How Ike Led: The Principles Behind Eisenhower's Biggest Decisions

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Release Date: 
December 13, 2022
St. Martin's Griffin
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Dwight Eisenhower was one of America’s most successful presidents, yet it took many years of revisionist history to appreciate his greatness as president. One reason for this is that presidential scholars and historians tend to be philosophically liberal and Eisenhower was a moderate conservative. Another reason is that Eisenhower was succeeded as president by the young, charismatic John F. Kennedy who seduced a willing press corps and came into office with a host of “court” historians that scripted his “Camelot” presidency.

The Eisenhower revival began with Dr. R. Gordon Hoxie’s book Command Decision and the Presidency (1977). Dr. Hoxie, who served as President of the Center for the Study of the Presidency for more than two decades, gave Eisenhower high marks on national security, economic decisions, defense reorganization, effectiveness with Congress, and his “mastery of command.” 

Then came political scientist Fred Greenstein’s The Hidden-Hand Presidency (1982), which revealed Eisenhower’s backstage role in policy formulation and decision-making. The most recent poll of historians ranks Eisenhower in fifth place among all U.S. presidents.

Susan Eisenhower, one of the president’s granddaughters and a scholar in her own right, has written a book that identifies and explains the personal qualities that made Eisenhower a great leader. To be sure, How Ike Led is not an objective assessment of our 34th president. It is written from a loved-one’s perspective and contains both the insights and the flaws of an author who writes about a close relative or friend. Dwight Eisenhower as general and president wasn’t always right, though Susan Eisenhower in this book points to none of Eisenhower’s failures and mistakes.

That said, the author knows her subject more intimately than most biographers. She saw his personal qualities up close, and those personal qualities contributed to Eisenhower the leader. Those qualities were shaped by his family, by West Point, and by all of his experiences in the U.S. Army. Before becoming Supreme Allied Commander in World War II, Eisenhower had worked for great leaders who also had flaws, like Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Marshall. He learned from both of them.

What were those qualities? Personal accountability, which Eisenhower demonstrated in helping to devise and then lead the Normandy invasion and being prepared to accept personal responsibility for its failure, and in his handling as president of the U-2 affair.

Patience, which he repeatedly demonstrated in his efforts to accommodate the wishes of difficult and demanding wartime allies such as Britain’s Bernard Montgomery and France’s Charles de Gaulle, in working behind the scenes as president to undermine the sometimes erratic Senator Joseph McCarthy, and in crafting and negotiating a historic Civil Rights Act which, as the author notes, constructed “a platform on which the civil rights revolution could be built.” 

Decisiveness, which manifested itself in the lead-up to D-Day, his willingness to fire friendly general officers who failed to perform to his standards, the refusal to back the British, French, and Israelis during the Suez crisis, and in sending the 101st Airborne to enforce the Supreme Court’s desegregation ruling in Arkansas.

Calmness, which Eisenhower exercised in meeting the German challenge in the Battle of the Bulge, in defusing the crises in the Taiwan Strait, in dealing with the hysteria over Sputnik, and in responding to the Hungarian uprising against its communist government.

Prudence, which he displayed in the Korean settlement, the nuclear arms race, accomplishing defense reorganization against the wishes of the Joint Chiefs, and in conducting summitry with Soviet leaders.

Eisenhower’s leadership, the author writes, “emanate[d] from within.” He “exercised restraint, patience, and hardheaded realism in the pursuit of” unity and national security in times of peace and war. He had a near “fanatical devotion to moderation.” And moderation may be the quality in Eisenhower that his granddaughter most admires.

Eisenhower’s critics (including, interestingly, his brother Edgar) thought he was too moderate; that he didn’t do enough to reverse the growth of the federal government; that he was too timid on the issue of Civil Rights; that he relied too much on nuclear weapons (“massive retaliation”) to deter the Soviet Union; that he should have publicly condemned McCarthy; that he should have tried to “rollback” the Soviet empire when the Hungarians revolted against their communist masters; and that he should have supported France, Britain, and Israel during the Suez crisis

Those matters will continue to be debated. But Susan Eisenhower is surely correct that Ike’s greatest achievement as president was eight years of peace. That didn’t happen by luck or accident. The qualities Susan Eisenhower saw in her grandfather had something to do with it. She worries that those qualities are missing in our leaders today.