Home / Eisenhower and Race

Eisenhower and Race


Matt says he’s reading this book defending Eisenhower’s record on race. I haven’t read it, so maybe it makes the case. But I would be skeptical on several fronts that the book would need to be overcome:

  • I think there is, in fact, good reason to believe that Eisenhower’s appointment of Warren was not a result of a steadfast commitment to civil rights. Eisenhower, after all, promised Governor Warren an appointment after he agreed to deliver California’s delegates to him at the convention, and the fact that he was made Chief was just a fluke created by Fred Vinson’s sudden death (the first indication Felix Frankfurter ever had that there is a God); I think the patronage factor was more important. And while Warren was certainly a liberal Republican, I’m not sure that there was a strong basis for believing in 1952 that a prime author of the internment of Japanese citizens was especially progressive on race in particular. The appointment of Brennan, similarly, was almost certainly about appealing to the Catholic vote. To see these appointments as being about Eisenhower’s commitment to civil rights is to project the currents ways in which presidents select Supreme Court justices onto a previous era.
  • Although I accept the limitations of rhetoric in re: a comparison with JFK’s all-hat-no-cattle approach to civil rights, Eisenhower hanging the Supreme Court out to dry after Brown actually matters. Rhetoric is, after all, part of a president’s job. Nor, as far as I can tell, was his lukewarm-at-best reaction to desegregation inconsistent with his privately expressed thoughts on the matter. The fact that he informed Warren that southerners were not bad people, just concerned lest their “sweet little girls be seated alongside some big black bucks” also makes me question his staunch commitment to civil rights, and Nichols seems to concede that he wasn’t especially progressive in his personal views. (The “black bucks” phrasing is also relevant to Reagan’s rhetoric on the subject.)
  • The favorable comparison with Truman seems especially strange. Given that Truman actually desegregated the armed forces while Eisenhower testified against integration in Congress, to primarily credit the latter strikes me as bizarre. Under Truman, the federal government also started aggressively favoring civil rights in the federal courts by filing amicus briefs.
  • It is true, as Nichols repeated in his NYT op-ed, that LBJ watered down civil rights legislation in 1957 (and given that it was that or nothing, he was right to do so.) On the other hand, as Robert Caro points out (pp.918-9) Ike was himself unfamiliar with key provisions of his own bill, and in private correspondence said that some of its provisions were “too broad” (while reiterating his skepticism about Brown and his lack of objections to the glacial pace of desegregation.) In fairness, I am willing to believe that, like a lot of moderates, Eisenhower became more sympathetic to civil rights after Little Rock.
  • In the description, it says that Nichols “attributes Lyndon Johnson’s actions to his presidential ambitions.” This may be true, but it is also entirely irrelevant to anything. If were evaluating presidents on their records — as Nichols would like — LBJ’s is so vastly better than Ike’s that the comparison is ridiculous. Whatever motivated him — and it’s clearly silly to reduce it to any one factor — LBJ did more for civil rights than every other president of the century combined while Ike’s record was highly unimpressive.

None of this is to say that Eisenhower was especially bad for a public official of his era; he was more of a squish than an active opponent of civil rights. But it’s also true that on the crucial question of Brown, Ike hid under the covers and whimpered until violent resistance forced his hand. And while I might agree that he and JFK differed more on rhetoric than results — although I think the rhetoric is more important than he allows — to favorably compare Eisenhower with Johnson on civil rights borders on the obscene.

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google+
  • Linkedin
  • Pinterest
  • Billl Gardner

    “Eisenhower hanging the Supreme Court out to dry after Brown actually matters.”
    I’m sure you know much more about this than me, but Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce Brown, no?

  • Vance Maverick

    But I would be skeptical on several fronts that the book would need to be overcome:
    I think it’s not the book that needs to be overcome, but your skepticism, right?
    Thus, “fronts where the book would need to persuade me” or some such.

  • Bill Gardner makes a good point, though it’s clear that neither Eisenhower nor JFK are in the same league as LBJ on civil rights. It’s intriguing to speculate about what Johnson and a Democratic congress might have been able to do on civil rights with another four years–and no war in Vietnam.
    Still, LBJ had a gift for prophecy on one point: his civil-rights activism would deliver the south to the Republicans for the next fifty years.

  • Brett

    This post needs a theme song:
    See also here.

  • jayann

    Brown, 1954. Little Rock, 1957. And see

  • strategichamlet

    “It’s intriguing to speculate about what Johnson and a Democratic congress might have been able to do on civil rights with another four years–and no war in Vietnam.”
    There’s something that bothers me about this sentence. Even if it isn’t your intention, it seems to make Vietnam seem like some sort of natural disaster that could have happened to anybody.

  • I’m sure you know much more about this than me, but Eisenhower sent the 101st Airborne to Little Rock to enforce Brown, no?
    Right, but before that he refused to say anything to back up the Court, which probably helped to generate the resistance in the first place.

