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Eisenhower

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This is a few weeks old now, but David Greenberg’s assessment of the continued attempt to canonize Dwight Eisenhower is quite good.

The histories we write say as much about our own times as about those we study. The current polarization in Washington has prompted a nostalgia for parties that were less ideologically uniform and more prone to compromise. Fashionable “pragmatism” has similarly infected thinking about foreign policy, as the fallout from the Iraq war lingers in the air a decade on. Unnamed Pentagon sources doomsay any proposed use of American force (but don’t you try to cut their budget!), while the left, tinged by guilt over its decades-long estrangement from the services, holds up medal-bearing military realists as paragons of wisdom.

These conditions have combined to inspire a rehabilitation of Dwight Eisenhower. Indeed, every few years another fat biography tries to do for Eisenhower what David McCullough did for Harry Truman and Edmund Morris did for Theodore Roosevelt—that is, to canonize him. Geoffrey Perret’s 685-page Eisenhower (1999), Carlo D’Este’s 848-page Eisenhower: A Soldier’s Life (2002), Michael Korda’s 779-page Ike (2007), Jim Newton’s 451-page Eisenhower: The White House Years (2011)—all were well-researched, well-written, and utterly worshipful.

It certainly seems to me that the Eisenhower canonization is a reaction to the crazy Republicanism of Nixon, Reagan, and Bush. Activist Republican presidents destroying the Constitution, tearing down the safety net, and engaging in half-baked wars makes liberals long for the right kind of Republican, one with a limited view of executive power and smart, realist foreign policy. And if you squint, you can make Dwight Eisenhower into that kind of Republican. Obviously, we should be thankful that Eisenhower was elected in 52 and not Bob Taft, but in our haste to remember a “good” Republican leader, let’s not overlook his reticence on civil rights, his destabilization of Guatemala and Iran, his actions in Cuba and Vietnam, and his cowardice in taking on Joe McCarthy. I have no particular hate for Eisenhower, but he’s hardly a Great Man.

I’m also glad that Greenberg finds the Eisenhower Memorial on the National Mall as utterly absurd as I do.

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