June 08, 2007

President Eisenhower: the skills of a general in politics

At the height of the second world war, the diaries of Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, recall a meeting had between President Roosevelt and the then commander in chief of the US armed forces General George Marshall. Roosevelt had summoned Marshall to meet him to decide on who should take charge of the expedition to Normandy- both he and Stimson wanted Marshall to take command of the invasion because of his unrivalled skills at military administration. During the lunch though Marshall (despite the fact that it was his dearest desire to command at D-Day) turned down the opportunity, he told the President that there was only one man in the entire US army who could replace him, who had the strategic vision to see all the fronts and the organisational capacity to decide between the virtues of a machine gun post in Surrey versus an anti air craft gun in China- that man he said was the most junior of the American generals, Dwight D. Eisenhower. Well Roosevelt took Marshall's implied advice and kept him in Washington- and he sent Eisenhower upon his general's reccomendation to command in the Normandy beeches.

I tell this story in part because it reflects well upon the great and now forgotten centurion of the United States army, George Marshall, a man whose acheivements in the first and second wars and indeed the cold war are beyond doubt and down till today retain importance. But also it demonstrates something about the character of that other crucial military man of the mid-century- General Eisenhower. Eisenhower or Ike as he came to be known, the commander at the D-Day landings and later the President of the United States on the Republican ticket (the only Republican to serve as President between the inaugurations of Roosevelt and Nixon), was an incredibly competent President. That might seem faint praise- but in reality it is the highest complement that may be paid to an executive officer with such power- for the assessment of Marshall, a shrewd judge of men, proved right and Eisenhower both as general and President proved well able to manage a huge organisation, to take advice when needed and to realise the limits of his own understanding.

One instance can sum up this aspect of the character of Eisenhower and that is the way that he treated the scientists who designed the nuclear weapons. Professor John Rigden provides a wonderful analysis of this in this week's issue of Physics Today Under President Truman, Eisenhower's predecessor, the scientists had been relegated to the outside of the policy discussion. Famously Truman could not abide Robert Oppenheimer, the leader of the Los Alamos project, upon their first meeting the President told Dean Acheson that "I don't want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again." Truman in the late forties gathered together a scientific group to advise the White House but it seldom had any influence on US Policy and indeed its members considered resigning in 1951- they stayed but they stayed only in the hope that the next President, whoever he might be, would listen to them more than the then incumbent.

Well they were rewarded- when Eisenhower was elected in 1952 he faced two urgent problems. The first was the so-called missile gap by which the Soviets were supposed to be during the 1950s accelerating past the United States and threatening the Western alliance with nuclear holocaust. The second was the launch in 1957 of the Sputnik satallite, something that Western military analysts feared meant that the Soviets possessed the capacity to launch long range missiles at Western Europe and the continental United States. As Professor Rigden shows, Eisenhower faced with these problems as they became acute in 1957 did not panic but summoned the scientific committee and actually went into the room to face them, something that Truman had never done. From that meeting, Eisenhower perceived that a formal structure needed to be set up to provide him with the information that those scientists had in their hands- he appointed a liason between himself and the committee and largely after that point he followed policies that they suggested. Arguing rightly that the United States could sign a test ban treaty for instance because as Hans Bethe had proved it was possible to detect whether the Soviets would break such a treaty.

President Eisenhower had the confidence ultimately to walk into a room with several eminent scientists and listen to them and understand their conclusions. Just as he would have done as Marshall's successor in Washington, just as he did during D-Day, the general's mind processed particular information and placed it in the context of a bigger picture that only he was concentrating on. Unfortunately his successors let the system lapse- President Kennedy and Johnson continued to hear from the committee- but under President Nixon the scientists were diluted with a selection of people from industry and other businesses and later the committee was abolished. Scientists now communicate with Washington through lobbyists and other non-scientist organisations all clamouring to be heard amongst the babble of battling ideologues and the pundit class. Hence the troubles that the United States government has had in accepting the scientific consensus on global warming.

President Eisenhower's tenure in the Oval Office though reflects something worth pausing on- the test ban treaty and other initiatives originated (though in that particular case not carried through in his administration) were the products of someone confident enough to listen to experts and have his previous opinions challenged. The President in truth entered the Oval Office a student as much as a director of policy, he adjusted his policy based upon the evidence provided to him by bona fide experts and had the confidence to do so. His successors have not shown that same confidence- a mark perhaps of the way that General Marshall's judgement long ago was absolutely correct- Eisenhower had a skill that every party and person ought to be looking for in a politician, the confidence to know that he didn't have all the answers and needed more advice and ultimately to find those who knew what they were talking about and turn to them for that advice. That's what he did with the physicists in 1957, if only George Bush could do it with the climate scientists in 2007.


james higham said...

You know that he was reading a Zane Grey novel when he died?

Vino S said...

I think Eisenhower was the embodiment of a moderate Republican, a type that seems to be disappearing. He maintained the New Deal settlement and did not dream of attacking it.In fact, he probably could have served in either party, so close were some of his views to Truman's.

His farewell address was also notable for focusing on the military-industrial complex. He was well aware of the wastefulness of much armament production and was willing to say so. I can't imagine that many modern US politicians in the Republican party saying something like that.

Not Saussure said...

Jonathan Rauch recently had an interesting article on Eisenhower's foreign policy, arguing that

The best way to see Eisenhower is as neither hawk nor dove but, so to speak, as a reptile: a cold-blooded realist.

Rauch's account of reptilian foreign policy is attractive, certainly (at least, I find it so), but I think you need to be pretty ruthless to pull it off.