  • d

    Scott’s absolutely right here — those three+ years between Brown I and the LR9 crisis were immensely significant, as white southerners pursued a campaign of massive resistance to school integration.
    Ike was dealing with plenty during this period as far as the cold war was concerned (Guatemala, Hungary, Egypt, etc.), but he was also hoping to rebuild the Republican party in the South around the notion of “Moderate Republicanism,” and I think he clearly missed an opportunity to incorporate even a preliminary notion of civil rights into that mission.
    None of this is to say that Ike would have had an easy time of it. But I don’t think anyone has ever shown that Massive Resistance was had strong majority support; most white southerners were opposed to integration, but few were actually willing to hoist the brickbats. I can’t say for certain what Eisenhower could have done from 1954-57, but something would have been better than nothing.

  • ligedog

    As opposed to the current debacle the war in Vietnam was closer to a natural disaster for LBJ. His reaction to the slow brewing conflict was not good but he didn’t start it either.

  • The best way to look at this is as follows:
    FDR: awful on race. (Indeed, the fact that a quote from him on civil rights appears on his memorial is one of the great lies in history; the guy facilitated race discrimination in major New Deal legislation.)
    Truman: very good. Desegregated the armed forces, split his party over civil rights. Fought for civil rights planks in the Democratic platform until his dying day. Put his DOJ in the service of Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in fighting official segregation.
    Eisenhower: good. Enforced Brown. Appointed Warren and Brennan. Proposed Civil Rights legislation. Put presidential appointees in charge of civil rights.
    JFK: bad. Did follow Eisenhower’s lead in enforcing desegregation decisions in the South, and proposed a weak civil rights bill (later strengthened by LBJ). Was deathly afraid of losing Southern votes, and was perfectly willing to screw blacks to ensure that wouldn’t happen. Tapped Martin Luther King’s phones. Did so little that King marched on Washington to protest JFK’s inaction in 1963.
    LBJ: the greatest civil rights president in history.

  • Billl Gardner

    Scott & d:
    I see your point about Ike’s inaction prior to 1957. So perhaps I should say that sending the Airborne to Little Rock was more than I can imagine any later Republican president doing.

  • Billl Gardner

    Scott & d:
    I take your point about Ike’s inaction from ’54 to ’57.

  • bobbo

    It was always my understanding that Warren’s positions on Brown, Miranda, and the whole liberal swing of the Court during his tenure came as rather a surprise to Eisenhower (and to everyone else), so it’s really a stretch to give Eisenhower credit on civil rights because he appointed Warren.

  • strategichamlet

    “As opposed to the current debacle the war in Vietnam was closer to a natural disaster for LBJ. His reaction to the slow brewing conflict was not good but he didn’t start it either.”
    Not THAT much closer. If Vietnam isn’t Johnson’s war then whose is it? During his time in office he boosted U.S. troop levels from ~ 20,000 to > 500,000 (their peak level). He did this all after the man he had called the “Winston Churchill of Asia” had been assassinated with tacit U.S. approval.
    It is also important to recall that although he is slightly less culpable for his vanity war than is Bush, Vietnam was a much greater debacle (and at a much more vulnerable period) than Iraq is likely to be.
    That Johnson was by far the greatest civil rights president of the 20th century should not cause us to forget that he was by far the worst on foreign policy.

  • Dilan I may post about that separately, but while I agree with you on FDR if Ike gets credit for Brennan and Warren then FDR gets credit for Black, Douglas, and Murphy. (I don’t think any of these appointments had anything to do with civil rights myself, but you can’t have it both ways.)

  • I should say by “nothing to do” I mean that their record on civil rights was not a factor in their appointments, not (of course) that the justices didn’t affect civil rights.

  • bob mcmanus

    Ya know, connecting this with the Bartlett/Brooks attempt to rehabiltate Reagan on race I am starting to see a pattern and beginning to look for a plan. The goal would not be to bring millions of new black voters into the Republican Party but something more insidious. I can say no more, because honestly I cannot imagine what they have in mind, other than some wild speculations.
    But yes Virginia, there really is a VRWC.
    Sorry if going meta is out of place.

  • aimai

    Bob McManus,
    On this the whole point of “de-racistizing” the republican party is what it always has been–to reassure squishy white voters that they can vote republican *and not be in bed with the kind of racists* they actually abhor. That is, its to reassure the kind of voter who actually is coming for the tax cuts and not the out and out bigotry that the party as a whole isn’t full of racist cretins. The frightened anti immigrant and racist working class stiff is roped in to the republican party with promises of better times when the non white vote has been surpressed–and his votes are used to bring to power someone who will organize tax cuts for the wealthy. But the wealthy aren’t that interested in the politics of race and sexism and homophobia. They just want the tax cuts. so david brooks is hauled out to reassure the rich guys who actually still read the times that they don’t need to believe their own lyin’ eyes–reagan was a great guy who never meant any harm to anyone.

