John F. Kennedy’s tenure as president is sometimes referred to as the age of Camelot, but I think that many of us with a more conservative or Judeo-Christian viewpoint view the 50s as being more deserving of that title.
I think that view is often incorrect, although understandable. I recently wanted to learn more about the presidency of Dwight Eisenhower as well as the 50s. I had read a short biography of Eisenhower that covered his childhood, and his development into becoming one of the top generals of World War II. That book then covered his presidency at a breakneck speed that told me almost nothing.
So the book entitled “The Age of Eisenhower” America and the World in the 1950s” by William Hitchcock was exactly what I was looking for. I wanted to learn more about Eisenhower and about the 50s. It seems we hear so much about the 40s and the 60s that we don’t hear much about the decade in between. And it seems we know so much about General Eisenhower but not much about President Eisenhower. And yet, as Hitchcock notes, a recent survey of historians has listed Eisenhower as the fifth best president. He’s only behind Washington, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Teddy Roosevelt. I personally think the historians’ rankings of presidents are mostly bogus, but I do have to admit that ranking as No. 5 is very impressive.
First, I want to note a few things about the era. The book is not just about Eisenhower, but the era of his presidency. I tended to think about the 1950s as a more “moral” and idyllic period; a time in which Americans were glad the war was over and were happy to get to work, make babies (within wedlock, of course), and watch wholesome black-and-white TV shows during their spare time. After all, it wasn’t until the 60s when the Hippies emerged, the sexual revolution kicked off, and the assassination of JFK, RFK, and MLK, Jr.
To a certain extent, this is true. Church membership was growing, the sexual revolution was not in full force, and the phrase “In God We Trust” was placed on American currency. (Eisenhower made the focus and trust in God a major priority during his presidency.)
And yet, there was tremendous civil unrest, segregationists threatened violence and abandonment of the public school system, and there was tremendous fear of a nuclear attack by the Soviet Union. There were incredible, pervasive fears that we do not have now.
If this was the age of Camelot, it was a Camelot in which winter came before December, rain fell before sundown, and … segregationists were not always very congenial.
It was an important time to be led by the steady hand of one of the greatest generals of all time, and a man who was recognized as Gallup’s most admired man of the year 12 times, more than any other man in history.
And yet, Eisenhower was a paradox in many ways. Either that, or he was a man who chose moderation and restraint and understood he often walked a tightrope.
Eisenhower initially despised the concept of becoming a politician, and yet when he was ready to run for president he was quite ready to criticize Democrats and the growing welfare state.
A Republican, he complained about the growth of government and warned of the New Deal and people’s dependence on the government. And yet, he grew several government programs, including Social Security.
He allowed the CIA to become deeply involved in the governments of Iran and Guatemala, and yet he warned England and Israel to avoid invading Israel during the Suez Crisis.
He was constantly afraid of the Soviet Union gaining control of poorer, developing countries. And yet he didn’t respond quickly enough to Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba.
He said there were to be no second citizens in the United States, he spoke positively of the Civil Rights movement and was thanked by Martin Luther King, Jr. for his work. Yet he was at times criticized by other Civil Rights activists for supposedly not being aggressive enough.
He grew the military greatly, yet at the end of his presidency warned against the “Military Industrial Complex.”
In many of these cases, I believe he was walking on a tightrope. For example, regarding Civil Rights, he probably realized that if he took too much of an aggressive approach at the time that the Southern segregationists would induce riots or rebel against the public school system.
Regarding the overthrow of the government in Iran, I believe some of his decision was understandable. History in that case is somehow muddied by political sentiment. (For example, see this National Review article.) Losing Iran to the Soviet Union could have started a chain reaction, and Eisenhower was afraid of losing about 60 percent of the oil’s reserves to the Soviet Union.
The overthrow of the government in Guatemala is less understandable. However, it’s hard to stand in judgement today of these political decisions today when we probably don’t comprehend the full story. It’s also important for us to try to view the world through the prism of this time. Shortly a decade earlier, many countries had been shortsighted in allowing Hitler’s rise to power. They now faced potentially a much larger threat with the Soviet Union, a country just as evil as Hitler’s Germany, and a country with nuclear weapons. It’s easy to criticize the involvement and overthrow of government of smaller countries today. But it’s also easy to criticize the appeasement of a dictator who grew to prominence quickly due to appeasement and lack of action. And it’s important to remember that communism has led to the brutal deaths of millions. And Americans legitimately feared a nuclear strike at the time.
Which brings me back to my original thought regarding the ranking of presidents because often a bogus exercise. Presidents who bring their countries through difficult times often are given a lot of credit. And they should receive the credit, because they no doubt had to deal with incredibly difficult circumstances. Lincoln’s spot at the top is well deserved, for example. (I do confess to not considering FDR’s spot to be as well deserved, being more in line with Eisenhower’s philosophy of government’s than that of FDR.)
But shouldn’t presidents who avoid conflict and work through difficult situations be give more credit? This is where it’s often impossible to really offer credit for that. We can’t count the number of people’s lives who were saved by leaders who avoided conflict. A lesser leader may have resulted in the loss of lives. Who knows how many lives were saved by men such as Eisenhower, JFK, and Reagan by avoiding conflict or by having successfully negotiated with dictators.
Eisenhower may have seemed like a paradox at times, but Americans seemed to like the “moderate” way in which he operated. He enjoyed one of the highest approval ratings as president, including a 50% approval rating by Democrats. This is part of the reason the 50s seem like such a long time ago. Imagine this: Democrats criticized Eisenhower for not cutting taxes, and Eisenhower refused to cut taxes. Democrat John F. Kennedy criticized Eisenhower for not being tough enough against communism, and both political parties tried hard to outmatch each other in their stance as anti-communists.
Despite some foreign policy setbacks, such as the rise of communism in Cuba, many things went right during his presidency. Obviously, there was no nuclear strike. Hitchcock mentions several of the 34th president’s successes in the biography, including: preventing war in Egypt and Lebanon, building up America’s defenses to deter attacks from foreign governments, keeping West Berlin free, starting the space satellite program, and building strong alliances. Domestically, Americans’ average wages increased by 15 percent, inflation remained low, unemployment stayed low while safety net programs grew, the federal budget was under control, buildings and mortgages grew at record paces, and the middle class was growing.
Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who served under Kennedy during his presidency, noted that despite the campaign rhetoric of 1960, Kennedy’s administration conducted itself in many ways similar to how Eisenhower’s administration did. These areas include the space program, Civil Rights, and the fight against communism in the Cold War. After the botched Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba, Kennedy consulted with Eisenhower.
If Kennedy’s assassination truly was the end of Camelot, then perhaps Camelot was merely a continuation of Eisenhower’s tenure. The period of the 1950s may not have been as an exciting time as the 1960s, but it was a pivotal period in America’s history. And maybe we should pay more attention — or at least as much attention — to Eisenhower than JFK and Lyndon Johnson.