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A President's First Term

Eisenhower's Pursuit of "The Middle Way"

By Louis Galambos and Daun van Ee | HUMANITIES, January/February 2001 | Volume 22, Number 1

Historians of the twenty-first century will place the first administration of President Dwight David Eisenhower primarily in two contexts. One involves what many see as a swing in the industrial nations of the world away from national public programs stressing security and equity toward greater reliance on the private sector. The other basic context involves the strategy Eisenhower employed to wage the Cold War. While not the author of that strategy, he inherited, modified, and sustained what would arguably be the most successful diplomatic initiative of the twentieth century.

As president, Eisenhower was determined to reverse the trend he saw in U.S. domestic policy toward greater federal involvement in the affairs of the states, localities, and private citizens. Not all who received help were poor or powerless. He began to collect information on domestic policy and formulate his own concept of a domestic program.

Eisenhower did not want to roll back history, junking federal policies that in his view had proven successful. As he told his brother Edgar during an unguarded moment, "Should any political party attempt to abolish Social Security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history." He was in fact willing to strengthen those federal programs that had good track records and even to introduce new measures on a selective basis. But at the same time, he wanted to prune programs such as those in public power and agricultural subsidies, whose costs he thought far outweighed their benefits to the nation. If successful, he would slow and perhaps even stop the growth of the administrative state. This was his concept of the "Middle Way."

Eisenhower's effort to stem the expansion of the federal government was one in a long series of such forays that began with the end of the New Deal in the late 1930s. Since 1952 American voters have elected relatively conservative Republican presidents in six of the ten elections, and while Congress has often been a Democratic preserve, a loose coalition of conservative Democrats and Republicans has dampened many of the efforts to extend federal power.

Eisenhower's presidency was part of this much broader political epic played out against the backdrop of the Cold War. In dealing with that struggle, Eisenhower was intensely committed to the policy of containing communism by deploying economic and military aid, by forming defensive alliances, and by threatening to exercise--and when all else failed, by exercising--U.S. military power.

The president, his advisers, and key congressional leaders cooperated in keeping the containment strategy viable. The presidents who followed would have similar opportunities. Some would come dangerously close to losing a grip on containment. But in the 1980s that policy would finally achieve its primary goal. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union brought to a sudden and stunning close that long phase of world diplomacy and seems to have vindicated Eisenhower's successful efforts to preserve the Western Alliance and wait out its communist adversaries.

Eisenhower's role in these two historical transitions helps explain the astonishing change that has taken place in scholarly evaluations of his presidency. Contemporary appraisals of the Eisenhower presidency were for the most part critical. The administration's domestic policy in particular aroused criticism, as did the Eisenhower style of leadership. Many of the White House initiatives had a negative tone; after all, the main thrust of the Middle Way was to stop the growth of the federal government, a policy that was not likely to bring scholars out of their seats cheering.

Eisenhower advocated a balanced budget, sought a low rate of inflation, and wanted a rate of growth that was sustainable over the long term. "Under conditions of high peace time prosperity," he said, "we can never justify going further into debt to give ourselves a tax cut at the expense of our children." Many Republican congressmen disagreed. The intra- and inter-party struggles over fiscal moderation were fierce, but in 1956 and 1957 the administration managed to balance the budget--a feat matched only one time since 1960.

In all of these political struggles, Eisenhower was forced to deal, as he had during World War II, with serious divisions in his own camp. The right wing of the Republican Party, whether it was Senator Joseph McCarthy or Senator John Bricker, repeatedly attempted to undercut his leadership. "There is," he said, "a certain reactionary fringe of the Republican Party that hates and despises everything for which I stand or which is advanced by this Administration." Angered, the President nevertheless dealt patiently, often indirectly, and ultimately successfully with this opposition. He saw McCarthy rebuked by his colleagues in the Senate and Bricker thwarted in his attempts to tie the President's hands in foreign policy. Moreover, the administration was able to push through Congress improvements in social security and a new highway construction program, neither of which appealed to the "true reactionaries."

