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The Fifties and Ike

A Conversation with Stephen Ambrose

HUMANITIES, September/October 1997 | Volume 18, Number 5

Humanities editor Mary Lou Beatty talked recently with historian Stephen Ambrose about Eisenhower and the 1950s. Ambrose's books include Eisenhower: Soldier and President, Rise to Globalism: American Foreign Policy since 1938, and a three-volume biography of Richard Nixon. Ambrose is founding director of the Eisenhower Center for American Studies at the University of New Orleans.

Mary Lou Beatty: There's a documentary film coming out this fall on the interstate highway system, which has been around now a little more than forty years. I thought it would be a good time to talk about the 1950s in America and the man who signed it into law, Dwight D. Eisenhower. You've written a wonderful book, Eisenhower: Soldier and President.

You met the man?

Ambrose: Oh, sure, from 1964 to his death, which was in 1969, so I had about four years of interviewing him, off and on.

Q: In a way, we've simplified him. The grin, the avuncular quality. He was a much more complicated man than that. You tell a story in your book about the fact that he didn't even know how to dial a phone.

Ambrose: That's right. Ike and John drove up to Gettysburg after Kennedy's inaugural. They got to the gate and sat there, and no Secret Service man appeared to open the gate. John finally realized what was happening and said, "Dad" -- so Ike got out and opened the gate. They got into the house and Ike wanted to call whomever. The last time he'd had to make a phone call himself, you picked up the phone and an operator at the other end said, "Number, please," and you gave a number, and the operator dialed it for you. He started yelling into the phone, hearing only the buzz. Little things like that would get him terribly angry, and blood would rush to his face. Finally he slammed it down. "Goddamn it! How do you work this thing?" John came over and showed him how to dial. It was a rotary dial. Ike thought it was just wonderful. He enjoyed it immensely.

He never carried any money. One day at Gettysburg -- this was postpresidency -- he went into the sporting goods with his grandson, David, to outfit him for fly-fishing. "I'll take this, I'll take that." Of course, the owner was just as pleased as could be. Then Ike just walked out with the stuff. Merriman Smith (the AP White House correspondent) assured the owner, "Just send a bill; it'll get paid."

Q: It's hard to re-create that time. When Eisenhower became president, a whole generation of GIs had come home. They had gone back to school on the GI bill.

Ambrose: It's not hard for me to characterize the fifties. That was my formative decade, and I remember it well. I lived in a little town that had a state teachers college, and we had the GIs all around us when I was in high school. These guys had seen enough of death and destruction, and they wanted to build. They became the buildingest generation. There is a parallel here -- the post-Civil War generation went out and built the transcontinental railroad as soon as the war was over. That impulse to build after all the destruction in World War II just ran through that generation. Its vote was for life rather than death. It gave the money that made the March of Dimes able to fund the research that led to Salk and Sabin's vaccine. That generation built more than any other. The interstate system is, I'm told, the biggest public works project of all time. Side by side, those people built the St. Lawrence Seaway and the suburbs. It was a remarkable generation.

Q: The highway system, though, they had talked about in principle in 1944.

Ambrose: Even earlier than that. As soon as the Pennsylvania Turnpike was in operation, everybody wanted one, but the highway system wasn't getting anywhere, in largest part because of politics. "Who's going to pay for this? Are these going to be private roads like the Pennsylvania Turnpike, or are they going to be public? If they're public, how much are the states going to have to pay, and how much the federal government?" Questions of states rights were involved and all of the pressures that come to bear on politicians at any time. The railroads didn't want this, and they were actively opposing. The airlines weren't happy with it. The cement makers were all for it. So it went. Everybody had an angle. The truckers didn't want to have to pay the kind of gasoline taxes that would be involved. The federal government was going to have to pay for it. All that held up progress.

One of the things about Ike and the GIs is that they saw Germany's autobahns and said, "We've got to have those." That was virtually universal. They were so impressed. There was a lot of pressure building, by the time Ike was elected, to build an interstate. America was going to have to four-lane. The car sales were booming.

Q: The sales went from seven million cars to nine million in a single year.

Ambrose: Yes, and 1955 for a long time was the single best year that the auto people had enjoyed. That year Mamie went to a party for the automobile dealers and came home and told Ike that she'd never seen such furs and jewelry in her life. Obviously, there was going to have to be a better highway system in America.

Ike personally went back a long way on this because in 1921 he had led an army truck convoy across the country for the explicit purpose of showing how bad the road system was.

Q: So that was something he was committed to.

Ambrose: Yes.

