peeping basketball, why not a nuclear-armed missile. I was a radio operator in the U. S. Coast Guard at the time and was assigned the task of copying Sputnik's radio signals. All it did was go "beep . . beep . . beep" for the entire eight hours of my watch. However, it was a kick in the pants and gave us National Defense scholarships in the languages of Russia and China and in technology.
He died a few years after his retirement, not too well thought of. The White House had been called The Tomb of the Known Soldier. He'd been replaced by a more glamorous and youthful figure. Yet he's surely underrated, even considering his occasional misjudgments in office. After all, he did guide the country through eight years of prosperity and avoided war. I visited his home in Abilene. It's remarkable for its being so unpretentious, a small farm house with plainly furnished, smallish rooms and a piano. You need brains, talent, ambition, and luck to come from that home to the White House.
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