The more I learn about him, and I haven’t studied him in detail, the more I appreciate Dwight D. Eisenhower as president. He was the president when I was born (1958), but I was too young to remember him in office. I do remember when he died. And I recall the common perception of him (still, for many) as a doddering, grandfatherly figure who liked to play golf. I remember that most people seemed to think that it was a good thing when he left office, to make way for that dashing, charismatic president – JFK.
And in purely personal terms, for our family at the time, I suppose it was a good thing. My father was a newly graduated engineer who would soon be working for NASA and spending essentially his entire career as a federal employee in the United States civil service. Had Eisenhower had his way, on matters of space exploration, life might have been different for us (although probably not in a material sense, since my dad would likely have just stayed at Boeing and worked on airplanes). But as it was, John Kennedy – with his vice president and successor Lyndon Johnson in agreement – went full speed ahead with the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs.
I love that we went to moon, and I don’t care what it cost, or that we mostly did it in order to one-up the Soviets. Put the political and fiscal considerations aside. The moon landing is the one thing that people will remember about the twentieth century, twenty centuries from now, if they remember nothing else. On July 20, 1969, two Americans landed, and walked, on the moon. That kind of high adventure of human spirit and daring is ageless. And if we could magically go back in time to visit any premodern culture, and tell them, and make them believe, that we were from a future time when men had actually walked on the moon? Those cultures would hail us as gods!
So on this one I think Eisenhower got it wrong, although Walter A. McDougall argues brilliantly, the other way, in his magisterial book The Heavens and the Earth : A Political History of the Space Age. In fact, it was McDougall’s spirited defense of Eisenhower in that book that first put me wise to the fact that I had seriously underestimated Eisenhower, and that I should question the common so-called wisdom about Ike.
Recently, members of the press made a big to-do about the fiftieth anniversary of Kennedy’s Inaugural Address. What a great speech it was, they gushed. What went mostly unnoticed, except by a handful of columnists, was the fiftieth anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address which, to my mind, was the greater and more historic speech. Have you listened to it? You can do so, here, and if you’ve never heard it, you owe it yourself to listen (and not just read it).
As one of the few columnists who noted the anniversary of Eisenhower’s Farewell Address commented, to hear Ike in this speech is not so much like going back in time to another era, it’s like going to another planet! Can you imagine any politician talking like this now? I can’t. There’s no pandering, no partisan jabbing, no poll-tested sloganeering, no soaring rhetorical riffing. He signs off simply and unpretentiously: “Thank you, and good night” (and not with the now almost obligatory, “God bless the United States of America”). Of course, historians rightly focus on the speech’s content – his amazingly prophetic warning about the military-industrial complex, and so on. But I’m as much impressed by the tone of it. Despite his world travels, Eisenhower was still a plain-spoken Kansan at heart.
Near the beginning of his speech – and don’t forget, this is not just his farewell from the presidency, it’s his farewell from fifty years of public service to his country – Eisenhower says:
This evening, I come to you with a message of leave-taking and farewell, and to share a few final thoughts with you, my countrymen.
Something in the way Ike says “my countrymen” makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. I don’t know how many presidents I’ve heard use this form of address – maybe every one since Johnson – and it has always seemed like just a formality. I’ve never given it a second thought. But being addressed like this is no formality. It is meant, and taken, as a token of esteem and honor. It makes you want to stand up straighter, to try to be worthy to be called one of this man’s countrymen. And, yes, it makes you feel patriotic – a word rarely heard today except in a negative context.
Ike, it must be said, was not a highly polished speaker. Several times in the speech he fumbles his lines. But the fumbles are beside the point. Above all, what shines through is the man’s fundamental decency and probity. I’d take a man like Ike over a hundred Slick Willies. Eisenhower had, of course, commanded American fighting men engaged in a horrific world conflict. He’d seen the best and the worst that mankind was capable of, and he stood resolutely on the side of the best.
I cannot imagine Eisenhower ever approving the waterboarding of detainees in wartime, the way that Bush did. You may call me naive. And I know that horrible things may have occurred under Ike’s command, in isolated cases, without his knowledge or approval. But that is an entirely different thing than the formal approval of torture (I won’t mince words, because that’s exactly what waterboarding, along with several other Bush-era practices, is) from the president on down. The idea that the threat we now face from Islamic extremism is so fundamentally worse than the threat the Axis countries posed during World War II that we need to compromise our moral principles is, well, absurd on its face.
Listen to Ike’s Farewell Address, even if you already have in the past. It will do your heart good. He was a great man, and a great American.