Historian Fred Greenstein comments on the Civil Rights issue during Eisenhower's presidency and Eisenhower's plan during World War II.
What I would say about Eisenhower and civil rights really is at two levels. One is that he's a conservative who believes in evolutionary change and not revolutionary change. So his impulse to begin with wasn't to state a moral position about civil rights. Secondly, when he does have to state such a position, his impulse is to be more an exhorter rather than someone who engages in substantive arguments. He was able to handle that very impressively at the actual point of Little Rock when he had understood the symbolism of the Presidency enough to go from Newport to the White House to say that he was speaking from the house of Lincoln. But that was really late. He'd allowed the situation to go downhill. With civil rights I think the problem is less that his sort of general inspirational style wasn't suited than that he was after all a "go slow" conservative on domestic social change. He didn't have the theme to advance. He wasn't really thinking about what many of us I think would now say, after the fact, which is that genuine substantive leadership was needed.
Eisenhower reports to Marshall, General Marshall as the Chief of Staff says, how would you approach the problems of World War II? Eisenhower says give me a few hours and give me a typewriter. He returns with a very brief, highly analytic presentation which cuts to the bone. Essentially what he's sensed is that the main show is in Europe, but it's important for the United States to make a move immediately in the Pacific area where the Japanese have attacked. Secondly he realizes that the Philippines are going to fall, but he immediately says, we can't be forgiven if we seem to ignore the Philippines. So he really almost instinctively produces a combined military, political judgement. And Marshall obviously recognized this as precisely the kind of judgement that he wanted in a leader. And within six months MacArthur has moved him up and he's on his way to Europe, as Supreme Commander.
My American Experience
Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it FDR? Reagan? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United Sates through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?