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Eisenhower and Race

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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.

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