Eisenhower's Century

October 14, 1990

Dwight David Eisenhower was born 100 years ago today. Ike, as he was affectionately known -- General Eisenhower as he preferred to be known -- is the only modern president who came to the White House already widely popular and with a reputation for greatness. He will be an important figure to future students of the 20th century as much for leading the Allies to victory in Europe in World War II as for his presidency.

This is not to belittle his presidency, which is looking better and better. One reason is that the 1950s were a relative Eden compared to the turbulent decades since. "Many terrible things that could have happened didn't," one biographer has said. "No wars, no riots, no inflation, just peace and prosperity," is the way another biographer put it. Americans today yearn for such tranquillity and a president who can provide it.

Some critics of President Eisenhower have claimed that what good occurred in his tenure in office came about despite him. He supposedly was an aloof chairman of the board. That's not the way it was. An exasperated Ike himself once said, "We kept the peace. People asked how it happened. By God, it didn't just happen! I'll tell you that."

Historians who concentrate on the American presidency are learning more about this every day. That is another reason for Ike's improving reputation. As Ike's papers and those of his aides became available in the 1970s and 1980s, the image of a relaxed Eisenhower with a lazy hand on the tiller has been shattered. He was deeply involved and in charge on all important decisions of the day.

Shortly after Eisenhower left office in 1961, a poll of experts rated him 22nd on the list of presidents. In the 1980s, three polls rated him successively 12th, 9th and 11th. Most of the professors in these polls were for or had studied under supporters of Adlai Stevenson, whom Ike defeated in 1952 and 1956. The next generation of eggheads should rate Eisenhower the president even higher.

Preventing "terrible things" is a positive accomplishment. It is important that Eisenhower didn't plunge the nation into Vietnam. It is important that he didn't plunge the nation into debt. He nearly balanced the budget every year but one and had a surplus three times. He ended the Korean War. He slowed the arms race. He sought and won the first civil rights laws since Reconstruction. He launched the interstate highway system.

He did all this with a dignity, integrity and honesty that not all his successors have always displayed. He was no god, no saint. He had shortcomings and failures. But Dwight Eisenhower left his nation better than he found it. Of how many modern presidents can that be said?

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