While he was willing to maneuver to achieve his objectives, Eisenhower never became comfortable with certain basic aspects of the American political system, or as he put it, "this political business." He found even the normal workings of patronage hard to stomach. Lobbying groups disturbed him because they seemed incapable of placing the national interest above the self-interests of their members.

There were, of course, pressure groups that did not want to "dig deep into the Federal treasury." Those dedicated to achieving full civil rights for African Americans were some of the most active and forceful in the 1950s. This movement did not fit comfortably in Eisenhower's categories of political thought. But its leaders sought fundamental changes in governance and social relations at the local, state, and federal levels, and the president had to respond. He ordered desegregation in the District of Columbia, in the federal government, and in the military, where he could act unilaterally. He formulated for Congress a bill that would ensure voting rights for all Americans.

Unlike his attorney general, Eisenhower was privately uncomfortable with the Supreme Court's decision on school desegregation in Brown v. Board of Education, and he would in this case be disappointed in his search for a peaceful, middle way. "I believe," Eisenhower wrote, "that federal law imposed upon our states in such a way as to bring about a conflict of the police powers of the states and of the nation, would set back the cause of progress in race relations for a long, long time." Shortly, however, a direct conflict between state and federal power would take place, and progress in race relations would be accelerated, not set back, by augmentation of the authority of the federal government.

In domestic policy, then, Eisenhower's first administration came short of the objectives he had sought upon taking office but made substantial progress toward achieving one of the president's primary goals: slowing the expansion of the New Deal administrative state. Forced to accept only modest gains in agriculture and in the battle between public and private power, Eisenhower could take solace in the performance of the economy. A balanced budget, a low rate of inflation, and steady economic growth were not negligible accomplishments--as his successors in the White House would discover.

While Eisenhower was sometimes uncertain about the dynamics of domestic policy, he was forceful and far-sighted in foreign affairs. He inherited his fundamental strategy: the policy of forcefully containing communism while waiting for that system of political economy to collapse as a result of its internal contradictions and inefficiencies. He added to that strategy an important qualification--the means had to be economical and thereby enable the United States to preserve the strengths of its economy through this long struggle.

Asia presented several serious challenges to the containment program. Communist China threatened to attack offshore islands still controlled by the Nationalist Chinese. In Eisenhower's view, Communist conquest of these islands would weaken Nationalist morale and might threaten the independent existence of Formosa itself. Likening the non-communist nations on the Asian periphery to dominoes lined up in a row, he concluded "that the loss of Formosa would doom the Philippines and eventually the remainder of the region." American policy on the offshore islands drove a wedge between the United States and its allies, especially the United Kingdom. Although Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, worked hard to remove that wedge, the British remained suspicious of what they interpreted as American willingness to risk a nuclear holocaust merely to keep Nationalist dictator Chiang Kai-shek from losing face.

The collapse of the French position in Southeast Asia created a similar, if less immediate, crisis. Eisenhower wanted colonialism to be "militantly condemned by the colonial powers, especially Britain and France." But in this he was disappointed. The French fought hard to hang on in Vietnam. They would not accept Eisenhower's condition for direct American military support; that is, total freedom for the Indochinese colonies.

For his part, the president remained convinced that "any nation that intervenes in a civil war can scarcely expect to win unless the side in whose favor it intervenes possesses a high morale based on a war purpose or cause in which it believes." Disappointed in his efforts to convert that struggle into an uncompromising crusade for liberty, he would not give "even a tentative approval to any plan for massive intervention." Instead, the United States limited its role, while the French military efforts collapsed. As the French were leaving Vietnam, Eisenhower decided South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem might provide the necessary "high morale" and was thus worthy of U.S. support. Ultimately, however, Eisenhower was no more successful in shoring up the American ally in South Vietnam than the next three U.S. presidents would be.

