A new book makes the case for the unique greatness of Eisenhower’s leadership.
If the question is, “Who was the greatest American leader of the 20th century?” it would be hard for an intellectually honest person to answer with any name other than “Dwight David Eisenhower.” Yes, admirers of Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt can make a case for their being the premier political leaders of their eras, but Ike can match the Roosevelt cousins in politics and then raise them one with his military accomplishments as the victorious Supreme Allied Commander in World War II.
Eisenhower’s granddaughter Susan has had a long run as an esteemed political consultant, historian, and think-tank leader. Now in her late sixties, she decided the time was right to write the equivalent of a textbook on leadership, as personified by the career of her historic ancestor, in How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower’s Biggest Decisions.
Harry Truman famously said that making sound assessments of leaders’ performance requires at least a half-century to pass because “it takes about 50 years for the dust to settle.” Ike died in 1969, meaning Ms. Eisenhower’s insightful new book has arrived at the appropriate time.
For a national leader to be acclaimed by historians on a long-term basis normally requires him or her to have confronted and successfully addressed more than one major crisis. From 1943-1961, Dwight Eisenhower faced and prevailed in defeating Hitler; in extricating American forces from an unwinnable war in Korea; in taking down Joseph McCarthy; in preventing nuclear holocaust in the Cold War; in resisting his Republican Party’s desire for isolationism; in avoiding U.S. intervention in small wars; in advancing Civil Rights by enforcing Brown v. Board of Education in Little Rock; in balancing the federal budget to the point of creating surpluses; in crossing the aisle and finding “the Middle Way” to achieve substantial bipartisan legislation; and in taming the Military-Industrial Complex to prevent the country from becoming a warfare state.
For Ike to have triumphed over these potentially catastrophic predicaments back-to-back-to-back required a shed full of leadership tools worthy of emulation in 2020. As detailed by Susan Eisenhower, among the noteworthy traits that fueled his successes are the following:
- The willingness to accept full responsibility for taking on enormous tasks, even when factors are beyond one’s control, as Ike did with pulling the trigger on the D-Day invasion when, despite uncertain weather, he wrote out a communique in advance that said, “If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt, it is mine alone.”
- The capacity to find a strategy to gain control over one’s inner demons that, if unchecked, would likely lead to self-destruction, as Ike did throughout his life in managing his volcanic temper.
- The desire to do what it takes to earn the respect of important and seemingly unimportant people by maintaining humility, as shown by Ike when he refused the Congressional Medal of Honor because he believed it should only be awarded to those who had demonstrated bravery in combat.
- The inner strength to maintain an outward appearance of optimism, even on dark days when a leader has to fake it, such that whenever the fates knocked him down, Ike found the fortitude to pick himself up with a smile on his face.
- The steely resolve to play hardball when others misbehave, as he did by imposing severe economic sanctions on England, France, and Israel when they seized the Suez Canal in contravention of his direction.
- The wisdom to recognize that the only way to make progress in the midst of partisan discord is through “compromise, conciliation, and persuasion,” like Ike did with Congress while the Democratic Party had control of both houses for the final six years of his presidency.
- The strategic wherewithal to bring down an evil demagogue by giving him sufficient rope to hang himself rather than engage him in direct confrontation, as Ike did with McCarthy.
- The common sense to start a long uphill battle by first establishing a beachhead from which there is no going back, as Ike did by advancing civil rights in the military and public schools.
- The prudence to process all pertinent facts in order to avoid hysterical overreaction based on false information, as Ike did with his calm response to Sputnik and to JFK’s bogus allegation during the 1960 presidential campaign that the U.S. was on the short side of a “missile gap.”
Though Eisenhower lacked the Roosevelts’ electric charisma that lit up the media or Kennedy and Reagan’s rhetorical eloquence, when comparing the positive traits and bona fide achievements among those on the short list of great American leaders since Lincoln, he stands at the top of the mountain in the crucial categories of command presence, mastery of strategy, and substance-over-form performance.
He would surely be pleased that 51 years after his death, his granddaughter has succeeded in connecting the dots to present a clear image of why his shrewd and successful handling of so many major national and international crises for the better part of two decades set the standard for best leadership practices in the modern era.
Talmage Boston is an attorney and historian in Dallas whose most recent book is Cross-Examining History: A Lawyer Gets Answers From the Experts About Our Presidents.