Q: Some historians suggest that the highway-system legislation was a relatively easier thing to be pushing for than the civil rights bill, which Herbert Brownell was going to be taking up soon.

Ambrose: Oh, I don't agree. In the first place, the Eisenhower administration did pass the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. The bill was emasculated, but it was emasculated by Lyndon Johnson.

But Ike wasn't afraid. That was the biggest thing. Just as they had to have that transcontinental railroad after the Civil War, we had to have the interstate highway system. It was a number-one priority in the economy. Of course, one of the things that Ike did to sell it was make it the national defense highway system and play on the fear of a nuclear Pearl Harbor, which was very strongly felt.

Another problem was with the representatives from the cities. They said, "Why the hell do we want to vote for this? It's not going to do us any good," in terms of being able to help their local contractors and big bucks for their district and eminent domain purchasing. This was mother's milk to the politicians. The city guys said, "Anything in it for us?"

Q: So it had to come into the city. It wasn't just going to stop at the edges.

Ambrose: I think it's one of the most important stories of our time. It perhaps had the biggest effect.

Q: I know in your book you use it as a measure of greatness. You liken it to FDR and Social Security, Teddy Roosevelt and conservation.

Ambrose: Of course I do. Among other things, Eisenhower had the good sense to speed up construction when there was a recession and slow it down when things were booming.

Eisenhower got into the helicopter to go up to Camp David one day in the late fifties. They were flying over D.C. and Ike looked down, and there was I-95, which cuts right through the middle of Washington. They were starting the demolition and the grading, and Ike saw this slash going into the city and said, "What's going on down there?" They said, "That's the interstate system." He said, "I never wanted that. I thought we were going to do it like they do it in Europe and build to the edge of the city and then do a ring around." His aides explained to him that, to get the city votes, they had had to promise to build through the cities. Think of the consequences of that, almost all of which were unexpected.

Q: That's interesting. I had been going to ask what Ike would have said forty years later about these big highways running through cities like New Haven.

Ambrose: I know what he said when he saw it: "I didn't want that at all" and the sociological effects of it. It's American politics at play. It's exactly what Madison talks about in The Federalist No. 10, the various interests that are, in a lot of ways, the heart of our democracy. There are so many special interests, in today's terms, out there, and the result is legislation that brings the largest possible number into the game.

Q: I was reading Gordon Wood's book The Radicalism of the American Revolution, and he says special-interest groups were forming at the outset of the republic.

Ambrose: Sure.

The fifties as a whole was the best decade of this century. The Korean War had been shut down, so it was a decade without wars. A man made enough money so that his wife could stay home and raise the children, which maybe wasn't so good for the wife but was awfully good for the kids.

That brings up this point. The fifties was the best decade of this century if you were white, male, and middle class. For blacks, it was a dreadful decade. For women, it was a real fallback decade. When you write a long history of feminism, the fifties don't look very good. It looks like a decade of retreat, and in many ways it was. It's summed up in The Dick Van Dyke Show.

Q: Rob and Laura Petrie.

Ambrose: Laura never gets out of the kitchen or the living room. Every appliance works, and on and on. It wasn't the best decade of this century. In some ways, it may even have been the worst in this century for women, but, if you were a white male and middle class . . .

Q: Why was that also a bad decade for blacks? There was a beginning, it seems to me.

Ambrose: The progress made in the fifties was inconsequential, it turned out. Of course, the fifties laid the base for the sixties, and black leadership was beginning to emerge, but if you went south in 1960, it wouldn't have been any different than 1940, and I know because I did. Jim Crow was very much in control. There was an apartheid that would have made South Africa ten years ago blush. I exaggerate, but in the United States in the 1950s the only integration taking place was in the military and in baseball.

Q: That's true.

In your book there is a quote from the early Eisenhower presidency on what was called the choice between "guns and butter" in the Lyndon Johnson days. Ike was talking to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He said, "Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed." Don't you think that is extraordinary? The great wartime leader was talking to the nation's editors and to the nation at large. How did that go with the more conservative elements in his own party?

Ambrose: Not well at all. It didn't go well with the Democrats either. He was a one-man band on that one. Virtually everybody else in the country wanted to step up defense spending and was scared and was scaring others -- with missile gaps and bomber gaps and "the Russians have got this and the Russians have got that" -- and "damned Ike just sits there and says everything's all right and people believe him, and we know it's not all right and we've got to spend more money." That ran across both political parties, to the point that in the 1960 election campaign Kennedy and Nixon tried to outdo each other on who would expand defense spending the fastest as soon as we get the old Neanderthal out of the White House. Ike had been doing everything that he could to hold down defense spending all through the fifties. There was a tendency for people to express surprise at Eisenhower's farewell address and his warning about the military/industrial complex. They just hadn't been paying attention. That was the most consistent theme that ran through his eight years in the White House: We've got to cut back on defense spending.

