My quest to read (at least) one biography per President continues with Dwight Eisenhower, the thirty-fourth President of the United States. The biography I chose with my selection process (reading reviews online and utilizing and this website- My Journey Through the Best Presidential Biographies) was Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith.
Here, I’ll offer my thoughts on those biographies, and proceed to present my official ranking for the DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES!!!!!! The full list of the rankings with all the Presidents as well as comments on their careers, updated as I read through this list, may be found here.
Eisenhower in War and Peace by Jean Edward Smith
I knew very little about Eisenhower as President going in beyond a vague association of his name with highways. I knew he was a general, and I knew a good amount about his work during World War II balancing the various big personalities on the Allies to bring about a formidable fighting force. Little did I know going in to reading about Eisenhower that I would come out the other side with a genuine appreciate for and admiration for a man I now view as among our best Presidents.
Jean Edward Smith’s biography, Eisenhower in War and Peace, is a monumental work that traces the life of Eisenhower from a child through his death. Smith does a superb job balancing each stage of Eisenhower’s life with what seems like the appropriate amount of detail. No period of his life feels glossed over or lost in this great book. My own outline of Eisenhower’s life is going to focus entirely on his Presidency, but the biography itself does true justice to his childhood, early adulthood, and military career as well.
Eisenhower as President pursued peace. He pushed hard to get the United States out of Korea and then presided over a period of 8 years in which no United States soldier lost a life in combat. What makes this even more remarkable is that Eisenhower was repeatedly pushed by international crises to the brink of war, but used his remarkable diplomatic skills to navigate the United States out of war each time. China was one of the countries that Eisenhower stared down, using a combination of public words and things left unsaid to imply that he was unafraid to go to war over a few islands, even as privately he was being urged to drop atomic weapons on Chinese forces. Behind the scenes, he put a hard stop to talk of the use of atomics, while publicly he played coy, causing China to stall and eventually defuse the conflict.
Israel and the Suez canal was another major diplomatic victory for Eisenhower. After numerous setbacks in relationship with Egypt–pulling in and out of arms deals, funding for a dam, etc., Eisenhower backed Egypt when Israel was the aggressor, but did so couched in terms of established American policy so that his domestic image would not suffer. By taking the side of a predominantly Muslim country in the Middle East and backing the pledge of the United States to give succor to the one against whom aggression was directed, Eisenhower increased the international esteem of the United States to an almost unprecedented level.
The Cold War continued to loom during his Presidency, but Eisenhower actively worked to diffuse the tensions. He offered an “Open Skies” policy to the Soviet Union which would allow each nation to fly over the other with spy planes to take pictures to confirm disarmament or at least lower the arms race. The Soviet Union rejected this proposal, but Eisenhower’s efforts at making peace surely helped diffuse at least some of the ramping up of pressure for war.
Domestically, Eisenhower sensed the possibility of a recession and planned in advance, setting up a hugely ambitious infrastructure plan to make the Interstate system connect all cities with populations of over 50,000 people. This project became the larges public works effort in American history, stopped a recession in its tracks, and created infrastructure on which we continue to rely to this day. Not only that, but he tapped people across party lines (Lyndon B. Johnson, in particular) to help orchestrate a Machiavellian effort to stop an amendment that would have hamstrung the President’s and country’s ability to make treaties or even provide aid internationally.
Eisenhower, described by Smith as a progressive conservative, was on the side of moving America towards racial equality. He ordered the military to desegregate to the point of even ignoring one governor’s pleas to allow a Naval base to remain segregated. He utilized his constitutional power to enforce law to send in the 101st Airborne to ensure that judicial orders of integration in Little Rock were carried out. On his authority, the racist mob that attempted to stop the integration was met by 500 US soldiers, bayonets fixed, showing that the executive branch was serious about enforcing the judicial tide that was swinging towards racial equality. Though Eisenhower was not perfect on this issue, his actions were praised by people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and he was recognized as making strides in the right direction.
Eisenhower was perhaps the most diplomatic President we ever had. He knew how to get people to work together for what he saw as the common good, and he was unafraid to use every means he had–whether through his own persuasion or some Machiavellian tactics of setting up different pieces on the board against each other–to get the job done. He was certainly one of the better Presidents in our history. Eisenhower in War and Peace is a fabulous biography on a truly amazing person.
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Dwight Eisenhower’s Original Ranking in THE DEFINITIVE RANKING OF PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES (Full and Updated List Here)
(34th President – Original Ranking #5)- Eisenhower as President got the United States out of Korea and then navigated numerous potentially Earth-shattering conflicts to keep the United States at peace. He was a masterful politician who utilized all the cards in his deck to not only keep the peace abroad but also expand America’s infrastructure with the largest public works project ever–the Interstate System. He utilized the military to enforce desegregation and integration, and remained even-keeled even in the toughest circumstances. He was not a perfect man, but it would be hard to argue he was any but among the best of the Presidents we’ve ever had.
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