In Europe, too, he constantly struggled to hold the Western Alliance and NATO together and was periodically disappointed by his inability to maintain a united front. He had hopes for the European Defense Community. But after French fears of a resurgent Germany sank that plan, he admitted that he could not understand "why the peoples of Western Europe, and particularly of France, do not see that, unless they unite militarily and economically, they are doomed." To prevent that dire outcome, he supported German rearmament, sought to bolster NATO's southern flank by helping settle the Italian-Yugoslavian struggle over Trieste, and proposed at the Geneva summit meeting a mutual aerial inspection plan (Open Skies) in an effort to reduce the fear of a surprise nuclear assault. Although the 1955 Geneva summit yielded no specific agreements on the issues separating the United States and the Soviet Union, some thawing of the Cold War appears to have taken place in the months that followed.

Eisenhower knew that a destructive atomic war was possible: "I think it would be unsafe to predict that, if the West and the East should ever become locked up in a life-and-death struggle, both sides would still have sense enough not to use this horrible instrument." The United States, he said, needed "patience, steadiness, firmness and time." He was willing to use covert and deliberately deceptive methods to achieve the nation's national security goals.

He did so in Iran and later in Guatemala, working through the Central Intelligence Agency. He believed that the loss of Iran's great oil resources justified intervention; in his words, "there has been no greater threat that has in recent years overhung the free world." He considered Central America too close to home to allow a radical leftist regime, even a freely elected one, to consolidate its position. In these and other exercises of American power, the President depended heavily upon CIA Director Allen Dulles and his brother, the secretary of state, whom Eisenhower described as "a man of great intellectual capacity and moral courage."

In all of these encounters, Eisenhower had national security at the forefront of his mind. He tried to obtain as much security as he thought the nation could afford over the long term--and no more. Near the end of his first administration, he lamented his inability to persuade the military services to cooperate wholeheartedly in achieving the proper "balance between minimum requirements in the costly implements of war and the health of our economy." Each separate service, convinced that it alone could protect the nation, persisted in urging upon Congress and the people its own "fantastic programs." This, he complained, was his "most frustrating domestic problem." From our perspective today, however, Eisenhower appears to have been quite successful in controlling the budgetary demands of the services and compelling adherence to a carefully conceived national security policy.

Eisenhower had a distinctive political style that was a product of both his personality and his experience. His service as a commander of international forces in World War II and in NATO made him aware always of the need for a high level of cooperation in government, even among those who disagreed. He expected all of his Cabinet members to pull together politically and administratively, and he had little patience with those who tried to convert internal debates into public struggles.

Hierarchy mattered to Eisenhower, but he was willing to seek advice and new ideas in informal as well as formal settings. He staged a series of stag working dinners at the White House in order to collect opinions on matters before the nation. He corresponded frequently with a circle of friends with whom he also played golf and bridge, his games of choice. He answered a large number of the unsolicited letters he received, devoting to many of them a considerable amount of personal attention. Members of his family also advised him from time to time. He called his youngest brother, Milton, his "most intimate general advisor." The Eisenhower documents reveal a leader whose life was far less compartmentalized than accounts in our newspapers and histories might lead us to believe. Eisenhower bobbed back and forth from matters of high policy to mundane details involving the trees, the cattle, and the buildings on his farm at Gettysburg. His detailed instructions for the improvement and operation of the farm indicate how closely he was still connected to his turn-of-the-century, small-town life in Abilene, Kansas, and to agrarian America.

By 1956, the President found himself devoting more time and energy to his reelection than he initially hoped would be necessary. Unable merely to stand on his record and devote most of his attention to the tense international situation, he tried to make the alternatives in the election clear to the voters: "If Americans believe that centralization of power in Washington, inflation with rising living costs, and federal ownership of an increasing number of types of utilities, would best serve their own interests, then those are the people that should vote against me." As it turned out, of course, he won an overwhelming personal victory at the polls. He was disappointed that his coattails did not pull through enough Republican candidates to give the party control of Congress. But he had no time to lament that situation because on election day he was deeply immersed in the Suez and Hungarian crises--struggles that were of central importance to the containment policy that he had made the centerpiece of his international leadership.

About the Author

This article is adapted from The Papers of Dwight David Eisenhower: The Presidency: The Middle Way, published by The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London. Reprinted by permission.

Funding Information

The Eisenhower Papers project began in 1963 and has received $1,717,200 in support from NEH. The last four volumes of the twenty-one-volume series will be published in October 2001.