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Eisenhower's Legacy

Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower. Courtesy: Dwight D. Eisenhower Library

Just prior to leading Allied troops in an invasion of North Africa in 1942, General Dwight Eisenhower made an astute observation about the nature of leadership. He wrote, "I firmly determined that my mannerisms and speech in public would always reflect cheerful certainty. Without optimism, victory is scarcely obtainable." Eisenhower would maintain this credo throughout his eight years in the White House. As an embodiment of unity and tranquillity, Ike vigorously maintained an air of optimistic dignity, regardless of the crisis at hand. There were, to be certain, instances when a positive countenance was about all he seemed to be able to offer -- the crises surrounding Little Rock and the U2 incident, for example. But more often than not, the restraint and moderation he exercised was a fitting antidote to the dangerous rhetoric of those early Cold War days.

Eisenhower promoted a stable economy and fought to balance the budget. While he accepted the basic premise of the New Deal, his economic policy followed a moderate course. His two terms produced eight years of growth and relative prosperity. Nearly every indicator of economic health -- GNP, capital investments, personal savings and income -- showed substantial upswings. Additionally, Eisenhower refused to further fuel the economy with politically popular tax cuts.

Critics have contended that Ike was too content to merely administer over the status quo, while pressing social issues, such as civil rights, cried out for attention. They described a scenario of "the bland leading the bland." But by the 1980s new research revealed an active politician behind the calm exterior. Scholars pointed to the success of Eisenhower's "hidden hand" tactics in solving problems quietly, while avoiding the pitfalls of partisan bickering that had stymied many of his predecessors.

In the arena of foreign affairs, Eisenhower was confident. His commanding, yet subdued presence on the world stage resulted in the U.S. being at peace for over seven years. He and the nation emerged from several potential international crises -- Quemoy and Matsu in 1955, Formosa in 1958, Berlin in 1959 -- without so much as losing "a soldier or a foot of ground." On keeping the peace in volatile times, Eisenhower commented, "People asked how it happened -- by God, it didn't just happen, I'll tell you that."

In his January 17, 1961 farewell address to the nation, Eisenhower sounded a cautionary note to his fellow Americans. While taking pride in the prosperity he had helped foster, he made an appeal to reject the lure of materialism and "the impulse to live only for today, plundering, for our own ease and convenience, the precious resources of tomorrow." As he urged the nation to maintain its vigilant stand against communism, which he termed "ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method," he saved his most forceful words to warn against a force already existing within our borders. The military legend issued a stern warning against "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." For years he had battled forces in Congress and within his own administration over increases in defense spending. He preached eloquently about how "every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." And he reserved a special disdain for the arms merchants who took advantage of the Cold War paranoia of the day to increase their profit margins. Eisenhower predicted that unless restraints were placed upon these un-elected factions, "the potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power" would exist.

It would take another decade and a national fissure over the Vietnam War before Eisenhower's words of caution would begin to penetrate the national psyche.

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