Q: A piece of it is the notion that the budget had to be balanced, this country had to be strong economically. Period.

Ambrose: That's right, and that our defense lay as much, if not more, in our economy as it did in our arms.

Q: Does that have a familiar ring to you in this decade?

Ambrose: I think Ike is the best president of this century. He thought things through. He had a lot of shortcomings and weaknesses, but, in general, if you want to know what kind of man he was, I'll tell you: He was the smartest man I've ever met and the one with the highest power of concentration. He had these wonderfully light blue eyes, and he fixed them on you. I was sitting there, a twenty-eight-year-old kid, interviewing him about events of, at that time, twenty-five years ago, and he just locked his eyes onto mine, concentrated completely on what I asked, and gave out these thoughtful, sometimes funny, and frequently wonderfully insightful responses. He was the most naturally generous man.

Q: How did a twenty-eight-year-old kid get access to the war-hero president? I would think there would have been a lot of demands on his time.

Ambrose: He asked me.

Q: He asked you? How did that come about?

Ambrose: He'd read my first book. At the end of the first day -- it was essentially an interview -- he said, "You must have a lot of questions," and I said, "I surely do, sir, but, first of all, why me?" He said, "Because I read your book on Halleck." The Louisiana State University Press printed two thousand copies of Halleck: Lincoln's Chief of Staff and sold 632. I'm sure that at least two hundred of them were read, and I enjoy saying now that one of the readers happened to be Dwight Eisenhower.

Q: I was going to ask you to do a presidential report card on him, which you've pretty much done. You call him a great and a good man.

Do you think that goodness is a part of greatness?

Ambrose: No, I don't. Indeed, the reason I use those words is because most great men are not good. There's no way in the world Napoleon was a good man.

Without getting into any individuals, I find that with most great men the criterion of what is right is foreign to them and not a part of their personalities.

Q: What is their criterion? Expediency?

Ambrose: If you have to use one word, yes. What's going to get me elected next time is their criterion. Ike said that he had been astonished, when he got to Washington, to discover how patriotic congressmen were and how much they wanted to help their country and that they quickly concluded that the best thing they could do for their country was to get themselves reelected. (laughter)

Q: Did Eisenhower's going on television change the relationship of presidents with the public?

Ambrose: He was the first to have press conferences that were filmed. Ike told his press secretary, Jim Hagerty, "Let them film," but Ike was afraid of slipping, so press conferences were censored by the White House, by Hagerty, before they were given out to the networks. But people were able to see that evening on national news the president at a press conference. They ended up very quickly deciding that they didn't need to censor.

Q: What do you see as the shortcomings of the Eisenhower administration?

Ambrose: Civil rights.

Q: That's it?

Ambrose: Very much so. And a real mess with Joe McCarthy. In the end, they got rid of McCarthy, but a lot of people got damaged in the process.

Q: That was something that cut very close. When Ike went into Wisconsin in the 1952 presidential campaign, he cut out the paragraph defending his old friend and comrade-in-arms, George Marshall, against charges by McCarthy.

Ambrose: He took out the paragraph about Marshall because Governor Walter Kohler told him, "You're going to lose the state if you do that." Taking out that paragraph is the one thing that I know of that he was ashamed of. The guy was center stage for twenty years and involved in all the big decisions and had many, many actions to carry out, and this is what he was ashamed of. In a way, he got trapped. All he did was leave out a paragraph. The problem was, advance copies had gone out, and the aides and speechwriters had told the press, "You watch. The general is really gonna give it to McCarthy, right in his own backyard." An expectation had been built up.

Q: And he didn't do it.

Ambrose: It was a sad day.

Q: Do you think that others are going to come to your view that Eisenhower is the greatest president of this century?

Ambrose: No. I don't think that anyone is ever going to. Among professional historians and the general public, Franklin Roosevelt will always be the great one. That's why they're building a monument to Roosevelt. It's a very long discussion to get into. I'm not running Roosevelt down, but I think getting us through the eight toughest years of the Cold War without losing a single soldier, and without giving up an inch of territory, is the great thing of this century. Eisenhower got us through the decade. I don't know if anybody else could have. I know that he did.