Eisenhower managed WW2, led an Ivy League University, became a beloved President, oversaw the rise of the American hegemony; all while carrying on an affair. Most historians rank him as one of the top 15 Presidents of all time, but the question remains: Is he Underrated, Overrated, or Properly Rated?
David Dwight Eisenhower was born in Texas to pacifist Jehovah Witnesses, but grew up in Abilene, Kansas. Abilene is one of those towns that got its first paved street four years before WW1. I’d imagine today they have numerous DVD stores. His family was poor and his college prospects looked grim, but he was lucky enough to be represented by one of a handful of Senators who gave appointments to Military Schools on merit, not political connections. For basically every other state but Kansas, admission to the US Military schools operated like a aristocracy. At nineteen he forged his birth certificate and got an appointment to West Point.
Time at WestPoint
Eisenhower was an average student, totally laudable. He graduated 61/164, which is less impressive when you realize West Point wasn’t what it is today. “How long are we going to continue preparing for the War of 1812?” General MacArthur asked when he assumed control of the school in 1919. What’s strange about Eisenhower’s college experience is how much of it seemingly revolved around sports. Nearly every biography makes a passing reference to his love for football and baseball. The thing is, he was terrible at them. He was one of those average players who made up for their athletic limitations with grit and intelligence. He couldn’t even make the Varsity team. Basically, the media’s perception of every white WR in NFL history.
Today, books by politicians are essentially 250 page-marketing campaigns. There’s really little of actual substance. They are just pages of pages of homespun tales vetted by publicists about their America. If the writer is Republican they use a title like Unintimidated or No Apology, which last I checked were previously reserved for movies staring Sylvester Stallone. If the writer is a Democrat they’ll use titles ripped from the self-help aisle like Know Your Power and The Audacity of Hope. For his first publication Ike went with A Guide to the American Battle Fields in Europe—and then wrote 282 pages on the specific battle strategies used by the American military in WW1.
I’m somewhat tempted to argue that Eisenhower’s work in WW2 was overrated. As a strategist, he was, well. He left a lot to be desired. His first major battle as Supreme Commander featured a fresh American force against a tired and outnumbered German army. If you fast-forwarded to the end of the battle you’d see that Edwin Rommel absolutely routed the Americans at Kasserine Pass. It was a disaster that saw five times as many Americans killed as Germans. You would get none of this if you read Eisenhower’s official memo. According to Ike, the “sands were running out” for Rommel, “and the turn of the tide at KASSERINE proved actually to be the turn of the tide in all of TUNISIA as well.” From a public relations standpoint he managed to make a disaster seem like a gentle learning experience. He was great at PR.
Eisenhower got the job after being promoted ahead of 345 other Generals. I’m sure a lot of people scratched their heads, but just like being President, running a war between dozens of countries isn’t about having the best strategy, it’s about being able to lead. It’s about coordinating logistics and creating a structure that empowers your subordinates. It’s about meeting with the Allied Forces’ top Generals after an embarrassing rout and convincing them things are going to be okay. The degree of difficulty here was astounding. If British intelligence, American steel, and Russian blood won the war, Ike made sure it happened.
Verdict: SLIGHTLY UNDERRATED
Interstate Highway System
This is an initiative that people bring up to make it seem that at one time the Republicans party was completely rational. The truth is, in order to get his party on board he had to mask it in the idea of military readiness, not of economic necessity. Eisenhower knew first hand why this was needed. In 1919 he joined an Army convey that drove from Washington DC to San Francisco. It took over 60 days, they averaged under twenty five miles an hour, people were so bored 1/30 of the population saw the convey and 7 people died during the journey. I only made one of those up.
When it was passed, Ike’s Interstate highway legislation accomplished four things: connected the country, created millions of jobs, gave a massive subsidiary to the interstate trucking industry and destroyed the rail industry. The historical economic good and relief of not having to ford rivers when driving from Nebraska to Arizona probably outweighs the fact that the system hasn’t been updated and it takes about 90 minutes to drive 25 miles in San Francisco traffic.
Verdict: PROPERLY RATED
Ability to have affairs
Eisenhower lived with Kay Summersby during WW2. They wrote love letters. His wife stayed in America. People still pretend they didn’t have sex.
Somewhere Bill Clinton is shaking his head in envy.
Verdict: VASTLY UNDERRATED
Eisenhower’s Presidential detour was overrated when it happened, and now it seems underrated in hindsight. After leading the Allies to victory in WW2, Eisenhower was basically given the keys to every nation on earth. France gave him the Legion of Honor. The Soviets gave him an Order of Victory. His Democratic predecessor told him he’d bow out and support him if he wanted to run. He considered all of his options and decided to run a University and proceeded to piss off the Tea Party of his day, the Red Scare artist. When conservatives freaked out over a Polish Communist teaching at the University, Captain America himself responded, “Ignorance of communism, fascism, or any other police-state philosophy is far more dangerous than ignorance of the most virulent disease.”
Ability to overthrow democratically elected governments.
Iran: Had the arrogance to ask for 50/50 profit sharing with oil giant British Petroleum. The previous agreement stood at 5%.
Guatemala: Came to the poor conclusion that their banana industry shouldn’t be owned and operated by a guy in New Orleans.
Industrialists threw around words like communism and collectives and the next thing they knew the CIA was propping up puppet governments.
Choice of Vice Presidents
He selected Richard Nixon, a guy who got caught taking bribes from the wealthy and somehow got out of it by going on television with his dog. He proceeded to sabotage peace talks for the Vietnam War, spied on everyone and disgraced the nation in practically every way. On the bright side he once asked a journalists if he did “any fornicating this weekend?”
Military Industrial Complex
Eisenhower’s speech is one of the most famous messages of the Internet era, it’s one that curious 21 year olds from both sides of the spectrum gravitate towards. I remember when I first watched Why We Fight and neither myself nor my parents had ever heard of it. Nowadays, it seems that nearly every person born after the fall of the Berlin Wall is at least passingly familiar with the message. Eisenhower, a man once responsible for the free world’s armies, speaking directly into the camera, warns about the rise of the military armaments industry. Dig a little deeper and you realize that Eisenhower had been fighting against the industry for his entire career. As a young man, he wrote a report arguing for a constitutional amendment to “prevent profiteering” during wartime. He openly commiserated with Khrushchev about generals from both sides playing off each other to increase military spending. “You know,” he told the Soviet Premier after a discussion about the military industrial complex, “we really should come to some sort of an agreement in order to stop this fruitless, really wasteful rivalry.” And yet here we are nearly sixty years later and analysts are bemoaning the prospect of peace on their earnings potential. As commendable as Eisenhower’s words were, I can’t help but think it was a more tangible version of Carter’s Crisis of Confidence speech. Adult words to a nation of children.
Verdict: PROPERLY RATED
Overall Verdict: EISENHOWER IS UNDERRATED