  • Mark Centz

    Is that really d expressing an optimistic view that “moderate republicanism” could have built on a moderately friendly view towards civil rights? Well, maybe- I don’t live there and claim no special knowledge of the local politics, but seeing how the entire region switched from a party affiliation that could teach Red Sox Nation a thing or two about loyalty to the other side based on the so-called Southern Strategy, I wouldn’t bet my beer money on it ever having a ghost of a chance of succeeding.
    And strategichamlet, it should always be noted that LBJ’s foreign policy people were JFK’s and were considered to be “sound” by most of those with influence- until of course the shit began to stink up the place, when everyone quietly changed positions. Not unlike between 2002 and now. Yes by keeping them the assumed the responsibility for actions based on their advice, but he didn’t try to evade the blame, either. Deeply flawed, he’s a hero of mine nevertheless.

  • coozledad

    The Republicans always made it clear they admired the ruthlessness of just about any despotism, and given the number of former Leninists currently serving in the Bush administration, it’s easy to imagine them operating as semi-independent cells, loosely collaborating for a larger aim. The overarching principle, as most people here have mentioned, is tax cuts for for a select group of fantastically wealthy people who can’t even summon a notion of the suffering of others without a deep sense of personal satisfaction.

  • d

    I wouldn’t call my point “optimistic,” Mark — that would obviously be out of character. But given how the actual transformation of the Southern Republican party took place beginning less than a decade later . . .
    I honestly don’t know enough about the political history of the period to say whether there was a fart’s chance that Ike’s “moderate republicanism” would have gone anywhere. I’d also be interested to know what he was actually doing to move that vision along.
    What’s interesting and instructive, though, is that he spoke about this issue on November 14, 1956 — the day after the SCOTUS ruled on the Montgomery Bus question — and he didn’t even bother to connect the two. He didn’t even say a word (nor was he asked, to be fair) about this decision, which culminated the first successful mass campaign in the post-war civil rights movement.

  • strategichamlet

    Bush Jr.’s foreign policy people (most notably Chaney) were Bush Sr.’s and they were reasonably well thought of as well (in retrospect they were downright prescient about a post-Saddam Iraq in ’91). Also, LBJ was actually part of JFK’s administration. I wasn’t planning on defending JFK’s foreign policy either, but I do think that Johnson must take the blame for Vietnam since he escalated it to a full scale war at almost the exact time it should have become clear that it was borderline unwinnable.
    It’s fine if he’s your hero, he did some great and noble things, but I think it is a great mistake to try to minimize his role in perpetrating one of our worst national tragedies.
    If you went to Vietnam how would you explain this to people there?

  • coozledad

    Eisenhower parts company with contemporary Republicans, in that he had an institutional view of democracy and separation of powers as a holdover from his unique military experience. It could be that he viewed the South as a perennially bitching Montgomery or DeGaulle that he’d have to stay up late and bust his own ass to try and bring into line.

  • coozledad

    strategichamlet: LBJ’s foreign policy was also formed by the nascent right. I don’t doubt that he viewed the Vietnamese as a society waiting for the guiding hand of US influence. Racist impulses still govern our relations with nations that don’t have white, non-Catholic majorities. I don’t think his aims were bad. He was confined and routed into a series of incorrect judgments. But to his credit, he at least knew it.

  • Mark Centz

    d, my thinking is that having both major parties advocating improvement of civil rights, differing only by degree, is optimistic as against what actually happened. I suspect the Dixiecrat/Wallace movement would have been the result. A neo-successionist movement, wouldn’t that have been annoying.
    strategichamlet, for dog’s sake- I didn’t say LBJ should be absolved from the responsibily of that disaster, only that the national security establishment around him didn’t really give him much in the way of alternatives or suggest the dangers that lay ahead. Of course the buck stopped with him, and he carries a tremendous degree of blame, that goes with the job.But he wasn’t out looking for trouble, unlike some Presidents I could mention. Unlike Bush I & II, he didn’t have eight years between JFK’s and his administration, you may recall that the circumstances of his becoming President were somewhat charged. Stability and continuity were much sought after as a way of keeping the nation calm. Further, he wasn’t involved in the JFK administration in a policy or operational capacity such as Gore, Mondale, or Cheney were/are.
    Hey as a 10 year old I canvassed the neighborhood for him, and just barely missed having to go to Vietnam via the draft as an 18 year old. That war was a mistake! I think we agree on that point.

  • Scott:
    I agree with you that FDR gets some credit for the pro-civil rights justices he appointed. But the way he treated blacks in the New Deal was still inexcusable.

It is main inner container footer text