He Balanced the Budget and Kept the Peace

CHARLES W. CORDDRY

October 22, 1990|By Charles W. Corddry

GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA. — FOR FOUR mid-October days on the campus of Gettysburg College, scholars and old-timers close to him solemnly dissected and appraised the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower -- the former general who balanced budgets and served eight years without losing a life in war.

Celebrating Eisenhower's 100th birthday anniversary, they of course found plenty in the soldier-statesman's record of economy, effective cooperation with Congress and management of the nation's security that should commend itself to the battling politicians in Washington today.

Then in the grand finale last Sunday the plain people piled on to the campus and gave their verdict: They liked Ike, or, as the lapel buttons said in recalling 1950s Republican campaign slogans, ''I Still Like Ike.''.

On this, the plain people and the scholars now agreed. But the Eisenhower Centennial Symposium was never maudlin. The nation's 34th president was criticized adversely as well as favorably; notably, for not doing enough about ending racial segregation and advancing civil rights, and for not stomping on McCarthyism.

There was a time, especially in the 1960s, when historians ranked him near the bottom among ''average'' presidents. Those were the estimates of ''hot shot academics,'' not the general population, said Stephen E. Ambrose, himself an academic who produced a dispassionate two-volume biography of the general and president and concluded that the country was ''damned lucky to have him.''

Nobody here audibly grumbled even when Mr. Ambrose asserted that Eisenhower ''was the best president of the second half of the 20th century.''

Hallmarks of his presidency were his insistence that government should live within its income and that the nation should gear itself for a ''long haul'' competition with the Soviet Union, pursued by political means with the minimum necessary spent on military forces. Soviet power, contained by the West, would decay and eventually pull back.

On the economy issue, ''He would never have allowed himself to get into the budget mess of today,'' said Elmer Staats, who served on Eisenhower's National Security Council staff and later headed the congressional watchdog General Accounting Office.

On the other hand, former President Gerald R. Ford argued that Eisenhower would have taken ''virtually identical'' actions to those taken by President Bush in the Persian Gulf crisis.

For many, although it will remain a matter of controversy, the collapse of communism and the liberation of Eastern Europe were seen as vindicating the Eisenhower emphasis on political, non-military, means for ending the Cold War.

He stood off a potent array of big defense spenders for most of his eight years in the White House, 1953 to 1961. Thereafter, the arms race took off, in what the Kennedy-Johnson administration defense secretary, Robert S. McNamara, was to describe as a superpower action-reaction cycle.

In a provocative paper read here, Nicholas O. Berry, professor of politics at Ursinus College, near Philadelphia, contended that Eisenhower's policies tamed the military competition, but were reversed with the nuclear and conventional-arms expansions after he left office.

Eisenhower's ''New Look'' national-security policies, Mr. Berry contended, ''would have cost less and ended the Cold War sooner'' than the ''militarily-oriented'' policies that he associated with Presidents Harry S Truman, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It is a controversial matter, one to occupy scholars for a good long time and, as well, officials looking for new models for post-Cold War military forces.

Under his New Look policy, Eisenhower put main, but not sole, reliance on air power (missiles came later) and nuclear weapons, drastically reducing the size and missions of the surface Navy and the Army. His aim was a military force that could be afforded, continuously modernized, sustained over the ''long haul'' and that could preclude war.

The policy was essentially revived in President Richard M. Nixon's pursuit of detente, Mr. Berry argued.

''By planning for its horror,'' Mr. Berry said, ''the New Look made general war unthinkable. And, by credibly threatening to use nuclear weapons in conventional regional wars, Eisenhower's policy made these wars no less unthinkable.''

Beyond that, the approach was designed, as Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster described it, to continue the Soviet containment policy originated by George Kennan in the Truman administration and to pursue political and covert actions for breaking Moscow's hold on Eastern Europe. General Goodpaster was Eisenhower's staff secretary and one of Ike's successors as allied commander in Europe.

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